In search of talent, Vipers take chances on questionable characters

Jalen Collins

Over the past month, the Tampa Bay Vipers have invested in two characters whose troubles have played a big part in their exits from the NFL. First, they acquired CB Jalen Collins from the LA Wildcats in a December trade. Collins was a second round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in 2015 out of LSU. While preparing for the draft, it was revealed that he was reported to have had multiple drug test failures in college.

Personal missteps followed Collins to the NFL. After a quiet rookie season on that front, his sophomore season began with him serving a four-game suspension for a failed drug test. His third season, in 2017, began similarly, only this time it was a 10-game ban. The Falcons released him after that suspension. A third suspension followed, this time four games. As a free-agent in 2018, he was given another ten-game suspension, his fourth since joining the league three years earlier.

Collins’ story is not one of run-ins with the law, but it’s a risk for the Vipers nonetheless. The XFL does not have a drug testing policy for performance enhancing drugs (which is what the failed NFL tests were reported as being for), at least one that has been publicly released, so as long as Collins is a good teammate and earns his way onto the roster with his on-field play, he’ll be fine.

Antonio Callaway

Last week, the Vipers dipped their toe into the water of controversy again, this time by signing WR Antonio Callaway. The University of Florida product comes to a Vipers team that should be on the TV show Hoarders for their propensity to keep Florida players in-state. Like Collins, Callaway was a high draft pick in the NFL (fourth round) who would’ve gone higher had it not been for controversy that embroiled him at Florida.

Callaway was accused of sexual assault while in college and suspended. He was eventually found not responsible for the assault, nor for any University of Florida code of conduct violations. Like Collins, Callaway kept clean during his first year in the league. Also like Collins, his second year began with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. He was released from the Cleveland Browns for showing up late to meetings. The fact that he was also facing a ten-game suspension – for using a tainted CBD product, per a league source to Cleveland.com – likely played a part in the release from the Browns. He was suspended for the final seven weeks of the 2019 season, and the first three weeks of the 2020 season.

The Vipers needed defensive back help. They took a chance on the tall, speedy Collins. They needed to add deep speed in their wide receiver corps. They took a chance on Callaway and his 4.41 40-yard dash time. Vipers head coach Marc Trestman has made these calculated additions to the team, both appearing to be boom-or-bust acquisitions. Trestman is not a fire-and-brimstone coach, and the success of Tampa Bay’s initial foray into the XFL relies on him not needing to be one. It remains to be seen how he’s able to handle two players who, while talented, bring a lot of baggage to the team and the league. For the perception of the league, they too are taking a chance on Collins and Callaway. Both the Vipers and the XFL hope the only noise Collins and Callaway make is for their on-field play.

Projected XFL Tampa Bay Vipers Defensive and Special Teams Depth Chart

Continuing with my look at the Tampa Bay Vipers potential defensive and special teams depth charts about halfway into training camp. In creating these charts, I’ve emphasized draft status and pro experience. (Click here for Offensive Depth Chart)

Defensive Line

First Team: DE Obum Gwacham (Oregon State; R1/1), DT Ricky Walker (Virginia Tech; R3/17), DE Deiontrez Mount (Louisville; R2/16)

Second Team: DE Devin Taylor (South Carolina; R10/80), DT Josh Banks (Wake Forest; R5/33), DE Jason Neill (UTSA; R9/65)

Third Team: DE Bobby Richardson (Indiana; OP1), DT Nikita Whitlock (Wake Forest; OP1), DE CeCe Jefferson (Florida; TC), DT Giorgio Newberry (IR – FSU; OP2)

Gwacham has the potential to be an impact defensive player in the XFL. He was the first overall pick in the defensive front seven phase of the XFL Draft. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of defense Jerry Glanville plays – the numbers on the roster indicate a 3-4, but the team doesn’t have a true space-eating nose tackle. There are a few ends, like Gwacham and CeCe Jefferson, who could double as outside linebackers.

Even though Nikita Whitlock is on the third team here, he has familiarity with some on Tampa’s coaching staff, and can also double as the team’s fullback. That position versatility will be key when the coaches assess the final few roster spots. Taylor has the most NFL experience of this position group, having been a fourth-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 2013; he has played in 63 NFL games.

An interesting battle to keep an eye on is for the starting defensive tackle spot between Banks and Walker. Banks has spent time with the New York Giants in their camp, and Walker was a priority free agent signing by the Dallas Cowboys after the draft in 2019. Jefferson, despite being a recent addition, has the potential to work his way into the rotation as a pass-rusher.

Linebackers

First Team: Emmanuel Beal (Oklahoma; R6/48), Reggie Northrup (FSU; R4/32), Lucas Wacha (Wyoming; R7/49)

Second Team: Terrance Plummer (UCF; OP2), Ike Spearman (Eastern Michigan; OP1), Anthony Stubbs (Prairie View A&M; R8/64)

While a traditional 3-4 alignment features three down linemen and four linebackers, it’s likely the Vipers will spend most of their time in nickel and dime defenses, meaning a linebacker will come off the field. Therefore, I’ve only listed three starters here.

Beal and Northrup feel like solid bets to start, with Wacha and Stubbs battling over the third linebacker position. Given the added importance to the return game in the XFL, I’m surprised the Vipers aren’t carrying more linebackers in camp, as that’s a position where teams often keep a few just for the use in the third phase of the game.

This is not a group long on pro experience; both Plummer and Northrup entered the league as undrafted free agents with the Washington Redskins, in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Several players have appeared in the CFL and the AAF.

Defensive Backs

First Team: CB Demontre Hurst (Oklahoma; R3/24), CB Herb Waters (Miami; R8/57), CB Jalen Collins (LSU; T/LA), S Corey Moore (Georgia; MC), Robenson Therezie (Auburn; R9/72)

Second Team: CB Bryce Canady (FIU; R10/73), CB Tarvarus McFadden (FSU; MC), CB Shelton Lewis (FAU; OP2), S Marcelis Branch (Robert Morris; R5/40), Micah Hannemann (BYU; R6/41)

Third Team: CB Anthoula Kelly (Fresno St; MC), CB Rodney Randle (Lamar; MC), CB Rannell Hall (UCF; R7/53); S Robert Priester (Wyoming; OP2)

This may be the most difficult part of the Vipers’ roster to project. Given Hurst’s combination of high draft status and success in the NFL, he seems like a good bet to be a starter at corner. Collins was acquired in a trade with LA, and while he has talent (as evidenced by his second round NFL Draft pedigree), off-field issues have been his downfall.

