XFL Preview: the 2020 season

The conclusion of the NFL is usually a moment of celebration and sadness for football fans. The excitement surrounding the Super Bowl is wonderful, but once it is over it is a long time until we see meaningful football in the following September. However, in 2020 there is a fix for those post-Super Bowl blues in the form of the XFL. With eight new franchises and a whole lot of rule changes to get our heads around, let’s dive into the second coming of the XFL with all of the information you need to know in our handy preview.

The Teams

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The most important part of any league are the teams, so that is the logical place to start. This season we have eight teams, split into two conferences, the East and the West. The eight teams are owned and operated by the league, as opposed to the franchise model operated by the NFL. Let’s take a closer a look at each of the teams.

Eastern Conference

Stadium: Audi Field (D.C. United’s Stadium)

Head Coach: Pep Hamilton

The D.C. Defenders are one of the more fascinating teams in this first season. Their head coach is best known being the offensive coordinator for Andrew Luck, both at Stanford and later in Indianapolis. Hamilton described his offensive system as “an attacking, fast-paced style of play”. Hamilton has hired fellow former-Colts coach Jeff FitzGerald as his defensive coordinator. 

Their roster is where the real fascination begins. In Tyree Jackson and Cardale Jones they have two quarterbacks who are among the biggest unknown quantities in the league. While most other teams feature quarterbacks we have seen fleeting glimpses of in the NFL, the Defenders have two QBs whose opportunities in the NFL have been limited. The potential for the QB position is boosted when you see the talent the Defenders have at wide receiver. Rashad Ross took the AAF by storm last season, Eli Rogers flashed glimpses in his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Simmie Cobbs Jr. had a lot of buzz entering the 2019 NFL Draft, but has now been waived by three professional football teams.

In terms of their running game there is also a lot to be excited about. Nick Brossette impressed in his time at LSU, while Donnel Pumphrey has been on the fringes of NFL rosters and Jhurrel Pressley impressed in spurts in the AAF.

Defensively their stars lie in the secondary. Matt Elam is a former first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens and Shamarko Thomas has played in 66 NFL games, including a four year stretch in Pittsburgh. Another name to watch out for is linebacker A.J. Tarpley, who retired after just one season in the NFL before returning in the AAF last season. In his short time in the NFL, Tarpley made a splash play in Week 17, returning an interception for a touchdown to clinch a 22-17 victory for the Bills over the Jets.

The Defenders will open their season at home against the Seattle Dragons on February 8th.

Stadium: MetLife Stadium

Head Coach: Kevin Gilbride

The New York Guardians enter the 2020 season considered one of the favourites by most bookmakers. Their head coach certainly has pedigree, having been a coach in the NFL for over 20 years, and winning two Super Bowls as the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants. Gilbride’s offenses while with the Giants were extremely balanced, utilizing a two running back system and not relying overly heavily on a lead receiver.

There are a lot of question marks about this offense. Can Matt McGloin get back to his Penn State form after a rocky NFL career? If not, can Luis Perez succeed more in the XFL than he did in the AAF? Can Mekale McKay produce with more consistency than he did in the AAF? Will a two-headed backfield of Tim Cook and Justin Stockton succeed for Gilbride in a similar way to how his NFL offenses did?

Compared to the Defenders this team just simply lacks star power, especially given their status as second-favorites with the bookmakers. This offense is likely to use the ground and pound style with its lack of electric playmakers, which may make for some turgid games in New York. 

Defensively they also lack the star power of other rosters. Ultimately a lack of star power is not a bad thing and playmakers will step up as the season progresses. However, under the guidance of former-Giants linebacker coach Jim Herrmann it is hard to see this defense as anything more than league average entering the season.

The Guardians will open their season on February 9th when they host the Tampa Bay Vipers.

Stadium: The Dome at America’s Center (Former home of the St. Louis Rams)

Head Coach: Jonathan Hayes

Not a lot is expected of the St. Louis BattleHawks and for a number of reasons. Their head coach is one of the more unknown names among the eight head coaches, having served 15 years as the Cincinnati Bengals tight end coach, before departing the team in 2018. Prior to that, Hayes coached tight ends under Dallas Renegades head coach Bob Stoopes during his time as the head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners.

