Resurrecting the XFL

Yesterday, World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon announced the XFL was returning in 2020.

The XFL was originally founded by McMahon and then-NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol in 2000, mostly because NBC was desperate for any type of football on its airwaves (other than Notre Dame home games, which NBC has owned the rights to since 1991) since the rights to the NFL at the time were owned by the other Big Four broadcast networks, CBS (AFC), Fox (NFC) and ABC (Monday Night Football).

The original XFL, which began on February 3, 2001, only six days after Super Bowl XXXV, was branded by McMahon as something totally contrary to the NFL. McMahon and his vice president of operations, Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, bragged the game would be more akin to that when Butkus played for the Bears (1965-73), and even more “smashmouth” than the NFL of Butkus’ era.

The XFL hyped there would be no fair catches, no touchbacks on kickoffs which went into the end zone, and any punt which traveled 25 yards from the line of scrimmage was live and could be recovered by the kicking team. The problem with that was there was a FIVE-YARD halo (not two as was once the case in college) which the kicking team could not violate or face a 15-yard penalty.

On the other hand, the kicking game was diminished by the ban on extra points. Teams could only score one point on a run or pass from the 3-yard line. This was tried in the short-lived World Football League in 1974 and ’75, although in that league, touchdowns were worth seven points, with the conversion termed the “action point”.

Bump and run coverage would be permissible all the way down the field, as long as it was from the front or side and occurred before the pass was thrown. The NFL rule in place since 1978 allows bump and run only within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

Players were permitted to wear nicknames on the back of their jerseys instead of their surnames, although Gerry DiNardo, the former LSU coach who led the Birmingham Bolts, forbid his players from wearing nicknames. DiNardo’s reputation as something of a martinet was reinforced by this move. I’m not saying it was the reason Birmingham was the XFL’s worst team at 2-8, but his players probably would have appreciated the chance to express their individuality.

No doubt the most lasting image of the XFL was that of Rod “HE HATE ME” Smart, a player for the Las Vegas Outlaws who went on to play for the Carolina Panthers and appeared in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Then again, the nickname thing also opened the door to some highly inappropriate names. The XFL drew the line when Brandon Maumalaunga, a defensive tackle for the New York/New Jersey Hitmen who played collegiately for the Kansas Jayhawks, tried to have “Teabagger” placed on his jersey. I will not explain what teabagger or teabagging means. It’s beyond disgusting.

The team nicknames were also revolting, too.

By nicknaming themselves the Hitmen, New York/New Jersey was paying homage to John Gotti and other Big Apple mafiosos, all of whom were worshipped and glorified in The Sopranos. The Chicago wanted in on the action, too, nicknaming themselves the Enforcers, an obvious nod to Al Capone.

The Birmingham team was originally going to be nicknamed the Blast, but that went too far for the XFL, as it evoked memories of the 1963 16th Street Church Bombing by the Ku Klux Klan which killed four black girls at Sunday school, and notorious criminal Eric Rudolph, who was convicted of bombing buildings in Birmingham and was also responsible for the bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Instead, Birmingham nicknamed its team the Thunderbolts, shortened to Bolts.

The other team names were all ridiculous, too: Orlando Rage, Memphis Maniax, Los Angeles Xtreme and San Francisco Demons.

In other regards, the XFL was geared more towards hormonally charged males who otherwise didn’t care about football.

The league promised cheerleaders with very little clothing, and continuously hyped the possibility of going into the cheerleader locker rooms.

The worst, however, was yet to come.

Prior to the league’s first game in Las Vegas, Vince McMahon stood at midfield of Sam Boyd Stadium and screamed “THIS IS THE XFL!”. Then came Dick Butkus with the most horrifying element of the XFL.

Instead of players meeting at midfield for the coin toss, two players stood at the 20-yard line on the south side of the stadium. Between them was referee Randy Christal, one of the most respected college football officials of all-time. Christal was the referee for the 1995 Rose Bowl (USC-Northwestern), the 1996 Sugar Bowl (Florida-Florida State), and would be the referee for the 2002 national championship game at the Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Miami.

If I were Randy Christal that evening, I would have said over the microphone, “What the f**k have I gotten myself into?”.

Christal was forced to explain to the players the rules for “The Scramble”, which would determine which team would receive the opening kickoff.

Two players started from the 20 and sprinted 30 yards, where the ball was laid in the center of the field. The player to possess it first would have the option for his team, and if the game went to overtime, the option for that, too.

At the XFL’s other game on opening night, Chicago at Orlando, the Rage’s Shashmid Haseen-Deen separated his shoulder during the scramble and did not play a down in the league.

Nice going.

The gimmicks were bad enough.

The play on the field was much, much worse.

The teams of the XFL would have had a very difficult time beating a CFL team. All of them would have been beaten by at least 40 points by every NFL team, and that includes some very, very, very bad teams in 2000, like the Chargers, Browns and Cardinals.

Scoring was so paltry in the XFL that in week four, the league went to the NFL rule on bump-and-run coverage. Later in the season, the league instituted new rules for conversions after touchdowns, allowing teams to score more points if they played from farther back (one point from the 3, two points from the 5, and three points from the 10).

The Xtreme won the championship in the “Million Dollar Game”.

Three weeks after that, the XFL folded. I thought it was dead, but apparently, money talks, and 19 years after the disaster that was XFL 2001, XFL 2020 is coming back.

Supposedly, people with criminal records will not be allowed in the league. Kneeling during the national anthem? Forget it. And McMahon wants to shorten games to two hours, which I don’t know how he’s going to achieve unless he either (a) eliminates halftime, (b) lets the clock run after incomplete passes, or (c) adopt a timing system similar to association football, where the clock runs continuously and time is added on at the end to make up for stoppages.

They’ve got two years to figure it out. Not that I’ll be watching.

About David

I am a sportswriter for a group of weekly newspapers in small towns across northern Kansas. I grew up in New Orleans, went to college at LSU and wandered in the wilderness until Hurricane Katrina finally put me on the path to my current job.

Posted on January 26, 2018, in Football, Sports and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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