End-of-season Tampa Bay Vipers positional grades

Tampa Bay Vipers quarterback Taylor Cornelius (Credit: XFL.com)

Quarterbacks: C: Aaron Murray struggled mightily in his lone start in week one, then lost his job to Taylor Cornelius once he finally did get healthy. Cornelius had his own struggles, which makes it all the more curious Tampa Bay never did go back to Murray. I could understand if Cornelius was playing lights-out, but that wasn’t the case. Cornelius made strides over the course of his four starts, but never showed the consistency that would make him the unquestioned starter going into the 2021 season. Tampa seemed content to use Quinton Flowers as a gadget player, though Flowers himself wasn’t content with that usage. Will he get his trade wish this offseason? That won’t make the already-tenuous fanbase happy. If Murray and Cornelius both return, it should be an open competition for the job in camp.

Running Backs: A: De’Veon Smith and Jacques Patrick made for a formidable 1-2 punch at the running back position. With the QB spot in flux, the backs were able to chew up yardage on the ground and take some pressure off the signal-callers. They complimented each other well and kept each other fresh – that is, until Patrick got hurt in week five. Smith struggled with a heavier workload, and it’s part of what cost the Vipers their 17-point lead, and the win, against Los Angeles. Mack Brown and Tarean Folston, the two #3 backs on the season, were mostly relegated to special teams work. A pass-catching third back could open up a new dimension in the offense so that Smith and Patrick don’t have to carry the water in the pass game as well. With no fullback on the roster, TE Colin Thompson occasionally lined up in the backfield as lead blocker.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B: The team’s top three receivers, Reece Horn, Jalen Tolliver and Daniel Williams, combined for 66% of the team’s total targets in the passing game. They were the clear top three threats and played well despite the inconsistency at the quarterback spot. Williams and Tolliver succeeded in the vertical game, while Horn worked underneath to the tune of less than nine yards per catch. Injuries hampered Nick Truesdell’s production and he caught just nine passes. A healthy Truesdell will be key to the offense next season. DeAndre Goolsby made a few plays but he and Colin Thompson were mostly used as blockers. Only four receptions were made by wide receivers other than the top three. If Antonio Callaway returns from injury next season, he will help beef up the depth at this spot.

Offensive Line: B-: The Vipers finally seemed to settle on a starting five when the season was cancelled. The right side of the line in particular was ineffective early in the year; right tackle Isaiah Williams was eventually replaced by Marquis Lucas, and right guard Daronte Bouldin was sent to the bench in favor of Andrew Tiller, who returned from injured reserve in week four. Jordan McCray played well at center, as did Martez Ivey at left tackle. Jerald Foster was serviceable as the left guard. Having Bouldin and Williams in relief provided game-tested depth. While the run game numbers look good on paper, much of that yardage was gained by the backs on their own. Like the passing game, the pass blocking had its moments, but was not consistent enough. They tied for the most sacks allowed in the league.

Defensive Line: C: A healthy Obum Gwacham would’ve helped this unit, and he was rounding into form just as the league closed up shop for the year. His pass rush prowess was much needed as the Vipers didn’t generate enough from the edge. Gwacham registered the only sack from the line in five games, which just isn’t good enough from a four-man front. Veteran Nikita Whitlock led the team in quarterback hits and tackles for loss, and paced the line in tackles. Ricky Walker was more effective than Josh Banks at the other tackle position; they seemed to receive about equal playing time. As time went on, Bobby Richardson accumulated more playing time than Deiontrez Mount at the end position opposite Gwacham. Mount, the team’s second-round draft pick, disappointed with just six tackles.

Linebackers: C+: Jerry Glanville’s 4-2-5 defense doesn’t put a premium on the linebacker position, making that spot difficult to grade on a weekly basis. Terrance Plummer and Reggie Northrup each had a sack, but their in-game contributions came more on special teams than defense. Middle linebacker Lucas Wacha led this group with 14 tackles. Curiously, despite the de-emphasizing of the linebacker spot, the Vipers still spent four of their 10 draft picks in the defensive front seven phase on this spot. Thurston Armbrister, who has 31 games of NFL experience, was added from Team Nine just prior to the shut-down. It would’ve been interesting to see if he could’ve elbowed his way onto the defense.

Defensive Backs: B-: The defensive backfield allowed a completion percentage of just 52.8%, but also gave up nine touchdowns while picking off just three passes. Anthoula Kelly played well with eight passes defensed and 23 tackles. Marcelis Branch paced the team with 33 tackles, 10 more than the second-place tackler. Tarvarus McFadden also deserves a shout-out with two interceptions and three passes defensed. Micah Hannemann was challenged often as the nickel back but defensed three passes. The safeties offered ample support in the run game. The Vipers found a gem in the open phase of the draft, picking up starting safety Robert Priester out of Wyoming. Priester had a sack, an interception, and a pass defensed. Of the ten picks in the defensive backfield phase, only Hannemann and Branch saw significant playing time. A trade for former NFL 2nd round pick Jalen Collins prior to the season didn’t amount to anything of value.

Special Teams: C: The altered kickoff rules were supposed to encourage longer returns. The Vipers apparently didn’t get the message, as they averaged less than 20 yards per return. Punt return numbers weren’t much better, as they averaged just 5.5 per run back. This could be another area a healthy Antonio Callaway could improve. Jake Schum’s punting was fine, about average when it comes to the rest of the league in both gross and net yardage. Andrew Franks missed his only two kicks of 50+ yards but was otherwise relatively accurate. Reggie Northrup led the team with seven special teams tackles, while Gwacham had five in just two games. If Tampa Bay decides Callaway isn’t the answer, the return game could use some juice heading into next season.

COLUMN: The XFL 2020 autopsy: Four key aspects of the league’s first season to analyze, critique, and review

In 2020, St. Louis BattleHawks fans filled the lower bowl of “The Dome.” (Credit: XFL.com)

And so it ends – not with a bang, but rather a thud. Seemingly as soon as the XFL season began, it, like all major American sports organizations, was put on ice. While the decision to suspend the XFL season at the midway point was met with consternation from some fans, confirmation that it was the right call came when it was reported that an unidentified Seattle Dragons player had tested positive for COVID-19.

The XFL was unable to finish what was a promising season on many fronts. Ratings and attendance were decent, quality of play was high, and several rule changes and game innovations were lauded by the mainstream sports media. Before we look ahead to season two, we’ll take a look back at the four most important aspects of the league and how they fared.

RATINGS

Without a doubt, this is the most important metric in which to measure the league. The XFL business model will only be sustainable if they can acquire a sizeable monetary deal from a network in exchange for broadcast rights. Their three-year deal with ESPN/ABC and FOX is a prove-it contract. The hope is either network will want to renegotiate before those three years is up and offer the XFL a big-money deal, or that the product will be hot enough to shop it to multiple bidders at the end of the three seasons.