Moore was a minicamp acquisition, but he has 46 NFL games under his belt. Therezie could be battling Branch and Hannemann, two players drafted ahead of him, for a starting safety spot opposite Moore. McFadden was another interesting late add to the roster as the Vipers have been active in churning this section of their roster.

Depth has taken a hit with second round XFL Draft pick CB Picasso Nelson Jr. and supplemental draft selection S PJ Locke both now in the NFL. It doesn’t look like their services will be available to the Vipers during the 2020 XFL season.

Hall recently transitioned from wide receiver to cornerback. That puts him behind the eight-ball somewhat, though he’ll be given every opportunity to make an impact in the defensive backfield.

Special Teams

First Team: K Andrew Franks (RPI; OP1), P Jake Schum (Buffalo; OP1), LS Nick Moore (Georgia; OP1)

Second Team: K Matthew Wright (UCF; OP3)

Tampa added long snapper Wes Farnsworth off waivers in December, but he was quickly scooped up by the Denver Broncos. That leaves Moore still as the only snapper in camp. He was a highly rated snapper coming out of college last spring. He spent summer with the New Orleans Saints. We’ll see if the Vipers just wanted to create competition at that position in claiming Farnsworth, or if they’re looking for an upgrade from Moore based on if they grab another snapper for the final days of camp.

Schum is uncontested as punter, while the kicking battle will come down to Franks or Wright. Franks kicked two years for the Miami Dolphins while Wright camped with the Pittsburgh Steelers this past summer. Wright holds UCF records for points scored and field goals made, so it’s not a slam-dunk that Franks will emerge as the winner of that competition.

Projected Tampa Bay Vipers Offensive Depth Chart

With training camp underway, I’ll take a look a potential Tampa Bay Vipers depth chart. This is a more difficult task than normal given the expansion nature of this and all XFL teams. There’s no previous season to look back on for a guide as to who may be a part of the starting lineup.

Given the unknowns, I’ve emphasized professional experience and draft status in order to craft a potential depth chart almost a week into camp. I’ll tackle the offense today, with defense and special teams in the coming days.

Quarterbacks

First Team: Aaron Murray (Georgia; Assigned)

Second Team: Taylor Cornelius (Oklahoma St; R9/69), Quinton Flowers (South Florida; R5/37)

Murray was assigned to the Vipers prior to the draft as a Tier 1 quarterback, giving him a leg-up on the competition. It has to be concerning that he wasn’t a starter out of camp in the Alliance of American Football, but Murray does have talent. Marc Trestman is the kind of coach who can squeeze it out of him.

At 6’6”, Taylor Cornelius has intriguing size but it’s unlikely he’s ready to challenge Murray for the starting job. The Vipers seemed to want to make sure they had a competent backup behind Murray by not waiting until the open phase to select Cornelius. He played at a high level at a big-time college program in Oklahoma State. Cornelius is technically in his first professional season, so he should use this to soak up as much knowledge from Trestman and the veteran Murray as he can.

Initially drafted as a running back, Flowers has received snaps at the quarterback position during minicamp and training camp. If nothing else, the hometown player will add a wildcat-like wrinkle to the Vipers offense. When it comes to being active on gamedays, the more you can do the better. He may also be a special teams option.

Running Backs

First Team: De’Veon Smith (Michigan; R3/21)

Second Team: Jacques Patrick (FSU; OP2)

Third Team: Tarean Folston (Notre Dame; Minicamp signee), DJ May (Wyoming; OP3), Mack Brown (Florida; Training camp signee)

Despite being the only RB on Tampa’s roster selected in the skills phase of the draft, I don’t think De’Veon Smith is guaranteed a starting spot. This position really feels up-for-grabs without a defined pecking order. Smith did not have a dominant college career at Michigan and went undrafted in 2017.

Smith and Patrick are similar backs, in that they’re big and not particularly fast. That could open an opportunity for Folston or May to see playing time as a change-of-pace back. A player to keep an eye on is Mack Brown, who was just added to the roster within the last few days. He has played in 13 NFL games during his career and despite being a late entry into the race, has a real chance to crack the rotation. The Vipers could scour the waiver wire for a chance-of-pace back.

Tight Ends

First Team: Nick Truesdell (Grand Rapids JC; D1/5)

Second Team: Colin Thompson (Temple; OP2)

Third Team: DeAndre Goolsby (Florida; OP3), Pharoah McKeever (FIU; MC); Kano Dillon (IR – South Florida; MC)

You’d have to think Truesdell is the unquestioned starter here, as he was the first-ever Tampa Bay draft choice. Truesdell lit up the AAF and parlayed that into a spot on the New York Jets training camp roster this past summer. He’ll look to further cement himself in the eyes of NFL decision makers this spring.

Thompson has been with the Chicago Bears and New York Giants in the NFL, though he has yet to see regular season action. A two-year starter at Temple, Thompson is a big target, going 6’4” and 255 pounds. He could be an inline tight end while Truesdell is the more vertical threat in the passing game.

The third tight end battle (unless Tampa keeps four) appears to be between DeAndre Goolsby and Pharaoh McKeever. McKeever was claimed during minicamp and has played WR and DE during his career in addition to TE. His athleticism could be intriguing enough for this staff to want to keep and develop.

Wide Receivers

First Team: Seantavius Jones (Valdosta St; R2/12), Freddie Martino (North Greenville; OP2), Alonzo Moore (Nebraska; R10/76)

Second Team: Reece Horn (Indianapolis; R8/60), Jalen Tolliver (Ark-Monticello; R4/28), Jawill Davis (Bethune-Cookman; SD)

Third Team: Daniel Williams (Jackson St; OP1), Ryan Davis (Auburn; OP1), Tanner McEvoy (Wisconsin; SD), Donteea Dye (Heidelbrerg; W/LA), KJ Maye (Minnesota; OP3)

The numbers seem to indicate Tampa Bay will start three receivers rather than a fullback (no true FB on roster) or two tight ends (thin at the TE spot). Jones and Martino are the veterans in the room. Tampa took a flyer on a couple of young receivers early in the draft in Horn and Tolliver. This could be a fluid lineup as the season progresses.

If the younger players gain more experience and confidence as the year pushes forward, I have no doubt their playing time will increase along with it. Some of the players in the third team above will need to stand out and contribute on special teams to make it out of camp and onto the opening day roster. McEvoy played QB in addition to safety at Wisconsin, so like Flowers, he could have multiple roles on the team.

