Rob’s Ramblings: Cleared to Engage

Greetings all

This past weekend was the first weekend of the XFL. For many years I have been hoping for a spring pro football league and the XFL has been my best hope for while.

I would like a spring league not only because it’s more football, although I always want more football. It could also serve as a developmental area, because NFL teams just don’t have time under the current CBA to really do a bunch of developmental work on down-roster players. This is especially true for quarterbacks and offensive linemen who need full-speed repetitions to improve.

It is also an area to develop other aspects. Referees and coaches can also get more experience. If done right, it could be an place for innovation and experimentation.

The XFL held this promise, despite the fact that the AAF, which was announced at about the same, failed like every other competitor to the NFL.

Why do I think this will succeed when none have before? Vince McMahon is no idiot, and he wouldn’t try this again if he didn’t think he could make it work. He also made it clear he wanted innovations, not gimmicks. Where the AAF rushed to get their product to market, the XFL took an extra year to devise new ideas, test them for effectiveness and player safety, and make sure all the financial foundations were in place.

Now, we finally got to see the product. One of the major innovations was a radically re-designed kickoff system. Those who have been watching the XFL come together have been very curious about this one change in particular.

It was a huge success. So much so that I’d be surprised if it doesn’t become the norm for kickoffs within the decade.

And it’s emblematic of the innovations in the league. They promised a faster pace and they got it. Two specific rule changes were made to achieve this. One, 25 seconds between plays instead of 40 in the NFL. Two, there’s an official whose sole job is to spot the ball between play. A little thing, one might think, but I watched the officials make ready for play with an efficiency the NFL currently can’t even dream of.

The extra point has been revised, with 1, 2, and 3 point options. This has a ton of potential, though it’s clear coaches don’t yet understand all the possibilities. Punts have to be inbounds, but coverage guys can’t leave as quickly. We also didn’t see the double forward pass play used yet, but I see a bright future for it.

The closest thing to gimmicky was the immersive coverage. Cameras can basically go anywhere. There was one play yesterday when Jordan Ta’amu had to avoid a cameraman on the field. Players who made a big play, either good or bad, were interviewed almost immediately. It’s rough on the player to have to look into a microphone after a big mistake, but it’s fantastic TV.

And the broadcasts can let us all listen to everything that’s being said by the coaches and the officials via their radios. We can hear play calls as they’re being called. Amazing. When there’s a replay, we can hear the officials talking through the play and see them looking at their screen.

This last thing is huge, by the way. Everything is reviewable in the XFL, but reviews are quick, quick, quick. And we can hear them doing it. Sure, they pause the game, but not for a commercial. Instead, we’re seeing them adjudicate the play in real time and that’s a game-changer. Replays stop being boring and become entertainment in themselves.

Plus, let’s mention that having replay officials inherent to each game means they’re on the ball. Again, quick, quick, quick.

If the NFL doesn’t adopt the XFL’s replay system, and soon, they’re missing the boat.

And that’s exactly what I always wanted from a spring league. Opportunities for players like Ta’amu to practice his craft for a while and add innovation to the stodgy hide-bound NFL that sometimes gets too high and mighty.

Of course, none of this matters if it’s not good football. Fortunately, it was. All of the players were 90-man roster types, practice squadders, or even tail end 53-man roster capable. The NFL, by the way, has 90-man rosters at the beginning of training camp. By the end of camp, they have a 53-man active roster and a 10-man practice squad, which leaves 27 players to fend for their careers. That’s more than enough to fill XFL rosters.

Also, the difference between the 90th player and the 30th player is a lot smaller than many might think. Oftentimes it’s a question of opportunity, especially if a player gets hurt.

I suspect that many players might choose the XFL over an NFL practice squad in years to come. A practice squad player gets few reps, few opportunities to improve. An XFL starter gets a bunch.

In any case, the football this weekend was NFL-fast, fast-paced in terms of plays per minute, and filled with quality play. Sure, there were mistakes, but week one of the NFL season is filled with similar mistakes. QBs threw dimes. RBs made moves. WRs made great catches. Defenders made great plays. The offensive lines struggled a bit, but that’s to be expected and is exactly what we see in the NFL in week one and their struggles were often miscommunications, not a lack of ability.

And I’m not the only one to be impressed by the XFL. All across Twitter, people were talking about in. The vast majority I saw were impressed, including every NFL player, current or former, who I saw comment.

I’m excited because this will make football at all levels better and safer.

It didn’t hurt that the St. Louis Battlehawks, predicted as a major underdog, went on the road and won.

In any case, I’m hooked. I’m so glad we got season tickets this year. Go Battlehawks! #ClearedToEngage.

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