Prior to the season, The Sports Business Journal predicted a “respectable” average of 1.5 million viewers on broadcast TV (ABC and FOX); the XFL averaged 2.27 million. They predicted a “healthy” average of 800,000 on FS1 and ESPN; the XFL averaged 1.292 million.

The early weeks heavily skewed these numbers, as the XFL was closer to averaging 1.5 million on ABC and FOX in week five and was under a million for both the FS1 and ESPN games in the same week. The potential was there for the numbers to have drifted lower in the second half of the season, so the ability to walk away from year one with the numbers they did works to the league’s benefit.

From week one to week five, the ABC viewership declined 53%, while the FOX game dropped 55% in that same time span (averaging together the two FOX games in week one). The ESPN contests dropped 66% and the FS1 game from week two to week five (there was no FS1 game in week one) saw a 43% decrease in viewers.

As respectable as the numbers are, they likely won’t start from the same high-point in year two as they did in year one. The XFL needs to hope viewership sustains better in 2021. Just the fact that the league will return for a second season, when so many others haven’t, may be the tonic some football fans need to assure them it’s okay to invest time in the XFL.

ATTENDANCE

In 2001, the XFL averaged 23,410 fans per game in attendance. In 2020, that number was 18,125. I expected closer to the 2001 number, shooting for 20,000 per game. St. Louis and Seattle were the two best home draws for the league and they only had two home games on the docket. Had they ended the season with three home games rather than two, that would’ve affected this year’s average.

There are many reasons why a league that was ridiculed in 2001 would average more in attendance than the more generally-accepted version in 2020. In bigger markets in 2020, the teams are in tougher competition for entertainment dollars. The stench of the 2001 version may not have helped, nor did the tanking of the Alliance of American Football just a season before, further casting doubt on the viability of spring football. WWE used its television to steer fans to the XFL two decades ago; WWE’s audience is just a fraction of what it was then, and this time, the two entities are under separate corporate umbrellas with no crossover.

The AAF in 2019 averaged 15,292 fans per game, but they went into smaller markets than the XFL. The good news for the XFL is that of the four teams that had a third home game before the season ended, two saw their attendance numbers increase from the second game, and one (Houston) even bested their home opener.

I don’t worry about attendance for 2021. This time will give team presidents more opportunity to establish roots in the community, something each one has done a nice job with already. Like the ratings, fans will continue to come out when they sense the league and the teams are here to stay.

Facility changes could help with attendance, or at least the appearance on television. Tampa Bay and New York both play in large, NFL stadiums, which is nice for giving the perception of a major league franchise, but not so good when you only fill 1/7th of the bowl.

Hopefully the XFL looks at smaller venues in those communities during the offseason, as the fan experience would likely improve with those changes as well. Some of the best atmospheres seemed to be in those stadiums where fans were closer together and closer to the field.

QUALITY OF PLAY

The most important influence on ratings and attendance would be the quality of play. It was what the XFL in 2001 lacked amid all the other bells and whistles. From the outset, I noted that quarterback and offensive line play would be the two key positions that would determine, in large part, the on-field product.

Could the linemen keep the QBs upright long enough for them to make plays? Could they open holes in the run game for long gainers? Could the QBs provide enough of a spark so that the offenses could put points on the board in numbers that would create enough interest for fans?

While quarterback play was decent enough, with some standout performers and others who stubbed their toes (leading to coaching staffs eventually finding the right guy), it was the offensive line play that impressed me most. The lines were not sieves that some expected, and sacks were harder to come by than you’d think against lines that didn’t have a lot of time to gel together.

There were a few games where the number of penalties were an issue, but others were played relatively cleanly. Spotty QB play and laundry getting frequently tossed are both qualities we see in NFL regular season games at times, too. The referees didn’t seem to over-enforce, either, and generally let the players play. Whether that was a mandate from the league office, Dean Blandino, or just the officiating style of the men and women in the zebra shirts, it was refreshing.

INNOVATIONS/RULE CHANGES

The XFL spent over a year finding, refining, and putting into action the rule changes they wanted to enact for the 2020 kickoff. Some ideas were scrapped, others were tweaked, and still other changes need to be made for 2021 (I’m looking at you, penalties enforced on the kickoffs).

The league wanted the game to still resemble football, but to alter it to encourage the safety of its players and a more exciting game. I think they succeeded on both fronts. Starting with the kickoff, perhaps the league’s biggest triumph, one that has some sportswriters crowing that the NFL should steal it and implement it this year.

The 25-second play clock to speed up the game was met with few hiccups. The ball-spotter was a nice addition to the on-field crew. Pulling back the curtain on the replay official didn’t always provide riveting television, but it’s certainly more entertaining than staring at an official looking under a hood for five minutes. Speaking of which, replay officials were quick on their calls, too.

Most of the innovations were positive at best, benign at worst. The two issues were with the clock rules under 2:00 in each half, and the double-forward pass. As for the latter, teams simply didn’t employ it enough, a concern I had in one of my earlier columns. The XFL didn’t want “gimmicks,” yet that’s what this was. It has the potential for excitement but wasn’t in the game plan for most coaches.

The last 2:00 of each half slowed to a crawl because of the league’s Comeback Period rules, made to feel even longer when the rest of the half flies by because of the running clock. The game often had to be stopped so the referee could reset the game clock or the play clock or remind the clock operators not to start the game clock until the play clock reached 25 seconds.

I don’t mind the rules on paper, but in practice it was a little sloppy. One could argue these rules contributed to the mess at the end of the Seattle vs. Houston game, in which the time expired despite :03 remaining with time for one last play. I don’t think the timing rules necessarily need to be scrapped, as the more coaches, players, officials, and clock operators get used to the system, the smoother it should run.

CONCLUSION

It’s a shame the XFL didn’t get a chance to finish its season. Ratings hopefully would’ve stabilized; attendance would’ve continued to increase to bump the average up, including St. Louis potentially hitting the 40,000 mark; the league would’ve continued to provide exciting moments with the on-field product and the innovations it established. Not everything was perfect, but the XFL built a great foundation in which to work for 2021. So let’s not say goodbye to the XFL…let’s just say, see you later.

