Forty-four years ago as a rookie quarterback, Jim Zorn needed five games to get his first pro football win. Sunday as a rookie XFL coach, he was a winner in two games. The man is improving as a learner.
He learned then, and knows now, to beat Tampa Bay requires defense, not his offense.
In 1976, the Seattle Seahawks beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 13-10, for the initial victory in their NFL history. In 2020, the Seattle Dragons beat the Tampa Bay Vipers, 17-9, the first triumph in their XFL history.
Different eras, different leagues, different stadiums, same Seattle story — the audio riot generated by fans left a mark on the opponents.
“I was excited for what the crowd brought — the enthusiasm and the backing,” Zorn said of the rambunctious 29,172 on hand in the lower bowl, easily the largest gathering in the infant league’s first six games. “It wasn’t quite as loud as full a stadium, but it was loud for our players. For our players to see so many fans in Dragons gear, and (video displays) our marketing group put together, I was really excited.
“It felt like . . . a real game.”
— Forever Gridiron🏈 (@ForeverGridiron) February 16, 2020
That was the key to the afternoon. For the more casual sports fan, the XFL seems to have emerged from mud and leaves into . . . something. The questions are why, and was it any good.
The why is simple. The NFL for decades has been such a colossal cultural and financial success that there have numerous attempts to grab onto the freight train. To capture even a fraction of the the cash around football intrigues promotional whirlwinds like Vince McMahon, who birthed the hugely successful WWE and in 2001 tried a goofier, sleazier version of the XFL. It died, justifiably and swiftly, in one year.
Seems like entrepreneurs are always trying to do pro football. Per USA Today, here’s the list of upstarts, mostly spring leagues, only one of which has succeeded:
- Alliance of American Football (eight weeks, 2019)
- Fall Experimental Football League (2014-15)
- United Football League (2009-12)
- XFL (2001)
- World League of American Football/NFL Europe/NFL Europa (1991-2007)
- United States Football League (1983-85)
- World Football League (1974-75)
- Continental Football League (1965-69)
- American Football League (1960-69)
- All-American Football Conference (1946-49)
- Pacific Coast Professional Football League (1940-49)
Only the AFL survived, going head to head with the NFL and forcing a merger in 1966 that spawned the Super Bowl.
McMahon is at it again, funding this tamer, yet innovative, version with $500 million and a lucrative contract with ABC/ESPN. He put teams in eight cities, seven of which have NFL teams, and the eighth, St. Louis, had one. The schedule is 10 regular-season games in the spring, two semifinal playoff games and a championship, positioning the enterprise as complementary to, not competitive with, the NFL, which has no affiliation or investment in the operation.
But everyone involved — players, coaches, scouts, front office — aspires to be in the NFL. Even many fans feel the same way. Priced out of NFL, XFL tickets start at $24.
There is also a cultural change that’s influential in the startup — the liberalization of attitudes and laws about gambling. The XFL wants to be out front. Their broadcasters talk readily of point spreads — forbidden by NFL and its network partners — and their TV screens will include betting information.
“This notion of embracing the spread,” XFL president Jeffrey Pollack told ESPN, “means that our mission, our design and our business infrastructure are all geared to the sports betting future that’s coming fast.
“We see a lot of pros to leaning into the sports betting world. It’s what our fans want. We don’t see cons, we see opportunity.”
But will gamblers trust the outcomes? That brings us to the question of quality.
Everyone in the endeavor has a financial stake in being serious and winning, because it’s a live, real-time audition for the NFL. The XFL basically is akin to AAA minor league baseball, although there were moments Sunday of AA and A ball. Aside from rules changes — a thorough explainer of those can be found here — the biggest early differentiators are the quality of quarterbacks and offensive lines.
If difference-making QBs and O-linemen are hard to find for the NFL, take a look at the XFL. It’s why the scores so far have been relatively low. Defenses will always be more efficient than offenses that take time to develop.
Most of these players have been or will be candidates for positions 46 to 53 on an NFL roster, plus the 10-man practice squad. Starting-caliber talents were few Sunday.
Didn’t seem to make a difference to the partiers on hand.
XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck was here, pleased but not surprised with the response. He played in the Kingdome, visited Husky Stadium when his son Andrew’s team, Stanford, played Washington with Jake Locker, and worked for the MLS Houston Dynamo when the MLS club came to play the Sounders in front of 45,000 fans.
“We knew how passionate people are up here,” he said in the Dragons locker room. “It’s part of their DNA to have the most intimidating place possible. I don’t want to say it’s what we expected, but it’s incredible what’s happened here — Seahawks, Huskies, Sounders.
“Fans were dressed up as dragons. I feel this was great for game one.”
The XFL’s openers last weekend, including a 31-19 loss by the Dragons in Washington, D.C., had impressive TV ratings:
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) February 10, 2020
Then again, the novelty for the first iteration of he XFL in 2001 wore off quickly.
— Ryan Yousefi (@Rizzmiggiz) February 10, 2020
It’s a small sample size, but this more modest business plan, lathered with some financial patience, looks as if it has a chance at staying power, since America’s lust for football and gambling remain strong.
“Eventually, we’re going to say, ‘It felt like a real XFL game,'” Zorn said. “That’s new to even say, isn’t it?”
Zorn is still learning. You go, Z-Man.