Offensive Line

First Team: OT Martez Ivey (Florida; R2/13), OT Christian Morris (Mississippi; R6/45), C Jordan McCray (UCF; R1/4), G Tre Jackson (FSU; R5/36), G Andrew Tiller (Syracuse; R4/29)

Second Team: OT Jerald Foster (Nebraska; SD), OT Rod Taylor (Mississippi; TC), G Tony Adams (R7/52), G Daronte Bouldin (Mississippi; R8/61), C/G John Yarbrough (Richmond; OP1)

Third Team: G William Campbell (Michigan; R10/77), Marquis Lucas (West Virginia; R9/68), Isaiah Williams (Akron; MC)

Tampa Bay is deep at guard, but thin at tackle and center. They must plan on cross-training their guards at other positions, as they spent a significant amount of draft capital at that position. Ivey and Morris seem good bets to start at the tackle spots. Rod Taylor is an interesting pickup: He tore his ACL in 2018 after being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals and has already been suspended numerous times by the NFL. We’ll see how long of a leash he has here.

Jackson and Tiller will face competition from Adams, Bouldin, Campbell, and Lucas, all who were drafted in the offensive line phase. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Adams emerge as a starter at one of the guard spots. Jordan McCray should anchor the pivot. Yarbrough is listed as a guard but has experience at center and will likely back up McCray.

The unkindest cut: XFL not immune from cold reality of football’s business

Shawn Oakman - Jerimiah Spicer
Shawn Oakman – Jerimiah Spicer

To this point in the rebooted league, the letters “XFL” have stood for “opportunity.” For coaches, for fans, but most of all, for players. The league has shined a spotlight on athletes getting second and sometimes third chances to play a sport they love at a high level.

But just like any other sports league, the XFL is also a business. And we saw that side rear its head earlier this week when the LA Wildcats announced their first transactions. Among them were the releases of DT Shawn Oakman and LB Jerimiah Spicer.

Both men’s stories have been chronicled in-depth both here at XFLBoard.com and elsewhere. Rumors quickly surfaced on social media about what led to Oakman’s release, though none have been verified. Both he and Spicer were looking to jump-start their careers in LA after the NFL had long ago given up on them. Both will now have to once again wait by the phone, hoping for another XFL team (or another football league) to take a shot on them.

The conclusion of the league’s minicamps is the first time teams will look to pare down their rosters in anticipation of the January supplemental draft prior to training camp. The Wildcats have already announced cuts. The DC Defenders are down about 15 players from when they began. Other teams could announce their transactions in the coming days.

The XFL has sprung hope in many observers. But as teams continue to mold their rosters, readying for the first week of games in early February, less than two months away, the releases of Oakman and Spicer show that while the XFL is indeed the land of opportunity, that opportunity can be finite.

Handicapping the XFL Western Division quarterback battles heading into minicamp

Part two of my look at camp QB battles across the league, this time focusing on the Western Division. A look at the Eastern Division teams can be found here.

 

Dallas Renegades: Landry Jones, Philip Nelson

Dallas Renegades: Landry Jones, Philip Nelson

Landry Jones was the first player signed to an XFL contract and is arguably the most accomplished quarterback in the league. He reunites with his college coach at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops, in a match seemingly made in heaven. If there’s any player you’d imagine being QB1 the day he walks in the door at minicamp, it would be Jones.

Philip Nelson was taken as insurance during the skill position phase of the initial XFL draft. In a league like this, where quarterback play will be at a premium and you don’t really know what the game will look like quite yet, it’s important to have a competent backup.

Nelson began his collegiate career at Minnesota, a three-star high-school recruit out of that state. He finished his career at East Carolina and impressed in front of NFL scouts at the 2017 NFLPA Bowl. It wasn’t enough to get a bite from NFL teams, however, and this past year he plied his trade in the AAF.

With only two QBs in camp, unless Dallas adds a third, Nelson should get his share of reps as Stoops will want to keep Jones fresh. Nelson could be a serviceable backup, but make no mistake, the success of the Renegades this season will rise or fall on the arm of Jones.

Odds to start: Jones 95%, Nelson 5%

 

Houston Roughnecks: Phillip Walker, Connor Cook

Houston Roughnecks: Phillip Walker, Connor Cook

There’s a distinct size difference between the assigned Walker, who stands 5’11”, and the early-round skill position phase draft pick Cook, who is 6’4”. Whoever the QB is will have to handle a sizeable workload with head coach June Jones bringing his pass-heavy run-and-shoot offense to the Lone Star State.

The player who makes the fewest mistakes may end up being the player who takes the reigns for the Roughnecks’ first game. Walker is one of the more professionally inexperienced of the allocated QBs, so it should come as no surprise that Cook was drafted early to provide competition.

Both Walker and Cook were players XFL fans had eyed for the league prior to the draft. Walker, out of Temple, went undrafted in 2017 but spent some time with Indianapolis over the last two years.

In January of 2017, Cook, who began the season as a third-stringer for Oakland after being drafted in the 4th round, became the first player to make his first start in a playoff game. He bounced around the league thereafter, on and off practice squads.

Cook’s success in college and NFL game experience should theoretically give him a leg up on Walker, but it’s really going to come down to who fits best in Jones’s unique offense. And right now, that seems to be close to a toss-up. The other question to consider is whether or not Houston will add another QB to the room before training camp in January.

Odds to start: Walker 55%, Cook 45%

 

Los Angeles Wildcats: Luis Perez, Josh Johnson, Taryn Christion, Jalan McClendon

Los Angeles Wildcats: Luis Perez, Josh Johnson, Taryn Christion, Jalan McClendon

Unless Joe Callahan is released from the Detroit Lions practice squad this week, LA will be the only team taking four quarterbacks to mini-camp. There seems to be a clear line of demarcation between the top two QBs (Perez and Johnson) and the next tier (Christion and McClendon).

Perez has been one of the QBs most visible in his team’s community since being assigned to the Wildcats. He won a Division II national title with Texas A&M-Commerce in 2017 while completing 70% of his passes and throwing 46 touchdowns. He started seven games for Birmingham in the AAF but didn’t put up impressive numbers.

After the league folded, he was a camp arm with Detroit and Philadelphia. Johnson’s reputation as a journeyman is widely known. He has spent time with 13 NFL teams since entering the league as a 5th round draft pick in 2008. As recently as last season, he started three games for Washington. Even now, he’s still drawing interest from NFL teams, most recently with Detroit sniffing around in an attempt to bring him back (his XFL contract blocked such a move).

Christion and McClendon were both open phase selections by the Wildcats. Christion had some NFL draft buzz this April, but he went undrafted and signed with Seattle. Christion’s strengths include his arm and his ability to move in and out of the pocket.