Tampa Bay Vipers positional grades vs. L.A. Wildcats (Week Five)

Tampa Bay Vipers quarterback Taylor Cornelius (Credit: XFL.com)

QB: D+: For the first half of the game, we continued to see the coming of age of Taylor Cornelius as the Vipers starting QB. For the second half, and especially the fourth quarter, he devolved into the guy who struggled in his first start in place of the injured Aaron Murray. Cornelius had another rushing touchdown, in the second quarter from the three yard-line, on a brilliant keeper call by offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo. His touchdown pass later in the quarter to Jalen Tolliver was a good one: On the run, finding Tolliver in the back of the end zone. He came off as extremely confident playing with a lead. A 3rd-and-8 incompletion that should’ve been a pick-six in the third was the beginning of the downhill slide. Three turnovers in the fourth doomed Tampa’s comeback attempts, including a Cornelius sack/fumble that was returned for a TD and an interception in the end zone that ended the game. Quinton Flowers, after returning to the team, was a non-factor in the few snaps he played.

RB: C: The turning point of the game for the Vipers seemed to be when Jacques Patrick went down with a back injury. Without their two-headed rushing attack, De’Veon Smith had to carry 24 times and was not nearly as effective: He averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. It was prescient that Tampa re-signed Tarean Folston in the days before the game, but they didn’t seem to trust him to step fully into Patrick’s role, as he saw just two carries. Before getting hurt, Patrick scored from two yards out, set up by his own 24-yard run. He also converted the follow-up one-point conversion. The ineffective run game likely didn’t help Cornelius, forcing him into more obvious passing situations.

WR/TE: B-: Upon his return to the lineup after missing two games due to injury, Nick Truesdell caught a pass on the second play of the game. Unfortunately for the Vipers, he caught just one more the rest of the game. They had him lined up in an H-Back position in the backfield a few times, a look we haven’t seen much of this season. Reece Horn, Jalen Tolliver, and Dan Williams all had big games and the three starting receivers combined for 25 of the 33 targets in the pass game. Horn converted a 4th-and-3 in the first quarter and had a touchdown. Tolliver’s TD came on a great sliding catch in the back of the end zone. He averaged 23.8 yards on four receptions. Williams snagged a one-point conversion on a WR screen. It was a miscommunication on a route between DeAndre Goolsby and Cornelius that led to an interception in the end zone with under a minute remaining, sealing the Vipers’ fate.

OL: C+: Against the worst run defense in the XFL statistically speaking, the Vipers struggled to run the ball. The broadcast caught head coach Marc Trestman asking offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo to run the ball less on first downs because of the lack of success there. In the pass game, the line allowed just one sack. According to Pro Football Focus, Jordan McCray didn’t give up a pressure in 42 pass blocking snaps from the center position. Martez Ivey had two penalties at left tackle. The line was short on depth this week with only Na’Ty Rodgers and John Yarbrough available as backups; Daronte Bouldin and Isaiah Williams, two former starters, were healthy scratches.

DL: C: With Ricky Walker inactive due to injury, Shane Bowman was up for the first time since signing and he made a few splash plays. He got good penetration (too good once; he was called for offsides) and recovered an errant shotgun snap in L.A territory. Nikita Whitlock was also flagged for offsides, but he had two tackles for loss and two hurries in addition to leading the defensive line in tackles. Production-wise, he may be playing the best of anyone on the line. Obum Gwacham played more than last week but had just one tackle. Jason Neill was called for roughing the passer in the third quarter. It appears as if Deiontrez Mount’s playing time has decreased in favor of Bobby Richardson at one end spot.

LB: C-: Running backs carried the ball just 14 times, so the linebackers didn’t have much action in the run game. They, along with the line, bottled it up whenever the Wildcats did run it. The defense did a good job swarming to the ball, which is good because there was some over-pursuit by the backers and line. Reggie Northrup had three tackles and an offsides. Terrance Plummer was hurt on a collision with L.A. fullback Winston Dimel but reentered the game later. He was beaten on a touchdown pass by the much larger De’Quan Hampton. Lucas Wacha, who relays the plays to the defense on the field, had just one tackle. Plummer and Northrup were both in on three each. L.A. had success with the tight ends in the pass game.

DB: D: While the offense stubbed their toe in the second half and couldn’t keep up with the Wildcats in terms of scoring, the defensive backs couldn’t get stops when they needed to, either. Josh Johnson threw for 288 yards and four touchdowns to lead the top passing offense in the XFL. The Vipers started off hot with Robert Priester intercepting Johnson on the first play of the game. He came off his man and read Johnson’s eyes. Priester later broke up a pass on a scramble drill, sticking with his responsibility throughout the play. It was a game to forget for Micah Hannemann, who missed an open-field tackle on Jordan Smallwood’s 54-yard gain to the one yard-line, then later was beaten deep along with Tarvarus McFadden just before halftime. The DBs defended a flea flicker well. The size advantage the Wildcats receivers had over the Vipers defensive backs seemed to play a part in their success.

ST: C+: In an effort to get Quinton Flowers into the game, he was put in as kick returner after practicing there during the week. He didn’t even reach the 20 yard-line on his lone return. Andrew Franks was good from 26 and 25 but missed short from 57 yards just prior to the half. Ryan Davis averaged less than 14 yards per kick return, often leaving the Vipers offense with a long field. Jake Schum dropped two of four punts inside the 20. The team was penalized for a block in the back on a punt return. Special teams created a turnover, with Emmanuel Beal recovering a fumble forced by Micah Hanneman deep in L.A. territory, leading to a touchdown for Tampa. Obum Gwacham made his mark on coverage teams again, leading the way with three tackles.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, three fourth quarter turnovers drop Vipers to 1-4

Tampa Bay Vipers running back De’Veon Smith (Credit: XFL.com)

The Tampa Bay Vipers had a long, cross-country flight back to the east coast to think about how and why they left the City of Angels with a 1-4 record instead of 2-3 with a chance to reach .500 at home this Saturday.

Not only are the Vipers now in sole possession of last place in the XFL East division after their 41-34 loss to the Los Angeles Wildcats on Sunday night at Dignity Health Sports Park, but they’re two games behind the other three teams with just five games remaining in the regular season.

“We worked our tails off, but the fact of the matter is we’re a 1-4 football team,” said Vipers head coach Marc Trestman after the game. Both the Wildcats and Vipers came into the game at 1-3, and both were sorely in need of a victory to keep their playoff hopes alive. Trestman referred to this game as a “gotta-have-it-win” for the two squads.

Despite the long trip, it was the Vipers who jumped out to quick lead. Robert Priester intercepted Wildcats quarterback Josh Johnson on the first play of the game, leading to an Andrew Franks field goal to open the scoring. Following a Wildcats punt, the Vipers offense put together a 65-yard drive capped off by a Jacques Patrick one-yard touchdown run. He followed that with a successful one-point conversion.

