TAMPA — If there was any notion that Marc Trestman had lost the Vipers locker room, it wasn’t evident following the team’s 25-0 win over the D.C. Defenders Sunday night.
The Vipers head coach held court in the middle of a cramped room, one a fraction as big as the one where the Bucs dress across the hallway at Raymond James Stadium, and lauded his players and coaches.
“I love you guys, I’m really proud of this team,” Trestman said before the celebration. “You can be what you want to be, right? We can be whatever we want. We get a choice. … I want you to enjoy this locker room, the joy of a winning locker room because there’s nothing like it in sports.”
Moments later, the celebration started.
And this isn’t what Team Turmoil is supposed to look like, with players bouncing around the room dancing to the thumping sound of rapper Young Thug. The beats were so loud that they could be heard through the wall at Defenders head coach Pep Hamilton’s postgame press conference.
“And then I have to listen to that,” Hamilton quipped. “They earned that.”
Before the party started, WWE wrestler Titus O’Neil, the former Florida Gators football player who has become fast friends with Trestman over the past few months as he’s introduced the coach to the Tampa Bay community, presented Trestman with a game ball and a jersey to commemorate his first win.
“He’s a hell of a dude, a hell of a man and he’s got his first win tonight,” O’ Neil said, prompting loud cheers from throughout the room, “Number one of many to come.”
Trestman turned it over to assistant equipment manager Christian Dominguez, who he gave the game ball for his quiet work behind the scenes every day. “We’ve never heard him so let’s hear him now,” Trestman said, his arm wrapped around Dominguez.
“Congrats, guys on the win and let’s keep it going,” Dominguez said.
From there the party started. The Vipers lost their first three games. Trestman came under fire for his commitment to playing multiple quarterbacks and not playing fan-favorite Quinton Flowers enough.
Despite all that, the Vipers played their most complete game of the season in all three facets of the game. They ran for 266 yards and had two 100-yard rushers (Through the league’s first 15 games, there wasn’t one 100-yard rusher). Jerry Glanville’s pressure-heavy defense recorded the XFL’s second shutout, and the team even got a field goal block on special teams.
After Dominguez broke the huddle, music blasted. Players downed Bud Light Seltzer — the winning locker room in the XFL becomes by name the “Bud Light Seltzer Lounger” after games — but this was more about this team finally getting the result it believed it long deserved.
Back inside the Vipers locker room, quarterback Taylor Cornelius stopped at every stall to shake hands. He was booed off the field last week because he wasn’t Flowers. On Sunday, he showed that the Vipers can win with one quarterback, and not the one everyone wanted to see.
Trestman took the pressure off his quarterback, who started just one season in college at Oklahoma State and was making his third pro start, by relying a fast-paced offense on the legs of running backs Jacques Patrick and De’Veon Smith. They took a two-touchdown lead quickly, which allowed Cornelius to manage the game with short passes and handoffs.
“When you run the ball like we did today, it definitely makes you feel a lot more comfortable,” Cornelius said. “It’s nice to hand the ball off to those two backs and let them do the work.”
He’s not the quarterback known for his legs. That guy was watching at home, but Cornelius rolled out to avoid a D.C. blitz and turned the corner for a 17-yard yard touchdown run.
“I thought he played winning football tonight,” Trestman said. “He moved the football team and used the clock properly. We played really fast tonight.”
Just like that, a quarterback controversy was quieted, at least for a week.
After watching the game at home, Flowers is reportedly returning to the team this week. But his future with the team is more uncertain than ever.
And the Vipers might not be the team you thought they were.
“Coming in, we didn’t know each other,” Smith said. “But now we’ve been around each other for almost 2½ months, three months, and honest to God, it feels like a family, like a brotherhood. We’ve gone through the toughest times. We’ve been through the lowest together, and now we’re going through the high.…
“Well, I wouldn’t call this the high. This is the beginning of a high.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.