McClendon, at 6’5” and 219 pounds, is an interesting prospect. He played at North Carolina State before finishing his career in 2018 at Baylor, where he started just one game. It was enough to earn him an NFLPA Bowl invite and a spot on Washington’s training camp roster. Is a position switch in his future? Or could LA be hoarding quarterbacks hoping for an injury somewhere around the league in order to work a trade?

Odds to start: Johnson 50%, Perez 40%, Christion 9%, McClendon 1%

 

Seattle Dragons: Brandon Silvers, Chase Litton, Joe Callahan, BJ Daniels

Seattle Dragons: Brandon Silvers, Chase Litton, Joe Callahan, BJ Daniels

In an odd twist, the player with the most NFL experience in Seattle’s camp may be the one least likely to begin the season as their starting QB, that being BJ Daniels. With Joe Callahan on Detroit’s practice squad, he may be placed on some sort of exempt list to start minicamp. If he finishes the NFL season in Detroit, he may have a decision to make in terms of signing a futures contract with the Lions (if offered one) or declining it to come to training camp with Seattle.

Brandon Silvers and Chase Litton were both allocated to Seattle, with Callahan and Daniels being open phase selections. Silvers played at Troy University and was off the radar enough that he didn’t even attend an NFL training camp in 2018, failing to parlay a rookie minicamp invite with New Orleans into a contract.
Silvers impressed with the AAF, however, and was briefly with the New York Jets in the spring of this year. Litton was not available during the XFL draft as he was on the practice squad of Jacksonville. He was released in late October and assigned to the Dragons prior to the Supplemental Draft.

Litton declared for the NFL Draft in 2017 after his junior season at Marshall, only to go undrafted. He spent time in Kansas City before hooking up with the Jaguars. It appears that whomever wins Seattle’s QB job will have very little pro experience.

Unless that person is Daniels. Like other teams in the league, it appears Seattle has opted for a slash-type player. Daniels was a 7th round draft choice of San Francisco in 2013 after a successful career at South Florida. Throughout his NFL career, he has been tried at wide receiver and running back in addition to QB. He could give the Dragons a wildcat wrinkle in their offense under Jim Zorn.

Ultimately, it seems at this point to be a two-man race for the QB job between Silvers and Litton, and even that may be generous. If Silvers can continue the momentum he established in the AAF, it could be his job to lose.

Odds to start: Silvers 60%, Litton 30%, Daniels 10%, Callahan N/A

Handicapping the XFL Eastern Division quarterback battles heading into minicamp

As go the quarterbacks in the XFL, so goes the league. The quality of play will be directly tied to the quality of quarterback play, and while the XFL was able to acquire some of the best talent available at the position (by paying a premium for it), it remains to be seen if it’ll translate onto the field.

We’re coming up on yet another milestone in the rebooted version of the league, as minicamps open this week. It will be the first opportunity for quarterbacks to test out the new rules and work intensely with their coaches and playbooks. All eyes will be on them.

In addition to a higher salary, each quarterback assigned prior to the initial draft has become the face of the franchise. Whether it’s attending fan functions, calling season ticket holders, or being seen on social media, those quarterbacks have become ambassadors for their brand.

One would imagine they’d have a leg-up in the camp competition at that position, but who knows? There are no holdovers from previous years; theoretically, everyone walks in the first day with a clean slate competing to start. That includes the quarterbacks.

The original XFL’s starting QBs by league end didn’t resemble those at the helm in week one, and it wasn’t all due to injury. So just because a player wins the starting job in camp doesn’t mean they have a long leash once the season begins, especially because of the high stakes for the first season of the league from the standpoint of both the league and each individual team.

But since the QB position IS the most important and most visible (and most highly-paid) position in the league, let’s take a team-by-team look at what QBs they’ll be taking to camp and the odds they’ll exit camp as the starter (barring injury). We’ll start in the East:

DC Defenders: Cardale Jones, Tyree Jackson

DC Defenders: Cardale Jones, Tyree Jackson

DC will apparently be one of three teams that will only have two quarterbacks in camp. Jones and Jackson are similar players in some ways – both have prototypical size and arm strength, and neither have been able to turn those traits into accuracy and consistency.

Jones was a fourth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills in 2016, and with the likes of Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel in front of him on the depth chart, there was a thought that Jones could be the QB of the Bills’ future. Not only did that not happen, the Bills apparently had seen enough by July of the next year, sending him to the LA Chargers in a trade. Because of his limited game action in college, DC and head coach Pep Hamilton hope Jones, at 27 years old, is a late bloomer.

While Jones was assigned to DC, the Defenders picked up Tyree Jackson in the open portion of the draft. Like Jones, Jackson began his NFL career with the Bills after playing collegiately down the road at the University of Buffalo.

Jackson had draft grades as high as the third and fourth rounds (by Lance Zierlein of NFL.com) but ended up going undrafted. The Bills didn’t see enough in him to bring him back to the practice squad after he was released during final cuts. Just 22 years old, Jackson has the tools to be a starter in this league, but he may need more time to develop. Jones seems like a safe bet to lead the Defenders in their season-opener against Seattle.

Odds to start: Jones 80%, Jackson 20%

 

Matt McGloin, Marquise Williams, Garrett Fugate

New York Guardians: Matt McGloin, Marquise Williams, Garrett Fugate

Unlike their DC counterparts, McGloin and Williams are very different quarterbacks who may be used in different ways by head coach Kevin Gilbride. McGloin brings NFL and major college experience and is no stranger to QB competition.

He flourished in his final season at Penn State under Bill O’Brien, and parlayed that into a rookie free-agent deal with the Oakland Raiders. He made the team out of camp in 2013 and over the next four years, played in 13 games. He’s a pocket passer who won’t scare anyone with his running ability.

The same can’t be said for Marquise Williams. His straight-line speed at his Pro Day in 2016 didn’t impress, but at 6’2”, 220 pounds, he could play a variety of roles for the Guardians, just as he did with the San Antonio Commanders of the Alliance of American Football.

Because of his unique traits, I’m not sure he’ll be a threat to McGloin for an every-down QB role, but he could end up playing a handful of snaps on offense and perhaps even special teams for Gilbride. The fact that New York took Williams in the skill position portion of the draft tells me the coaches may already have a specific role in mind for him beyond playing under center.

In addition to spending a skill position pick on Williams, the Guardians also took Garrett Fugate in the open portion of the draft. Most NFL teams take three or four QBs to camp on their 90-man rosters, so it’s no surprise most XFL teams will carry at least three among their 71.

