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The challenges in improving the quality of play in the XFL

According to The NCAA. 16,236 college football players were eligible for the 2017 NFL Draft. Only 253 of those players were drafted. Nearly a hundred undrafted college football players made an NFL roster, most of them by way of the league’s 32 practice squads. That means that over 15,000 college football players didn’t get the opportunity to become pros. Of the over 16,000 players, only 1.6 percent made an NFL roster. When the NCAA study counted the CFL and even Arena league, that number jumped up to only 1.9 percent.

College football has improved immensely in the last two decades. There was a time when playing a college styled offense was foreign and not suitable for the pros. In 2019, NFL teams have adopted so many offensive concepts from college football. The college game is more adaptable to the pros, than it ever was but the number of player job openings remains the same.

Counting all the divisions, there are over 800 college football programs and counting. Division 1 alone has 130 college football teams. 85 player rosters per team, of which about 55 suit-up every week. That’s a massive amount of football players. 11,050 in total.

There’s another side to this equation. With over 300 college players making the NFL every year. That 1.6 percent ends up taking over 300 NFL jobs. Which in turn, leads to current NFL players losing their roster spots. Over 300 of them to be exact every single year. The guys who usually lose their roster spots to rookies are for the most part, young NFL players who don’t see their second contract. That’s one of the reasons that an average NFL players career is listed as only 3 or 4 years. People will point to injuries and they play a part for sure but the simple math tells you this…. 300 rookies making NFL rosters every year leads to 300 vets losing their spots to those rookies.

With all these numbers, it would seem to favor the idea of a second pro football league being able to field quality teams with quality football players. It’s the biggest selling point for XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck in all of his interviews. One of the biggest knocks against the original XFL was their quality of play. There’s always been valid criticism of the original XFL’s rushed environment in which they fielded teams, having only a month-long training camp, of which the AAF is implementing this month in Texas for their February launch.

While the original XFL’s pay scale was higher than that of the Arena League and CFL at the time in 2001, it still wasn’t high enough to attract premium players to their league. The stereotype with most non-NFL leagues is that they are filled with NFL castoffs, never-weres and NFL wannabes. Alternate football leagues have a really hard time shaking that perception to the average fan. The XFL probably has the steepest hill to climb in attempting to sway that perception.

The 2020 pay scale of XFL players is better than it was in 2001, with premium players being paid a reported 250 to 300k per season. However, the alternate football landscape has changed greatly since 2001.

If the XFL had the market to themselves, they could have free reign of all the eligible pro football players on the planet. The goal being to find the players who are good enough to play or start in the NFL but just haven’t gotten the opportunity to do so. That’s the goal with their current scouting department, Optimum run by Eric Galko, is to find the diamonds in the rough who should be pro football players.

The current XFL doesn’t have the game all to itself this time. The Arena league is not the factor it was, even back in 2001. That league has been scaled down greatly but the AAF and CFL are direct competitors for the “other players” available on the open market.

The CFL’s pay scale has gone up considerably in the last two decades. The majority of their star quarterbacks make over 500k a season (Canadian), which equates to about 373 thousand American. In 2002, Edmonton Eskimos Quarterback Ricky Ray was delivering Frito Lay potato chips for $43,000 a year US. That’s more than he made playing QB for Edmonton that year. Ray eventually saw his salary rise to the 400k range and above over time.

The average CFL player still makes about anywhere from 60-80k per year, depending on bonuses. That’s for a 19-game schedule, not counting the preseason and playoffs. The majority of CFL players are not Canadian. So there’s stiil the draw of playing in the states. The CFL is also contending with a potential labor dispute later this spring but cooler heads may prevail in that one.

The AAF is a bigger threat to the XFL’s quality of play. Bill Polian has used his CFL background wisely in structuring the AAF’s contracted players. They have currently 600 players under contract. By February, that number will be whittled down to over 400. So, the AAF got the jump on the “others”. The contracts are set up to be 3 year deals worth 250,000. (Non-guaranteed). That’s if a player makes it to the third year. The base salary in 2019 is supposed to be 50k with a chance to make more based on incentives. There’s also health insurance and an education stipend for players. Where Polian’s genius and CFL background comes into play is the 3-year restriction, that prohibits players under AAF contracts from exploring opportunities in non-NFL leagues. (The XFL). The CFL has had a similar structure in place for awhile. Up until recently, most CFL players were all signed on to 2-year deals. The only out was allowing players to explore NFL opportunities. Which the CFL has been doing in recent weeks. This is how you get players to sign with your league. The UFL made the mistake of trying to charge NFL teams over $100,000 per each UFL player they signed. The move backfired and hurt the league’s chances of signing developmental players.