“Was really proud of our guys the way we started; coming out here from the east coast and being able to start fast was big for us,” said Trestman.  Defensive tackle Shane Bowman, active due to an injury that sidelined Ricky Walker for this game, recovered an errant snap in Wildcats territory on the next Los Angeles drive. Eight plays later, quarterback Taylor Cornelius scored on a two-yard touchdown run. De’Veon Smith converted the conversion to put the Vipers on top 17-0 in dominating fashion.

After the Wildcats got on the board to break the shutout, Emmanuel Beal recovered a fumbled punt at the L.A. 27-yard line. Cornelius found Jalen Tolliver for a 16-yard score to stretch the lead to 24-6 with 6:28 to go in the first half. That would be as good as it would get for the Vipers.

The Wildcats would score twice before the half, making it 24-20 at the break. Tampa Bay’s offense stalled for a long period, due in part to the absence of Patrick, who had suffered an injury in the first half and did not return. The normally reliable two-headed monster at running back was not as effective when De’Veon Smith was forced to carry the load himself. “We pounded the run pretty good tonight, but we didn’t get significant yardage or bigger runs after the first or second drive,” said Trestman of the team’s run game.

Los Angeles took its first lead, one it would not relinquish, when Josh Johnson tossed one of his four TD passes on the evening, to Tre McBride with 1:42 remaining in the third quarter. “He’s just such an experienced quarterback and he’s getting better every week,” said Trestman of Johnson.

Three fourth quarter turnovers doomed Tampa Bay’s comeback prospects. On the first play of the final stanza, Cornelius was intercepted by Reggie Howard, and the big man rumbled his way to the Tampa 17-yard line. With a short field in which to operate, Johnson found Saeed Blacknall for a touchdown, extending the L.A. lead to 33-24.

An Andrew Franks field goal closed the gap to 33-27. After the Vipers defense got a stop, Cornelius was sacked deep in his own territory by Cedric Reed, allowing Boogie Roberts to pick up the ball and run 23 yards for a touchdown. Needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie late in the game, and with the ball at the L.A. seven yard-line with 37 seconds left, Cornelius and TE DeAndre Goolsby were not on the same page, resulting in a Jack Tocho interception in the end zone to close it out. “We have a bunch of fighters, and they learned how to fight tonight,” said Wildcats head coach Winston Moss.

The 18-point deficit marked the largest comeback in the XFL this year, and the 41 points makes L.A. the first team to break the 40-point barrier. These numbers were hung on a Tampa defense that came into play this weekend as the number one defense in the league.

The St. Louis BattleHawks, tied for first in the East and coming off a loss to the D.C. Defenders last weekend, will travel to Tampa to face the Vipers. The game will be at 5pm EST on Saturday, broadcast on FS2.

COLUMN: In the XFL, NFL pedigrees are no match for youth, production

QB Zach Mettenberger
 “It kind of blows my mind that the XFL hasn’t reached out to me,” QB Zach Mettenberger recently told Sports Illustrated.

When the XFL released the names of those eligible for October’s draft, the list was dotted with recognizable names to college and NFL football fans. With the league trying to gain a foothold in the hearts and minds of sports fans, observers wondered just how much those big names would play a part in establishing the roots of the league.

Would teams opt for those experienced players over more talented, lesser-known commodities, simply to gain traction in the ever-changing sports news cycle? Would the league prioritize seeking out and acquiring those players to be dispersed among the team’s rosters, or would they be happy with a league slightly higher in quality of play on the field, even without those household names?

At the halfway point of the season, it’s clear XFL teams have eschewed NFL pedigrees in favor of scheme fit, talent, and youth. Just this past week, two high NFL draft picks were released from XFL rosters. CB Jalen Collins, a 2015 2nd round pick of the Atlanta Falcons out of college football powerhouse LSU, was waived by the Tampa Bay Vipers. It’s the second team that has given up on him as he was traded to the Vipers by the L.A. Wildcats during minicamp. Collins had been bumped to third-string corner after the Vipers acquired CB Trey Caldwell from St. Louis.

On the same day as Collins was let go, so too was S Matt Elam by the D.C. Defenders. In 2013, the Baltimore Ravens made Elam the final pick of the first round. While the release of Collins wasn’t a surprise given his position on the depth chart, Elam had just come off a game in which he led the Defenders with 12 tackles and a tackle for loss. Obviously not happy with his team’s defensive showing the last two weeks, D.C. head coach Pep Hamilton chose to make a statement this week.

The quarterback position is the one spot the league felt was so important, they were willing to pay a salary above and beyond any other position. Some quarterbacks were assigned to teams prior to the draft, again, the only position for which that luxury applied. Quarterbacks would play a large role in dictating the quality of play in the league, a major factor in the long-term viability of the XFL.

This is a spot where you’d imagine coaches leaning on those familiar names. But that hasn’t always been the case. While the Defenders built their offense around Cardale Jones and the Dallas Renegades did likewise with Landry Jones (when healthy – he was the first player signed by the league), other teams have found more production with diamonds in the rough.

Despite being assigned Philip Walker as their QB, the Houston Roughnecks selected Connor Cook with the second overall pick of the skill phase of the draft. Many outside observers expected Cook, a former 4th round pick out of Michigan State who started a playoff game with the Oakland Raiders, to beat out Walker. Instead, Walker, with zero NFL regular season games under his belt, has played like an early MVP candidate for the undefeated Roughnecks.

Matt McGloin, another former Raider, has spent time with four NFL teams despite going undrafted out of Big Ten powerhouse Penn State. He earned the starting job for the New York Guardians, but may have lost out on that spot to Luis Perez from tiny Texas A&M-Commerce.

It’s not just in-season moves that have been made that reflect the coaches showing a win-now mentality. Many high-round NFL draft picks were selected to be a part of the XFL draft pool, yet were not one of the 568 players chosen.

Running back Trent Richardson showed he still had some tread left on his tires in the Alliance of American Football last spring, but the former Cleveland Browns 1st round pick was left undrafted by XFL teams. Oakland Raiders speedster Jacoby Ford, a wide receiver out of Clemson drafted in the 4th round, met the same fate.

Robert Meachem had 103 games of NFL experience for the New Orleans Saints after being drafted in the 1st round. In October, no XFL teams came calling. The same goes for LB Arthur Brown (2nd round, Ravens, 2013), LB Khairi Fortt (4th round, Saints, 2014), and K Roberto Aguayo (2nd round, Buccaneers, 2016). Still others with similar backgrounds were a part of the XFL’s Summer Showcases, but not even invited to be a part of the draft.

QB Zach Mettenberger, a 14-game NFL veteran and former Tennessee Titan 6th round pick, is plying his trade in the Spring League this year. His name grabbed some attention when the XFL was recruiting quarterbacks for their draft. But he’s not on a roster. “It kind of blows my mind that the XFL hasn’t reached out to me,” he recently told Sports Illustrated.