Out of Division II Central Missouri, Fugate got a late start on the draft process in 2017 when his senior season ended with a torn ACL and MCL. He has worked out for NFL teams and honed his craft in both the CFL and The Spring League. Fugate may not challenge for the starting role, but he’s an intriguing player to keep your eye on as camp progresses.

Odds to start: McGloin 60%, Williams 30%, Fugate 10%

 

Jordan Ta’amu, Taylor Heinicke, Brogan Roback

St. Louis BattleHawks: Jordan Ta’amu, Taylor Heinicke, Brogan Roback

St. Louis figures to have one of the most interesting QB battles in all of training camp. Ta’amu may be the least-heralded QB to be assigned prior to the XFL Draft. He has just one summer in an NFL camp under his belt, with the Houston Texans.

He was one of the most acclaimed quarterbacks in the SEC his senior season for Ole Miss. He’s shown the ability to make plays with his arm and his legs, but he just hasn’t done it at the professional level. He’ll get to work with experienced offensive minds in St. Louis like Doug Meacham, his offensive coordinator and QBs coach. But similar to Ta’amu, this is Meacham’s first foray into the pro coaching ranks.

Ta’amu will be challenged by another assigned QB, Taylor Heinicke. Projected as a possible late-round pick in 2015, Heinicke went undrafted and signed with the Minnesota Vikings. He has played in seven NFL games and started one – for the Carolina Panthers in 2018.

Heinicke’s small frame leaves him susceptible to injury. He suffered at least three major injuries in his short time in the NFL. If he can make it through camp healthy, he’ll have a good shot at unseating Ta’amu for the starting job.

Let’s not forget about Hard Knocks darling Brogan Roback. The Blond Bomber has spent time with the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers since his entrance into the NFL in 2018, and he was a skill position selection of the BattleHawks.

At Eastern Michigan, Roback holds the school record for touchdown passes and total offense, and is second in completions and passing yardage. He has a very real chance of making this a three-way competition at the QB spot in St. Louis.

Odds to start: Heinicke 40%, Ta’amu 35%, Roback 25%

 

 Aaron Murray, Taylor Cornelius, Vincent Testaverde Jr.

Tampa Bay Vipers: Aaron Murray, Taylor Cornelius, Vincent Testaverde Jr.

After bouncing around the NFL, Murray had to wait his turn in the AAF this spring. Murray shined in replacing starter Matt Simms, leading the Legends to their first victory in the short-lived league. It’s a performance he can use to springboard himself into the starting QB conversation in Tampa Bay.

The Vipers were allocated Murray, who had a successful career at Georgia before being drafted in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. While he never saw the field in a regular season game, he got some apprenticeship under fine offensive minds like Doug Pederson and Sean McVay.

Murray will be playing in the city in which he played high school, adding some extra motivation. This may also be the last opportunity for the 29 year-old to play in a major professional league and show scouts he’s still worthy of an NFL look.

Taylor Cornelius will look to play spoiler for the hometown boy’s return to south Florida. A graduate of Oklahoma State in 2019, he started just one season there, but ranked in the top 10 in FBS in passing yardage and touchdowns in Mike Gundy’s QB-friendly offense.

That wasn’t enough to get Cornelius drafted or even signed as a free agent. He had to earn a contract after rookie mini-camp with the Green Bay Packers. A camp arm, Cornelius was let go as the team trimmed its final roster to 53.
Because Cornelius was taken in the skill position phase of the draft, some importance must be attached to his spot. I don’t think it’ll be enough to unseat the veteran Murray, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the battle came down to the wire.

Tampa is also bringing Vincent Testaverde Jr. to camp. The son of Tampa Bay Bucs legend Vinny Testaverde, Testaverde Jr. camped with the Bucs during the offseason. While this seems like little more than a feel-good story, Testaverde Jr, also from Tampa, is intent on etching his name into pro football lore in the Bay area just like his father. It’s going to be an uphill climb to do that.

Odds to start: Murray 65%, Cornelius 30%, Testaverde 5%

Analyzing the Tampa Bay Vipers 2020 schedule

Today, the XFL released the schedules for each of its eight teams, as well as its television broadcast schedule. When the NFL releases its schedule each year, analysts and fans can debate strength of schedule, historical rivalries, and other quirks. Because each XFL team is basically an expansion team, we don’t have those kinds of discussion points at our disposal. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to analyze, however. Taking a look at how the Tampa Bay Vipers’ schedule shakes out:

Tampa Bay Viper's Schedule

Tampa opens week one on the road against a division foe in New York. It’s no surprise the New York market would get a home game to start the season. It’s a 2pm Sunday start on Fox, the early game of a doubleheader. This rating will be key; we saw how the original XFL dropped after the curiosity factor wore off following week one. After fans sample one or both Saturday games to open the season, how many will be back for more on Sunday? That could be another reason the New York market got that game – the biggest media market means a better chance for a higher retention of viewers.

In week two, the Vipers travel across the country to visit Seattle. If Seahawks fans are any indication, this will be a difficult road matchup. And they do it on less than a full week’s rest, taking the Saturday evening timeslot. The cross-country excursion could be a challenge, but it occurs early enough in the season that the team should still be fresh. This is another Fox ballgame.

Tampa gets its home opener in week three, hosting Houston Saturday afternoon on ABC. This is likely to draw well regardless, but could be dependent upon the momentum of the entire league at this point. If by week three quality of play or ratings are down, fans could start to jump ship (pun intended, considering Raymond James Stadium) before Tampa even plays a home game. Tampa and St. Louis are the last two teams to play at home, both in this third week.

After two straight out of division games, Tampa faces DC, again at home, in prime time on Sunday night on ESPN2. The atmosphere should be raucous for that one. DC may end up the geographical rival of Tampa, at least in the early years, with no other teams close by. St. Louis would be the other contender for that mantle.

At the midway point of the season, Tampa goes back out to the west coast to face Los Angeles. It’s another primetime Sunday night game, this one at 9pm EST. That’s as accommodating as you can expect for a game on the left coast: Sunday night the week before, and Sunday night that week. Routine is important.

The Vipers come all the way back across the country for week six, as they host the BattleHawks. It’s a Saturday, 5pm EST start on FS2. It’s the only time they’re not on one of the major network or cable properties. There’s a lot of shifting of times and stations throughout the season, so you hope ABC/ESPN and Fox do a great job with promotion.

Week seven is the final cross-divisional game of the season when Tampa Bay locks up with Dallas. They’re back in Tampa for this one after being on the road for two weeks. Home cooking will be a relief by then and hopefully for the Vipers, spur them on for the homestretch of the regular season.

