TAMPA — The XFL is happening. Teams have drafted players, unveiled uniforms and started practices. Soon, the reborn spring professional football league will announce its rules and innovations, which are rumored to include a 25-second play clock, three-point conversions, double forward passes and clock stoppages after every play during the final two minutes of each half.
Then training camp in January.
Then kickoff in February.
In the meantime, Oliver Luck, the man steering the XFL at the behest of wrestling promoter Vince McMahon, is visiting each of the league’s eight markets. On Tuesday, he was in town to tour the Tampa Bay Vipers’ Westshore office and Plant City practice facility. In between stops, the Tampa Bay Times caught up with the commissioner and asked him about all things XFL, including lessons the league has learned from the collapse of the Alliance of American Football, the possibility of NFL teams poaching its players and the chances of Colin Kaepernick suiting up and taking snaps.
Here are excerpts, lightly ended for clarity, from our conversation:
What’s the state of the XFL?
This past week was a really intense operational phase for us because we moved 560 players (70 players per team) around the country. Some kid from Tampa was flying out to Seattle and some kid from Seattle was flying to Tampa to join the team. That was a big first test for us, getting guys drafted, getting them in, getting them “physicaled,” signing contracts, going through all the HR stuff that you have to go through because these guys are employees now of ours.
I don’t know about Vipers coach Marc Trestman, but every coach is paranoid to a certain degree and we’re big about having social media come in, so there have been a couple of coaches who have said, “Hey, you can’t take a picture of this! Not this whiteboard!” That’s great, because they’re getting competitive. They’re starting to really think about winning football games.
A year ago, we asked, “What do we need to do in this final preparatory phase to come out Feb. 8 and 9 playing good football?” Playing good football is our mandate. We have to do that. We can’t be sloppy. So we said we had to have the month of December for minicamps and then ramp up in January with training camp, where there will be lots of joint practices so we can see “Oh, Tampa looks great, but, Coach Trestman, you might want to think about bulking up at the corner spot.” We want to make sure there’s parity as best we can heading into the season.
A lesson learned from the rise and fall of the Alliance of American Football?
If there’s one thing we learned from watching the Alliance it was that quarterback play is critical. In the game of football today — whether it’s pro, college or even high school arguably — your quarterback play is determinative. So we made an effort to sign guys, some of whom played in the AAF but the vast majority didn’t.
A good example is Josh Johnson, who last year signed a contract to play in the Alliance. Then — and this was a bit of a mystery to me why they did this — the Alliance allowed the NFL’s Redskins to sign him. He played and won a game toward the end of the season, but the Redskins never released him. Josh would have been one of the Alliance’s better quarterbacks, and they missed having him. That first year is critical, in terms of quality of play.
So we signed him. The Detroit Lions wanted to sign him when they lost Matthew Stafford to injury. We said, “No, we’re keeping him. He ours. He signed a contract. He’s committed to us. He’s probably going to be the starting quarterback for the Los Angeles team.”
So XFL players can’t leave to sign with an NFL team?
Once a player signs a contract — once he passes his physical and signs a contract — then he’s under contract with us. We won’t release that player to the NFL until after our season. We need certainty. We can’t just have guys peeling off.
This happened to Landry Jones. Ben Roethlisberger got hurt, and Landry had backed up Ben for years. First phone call was, “Can Landry come to the Steelers?” “Nope, sorry. He’s ours. We signed him”
It even happened with Phillip Walker, who’s now with the Houston Roughnecks. The same team, the Steelers, called and said, “We’d like to have Phillip for a week because we’re playing the Ravens and Phillip’s a little bit like Lamar Jackson. We’ll sign him to a one-week contract so we can get accustomed to that kind of quarterback.” We said, “Thanks for the compliment, but we’re not going to let him go.”
Once you’re under contract with the XFL, you’re under contract, regardless of position. We’re not trying to be a development league for the NFL. That’s not our raison d’être. Having said that, I hope that every one of the Vipers players has a chance to go to the NFL after our season because that means we’ve done our job in terms of playing good football. Bust your butt, play hard, have a chance to get great game tape and you’ll get a shot in the NFL. We are a league of opportunity.
Are you concerned about players who have a shot at the NFL quitting late in the XFL season?
A tiny bit. I would sort of compare that to college kids not playing in bowl games because they don’t want to risk in that one game tearing a knee up or whatever. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible for that to happen. It’s not something I lose any sleep over.
I think what’s interesting is the story of a guy named Kenny Robinson (the former West Virginia safety who was drafted by the St. Louis BattleHawks). He’s eligible for the April 2020 NFL draft, but he was kicked out of school this past season because of academics. He’s using this season as his combine. If you talk to NFL scouts, they’ll often say, “Oh my gosh, yeah, if we could have a 10-game season instead of the combine, we would be much more accurate with our projections.” Using our season as a sort of elongated full-pad combine, that’s pretty cool. That’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out.
The most recognizable faces of the XFL are the coaches. The lack of star power seems as if it could be an obstacle, no?
That’ll begin to shift a little bit. I get the sense that a couple of the guys I was really excited to be able to sign, like Cardale Jones, who’s playing in D.C., has the potential to have a great season, really kick butt and do well. This is sort of a moment where either he makes it or doesn’t. There’s drama there. I think there’s a handful of guys like that.
But I also believe that you don’t need star players to play good, entertaining football. I always compare it to college football. A lot of people go to college games and enjoy it. There might be an NFL-caliber guy on the field or two or three, but you don’t need an Odell Beckham Jr. making a one-handed grab.
Former NFL players like Johnny Manziel and Trent Richardson weren’t drafted. Why aren’t they on an XFL team?
I would argue that the players we have are better than those guys, to be honest with you. Johnny has his own history, and we have coaches from the CFL (Canadian Football League) who have seen him close up. I watched Trent when he was with the Colts, and I watched him when he was with the AAF. He was in the draft pool. Coaches and scouts looked at him and didn’t think he was going to help their team. I think the guys we have on our teams are the best 560 that aren’t playing in the National Football League.
What are your feelings on Colin Kaepernick?
I think his salary demands are way out of our ballpark. He was never really a viable option.
Replay reviews can slow the NFL game down quite a bit. How does the XFL plan on handling officiating?
We’ll have a sky judge, which will be an individual up in the press box with all the angles possible who can overturn a play within a limited time period. He’s given a 25-second clock. He has to move quickly if he sees something egregious.
We’ll have a referee who will a ball spotter. His one and only job — he’s not going to throw a flag on anything — is to spot the ball. We’ll have all the referees mic’d as well. We’ll be able to listen in, broadcasters will be able to listen in on the conversations referees are having, which will be something new for these refs.
The Los Angeles team is holding its minicamp in Las Vegas. Why?
That’s an opportunity for us to show the Nevada Gaming Commission and the sports wagering community what our game looks like. Next week we’re hosting the commission at one of our practices, and the Wildcats will run through what the kickoff looks like, all those things that are innovative, all those things that differ from NFL or college rules. We think it’s important to educate the gaming commission.
How will the XFL integrate sports betting into its product?
I’m not sure what integration there will be this first year. The sportsbooks — I don’t want to speak for them — are interested in making the odds, accepting bets. We asked them what information they need and when, when they need depth charts, all those things. I’m not sure that there’s anything that we’ll do that’s different than any other league.