Up: Trick plays
It’s week four, which means teams are getting deeper into their playbooks, perhaps implementing new plays during the week. We saw teams get a little more creative this past weekend, starting with the double-forward pass, the first of its kind this year in the XFL, that resulted in a touchdown for the Houston Roughnecks. Arlington flawlessly executed a halfback pass from De’Veon Smith to Sal Canella for a two-point conversion. Vegas got into the act on a smaller level, running a reverse with WR Jeff Badet. You’re seeing offenses that are already close to mastering their system, like Houston, adding these wrinkles, but also teams that are looking for a spark on offense, like Arlington, doing the same.
Down: Short-yardage run games
With the struggles of offensive lines across the league comes struggles in short-yardage situations. We’ve seen through the first four weeks teams fail over and over again on 3rd-and-short and 4th-and-short plays. On Sunday, St. Louis failed to pick up 4th-and-1 late in their game against Arlington. Vegas bucked the trend for a while, converting two 4th-and-shorts, but then missed a third of that kind in the third quarter. ESPN’s Joey Galloway even mentioned the failure of short-yardage pick-ups throughout the league during the Vegas vs. DC game. Too many teams have decided running up the middle is the answer in these situations; it may take some more creativity on the part of offensive playcallers to attain more success in this area moving forward.
Up: Ka-Kaw supporters
Since taking over as head coach of the St. Louis Battlehawks, Anthony Becht has repeated a mantra to fans of the team on social media: “fill the top.” He knew the kind of crowds the city could draw back in 2020, and wanted to replicate that in 2023. He got his wish as St. Louis, hosting its first game of the season, packed over 38,000 into The Dome at America’s Center. It was a sellout in that the team sold all of the tickets they had put on sale. It also established a new XFL attendance record, barely besting the 38,253 that the San Francisco Demons drew in week one at Pac Bell Park against the Los Angeles Xtreme in 2001. At 3-1, the Battlehawks host the undefeated DC Defenders in week five, and tickets seem to be moving quickly for that one as well.
Down: Open mics
ESPN appeared to make an adjustment across all of its broadcasts in week four, closing a lot of mics they had previously held open during plays. It reduced the amount of dead air from the censors having to mute cursing from players and coaches. That was a plus. However, it also reduced the sounds of pads crunching and the feeling of being right on the field for the plays. The XFL and ESPN built their partnership on the idea that they would take fans to places they’ve never been before during a broadcast; now, the viewing experience feels more like any other football game. The good news is the all-access aspect is still there. ESPN has gotten better about finding stoppages in the game to go back and show us important conversations or comments that were made. There’s more value in that than just having open mics that don’t pick up much that’s interesting and that have to be muted often anyway. Overall, it seems like the right call.
It’s easy (and not necessarily wrong) to put a lot of the blame for lack of offense and scoring across the league on poor offensive line play. This weekend in particular highlighted that receivers need to do their part, too. Whether it was tight ends, wide receivers or running backs, there are too many balls that should be caught that have ended up hitting the ground. Orlando was plagued by drops against Houston. Arlington had at least three dropped passes in the first half alone against St. Louis, and at times the Battlehawks were no better. While the weather hasn’t always cooperated to give offenses a chance to move the chains with ease, receivers need to pick up their mates on that side of the ball. We’re heading into week five, the halfway point of the regular season, so excuses of unfamiliarity with the offense or not having enough time to work together as a unit are out the window.
Down: Rod Woodson’s patience
When you’re 0-3, it’s natural for a head coach’s patience to wear thin. Vegas Head Coach Rod Woodson’s wore thin and then some on Sunday night. We’ve seen coaches get after players this year, but no coach has gone after the refs the way Woodson did. It all started with the Vipers initially being credited with a touchdown before halftime on a five-yard Luis Perez run. Upon review, however, the play was overturned, leaving Perez just short of the goal line. The reversal came with a :10 runoff of the game clock, and becuase only :05 remained before the half, it left Vegas no time to run another play. A score there would’ve brought Vegas within two points of DC, with the potential to tie the game heading into the locker room. Woodson lost it at the referees, either due to the call being overturned or the clock runoff (explained well by XFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino). Eleven penalties committed by his squad, many coming in the second half, further perturbed Woodson.