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.
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.
Not-so-sweet 16 for the XFL
Three Super Bowls have been played previously February 3. Three teams I do not care much for won those three Super Bowls played: Patriots (vs. Rams, XXXVI), Giants (vs. Patriots, XLII, the game which denied New England its 19-0 season) and Ravens (vs. 49ers, XLVII).
Yet February 3 will also be remembered by some for the launch of one of the worst ideas in the history of sport.
I didn’t say it was the worst idea in the history of sport. The designated hitter and giving the league which wins Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game home field advantage in the World Series are and were far more ruinous. At least the latter of the above is no more.
But the XFL ranks right up there. Or should I say down there.
Yes, 16 years ago tonight, the XFL kicked off, with games in Las Vegas and Orlando.
The XFL was the brainchild of Dick Ebersol, Director of NBC Sports, and Vince McMahon, chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), which was then known as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF).
Ebersol, who created Saturday Night Live in 1975, was deseprate to show professional football on the Peacock after it lost the rights to the AFC to CBS following the 1997 season.
Ebersol did himself in on losing the NFL. He spent ridiculous amounts of money to acquire the Olympics, Summer and Winter, for what seems like forever, although somehow the NBC rights deal currently expires after the 2032 Summer games. If he would have been smart enough to realize ABC and CBS had no desire whatsoever to televise the Olympics at any price, and thus NBC could have had them for far cheaper, the Peacock would never have lost the NFL.
Yet Ebersol wasn’t smart enough to see this, thus overpaid grossly for the Olympics, as well as handing over a handsome sum for the NBA, which was horrendous due to the number of very, very bad teams, as well as the dominance of the Bulls and Michael Jordan. Why watch when you know what’s going to happen?
Vince McMahon badly wanted football. He tried to buy the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, but failed. He had planned to re-expand the CFL into the United States, an experiment which failed miserably in 1994 and 1995. When McMahon’s bid to buy the Argos failed, he opted to form a new league.
He found a more than willing partner in Ebersol, who felt putting the XFL on NBC would be his network’s ticket to total dominance. Even with Seinfeld off the air (THANK GOD) by this time, NBC still had The West Wing, Friends, E.R. and Frasier as the bulwarks of its primetime lineup. Yet NBC was losing ground steadily to CBS, which of course had the NFL once again, plus ABC still had the biggest prize in sports, Monday Night Football.
The league’s launch was announced February 3, 2000. The first games would kick off EXACTLY one year later, February 3, 2001.
The XFL promoted itself as “real” football where “pansies” were not going to make it. It touted new tough-guy rules, such as no fair catches and allowing bump-and-run pass coverage all over the field, which was the rule in the NFL until 1978, and is still allowed in college football, just as long as all hits come from the front.
The other part the XFL liked to promote was wholly inappropriate for family viewing.
It promoted sex appeal.
The cheerleaders wore next to nothing. They were ENCOURAGED to date the players and other team personnel, a strict no-no in the NFL. And there was talk of putting cameras in the cheerleader locker rooms.
What was this, football or the Playboy Channel? I don’t know if Hugh Hefner could have come up with something so brazen.
The nicknames were stupid.
Two of them glorified the mob and organized crime: the Chicago Enforcers (a nod to Al Capone) and the New York-New Jersey Hitmen (ostensibly honoring John Gotti and the numerous mafia members in those states). PUKE.
The Memphis Maniax had a man with cyclone eyes, something akin to the Mr. Pibb logo with the crazy man head.
The Birmingham team was originally going to be called the “Blast”, but some felt that name was too graphic, given the 1963 church bombing which killed four black girls. The name became the Thunderbolts, shortened to Bolts.
Players were encouraged to wear nicknames.
And that created the league’s iconic player, Rod “He Hate Me” Smart of the Las Vegas Outlaws. Smart went on to play for the Panthers, including their Super Bowl XXXVIII team which lost to the Patriots.
Gerry DiNardo, the former LSU coach who coached the Bolts, forbid his players from wearing nicknames. DiNardo would go on to coach three (terrible) seasons at Indiana before he was fired there, too. He has not coached since. Today, he’s an analyst for the Big Ten Network, where DiNardo is simply fantastic.
I haven’t even gotten to the worst part of the XFL.
The football itself.
To say it was terrible would be understating the case just a wee bit.
It was beyond awful.
These were supposedly “professional” football players, being paid (not much, admittedly) to play the game. The winning teams would receive a bonus to be split amongst team members.
Yet the worst part of the football itself was not the games.
It happened before the game.
The scramble, the XFL’s version of the coin toss.
One player from each team would line up at the 20-yard line and sprint towards midfield on the referee’s whistle. The player which gained possession of the ball would have the option to kick or receive to begin the game, and would have the option to play offense or defense first if the game went to overtime (the XFL used a modified version of the college overtime, which I’ll explain below).
One of the first participants in the scramble, Hamad Shasmid-Deen of the Orlando Rage, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. More than half the players who participated in the scramble were injured at some point, and many of those injuries were serious.
The referee in the first game at Las Vegas, Randy Christal, has officiated many high profile college games, including the 1996 and 2002 national championship games, and the Rose Bowl between USC and Northwestern following the ’95 season. Why Christal, who also was an umpire at many a College World Series during the 1980s and 1990s, would lower himself to the XFL is beyond me.
When Christal explained the scramble over the microphone in Las Vegas on opening night, I had a feeling he would have rather been in a dentist chair getting a root canal without anesthesia, even if it was 5 p.m.on a Saturday evening.
Teams could not kick an extra point in the XFL. It was a play from the 2-yard line, worth one point only. Later in the season, the XFL allowed teams to score two points if it was successful from the 5-yard line, and three points for a successful conversion from the 10-yard line.
Overtime was also very dumb.
It was the NCAA version, which I dislike, although not as much as the high school version (in most states; Massachusetts, Missouri, Texas and a few others excepted).
In the XFL, a team had four downs from the 25-yard line to score. However, if a team scored a touchdown in fewer than four downs, the other team had only that many downs to match the touchdown. A field goal could not be attempted until fourth down. And again, no kicking extra points.
Good idea, but of course, the whole concept of overtime in college and high school is very dumb to begin with, so no way.
I happened to watch part of the first XFL game on NBC, New York-New Jersey and Las Vegas. I only watched it because I was at Ivar’s when the game kicked off, and it was the only thing on. When I left Ivar’s, I wasn’t about to turn the game on at my apartment.
Not once did I tune in to an XFL game from my apartment (or hotel room in one case).
During the second week of the XFL, the game NBC was televising from Los Angeles was interrupted due to a power failure. Worse, NBC’s television trucks were totally shut down since there was no gas in the generators fueling the trucks. Not only that, the game went to double overtime, forcing a very late start to Saturday Night Live, which was hosted that night by Jennifer Lopez. Lorne Michaels, SNL’s Executive Producer, was all over Dick Ebersol worse than ugly on an ape. Most of that conversation is not printable.
After that fiasco, NBC forced the XFL to adopt speed-up rules to ensure no game would cut into SNL’s
When the XFL announced on May 10, 2001 that it was shutting down forever, I hardly shed a tear. Good riddance.
Last night, ESPN premiered a new 30 for 30 documentary on the XFL. It reminded me of just how bad it was.
I have an acronym for the XFL. eXtremely (expletive) up League.
I admit I watched McMahon’s wrestling in the 1980s. My brother and I were huge fans. We went with my dad to a few shows in New Orleans.
But McMahon’s football venture? I’m glad there wasn’t a team in New Orleans. It would have been tempting. I’m glad I watched (or didn’t) from a very safe distance.