The BattleHawks enter the 2020 season with Taylor Heinicke as the most recognised quarterback on the roster. Heinicke started just one game in his brief NFL career, which has seen him throw just one touchdown and three interceptions. However, Jordan Ta’amu has been named the starter and may be the most interesting QB on the roster, having totalled 40 combined touchdowns in a season and a half as the starter for Ole Miss. Ta’amu has spent less than a month on an NFL roster and will be desperate to make an impact to protect his starting job from Heinicke.

Offensively they are short of talent at the skill positions. De’Mornay Pierson-El demonstrated flashes in the AAF, and Christine Michael has bounced around the NFL scoring seven touchdowns and averaging 4.3 yards per carry on 254 carries. Behind Michael is Matt Jones, who scored seven touchdowns in his two seasons with the Washington Redskins. With a third running back who has seen time in the NFL in Keith Ford, the running game should be central to the way the BattleHawks approach this season.

Defensively they have a handful of recognisable names. Defensive tackle Will Carter was a third-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, cornerback Robert Nelson has been on the books of seven NFL teams logging an interception and a fumble recovery, and safety Will Hill logged 32 starts across four seasons with the Giants and Ravens, intercepting four passes and forcing three fumbles while registering over 200 tackles. However, arguably the biggest name on this roster is punter Marquette King who played in 84 games, averaging 46.7 yards per punt across six seasons.

The BattleHawks open the season on the road against the Dallas Renegades on February 9th.

Stadium: Raymond James Stadium

Head Coach: Marc Trestman

There has been plenty of buzz around the Tampa Bay Vipers in the preseason, but can they emulate the AAF’s Orlando Apollos and come from the middle of the back in the preseason to be a dominant force? They are led into the season by the extremely experienced Marc Trestman. Trestman struggled in the NFL, with a 13-19 record in his two-year stint with the Chicago Bears. However, Trestman has a superb record in the CFL, having won the Grey Cup three times, been runner up once and lost in the playoffs a further two times. His only failure in two tenures in the CFL came in 2018, his final season with the Toronto Argonauts. He has been a coach in one way or another for the majority of the last 40 years, so nothing will faze him. He has an offensive background and has earned a reputation as somewhat of a mad scientist of the football world. His Vipers offense should be a lot of fun to watch.

Aaron Murray will be the quarterback in charge of that offense. Murray left college in 2013 with incredible numbers over his four seasons, totaling 137 touchdowns. However, he has never started a game in the NFL but did have some success in the AAF prior to its early demise.  Their backfield is fascinating, with a combination of Mack Brown, who flashed talent in the preseason of the 2015 NFL season, former Michigan back De’Veon Smith, and former USF quarterback turned running back Quinton Flowers. It will be fascinating to see how Trestman uses Flowers, who rushed for 41 touchdowns in his final three college seasons. 

The injury to Antonio Callaway has left this team short of recognised talent on the outside. Former Seattle receiver Tanner McEvoy may be the most recognisable name to NFL fans, which should not fill any Vipers’ fans with much excitement. Trestman is going to need to get funky with this offense if they are to deliver on some of the preseason excitement we have seen.

Much like the receivers, the defense lacks recognised talent. They have three players in their secondary with some solid NFL experience in Jalen Collins, Demontre Hurst, and Corey Moore. However, the three of them combine for just 150 tackles and six interceptions, which is a concern when they are your three most recognisable names. This is another defensive unit that will need to emerge as the season progresses.

The Vipers open their season in New York against the Guardians on February 9th,

Western Conference

Stadium: Globe Life Park in Arlington (Former home of the Texas Rangers)

Head Coach: Bob Stoopes

The Dallas Renegades are the bookmakers favorites to win the 2020 XFL season, and it is easy to see why. They have plenty of experience running the franchise, with Daryl Johnston the Director of Player Personnel and Bob Stoopes as the General Manager and Head Coach. Stoopes has come out of retirement after ending a 30-year coaching career in 2016. He is predominantly a defensive-minded coach but in his time at Oklahoma he saw his offensive play flourish thanks to his trust in his offensive coordinators. He has brought Hal Mumme in as his offensive coordinator which is an interesting hire. Mumme has plenty of college experience without ever having done anything of note. His offensive style is the Air Raid style, which means the offense should be extremely entertaining. If Stoopes and defensive coordinator Chris Woods can put together a formidable defense, then Mumme and his style could have an opportunity to flourish.