It’s the Defenders again in week eight, in DC, Saturday afternoon at 2pm EST on ABC. It’s the first game of week seven, a game that many east division foes will be keeping an eye on. The final three weeks are all interdivisional games, adding importance as teams jockey for playoff spots. There will have been a reasonable four weeks in between DC vs. Tampa contests.

Three weeks after doing battle with St. Louis, Tampa ventures out to Missouri to face them again. Two key divisional games in a row are away. This could be a trouble spot, just as the first two games of the season being away could cause problems.

They wrap up at home against New York, the team they squared off against in the opening weekend. Sunrise, sunset. It’s also the final game of the XFL regular season, so a lot could be on the line in this one, Sunday night on either FS1 of ABC.

Half of Tampa’s games are slated for broadcast networks, ABC or Fox (one more than half if the final game is picked up by ABC). Two games are on ESPN, and one each on ESPN2 and FS2. If Tampa Bay is to become a playoff team, they’ll have to overcome two away games in a row to start the season, and two away games in a row to lead off the important final three weeks of interdivisional slugfests. Other factors will certainly come into play throughout the season, but that’s what I see in digging into the Tampa Bay Vipers 2020 regular season schedule.

Tampa Bay Vipers XFL Draft Recap

With the XFL Draft now in the rear-view mirror, let’s take a look at how the Tampa Bay Vipers fared in each phase of the draft.

Quarterback Assignment: Aaron Murray, Georgia

A Tampa native, Murray was the first player with Florida ties, but certainly not the last, to become a Viper over the two-day draft period. While many assigned QBs had long been linked to the XFL, Murray was one that came out of left field. After a prolific college career in the SEC where he threw for 121 touchdowns and just 41 interceptions, Murray was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

A backup who bounced around practice squads, Murray found himself out of the league in 2017. He resurfaced with the Alliance of American Football earlier this year, playing for the Atlanta Legends. Murray’s strengths are his accuracy and his ability to move in the pocket, taking off as a runner when necessary. Head Coach Marc Trestman runs a version of the West Coast Offense, where Murray’s lack of arm strength can be hidden and his smarts can be utilized. Despite being a Tier 1 quarterback, I don’t believe he’ll be handed the job in camp and will have to fend off challenges from Taylor Cornelius and Vinny Testaverde Jr.

 

Phase One: Skill Players

If fortune favors the bold, the Vipers will be set up for a strong first season in the XFL. With the fifth overall pick in the round, Tampa made the first surprise of the day in picking TE Nick Truesdell. He was the first tight end selected, and the second one wasn’t chosen until pick 26. You could say Tampa pounced on the best tight end in the draft; you could also say that, because of the snake format, they had to wait until pick 12 to make their next choice, limiting their options of the top wideouts and backs.

Truesdell was on-and-off the New York Jets camp roster this summer after blowing up the AAF and leading all tight ends in receiving. He has taken a circuitous route to get to this point, with stops in the Indoor Football League and Arena Football League. He was one of two TEs taken by the Vipers in this phase, joined by Cole Wick out of Incarnate Word. Truesdell goes 6’5″ while Wick stands 6’6″.

Just ahead of Truesdell in AAF receiving was Seantavius Jones, who was Tampa’s second pick. Jones goes 6’4″, so whatever QB wins the training camp battle will have some big bodies to throw to. He was a part of a WR-rich New Orleans Saints team in 2014 and 2015. Four other receivers were taken during this phase, none under 6’0″. Given the picks here, it was clear this staff wasn’t going to be mesmerized by big names or big schools, as they took several under-the-radar players from small schools.

Rounding out the phase were two running backs and a quarterback. Not every team took a second QB in this phase, and while Cornelius was picked later (ninth round out of ten), he’s younger than Murray and could present a camp challenge in his first year as a pro. At 6’6″ and 232 pounds, the former walk-on from Oklahoma State won’t be overwhelmed by the competition. The running back selections were interesting. De’Veon Smith is a big back whose slow 40-yard dash time (4.85) at the 2017 NFL Combine likely led to his undrafted status. He’s almost exclusively an early-down runner.

He’ll be paired with Quinton Flowers, who played his college games at Raymond James Stadium, where the Vipers will call home. Flowers was a college QB who could be for the Vipers what Taysom Hill is for the Saints. If nothing else, he provides a contrast to what Smith brings to the table out of the backfield.

 

Phase Two: Offensive Linemen

Twelve of the first thirteen overall picks of this phase were offensive tackles. I’ll give you one guess as to what team bucked that trend. Yes, it was the Vipers, who selected UCF center Jordan McCray with the fourth overall pick. The same pros and cons of picking a TE over WR and RB also apply here. This was not a draft deep at the pivot, so McCray will anchor the line from the middle.

Tampa clearly scouted the AAF hard, as McCray participated there and has been in a number of NFL camps since 2014. That gives him experience in different types of offenses. The second pick may be their most intriguing, as the Vipers took OT Martez Ivey out of Florida (one of 15 players with Florida ties drafted by this franchise). Ivey was a heralded five-star recruit out of high-school who never developed into a top-tier tackle in college.

Offensive line coach Jonathan Himebauch will have a big piece of clay to mold during camp to get Ivey to where he needs to be for this team to be successful. Worth noting that Tampa took seven guards and just two tackles, so the expectation could be that those two tackles will bookend the line. If that’s the case, Ivey will be joined by Christian Morris from Mississippi. Some of the guards may be able to cross-train at tackle.

Andrew Tiller is a former sixth-round pick of the Saints and has 28 NFL games played to his name. Tre Jackson was a fourth-round pick of the New England Patriots in 2015. This doesn’t strike me as a strong group; there are players with substantial upside but who have underachieved or don’t have much experience. Then again, that may be symptomatic of the offensive line pool available.

 

Phase Three: Defensive Front Seven

Of the ten picks in this phase, four were defensive ends, two were defensive tackles, and four were linebackers. With the first pick in the phase, Tampa Bay this time went with the conventional wisdom, taking Oregon State pass rusher Obum Gwacham. Gwacham may not make it to mini-camp in December, as he has been on the NFL workout loop since being released by the Indianapolis Colts in final cuts. He tried out as recently as October 8 with the Colts.

Gwacham is an explosive athlete and a former WR, so he’s still learning the nuances of the defensive end position. He can play end or linebacker depending on coordinator Jerry Glanville’s scheme. That flexibility will be an advantage. Deiontrez Mount, Tampa’s second pick in this phase, has similar positional flexibility. A former Tennessee Titans draft pick, Mount, also like Gwacham, has NFL game experience. He’s more of a strength player who can run defend, posing as a compliment to Gwacham’s pass-rushing prowess.

