Late in the second quarter of Saturday’s XFL matchup between the New York Guardians and DC Defenders, cameras find Guardians quarterback Matt McGloin on the sideline. Everything about the scene feels at once familiar and intensely alien. As the clock ticks towards halftime, McGloin, the face of the franchise, sits alone on a big white bench made bigger by the conspicuous absence of teammates. The announcers do not need to tell you that McGloin is having a bad day (they do anyway), but the truly disturbing part of this scene is that absolutely no one comes over to interview him.
This is very bad. The absolute worst possible outcome for the XFL, for its viewers, and certainly for its players is silence.
On the other side of Audi Field, typically the digs of MLS club DC United, Cardale Jones is having a much better day. The former Ohio State quarterback and (briefly) NFL journeyman leads the Defenders to a touchdown on the team’s opening possession. The drive features a deep pass to Eli Rodgers, the former Louisville Cardinal and Pittsburgh Steeler (who announcers note is missing the funeral of his mother today), it includes a quarterback scramble for a first down and it’s capped off by a well-placed pass to DeAndre Thompkins (the former Penn State wide receiver drafted and cut last season by the Philadelphia Eagles) in the back corner of the endzone for a touchdown.
When this happens, announcers Steve Levy and Greg McElroy (guys you can also remember from college football broadcasts) practically trip over themselves to inform you that, you, lucky viewer, will now witness a one-, two- or three-point conversion attempt! To the graphics!
On this occasion, the Defenders attempt a one-point conversation from the 2-yard line. They do not convert. This appears to be normal. In Week 1, XFL teams went 4 of 11 on one-point attempts, 3 of 8 on two-point attempts (from the 5-yard line), and no team even attempted a three-point conversion (from the 10-yard line). These extra point attempts are, by far, the strangest part of XFL gameplay. There are two reasons for this. The first and most obvious reason is that they are strange because the XFL wants them to be strange. The other is that these extra point attempts, for perfectly practical reasons (talent, coaching, team chemistry), are mostly an exercise in futility.
Futility is the paradox at the center of the XFL galaxy. It is the fundamental principle around which its players and teams orbit. To a casual observer, the XFL looks and feels like a familiar football universe. The motivational words emblazoned across midfield — “For the love of football” — are even very nearly convincing, but watching the XFL it’s hard to miss that literally everyone you encounter is raging against the void of futility. Unlike the NFL, with its practiced aloofness bordering on a mafioso code of silence, in the XFL absolutely everyone is supposed to hear you scream.
The Guardians attempt to answer the Defenders opening drive. McGloin leads the New York offense to another three-and-out, but New York coach Kevin Gilbride, the longtime Giants offensive coordinator, dials up a fake punt. Backup quarterback Marquese Williams runs for a first down. Within seconds, as play continues, XFL sideline reporter Dianna Russini pops up to ask coach Gilbride on camera about the call. Gilbride delivers a classic coaching standby, “I thought my offense needed a spark.” It’s not particularly enlightening, but coaches answering in-game questions seemingly on demand is a major feature of XFL broadcasts, one of several production gimmicks that aim to give viewers unprecedented behind-the-scenes access. For the most part, these gimmicks drive an XFL broadcast with manic intensity.
In the XFL, cameras and mics are always on. Between downs, coaches call plays live on television. Announcers break down their calls and use graphics to illustrate designated receivers as players are lining up. After big plays, sideline reporters follow up with players and coaches about what just happened while the game is literally happening around them. (In one remarkable sequence early in the second half, Gilbride twice tells his own coaches to stop talking over his headset so he can answer a reporter’s question. As he tells viewers how bad his team has been playing, DC breaks off a huge third down run.) Most incredibly, during video replays everything happening in the replay booth is broadcast live.
This first chance we get to experience this incredible replay access comes courtesy of McGloin and the New York offense, which promptly snuffs out the spark delivered by its special teams. The offense gives away possession to DC safety Rahim Moore, who simply rips the ball from NY running back Darius Victor’s grip. Moore appears to be down by contact during the return and the booth steps in to confirm. Viewers get to watch and listen in live as the replay official talks through the videotape and relays the decision, live, to referees on the field (“We gotta reverse this. Announce stopping the game.”) It’s incredible television. It’s quick, authoritative, and mesmerizingly transparent. The XFL has the best video replay system in sports.
Taking over after the New York turnover, Jones scrambles for a first down. He scrambles again and finds a receiver working back across the field with him for a completion on the sideline. The DC offense is clicking.
At age 27, Jones — officially 6′ 5 and” 264 pounds — still has unbelievable agility. Finding receivers for short completions, his arm motion is fairly described as Zeus intentionally grounding the football from Mt. Olympus. On this drive, with just over a minute left in the first half, Jones sets up kicker Ty Rausa for his second field goal of the day. DC leads 12-0. There is no commercial break.
As players ready for the kickoff, announcers tease, “Theres a chance here for NY to steal some points before the half!” (A three-point conversion, we’re told, is practically imminent the entire game.) Instead, McGloin is sacked and the first half is over. Because of course she fucking does Russini magically appears to ask McGloin about his terrible, no good, awful first half. What to you need to change, Matt McGloin? “The entire offensive gameplan,” he answers. He’s not wrong.
It would be unfair to say that most football fans did not have high expectations for the quality of XFL football, because the quality of football has never been the selling point. As has been pointed out time and time again, this is a league of guys to remember — and the XFL knows it. The XFL wants you to remember these guys, because to buy into the story of where they’re going you need to know where they’ve been.