The way the XFL and the teams have shown in every step of the player evaluation process, it simply means they believe they have more talented quarterbacks already in place. No knock on Mettenberger, but name value and pro experience has shown to mean little in the XFL. Talent, and what you can bring to the table today, trumps all. And given the high quality of play we’ve seen through four weeks, I’m not going to question that process.

Tampa Bay Vipers positional grades vs. D.C. Defenders (Week Four)

Tampa Bay Vipers running back Jacques Patrick #29 (Credit: XFL.com)

QB: A-: With Aaron Murray playing the part of emergency backup, Taylor Cornelius started his third game in a row and continued his steady improvement. This was by far his best performance, as he completed 77% of his passes for 211 yards and a touchdown. There were lots of WR screens built into the game plan, as well as other throws that allowed Cornelius to get the ball out of his hands quickly. He wasn’t perfect: Cornelius made a poor decision on a lob to the end zone that was picked off as Tampa Bay was driving in the third quarter. While it isn’t always pretty, Cornelius once again picked his spots nicely in escaping the pocket, running for a 17-yard touchdown and 36 yards overall. Bottom line: By leading the team to its first victory and improving each week, Cornelius appears to have done enough to take the starting job at least for now, and perhaps permanently.

RB: A+: Not only did the Vipers have the first 100-yard single-game rusher in the XFL this year, but they had TWO in the same game. De’Veon Smith and Jacques Patrick each had over 20 carries, and both averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Patrick ran hard to cap an eight-yard TD run early on. Smith converted two 4th downs on the same drive near the end of the first half, one in which he was the recipient of a desperation shovel pass. Patrick alertly scooped up a ball on the ground, running for about 20 yards inside the Defenders five yard-line. The offense played with tempo, succeeding in wearing out the D.C. defense.

WR/TE: A: The receivers and tight ends did much of their damage with yardage after the catch, given a significant amount of WR screens and plays designed to stretch the defense horizontally were built into the play calling. The best example of this was Dan Williams breaking off a big gain on a broken screen play early in the second half. With his size and tackle-breaking ability a premium in this one, Williams was targeted 11 times. The offense also employed more four-wide looks with the absence again of TE Nick Truesdell. In his stead, DeAndre Goolsby caught a touchdown on 3rd-and-goal. S.J. Green, the much-heralded CFL legend, dropped his only target. Reece Horn drifted back on a lob pass instead of going up to get it, which resulted in a pick.

OL: A+: A couple of changes on the line resulted in this unit mauling D.C. in both the pass and run game. Andrew Tiller, fresh off injured reserve, was plugged in as the starting right guard. He brought some nastiness to the run blocking and Tampa ran his way often. Daronte Bouldin, the previous starter at right guard, was a coach’s decision inactive. While Isaiah Williams was listed as the right tackle starter, Marquis Lucas took over and neither he nor left tackle Martez Ivey allowed a pass-blocking pressure. In fact, D.C. only registered two pressures and had zero sacks. The line worked in tandem on double-teams well, a sign they may be gelling together.

DL: A-: It was DE Bobby Richardson who made an impact early, starting in place of Deiontrez Mount and making a tackle for loss on the first play from scrimmage. He was also in on a 3rd-and-2 tackle for loss with Jason Neill and Reggie Northrup. Obum Gwachum did not start despite the first-round pick making his return from I.R. He rotated in throughout and did sack backup QB Tyree Jackson late. With five defensive tackles now on the roster, two were inactive (Shane Bowman, Kellen Soulek). When the game was still in the balance, an offsides by the line gave D.C a first down. They pressed the pocket enough to keep Cardale Jones off-balance all game.

LB: A: Defensive Coordinator Jerry Glanville giddily told the sideline reporter during the game that he had called a blitz on every first half defensive play. Often tasked with carrying out those blitzes were the linebackers. Reggie Northrup continues to see increased playing time, and it paid off with a sack in this one. Lucas Wacha had three tackles and dropped a screen pass for a loss of yardage. Terrance Plummer was hurt on special teams, which limited his time on defense as the game progressed. D.C. couldn’t get the run or the pass game untracked, and credit goes to all three levels of the Tampa defense playing as one.

DB: A+: Watching the defensive backs to this point in the season, there was a sense that if they could put together the performance they’ve shown flashes of for four quarters, the Vipers would be successful. That’s just what this unit did against the Defenders. D.C. quarterbacks completed under 50% of their passes for less than 100 yards. Recent trade acquisition Trey Caldwell was active over Jalen Collins, who was released earlier this week. Coverage was sticky on the receivers all game. Micah Hannemann came over the top to bat away a 3rd-and-15 play in the second. Tarvarus McFadden had a huge takeaway, intercepting a pass three plays after Tampa had given it away with an interception of their own. McFadden did not allow a completion on five targets. Anthoula Kelly led the team with six tackles and a pass defensed.

ST: B+: Despite not starting on defense, Obum Gwacham made his presence felt on the very first play, making the tackle on the opening kickoff. He had one other on special teams and also blocked a field goal to keep momentum on the side of the Vipers halfway through the second quarter. Ryan Davis and Reece Horn again rotated in at punt returner. The first punt by Jake Schum came with just 4:22 left in the game, and he made it count: a 51-yarder that landed inside the 20. The grade was knocked out of the “A” range because of a missed 31-yard field goal by Andrew Franks early in the second half when D.C. still had life, and two penalties on punt returns.

Demons exorcised: Vipers dominate Defenders for first victory of the season

Vipers RB Jacques Patrick (29) pays tribute to his late father after scoring a touchdown. (Credit: XFL.com)

For the first three games of the Tampa Bay Vipers’ existence, it seemed like everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Injuries, untimely defensive breakdowns, red zone inefficiency, critical penalties. Many were self-inflicted, but others seemed like plain bad luck.

That all changed on Sunday. The Vipers finally put together a complete game in all three phases, with a little luck included, to net the franchise’s first win, 25-0 over the wilting D.C. Defenders. “Well, I am just happy for our players and coaches,” said Vipers head coach and general manager Marc Trestman after the game. “They are a resilient bunch…there’s nothing like a winning locker room.”

Much of Tampa’s success offensively came on their ability to sustain drives. Four of their five scoring drives consisted of nine plays or more. Running backs De’Veon Smith and Jacques Patrick both rushed for over 100 yards each, while quarterback Taylor Cornelius looked poised in his third start, completing 77% of his passes and keeping the chains moving. “It was nice to jump on them quick,” said Cornelius. “We’re week-to-week, and we’re 1-0 this week.”