Ricky Walker was a strong undrafted free-agent out of Virginia Tech this past year. He’ll work in the defensive tackle rotation with Josh Banks, who’s a little more stout than Walker. The Vipers posted a neat video of LB Lucas Wacha revealing his destination to the high-school football team he’s coaching:

The one other name that stands out from this group is the final choice, DE Devin Taylor. He was a fourth-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 2013 and has 63 NFL games to his name. He also, you guessed it, played in the AAF in the spring.

 

Phase Four: Defensive Backfield

Seven corners and three safeties were the count for this phase of the draft. First-and-second-round picks Arrion Springs and Picasso Nelson are young and inexperienced at the pro level, which makes the selection of Demontre Hurst in the third round all the more valuable. He has seven years as a pro under his belt, most of those years with the Chicago Bears, though he recently was in the CFL.

Springs had been a starter since his sophomore year at Oregon and can play inside or outside. Nelson was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi by the Jacksonville Jaguars, but was never a real threat to crack their once-deep defensive backfield.

Micah Hannemann and Marcelis Branch are the top two safeties, but the final safety pick may be the most recognizable: Robenson Therezie out of Auburn, who made the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free-agent in 2015 and has played in 25 games.

This is another position where the Vipers chose youth over some of their more veteran counterparts.

 

Phase Five: Open

While some teams didn’t even draft specialists, Tampa Bay stocked up. They took two kickers, a punter, and a long-snapper. Andrew Franks was their first kicker taken. He spent two years with the Miami Dolphins where he connected on 78.4% of his field goals. At punter, the Vipers went with Jacob Schum who, like Franks, legged out two years in the NFL. Schum averaged 42.6 yards per punt with a 38.5 net with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2015 and the Green Bay Packers in 2016. Long snapper Nick Moore was in camp with the Saints this year. He was rated by many as one of the top snappers to enter the NFL Draft this past spring.

A second kicker, Matthew Wright of UCF, was also chosen. Like at the QB spot, it doesn’t hurt to have a little competition, especially when you’re either picking your 10th linebacker who has little chance of making the team, or creating real competition at a position. Wright left UCF last season as their career leader in field goals and points. He camped with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After taking just two RBs in the skill position phase, Tampa Bay opted for three in the open phase, adding DJ May, Ralph Webb, and Jacques Patrick. Patrick may be the most intriguing: Heavily recruited out of high-school, he attended Florida State and is another size and power back. Webb is a speedster with a 4.48 40. May, a former linebacker who had injury and off-the-field issues at Wyoming, is worth a flier.

Tampa sacrificed a little size in the WR room when they took Auburn’s all-time leader in receptions, Ryan Davis, in the open phase. Davis is just 5’9″ and could end up in the slot. Freddie Martino is another player with both NFL and AAF field time. Same with LB Terrance Plummer, as the Vipers added some nice depth pieces in the final phase.

Vincent Testaverde Jr, whose father spent five years with the Bucs, will stay close to home. Vincent also attended Buccaneers training camp this summer. He’ll have to prove he was more than just a sentimental pick. DT Nikita Whitlock has crossed paths with members of this coaching staff in the CFL. He also doubles as a fullback.

 

Conclusion

While the XFL spurned the idea of allocating players by location, some teams sorted that out themselves, including the Vipers, whose draft has a distinct Florida flair. It’s great for marketing a team before the season begins, but ultimately wins and losses will determine fan support in South Florida. The scouts and coaching staff also seemed to value those who played in the AAF. It could make the transition to the XFL easier having already gone through a similar iteration recently.

Tampa Bay took the first tight end and center of the draft, and built their receiving corps around size to fit Trestman’s West Coast offensive philosophy. Offensive line and defensive back positions are largely untested based on the group they’ll bring to camp, but it’s possible those areas will be improved through the supplemental draft(s) the league will hold, and through usual training camp roster churn.

What Google Trends can tell us about interest in the XFL

The success of the XFL in 2020 and beyond is tied to the interest the league can drum up both locally and nationally for the teams, the players, and the product in general. Unfortunately, four months out from the first game, there’s no metric we can use to gain insight into how the league has taken hold thus far.

Merchandise sale numbers are unavailable to the media and general public; the same goes for season ticket deposits. There are no television ratings or game-day attendance numbers to analyze. One data point we can look at to see where interest in the league lies is with Google Trends.

Google Trends measures Google searches, where those searches emanate from, and what similar keyword searches are made. I’ve dug into the data of searches related to the XFL as well as all eight teams over a 365 day period (though the previous two months are the only ones relevant to the specific teams given the recency of the name reveals). The conclusions we can reach are limited at this point – but this information will be helpful to track as the season nears, as well as once it gets underway.

XFL

You can see that the highest interest level over the last 365 days occurred when the team names were revealed. That beat out a number of the other peak search periods, including the small bump you see in May during the time period of the LA head coach reveal, coinciding with the announcement of the league’s television deals. The earliest spike in the data is back in December of 2018 when the cities were officially announced. Then, over a longer time period of two weeks in February, the increase could be attributed to the announcements of Bob Stoops and Pep Hamilton as the league’s first two head coaches.

The next image shows searches by region over the same time period. For those concerned about the viability of St. Louis as a founding member, the fact that the most searches for the XFL have come from Missouri has to be a good sign. The only state represented on the top five that doesn’t have a team is Oklahoma, which comes in at number two. One would have to assume that is largely the result of Stoops being named coach. Even so, ranking second on the list is high and represents the value Stoops brings to the league.

Finally, it’s topics searched related to the XFL. This is another example of the power of Stoops, as he’s first in related topics as well as first AND second in related queries (while his team, XFL Dallas, comes in third there). Obviously the rumors of Antonio Brown’s status in football have linked him to the XFL despite league denials. That is a second-place related topic. The Seattle Dragons are the only full team name to register here alongside the XFL, as they’re fifth in related queries. Perhaps that nickname is the one that is really taking hold among the fanbase at large.

Team Searches

I won’t go through each individual team’s Google search results, because so many of them look similar: A huge spike at the time the name was announced, then very low ebbs and flows since then. But some of the teams have interesting regional splits and/or related searches. Take Dallas, for example:

Dallas Renegades

Dallas by region

The term “Dallas Renegades” has the highest search results from Texas, no surprise, and while it’s also no surprise that Oklahoma is second given the Stoops connection, it is somewhat surprising to see how close Oklahoma is to first place. Hopefully the Renegades can take advantage of the obvious interest from that state in making it a part of their market. There does seem to be a broad interest in this team in the northeast and southeast as well. Missouri even shows up once again in the top five.

