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Vipers, XFL couldn’t write their own script to end startup season

Did the league do enough through a half season to set up a strong future moving forward?
Vipers coach Marc Trestman smiles as his players stretch before a practice last week at Plant City Stadium. Trestman's team ended the season 1-4 after the XFL canceled the final five weeks of the season due to the coronavirus pandemic. [EDUARDO ENCINA  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Vipers coach Marc Trestman smiles as his players stretch before a practice last week at Plant City Stadium. Trestman's team ended the season 1-4 after the XFL canceled the final five weeks of the season due to the coronavirus pandemic. [EDUARDO ENCINA | Tampa Bay Times]

TAMPA — Vipers coach Marc Trestman gathered his team following last Sunday’s 41-34 loss to the Los Angeles Wildcats, and like many times before, told them they were far from a finished product, but that they had plenty of time to become the team he believed they could be.

“The team we are and the team we will become will be defined over the next five weeks one day at a time,” Trestman told his locker room. “…Let’s find out more. The story hasn’t been written. The final stages aren’t over.”

Trestman’s final post-game locker room speech would prove to be ironic, because four days later, the XFL’s first season would come to an abrupt end, the remaining five weeks of the regular season canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Vipers didn’t get to write the end of their story.

The team’s first season would end with a Thanos-esque snap. On Thursday, staff was preparing for Saturday’s scheduled home game, the team practiced at its Plant City facility. And within a matter of hours, the season was over, and the focus turned to ensuring a return in 2021.

The league promised to take care of its players, pledging to pay and provide benefits to all players through the season and telling ticket holders their purchases will be refunded or credited toward future games.

Related: Snake-bitten no more, Vipers celebrate their first XFL win in style

The league is also covering players’ expenses to return home, which is notable because players were stranded when the Alliance of American Football abruptly folded last year before completing a full season.

The Vipers finished 1-4. They played just two games at home, and the cancelation of the season occurred in the middle of a five-week stretch that included four home dates. They ranked No. 1 in the league in total offense and total defense, but they had the second-most turnovers, some questionable play-calling and an early-season quarterback controversy that frustrated fans.

Their script was incomplete, as was the first season of the league. In general, it was received well. Rule changes to kickoffs and punt returns limited injuries as predicted, and pledges to play faster-paced games through a 25-second play clock came true. Innovative additions to the broadcasts — wiring players and coaches for live sound on the field, conducting sideline interviews and an inside look at how plays are reviewed — gave a glimpse to the game previously not shown.

The XFL promised a return next season and with a sustainable model for years to come, without saying it, ensuring they wouldn’t fall into the same misfortune of past football startups like the first XFL and the Alliance of Professional Football.

The most important asset the league has is the financial backing of the WWE. It also has two years remaining on TV contracts with ESPN and FOX.

Attendance for games peaked in Week 3, then began to slide, though NFL-less St. Louis and Seattle showed incredible promise, averaging 28,541 and 25,616 fans, respectively, though each team hosted just two home dates. Across the board, the XFL’s attendance was significantly better. The Alliance had seven crowds of fewer than 10,000 fans, while the XFL’s smallest crowd was 12,116.

The Vipers’ home attendance ranked sixth out of the league’s eight teams at 15,183, though they had to wait until Week 3 for their first game at Raymond James and were 0-2 going in.

Still, the average attendance of the 20 XFL games played was 18,571, which is 21 percent higher than the Alliance’s attendance average of 15,292 before the league folded eight games into its 10-game season.

A pass intended for Houston Roughnecks wide receiver Cam Phillips (14) is disrupted by Tampa Bay Vipers cornerback Tarvarus McFadden on Feb. 22 in Tampa. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

The XFL will surely lose its best players, like Houston quarterback P.J. Walker and receiver Cam Phillips, St. Louis quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and Los Angeles quarterback Josh Johnson, a former Buc. They played so well in the first half that they’re likely to receive NFL opportunities.

But most of the league’s other players were counting on having a full season to show they deserved a shot at the NFL. Most of them moved from one practice squad to another, but the XFL gave them a greater chance to put their game on film against live competition.

The Vipers had two of the top three leading rushers — De’Veon Smith led the league with 365 yards and Jacques Patrick was third with 254 — and two of the top four wide receivers — Dan Williams ranked second (338 yards) and Jalen Tolliver fourth (297). The defense was a sum of its parts but cornerback Tarvarus McFadden had two interceptions and cornerback Anthoula Kelly led the lead with eight pass breakups. Whether players like that did enough to warrant NFL consideration remains to be seen.

A total of 20 games were lost — lost ticket sales, lost opportunities for players to stand out, and maybe most importantly, lost exposure for the league. Though the possibility of playing postseason games that were slated for next month has been floated, it’s unlikely to happen.

So the XFL, and the Vipers, will wait for next season to make a real first impression.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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