Patrick’s performance was especially inspiring, as his father recently passed away. “Just coming out here and getting a touchdown for him – I know he’s smiling,” said Patrick. Trestman also praised Patrick’s game. “…(H)e is one guy everybody should get to know,” he said. “He’s played through some stuff over the last couple weeks and has stood by his team and I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Tampa’s defense pitched a shutout, forcing D.C. into four three-and-outs, and only one drive of more than five plays. Included in those three-and-outs was the first drive of the game for the Defenders, who couldn’t gain a yard before punting to the Vipers.

“That is not an easy offense to stop,” said Trestman. “We got a good pass rush, we ran, we chased to get to the ball as good as anybody in the league – I think we saw that tonight. We tackled well. There is still work to be done.”

Jacques Patrick scored from eight yards out and following a one-point conversion, the Vipers went up 7-0. Their second drive was just as successful, as Cornelius connected with tight end DeAndre Goolsby on a 13-yard score. The luck showed up on this drive when Patrick picked up a Cornelius fumble and rumbled for 15 yards inside the D.C. five yard-line.

Midway through the second quarter when it seemed as if the Defenders would take a bite into Tampa’s 13-0 lead, kicker Ty Rausa had a 42-yard field goal blocked by Obum Gwachum, Tampa’s first-round pick in the defensive front seven phase of October’s draft, playing his first game since coming off injured reserve. Tampa tacked on its own field goal prior to the half to take a 16-0 lead into the locker room.

Within the crowd of 12,249 at Raymond James Stadium, there was likely a feeling that the other shoe would drop in the second half. That feeling was confirmed when Andrew Franks shanked a 31-yard field goal to end the team’s first offensive drive of the third quarter. Taylor Cornelius then threw an interception on the next drive to keep the Defenders alive.

Instead of folding, however, Tarvarus McFadden picked off Cardale Jones just three plays later. The nimble Cornelius cashed in with a 17-yard touchdown run to capitalize on the turnover. Later in the game, the Vipers found a little more luck when Dan Williams tipped a pass that ended up in the arms of Colin Thompson for a first down. A Franks field goal put the game out of reach at that point.

Tampa Bay looks to build on their first win when they travel cross-country to face the L.A. Wildcats next Sunday night at 9pm EST on ESPN.

Game Notes: Tampa declared QB Chase Litton inactive, along with CB Jalen Collins, G Daronte Bouldin, TE Nick Truesdell, DT Kellen Soulek, and DT Shane Bowman. The Vipers were given a roster exemption for QB Quinton Flowers, who left the team earlier in the week. He rejoined them on Monday…Bouldin was inactive after starting the first three games at right guard. Andrew Tiller started against D.C. after being activated from injured reserve. Bouldin likely was declared inactive because other linemen with more positional flexibility were active…Though he did not start, Gwachum had a sack and two QB hurries on defense, as well as two tackles on special teams in his first game back from injury…Active as the backup quarterback, Aaron Murray did not play.

Analyzing all XFL first round draft picks through three weeks

With almost a third of the regular season complete, here’s a look at how the first round draft picks from each phase have fared:

Phase 1 Skill Players

DC: WR Rashard Davis, James Madison: The first overall player chosen, the Defenders knew what they were doing: Davis signed with the Tennessee Titans’ practice squad before camp and was signed to their active roster in December, where he currently resides.

Houston: QB Connor Cook, Michigan State: Cook competed with Houston’s allocated QB, P.J. Walker, in one of the more intriguing camp battles. Walker won out, but there’s no shame in that – he’s on his way to an MVP-like season. Cook, the backup, has yet to see game action.

New York: WR DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue: Yancey’s presence would help New York’s stale pass offense, but alas, he was placed on injured reserve just before the end of training camp.

Dallas: WR Jeff Badet, Oklahoma: One of three starters at receiver for Dallas, Badet has shared targets with other receivers, backs, and tight ends. Even then, he’s been a high-volume target, catching 11 passes. But he only has 72 yards, good for just a 6.5 yard per catch average.

Tampa Bay: TE Nick Truesdell, Grand Rapids, CC: Truesdell has shown glimpses of why the Vipers made him the first tight end off the board. In two games (he missed the third due to injury), Truesdell has seven catches for 78 yards.

St. Louis: RB Christine Michael, Texas A&M: Listed as a starter on the BattleHawks depth chart, Michael has spear-headed a two-man rotation in the offensive backfield for St. Louis. He has 35 carries for 82 yards, a 2.3 average, and three catches for 21 yards. He’ll continue to get the rock in this run-first offense.

Seattle: RB Trey Williams, Texas A&M: Averaging a healthy 4.3 yards per carry on 22 runs, Williams has also contributed eight catches for 44 yards and a touchdown. This all comes with Williams acting as the third team running back.

LA: RB Elijah Hood, North Carolina: Hood missed last weekend’s game due to injury, but LA’s running game didn’t miss a beat. That could cost Hood some playing time to Martez Carter and Larry Rose in the future, as he had been averaging only 3.4 yards per carry as starter prior to the game against the Defenders.

Phase 2 Offensive Line

LA: OT Storm Norton, Toledo: Norton is entrenched as the starting left tackle of the Wildcats, tasked with protecting the blind side of QB Josh Johnson. He has performed well to this point.

Seattle: OT Isaiah Battle, Clemson: Battle would be Seattle’s starting left tackle were he not battling an ankle injury that has kept him out the first three weeks of the season. He’s listed as “probable” on this week’s injury report and is expected to make his season debut Saturday.

St. Louis: OT Matt McCants, UAB: The starting right tackle for a BattleHawks line that has given up seven sacks in the first three games. According to traditional draft strategy, this is pretty high to take a tackle to play the right side, considered a non-premium position compared to left tackle.

Tampa Bay: C Jordan McCray, UCF: Manning the pivot for the 0-3 Vipers, McCray has anchored what’s been a so-so offensive line in Tampa. Their run blocking has been superior to their pass blocking so far.

Dallas: OT Willie Beavers, Western Michigan: The left tackle tasked with protecting what some call the face of the XFL, Landry Jones. Beavers comes to the XFL having previously been a part of six NFL clubs.

New York: OT Jarron Jones, Notre Dame: New York’s starting left tackle. With the troubles the Guardians are having in all facets of the game, getting the offensive line to play better would solve a lot of woes on that side of the ball.

Houston: OT Cornelius Edison, Portland State: Edison did not report to minicamp for the Roughnecks, making this a wasted pick for now. They’ll have his rights should he decide to show up at some point.