Perhaps surprisingly, remembering guys turns out to be a legit draw. XFL broadcasts on ABC and FOX pulled in 3.3 millions viewers in Week 1. Cities like Columbus and Cleveland turned out 4.5 shares to remember former Buckeye and Defenders quarterback Cardale Jones, outdrawing local viewers in Washington, D.C. (4.0 share). Those numbers are on par with AAF ratings. Unlike the AAF, however, the XFL will remain on ABC, FOX, FS1, ESPN, and ESPN2. networks that don’t need to be remembered to be found.
The real question mark is why will fans keep turning in?
Coming out of halftime, Matt McGloin throws a pick-six. DC attempts a one-point conversion — and fails — and again New York gets the ball and again they go three and out. The third quarter ends without any scoring. At the start of the fourth, DC takes advantage of another of the XFL’s quirky rule changes: the legal double-forward pass.
Jones gets the ball back after a forward shovel and fires a 20-yard laser to DeAndre Thompkins. On the next play, Jones avoids a sack, fumbles, recovers, scrambles and finds Thompkins again for a first down. The drive fizzles and ends with Rausa’s third field goal, but the adrenaline is pumping. It’s clear that Jones his Defenders receivers have a real connection. They’re having fun! And to my great surprise they are legitimately fun to watch.
The Defenders, on offense and defense, play like a team with a game plan and an identity. They pass the eye test. They’re good. What that means exactly is a difficult question to answer. Fans of college football are used to playing the game of hypothetical promotion and relegation that goes a little something like, “Could a great Crimson Tide team beat, say, the Bengals?” This is an unanswerable scenario that says more about the sheer boredom of unchallenged greatness at the amateur level than it performs any real analysis of athletic skill.
Could the DC Defenders beat, say, the Bengals? Fuck, no, they can’t! Look, the very good players who did not get cut from an NFL team are still better than players who got cut from an NFL team, even if those players who got cut are now sharpening their skills like knives and getting better and better. This, ultimately, is the dream the XFL promises — to function as “the Bad Place” of the NFL, a place where (uh, The Good Place spoiler alert, I guess?) players are mildly tortured for a chance to become better players.
At the top of the broadcast, Levy and McElroy are very explicit about this. Matt McGloin is more or less introduced as the 31st best quarterback in professional football. He is a genuine NFL talent! He’s on the outside looking in! Surely, with the XFL’s help, Matt McGloin will make it back to the NFL. Get a glimpse of his talent here while you can!
The XFL is all but admitting it wants to be a development league. It has shiny tricks and funky rules to grab your attention. It has rosters full of guys you can fondly remember. Crucially, it offers you football when there is no football. But watching the XFL is a double-edged sword. It’s true that the DC Defenders and Cardale Jones are fun as hell — because watching Cardale Jones scramble and find receivers for sweet catches is fun as hell — but in truth they’re not out there to have fun “For the love of football.” They’re out there to earn a paycheck, get better, and do what the XFL promises you it wants to help them do: make an NFL roster. Watching DC and Jones — who is improbably advancing towards a 13-0 record as a starter since graduating high school — the dream is very much alive.
But the dream isn’t always alive.
Down 21-0, even Levy and McElroy have stopped pitching viewers on the promise of a couple of three-point attempts to get New York back in this game. New York, at this point, has converted once in eight attempts on third downs. The idea of scoring a touchdown, let alone two, is frankly out of the question. “Matt McGloin has been walking up and down the sideline by himself,” Russini reports, then revealing that New York will be switching quarterbacks and “Matt is not happy.”
Marquese Williams gets the New York offense moving, but the third down drought continues. On the sideline, McGloin is pestered about his afternoon, admitting, “This is probably one of the worst games I’ve ever been involved in.” Asked for his thoughts on the play calling, McGloin demurs, “We’ll clean that up behind closed doors.” If you squint, this is a moment where the struggling QB shows leadership; in truth, it’s where the XFL lets the mask slip.
All the live mics, live video reviews, the constant sideline reports — all of this incredible access to grab and keep your attention, yes, it’s in service of a dream, but it’s all there when the dream turns into a nightmare. Watching the New York Defenders and Matt McGloin get shut out in a half-empty soccer stadium is somehow worse than watching just a bad football game. The players run every route as if their lives depend on it. Every dropped pass, every overthrown ball, every sack, every turnover, every run for no gain, every flag — each comes with the palpable fear this could be the last chance I get. Failure looms.
It’s hard to tell how exactly how much the XFL anticipated this. Asking a coach to deliver the typical post-game “we’ve got to play better” performance on the sideline mid-drive is more hilarious than probing, but scrutinizing a starting quarterback the moment he learns he’s been benched is the kind of all-too-real moment the NFL actively avoids. The XFL instead presents this unvarnished access as a selling point, not unlike a tearful confessional on The Bachelor, just another stop on an emotional personal journey. But this denies the fundamental truth of the XFL.
At the end of the first half, when the cameras find McGloin alone on the sideline, anyone who has watched football long enough knows how this game will end. The quarterback is having a bad day. It happens. If this were an NFL game, this is the moment an announcer would give us some context, remind us that things will be okay. “He’ll bounce back.” “He’s a young guy, he’ll learn from this” “Just gotta get back to work on Monday.”
In the XFL, viewers quickly learn nothing is handled so delicately. This is why it’s so shocking that no one interviews McGloin at the very moment his very bad day is sinking in. The camera lingers. The narrative of “the 31st best quarterback” shifts, accelerating towards irrelevance. The announcers, in spite of themselves, are quiet. The void looms.