The Alliance has also positioned themselves under Polian, as being a potential feeder system to the NFL in the future. It’s a way of enticing players to choose their league over the XFL, CFL and any other spring league that comes out of a haze of Ricky Williams smoke cloud.

The NFL also presents a challenge to the XFL’s pursuit in signing secondary football players off of the market. During an NFL season, there are 2,106 total players on their 32 overall rosters. 53 man rosters with 10 player practice squads. As soon as the NFL regular season ends, the 63 player rosters expand to 90 players per team. Street free agents are signed to NFL future contracts. That has started taking place already this week. So, players under NFL contract at seasons end will expand from 2,016 to 2,880. That means that 864 football players who were not under contract with the AAF and that were available, have now signed on to NFL rosters for the off-season.

Not all of the 864 signed players will stick on NFL rosters. Some may not make it through free agency and the draft when teams add new players but it puts some of the XFL’s potential targets like for example QB Joe Callahan who signed with the Bucs or even WR Tre McBride who signed with Washington in temporary limbo. These players are going to try to make an NFL roster before deciding on an alternate course in their pro careers.

Most recently several NFL coaches like Sean Payton have gone on record stating that NFL rosters should be expanded. The practice squad rosters have expanded to 10 in the last decade, but coaches want to expand the current active roster of 53, the idea being so that they can dress more players for games. There may come a time when NFL rosters expand from 53 to 60. That day hasn’t arrived yet but it will hurt the player pool available to alternate pro football leagues.

The XFL is currently in the process of building up the organizations of each of their 8 city teams, as well as hiring head coaches. The next process will be intriguing, as it relates to the league attempting to sign their potential premiere 8 starting quarterbacks. Then comes the process of signing players to league contracts and putting them in a pool to be drafted to XFL teams. Where will the players come from? The pool of potential players is larger and vaster than it was back in 2001 but the competition is stiffer now for those players.

Another point, Oliver Luck has made in interviews is targeting the nearly 900 players who are cut in total by all 32 NFL teams in September. There will certainly be a lot of players available at that point but again, the AAF will be on the market place attempting to sign that same group of players, presumably coming off of their inaugural season where they have already built a name for their fledgling league. If the AAF is still around and the odds are decent that they will make it to year two, the XFL is going to have a challenge in signing those players to play in their league instead. Regardless of the pay. The competition is in selling agents that your league is the right avenue for their players. The XFL based on reputation alone, is going to have a hard time selling football agents on their league.

There are some tweaks that can be made to the game itself, as a way of improving the quality of play regardless of who the players are. The original XFL was defense friendly. All the games were played on grass, defenders were allowed to bump and run and make contact down the field until those rules were changed in mid-season. There was also the ability for defenders to hit offensive players any way they pleased, making it through an entire 10 game season as an XFL quarterback was nearly impossible in 2001. When the smoke cleared, only Tommy Maddox started and played the entire season without missing any time. The new XFL can be the exact opposite. It can be geared towards offenses. They can open up the game with the rules to create a faster looking game with more scoring than the original XFL had. You still need quality players but the new style will help in the presentation.

The original XFL had over a hundred players that had success in other leagues after they folded back in 2001. Some had success in the Arena league, some went on to very good success in the CFL but a good number of them went on to solid NFL careers like Tommy Maddox, Jose Cortez, Brendan Ayanbadjeo, Corey Ivy, Kevin Kaesviharn, Bennie Anderson, Rod Smart, Mike Furrey, Kelly Herndon, etc. Even still, with those players reviving or becoming NFL players as a result of the XFL, the league was still considered to be hindered by it’s poor quality of play. The current XFL braintrust is working hard towards to enhancing what ailed the original league but their task in improving the quality of play may be harder than it was back in 2001.

Mike Mitchell is a freelance sports writer, analyst, and a general lover of all football. Mike was one of the original Team Reporters in 2001, reporting on the New York/New Jersey Hitmen. We have welcomed him back to the XFLBoard and love his ongoing insightful contributions.

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