DC: OT Kyle Murphy, Stanford: The day after Murphy was drafted by the Defenders, he signed with the practice squad of the Houston Texans. He stayed on their practice squad for the rest of the season and was signed to a reserve/futures contract in January.

Phase 3 Defensive Front Seven

Tampa Bay: DE Obum Gwachum, Oregon State: Gwacham was recently activated off short-term IR for the Vipers, looking to add a little venom to their pass rush. They haven’t generated much pressure with their front four, so the addition of Gwacham should help.

St. Louis: DT Casey Sayles, Ohio: Sayles is a starting defensive tackle in the 4-3 defense run by Jay Hayes in St. Louis. He has accumulated four tackles and a sack in three games for a stingy defense that has given up just 15 points per game.

Seattle: DE Stansly Maponga, TCU: The former NFL 5th round pick, Maponga leads the Dragons defense from his starting position at left defensive end. To date, he has seven tackles, one QB hurry, and one tackle for loss. He seems to be heating up as the season goes along.

LA: DT Anthony Johnson, LSU: The Wildcats reshuffled their defense after just one week, firing defensive coordinator Pepper Johnson and trading the heart and soul (and captain) of their defense, Anthony Johnson, to the Defenders. He didn’t get much of a chance for revenge on LA last week, as the Defenders were blown out and Johnson was kept off the stat sheet.

DC: LB James Vaughters, Stanford: The trade for Anthony Johnson netted DC a first-round pick in this phase, which does help ease the loss of Vaughters to the NFL. Vaughters bounced on-and-off the roster and practice squad of the Chicago Bears for the bulk of the 2019 season, then signed a reserve/futures contract at the end of the year.

Houston: DT Trenton Thompson, Georgia: This may go down as the worst first round pick of the 2020 XFL Draft. Thompson was waived by Houston at final cuts and was subsequently signed to Team Nine. The fact that we’re almost four weeks into the season and no other team has claimed him tells what kind of reach this was.

New York: LB Ben Heeney, Kansas: The oft-injured Heeney is looking to stay healthy for the XFL season to earn another NFL shot. He’s the starting MLB in New York’s 4-3 defense. He’s been a tackle machine, with 18 in three games, including three for loss and a QB hurry.

Dallas: DE Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington: Kikaha was a risky choice given his injury history; he made it through training camp and the first three games as one of Dallas’ starting outside linebackers. After six tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble during that span, Kikaha was placed on the reserve/retired list this week to attend to family issues, per his Instagram account.

Phase 4 Defensive Backs

Dallas: S Derron Smith, Fresno State: The former Cincinnati Bengals draft pick has found a home as the starting free safety in Dallas. His big-play impact hasn’t yet been felt, but he’s a steadying presence in the defensive backfield. He has ten tackles through three games.

New York: CB Jamar Summers, Connecticut: Summers has been arguably the top defensive back for New York, registering nine tackles, a fumble recovery, and a pass defensed. The 1-2 Guardians will lean on him as one of their defensive leaders to get them out of the funk they’re in.

Houston: CB Deji Olatoye, North Carolina A&T: One of the few first-round picks who is active but not in the starting lineup, Olatoye is the backup to Jeremiah Johnson at right cornerback. He has just one tackle in two games; in the third, he was a healthy inactive. Houston’s success on the season is more impressive given a couple of misses on first-round picks.

DC: CB Elijah Campbell, Northern Iowa: The starting left corner in the nation’s capital, Campbell has been active on defense and special teams so far this season. On D, he has six tackles and two passes defensed. On special teams, he has a blocked kick and another tackle.

LA: CB Jack Tocho, NC State: The second of three first-round safeties selected, Tocho may just be the best of the triumvirate. He has filled the stat sheet to the tune of eight tackles, one for loss, an interception, a pass defensed, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. He played a big role in LA’s first victory, against DC on Sunday.

Seattle: CB Jhavonte Dean, Miami (FL): Dean was on the team’s minicamp roster and even had a write-up on his journey posted on XFL.com. However, it appears he never made it to training camp nor into the regular season.

St. Louis: S Herb Miller, FAU: Like Dean, Miller was on the St. Louis mini-camp roster, but apparently was not at training camp. The Battlehawks’ safeties haven’t missed much of a beat without Miller, as they’ve started NFL veteran Will Hill and potential future NFL draft pick Kenny Robinson to much success.

Tampa Bay: CB Arrion Springs, Oregon: The Vipers have been active in the trade market both before and during the season. Springs was traded to LA straight-up for fellow corner Jalen Collins on December 17. Springs is listed as a backup to Harlan Miller at one of the Wildcats’ corner spots. Even as a backup, he has nine tackles, an interception, and two passes defensed for Winston Moss’s defense.

Tampa Bay Vipers positional grades vs. Houston Roughnecks (week three)

Tampa Bay Vipers quarterback Taylor Cornelius

QB: C+: Taylor Cornelius looked a bit more comfortable running the offense than the previous week filling in again for Aaron Murray. There were still too many miscommunications with receivers, including his interception late in the fourth, that stalled drives. After starting the game and playing the first two drives, Quinton Flowers came in for the rest of the half, save for the last drive of the first half. Cornelius marched the team down the field for a score at that point, then played the rest of the second half. He showed good rapport with Reece Horn throughout the game. Cornelius found some rhythm in the 2nd half but again the Vipers came up empty on the goal line at the end of the game. The decision to not go with Flowers at that point is questionable at best. It was announced today that Flowers has taken personal leave from the team and Cornelius will get the start again this weekend.

RB: C: De’Veon Smith’s best play may have been a downfield catch in which he held onto the ball despite taking a big hit. He made two catches but had a 3rd down drop as well. In the run game, Smith averaged just 3.3 yards per carry; he has a way of falling forward and twisting for extra yardage after contact. After out-touching Smith last week, Jacques Patrick had just 10 carries for 18 yards and two catches for 11 yards. They are currently the only two backs on the roster with the release of Mack Brown earlier in the week. Colin Thompson only played one snap at fullback this week.

WR/TE: C: The receivers had at least four drops on the afternoon; that has to be remedied if Tampa is going to be able to perform consistently on offense. Jalen Tolliver was targeted 13 times and had eight catches for 104 yards, but dropped two balls as well. He converted a 3rd-and-6 from Flowers and then a 4th-and-4 in the third quarter. Dan Williams used his physicality to break tackles and score the first receiving touchdown in team history. Getting more playing time in place of the injured Nick Truesdell, DeAndre Goolsby had a catch over the middle for 24 yards just before the half. He also had a drop and a holding penalty on a run that gained a first down.