Their situation at quarterback is fascinating. Landry Jones is the relatively experienced option, but young QB Eric Dungey could be the perfect option for this offense. Dungey lit it up on the ground for Syracuse, rushing for 15 touchdowns in his senior season, and could provide the Kyler Murray-type athleticism that we saw in the Kliff Kingsbury Air Raid offense. They do not have much in the way of recognised names at the receiver position, but the Air Raid can be the perfect offense to operate with lesser-known options. Their run game has a spearhead pairing of former-NFL running backs Cameron Artis-Payne and Lance Dunbar.

This is another team that concerns me from a defensive standpoint. Stoopes has added a known quantity in the former-Sooners defensive end Frank Alexander, who took snaps in three seasons for the Carolina Panthers. Edge player Hau’oli Kikhaha had a strong couple of seasons with the Saints before a torn ACL in 2016 led to him being cut in 2018. Outside of those two only Josh Hawkins has any serious NFL experience, and even then he had logged just 42 tackles across two seasons in Gren Bay.

The Renegades begin their season hosting the St. Louis BattleHawks on February 9th.

Stadium: TDECU Stadium (Houston Cougars’ Stadium)

Head Coach: June Jones

There is a lot to be intrigued about for the Houston Roughnecks and it starts with their head coach. Jones favors the run and shoot offense, which is an extremely pass-heavy offense and should be a lot of fun to watch. 

Their roster is definitely intriguing with no recognised tight ends and seven receivers. They are also only carrying two quarterbacks into the season and neither of them should fill you with confidence. Both Phillip Walker and Connor Cook had successful college careers but have failed to take the next step. They have some interesting receivers to throw to, especially Sammie Coates, who is one of the favorites to lead the league in receiving in this offense.

They have a two-headed monster in De’Angelo Henderson and Andre Williams who both have experience on NFL rosters. This offense is not expected to use the run game much, but when they do then these will be two interesting backs to watch.

The star for the Roughnecks on the defensive side of the ball is Kony Ealy. Ealy is a former second-round NFL Draft pick and has already made an impact in the most recent scrimmage, forcing a fumble that led to a touchdown. On the back end they have some interesting names in Marqueston Huff and Charles James, but they are largely going to be relying on Ealy to exert pressure on the quarterback.

The Roughnecks will open the season hosting the Los Angeles Wildcats on February 8th.

Stadium: Dignity Health Sports Park (L.A. Galaxy’s Stadium)

Head Coach: Winston Moss

The more I look at this team the more I am concerned they could be a complete flop. That concern starts with the coaching staff. Winston Moss has never even been a coordinator in his career and now he is a head coach. He was an assistant head coach for the Green Bay Packers for 11 years, but the lack of coordinator experience is somewhat of a concern. Equally his defensive coordinator, Pepper Johnson, has never held a coordinator role but was part of the Patriots organisation for 13 years, in which time he coached all three levels of the defense. Their offensive coordinator is Norm Chow, who was seen as a strong quarterback coach when at USC in the mid-2000s. However, since making the jump to the NFL with the Titans his career has somewhat spiraled to a point where he was coaching in High School prior to being hired in the XFL.

One thing the Wildcats do have going for them is potentially the best quarterback in the league in Josh Johnson. Johnson started in the NFL for the Washington Redskins in 2018 and was in demand for the Detroit Lions in 2019. However, that approach was blocked by the XFL and now the Wildcats need him to perform. His pass-catching weapons are a concern, which may make it difficult for Johnson to perform consistently. Nelson Spruce was a strong player in the AAF, but it took seven weeks for him to get to that point. Elijah Hood and DuJuan Harris offer some talent at the running back position, which should relieve some of the pressure from Johnson.

Defensively they are a flexible and versatile group, which is important in a division containing the offensive styles of the Roughnecks and Renegades. However, their lack of defensive star power may leave them reeling against two potentially high-powered offenses.

The Wildcats open their season on the road against the Roughnecks on February 8th.

Stadium: CenturyLink Field

Head Coach: Jim Zorn

The Seattle Dragons are generally considered one of the worst teams entering the 2020 XFL season. They do have an experienced coach in Jim Zorn, who served as an offensive or head coach in the NFL for 13 years. However, he has been out of football since 2012 and lacks NFL coordinator experience in his OC and DC positions.

