XFL Primer: What you need to know ahead of kickoff Saturday

Football is back in D.C. That’s right, The District of Columbia. And no, the Redskins aren’t returning to the decrepit RFK Stadium.

The XFL is giving operations another go in 2020, starting Saturday when the DC Defenders host the Seattle Dragons at Audi Field.

The original version of the league started and ended with the 2001 season. Nineteen years later, the Defenders and Dragons kickoff the league’s official return at 2 p.m. Saturday, followed by the Houston Roughnecks home against the Los Angeles Wildcats at 5 p.m.

The inaugural week features two more games Sunday: The New York Guardians host the Tampa Bay Vipers at 2 p.m., followed by the Dallas Renegades home against the St. Louis BattleHawks at 5 p.m.

“What you’ll see is a much better quality of football,” said XFL CEO Oliver Luck in an interview with WTOP in December 2018 when asked about the main difference between the current XFL and the league that folded 19 years ago. “I think the XFL in 2001 suffered from not spending enough time putting the football together. We want to appeal to the passionate, die-hard football fans. Those who have a void in their lives after the Super Bowl. And to do that you’ve gotta play good football.”

So what other changes can fans expect in the coming season? There will be innovative rules implemented in the new XFL, along with a plethora of big names to hopefully jump-start the league.

What are some of the new rules that fans can expect when the season begins?

Traditionally in football, an offense is allowed to make a forward pass only once. In the new version of the XFL, an offense can now design a play where two skill players can throw a forward pass as long as the ball stays behind the line of scrimmage. Luck explained:

“I’ll give you the rationale which may help — 65-70% of plays nowadays, QBs are in the shotgun. When you’re already five yards deep, it’s difficult to really have a lateral to throw to a wideout because he’s gotta be behind you … 6-7 yards deep … which gives away, in a sense, the play. So as we thought about it, we said, ‘why not redefine what a forward pass is?’ As long as it doesn’t cross the line of scrimmage, you can throw it a second time. And that includes the little pop pass on the jet-sweep which is technically a forward pass. You can allow that guy to throw it, or a running back swinging out of the backfield.

We also think it makes it easier for the officials because there is always a referee at the line of scrimmage. The ref will easily see if that ball crosses the (line of scrimmage) or not and doesn’t have to worry so much about the question of whether it’s a lateral or forward pass.

So as we put that all into consideration, we thought, ‘let’s give that a shot.’ We tested it a bunch of times with (junior college) kids and in a bunch of semipro leagues, and we think it makes some sense. How often will we see a double forward? Who knows? Maybe once a game? But when we do see it, it’s probably going to be a big play.”

What are the major differences from the NFL/College football?

  • The XFL wants the kickoff to be more relevant again. Instead of kicking from the 35-yard line in the NFL, the kicking team will boot it from their own 30. The objective for the kicker will be to kick the ball between the opposing 20-yard line and the goal line.
  • There is no kick for the point-after touchdown. A team that scores a touchdown has three options: Go for one point from the 1-yard line, two points from the 5-yard line or three points from the 10-yard line.
  • The XFL is hoping to minimize the frequency of fair catches, which ultimately take away from the thrill of a punt return. The league states: “All out of bounds kicks create a touchback and no punt-coverage players can release until the ball is kicked. This will create an average distance between the punt return and the nearest defender to 11 yards, vs. similar leagues of six yards, creating less reason to fair catch.”
  • Overtime is much different from both the NFL and college. Think in terms of the NHL’s overtime rules or a shootout in soccer: Both teams will alternate taking turns running one play from the 5-yard line. The team with the most scores after five tries wins the game (if a team mathematically is eliminated before they attempt five tries, the game will end sooner).

  • Time Clock is 25 seconds per play. The NFL is currently 40 seconds.
  • With an effort to keep games under three hours, the clock will run (outside of two minutes in each half) when the ball is spotted, even after an incomplete pass or a play out of bounds.
  • Each team will have two one-minute timeouts per half. The NFL and college have three per half.
  • No coaches’ challenges; all plays will be subject to review from the Replay Official.
  • Like college, one foot inbounds for catches will be considered complete (NFL is two feet). The site provides rationale: “When interviewing over 100 players on their opinion, players often said, “A catch is made with your hands, not your feet.”
  • Just a ten minute break for halftime. The NFL’s is around 12 minutes.

A full list of rule changes can be found on the XFL’s website.

Who are some of the players to watch for?

When the Defenders take the field on Saturday, Cardale Jones will be under center for the DC offense. Jones was instrumental in the Ohio State Buckeyes’ championship run in 2015 and one of his targets on the outside is former LSU standout wide receiver Malachi Dupre, along with former Redskins Rashad Ross and Simmie Cobbs.

Commissioner Luck believes the XFL is loaded with talent, especially at quarterback in D.C.

“A guy like Tyree Jackson … I wouldn’t count him out, as he’s a pretty talented player,” he said. “Cardale (Jones) no question … I’m excited about watching him and seeing if he can regain that magic he had at Ohio State during the National Championship. There are some really good football players. I’m seeing that across the league with all of our teams but I think (DC head coach) Pep Hamilton and his staff have done a very nice job of assembling their roster.”

Who is Pep Hamilton? What about the other head coaches?

A graduate of Howard University, the 45-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, began his coaching career with the Bison after playing QB for Howard from 1993-1996. While Pep has never had full reigns as a head coach at either the college or NFL level, he was the assistant head coach with both the Cleveland Browns (2016) and the Michigan Wolverines (2017-2018).

Remember in the first paragraph of this article when I mentioned how football was back in D.C.? He may have been head coach of the Redskins long after they played at RFK, but Jim Zorn makes his return to D.C. Saturday as head coach of the Dragons.

There’s also Marc Trestman, head coach of the Tampa Bay Vipers. Baltimore Ravens fans certainly remember Trestman as their offensive coordinator from 2015-2016. Before Baltimore, he head a two-year stint as head coach of the Chicago Bears after leading Montreal to two Grey Cups in the CFL. When Trestman returned north of the border in 2017, he won another Grey Cup with the Toronto Argonauts, giving him three in his career.

The biggest name of the eight head coaches is undoubtedly six-time Big 12 Coach of the Year Bob Stoops, who left retirement to lead the Dallas Renegades. Commissioner Luck talked about the “building block” of the league once the XFL landed Stoops.

“When we were able to hire Bob, all of a sudden other coaches became interested in our league because they know the type of guy Bob is,” Luck said. “Bob isn’t a gimmicky guy, he’s a real football man through and through. And players see that as well. If you’re a young QB, who wouldn’t want to play for Bob Stoops? He’s coached Heisman Trophy winners.”

How to Watch

Can’t make it to Audi Field? The XFL will be nationally televised.

There will be ten weeks of football, and except for two late-season games that will be broadcast on Thursday nights, all XFL games will air on Saturdays and Sundays. Games will be broadcast on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, Fox and FS1.

Playoff games will be played Saturday, April 18 and Sunday, April 19. The championship game will be on Sunday, April 26.

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