DC Defenders

DC by region

While the DC area, Virginia, and Maryland should be the obvious top three searches, the Defenders apparently also have some fans in Pennsylvania and New York, which could mean the Guardians have some competition for fandom to deal with in the northeast.

Houston Roughnecks

Houston by region

Texas is a strong first-place for the Roughnecks. Louisiana is the state that comes in number two, but it’s not in the same ballpark as the number of Texas searches. Missouri once again shows up in the top five, as do other XFL states like Florida, Washington, New York, and California. You have to wonder if the fans in states with XFL teams may be searching to learn more about other teams in the league. It could also be a case of the larger states (Texas, California, Florida, New York) just naturally producing more of the results.

Los Angeles Wildcats

There doesn’t appear to be much interest in the Wildcats outside of California – it’s the only state that showed up in the regional results.

New York Guardians

The northeast states, plus the usual other areas like California, Florida, and Texas are the most interested in the Guardians. Interestingly enough, West Virginia makes the top ten. Also interesting: New Jersey tops New York in the state with the most searches, perhaps because MetLife Stadium, home of the Guardians, is in New Jersey rather than New York.

St. Louis BattleHawks

Missouri and Illinois are the two states that show up in searches for the BattleHawks. Battlehawks 1942, a video game from 1988, is among the related searches.

Seattle Dragons

Nearly the entire west coast shows up as prominent in searches for the Seattle Dragons, though Washington is far and away the number one location. There’s a pretty wide spread of where interest in the Dragons come from, which could be a good sign for merchandising purposes.

Tampa Bay Vipers

tampa by region

Unlike other teams, Tampa has its second-and-third-most searches coming from states that aren’t bordered by its own. Behind Florida comes Massachusetts and Indiana, with a significant chunk of search results coming out of the Midwestern or central states. It will be interesting to see how that translates going forward.

Conclusion

As of right now, this data is more of something to store in the back of the mind. If results procured during training camp or the season mirror some of the results seen here, then I think we can begin to make more sweeping proclamations. If nothing else, it could be a worthwhile guide for teams and the league to see where the most interest is coming from, and attempt to monetize that.

The case for officiating controversy – but at what cost?

Photo credit

The 2019 NFL season is only two weeks old and yet again, on-field officiating and penalties have become a major storyline for the league. In week one, there was a clock issue that cost the New Orleans Saints about 15 seconds as they were driving down the field before the half. Unlike the NFC Championship Game in January, they were able to overcome the blown call thanks to a last-second Wil Lutz 58-yard field goal.

The Saints were victimized again in week two, this time by a premature whistle. A Jared Goff fumble returned for a touchdown by Cameron Jordan was blown dead as an incomplete pass. While replay overturned the call and awarded New Orleans the ball, because the whistle blew, they would only get the ball at the spot of the recovery, and not the six points.

It’s not just the errors that are irking fans; the amount of laundry thrown during games has reached a boiling point with announcers and players as well. FOX NFL analyst and former Dallas Cowboys QB Troy Aikman in a podcast with Sports Illustrated called the amount of penalties “nauseating” and “maddening.”

Even New England Patriots QB Tom Brady, the recipient of some of the weakest roughing the passer calls in the last two decades, found Thursday night’s Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Tennessee Titans game hard to watch because of the penalties:

If it seems like there are more penalties called early this season, it’s because there have been. ESPN’s Adam Schefter Tweeted out the numbers:

Holding penalties specifically are on the rise, and it was an offseason point of emphasis as suggested by coaches. According to an NFL.com article by Judy Battista, offensive holding penalties are up 64% through the first two weeks of the season.

That’s not to mention the can of worms opened by allowing pass interference to be a reviewable play in 2019. Previously, judgment calls, of which pass interference is considered, had been immune from review. Even though “clear and obvious visual evidence” is the bar required to overturn a pass interference call (or non-call), that bar will be different depending on the set of eyes looking at it.

This all sounds bad for the league. It has slowed down the pace of play even more. It has players and coaches frustrated. It has fans running to social media even quicker than usual to voice their disgust throughout the world. Second-guessing NFL referees has become a cottage industry. You’d think at some point, the weekly officiating watch would affect the integrity of the game, but thus far, The Shield has not been pierced.

In fact, television viewership continues to grow. Week one this year was up 5% over week one of the 2018 season. Monday Night Football in particular saw double-digit percentage increases for both opening weekend games compared to last year. (Source: https://www.thewrap.com/nfl-week-1-tv-ratings/)

This is all prologue to the XFL, which has pledged a faster pace and fewer stoppages. It has also promised inventive rule changes, some of which we may be hearing about soon. We are now at about the time where the XFL should be writing its rulebook in pen. It’s not known whether the league will release its full rules upon completion, but if so, that could happen any day. It may be the next big reveal for the league, which also has the XFL Draft approaching next month.

While common sense would tell you the XFL should be trying to avoid the pitfalls the NFL has experienced with its officiating over the last decade or so, one has to consider the benefits of the controversies the NFL has found itself embroiled in with regards to this subject.

The disputed calls and no-calls have created storylines for the league and its teams beyond the box scores and win-loss columns. It has fed the talk-radio crowd and kept those issues in the news cycle for days. The more content you give fans and analysts to discuss, the less likely they will be to move on to another subject or sport. The NFL is king, even when the emperor is naked.

If there’s one thing the XFL needs, it’s to be in the consciousness of the sports fans as much as possible when the games begin. Fans are hungry not just for acceptable levels of on-field play, but also for controversy. The league tried to manufacture that in 2001 with the feud between New York/New Jersey Hitmen head coach Rusty Tillman and NBC color analyst Jesse Ventura, but fans didn’t buy it.

With new rules expected to be in place, there may be an adjustment period for players and referees when it comes to what happens between the lines. That could bring along with it some questionable calls from the officials. It’ll also be interesting to see what type of replay review, if any, the league settles on.

The XFL may not get the benefit of the doubt that the NFL has. Despite complaints by fans of how the NFL has become over-officiated, they keep showing up at stadiums and watching on TV. Will fans look the other way if roughing-the-passer penalties in the XFL are questionable, or if a quick whistle or two negate defensive touchdowns? Or will they use that as evidence that the XFL is not a quality product and decide it’s not worth their time?

As the XFL puts the finishing touches on its rulebook, one that will have a great influence on the success of the league, you have to wonder if there’s a devil sitting on the shoulder of commissioner Oliver Luck, telling him to keep some of the rules vague enough so that the XFL too can benefit from a little bit of officiating controversy, just as the NFL has.