OL: B-: The starting five performed better than the previous week, allowing just two sacks and four tackles for loss. It’s especially impressive when you consider the Roughnecks were sending at least five rushers on nearly every play. The weak link seemed to be right tackle Isaiah Williams. Williams gave up a sack and a pressure that led to a 3rd down incompletion on the first drive. He also committed a holding penalty on the second drive. The run game was not as effective as previous weeks, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. Sixty-two of the 129 yards gained on the ground were via quarterback scrambles.

DL: C+: Despite Houston missing two starting offensive linemen, the Vipers once again struggled to get regular pressure on the quarterback. With P.J. Walker’s ability outside the pocket, it may have been part of the game plan this week, however, to keep him in the pocket, limiting the rush from the line. DT Josh Banks and DT Nikita Whitlock both registered pressures from the interior. DE Deiontrez Mount knocked down a pass intended for the middle of the field. Banks missed a tackle at the line of scrimmage that led to a 30-yard second quarter scamper by James Butler. He later sniffed out a screen for a tackle for loss. DE Jason Neill was injured late; he’ll cede his starting end spot to the returning Obum Gwacham this week. The group missed DT Ricky Walker, who was out with an injury.

LB: B: Terrance Plummer led the group with four tackles; he was tasked with spying Walker at times during the game. It worked, as Walker had just 34 yards rushing with 28 coming on one play. Plummer also had the only sack, two hurries and a tackle for loss. Backup Reggie Northrup played well. Lucas Wacha had three tackles and two hurries; the linebackers applied more pressure than the line. Houston called just 12 run plays, so the linebackers were either in pass coverage or mostly off the field when Tampa went to their dime defense against Houston’s five-wide attack.

DB: C: Playing against perhaps the best QB-WR tandem in the league, it was only natural that this group would struggle at times. The Vipers were attacked all over the field, and when Houston head coach June Jones sensed a player getting tired, he’d go after them even more. There were still more than a handful of quality plays made. Tarvarus McFadden played a screen well for no gain. Cam Phillips toasted Anthoula Kelly on an 84-yard TD; Kelly was then victimized on a long pass interference call on third down. Micah Hannemann led the team with seven tackles, but missed one that led to a third quarter TD. He did have a 3rd down pass break-up and almost picked a ball on the next play. The DBs also had to do a lot of tackling in the run game. DB blitzes were dialed up on Walker before the half.

ST: A-: A much better effort than last week. Rannell Hall had a good opening kickoff return, but only averaged 19.5 yards on four returns. He was hurt and subsequently placed on injured reserve. The Vipers do have others with experience returning kicks and punts who can fill in. Donteea Dye replaced him on kickoff returns after the injury. Dye also returned punts. Andrew Franks kicked two field goals, including one from 48. Jake Schum had a 67-yard punt and landed three of four kicks inside the 20, including one at the four yard-line. If Tampa can get consistency in their kicking game, it will be a huge plus. Kick coverage is still an issue. Lucas Wacha led the team with three special teams stops.

Offense finds endzone but defense falters in Vipers loss to Roughnecks

Quinton Flowers was one of two quarterbacks the Vipers used in their bid to beat the Roughnecks. (Credit: XFL.com)

It took the Tampa Bay Vipers 140 minutes and 49 seconds of the new XFL season to finally score their first offensive touchdown. It took just nine minutes and 11 seconds for them to score their second. Yet, it wasn’t enough to stave off the red-hot Houston Roughnecks in Tampa’s home opener.

The Vipers were downed 34-27 in front of 18,117 at Raymond James Stadium, a number that bested many analysts’ expectations. It was Quinton Flowers who scored that first offensive TD, on a seven-yard keeper. Combined with Jalen Tolliver’s one-point conversion, it put the Vipers on top 10-9 in the second quarter.

Just prior to halftime, the home offense found the end zone a second time, this time on another QB run, this time with Taylor Cornelius at the helm. Cornelius started again over the injured Aaron Murray, who is expected to return next week. Cornelius was 16-31 passing for 193 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. “I felt really good today,” said Cornelius, when asked about the added reps he took at practice this week. “Moving forward, we’re in a better spot offensively and we feel good about the game plan.”

In preparation for this game, head coach Marc Trestman ceded play calling duties to offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo. “I thought if I could get out of the weeds a little bit and step back with the team, I thought that could help the team in a number of different ways,” said Trestman about the change. Through the first two games, the Vipers had largely been able to move the ball down the field, but had struggled in the red zone. The offense was more successful there on Saturday (2 for 3), but stalled on the one yard-line in the fourth quarter with a chance to come within a one-point conversion of tying the game.

A major storyline, for the second week in a row, was the QB rotation. Cornelius started and played on the first two drives. Flowers took over for drives three, four, and five. It was Cornelius who took the final drive before half, as Trestman noted on the broadcast that he liked the way Cornelius performed during the 2:00 drill before the end of the game last week.

In the second half, it was all Cornelius, despite the protestations of the home crowd. They wanted the hometown hero, Flowers, who played his college home games at Raymond James Stadium. Trestman’s decision to go with Cornelius the entirety of the final half will be debated, notably when the Vipers had it 1st-and-goal inside the five and were unable to cash in late in the game. Flowers’ versatility could’ve put the Roughnecks on their heels. “I think it’s a valid question,” said Trestman when asked about not going to Flowers in that situation. “We decided to stick with the plan and keep Taylor in there.”

Houston put the game away for good with 10:24 left in the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay had two drives after that in the fourth, the one that stalled at the one yard-line, and another, their last, resulting in a Cornelius interception in Houston territory.

The game was a seesaw affair and was one of the best games in the XFL this season. The lead changed hands or the score was tied six times. Houston’s P.J. Walker, an early MVP candidate, appeared as advertised. He was 24-36 passing for 306 yards and three touchdowns. Last week’s XFL Star of the Week, WR Cam Phillips, torched Tampa’s secondary to the tune of eight receptions for 194 yards and three touchdowns.

“…(W)e’ve got a sick locker room in there, a lot of guys worked their tails off today,” said Trestman. “I know we got better this week, but it wasn’t good enough.”

The Vipers host the 2-0 (pending Sunday’s result) D.C. Defenders next Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Kickoff will be at 7pm EST and will air on ESPN2.

Game Notes: Tampa’s inactive list this week was filled with injured players. QB Aaron Murray, CB Jalen Collins, DT Ricky Walker, and TE Nick Truesdell all appeared on the injury report leading up to Saturday’s game. The only two healthy inactives were LB Anthony Stubbs and WR S.J. Green, a recent acquisition from the Seattle Dragons…Tampa Bay has exceeded the 100-yard rushing mark as a team in all three games this season…A couple more firsts in team history were achieved, including first rushing touchdown (Flowers) and first passing/receiving touchdown (Cornelius to WR Dan Williams).