When you look at their roster the situation does not get any prettier. B.J. Daniels and Brandon Silvers might be the weakest pair of quarterbacks in the league, and they lack a recognised playmaker to get the ball to. If they had mediocre quarterbacks with some strong receivers then things would be different, but the lack of recognised weapons combined with a relatively weak quarterback situation demonstrates why they are considered to be one of the weakest teams by many.

Their run game has a couple of players who impressed in spurts in the AAF and Kenneth Farrow is likely the leader of the backfield. They are going to need to get a lot out of this run game, and honestly, I am not sure they will get enough. They do have some strength on their offensive line, and if they can gel as a unit they could keep themselves in games simply by winning in the trenches.

The strength of this roster lies in the secondary. Steve Williams will likely be the leader of this group, but they have depth around the secondary which makes them interesting. Unfortunately, I am not sure they can exert enough pressure up front to give the secondary chance to live up to their potential. I can see teams being able to move the ball on this team with ease, and I just simply cannot see the offense being able to respond.

The Dragons open the season with a tough test as they head to DC to face the Defenders in the first game on February 8th.

Unlike the NFL, where each team has their own practice squad, the XFL will operate a central practice squad known as “Team 9”. Team 9 will not play in any official games but will have its own coaching staff in order to ensure that players are ready to step in when required.

The Format

As we have seen above, the league is made up of eight teams. Each team will play 10 games, with home and away games against the three teams in their conference. They will then play the four teams from the opposing conference, two on the road and two at home. At the end of the season, the top-two teams from each conference will square off in a Conference Championship game, with the winners meeting in the XFL Championship game.

The season will consist of a 10 week regular season, with no bye weeks, and the playoffs taking place over the following two weeks. The majority of games will be played on Saturday and Sunday, with Week 9 and 10 featuring Thursday night games.

The initial rosters were determined in two ways. Firstly, the league assigned one marquee quarterback to each roster before a number of small drafts. Each team selected 10 offensive skill position players, 10 offensive linemen, 10 defensive linemen and/or linebackers, 10 defensive backs, and 30 players of any position.

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The Rule Changes

There are a number of rule changes in the XFL compared to the NFL. You can read more about them here, but let’s run through them briefly.

  • Overtime: A five-round two-point conversion shootout. Both offenses and defenses will be on the field at opposite ends at the same time in order to speed up the game. The first defensive penalty of the shootout moves the ball up to the one-yard line. A second defensive penalty in the shootout results in an automatic score for the offense. If the scores are tied after five rounds then sudden death will occur.
  • Kickoffs: The kicker will kick from his 25-yard line. However, the coverage team will line up on the opposing 35-yard line, with the returning teams’ blockers on their own 30-yard line. Only the kicker and returner can move prior to the ball being caught. 
  • Kickoff touchbacks: There will be two types of touchbacks. If the ball bounces into the end zone then the receiving team will start at their 15-yard line. However, if the ball goes into the end zone on the full then the receiving team will start at the 35-yard line. Both rules are an attempt to increase the number of kickoff returns and add excitement to that element of the game.
  • Punting: No gunners will be allowed in the XFL and any punt traveling into the end zone will be treated the same as a kickoff touchback. Equally any punt that leaves the field within five yards of the end zone will be brought out to the 35-yard line. The aim of these rules is to encourage teams to go for it on fourth down.
  • PATs: These will not exist in the XFL. Instead, teams will have a single play with the starting distance of that play from the goal line determining whether it is worth one (two yards), two (five yards) or three points (10 yards). 
  • Double-forward pass: Two forward passes are allowed as long as the ball does not cross the line of scrimmage before the second pass. In the NFL, the first such pass must be backward to allow a second pass to be made on a single play.
  • Timing: The timing rules have been adjusted to attempt to speed up the game. Outside of the two-minute warning, the clock will only stop on possession changes. After the two-minute warning, the clock will stop until the ball is spotted after every completed play. Incomplete passes will stop the clock as per the NFL inside the two-minute warning. Each team will also only have two timeouts. Instant replay reviews will be limited to 60-seconds and there will be no coaches challenges.

Ben Rolfe

Head of NFL Content