February 3, 2010

2001: The XFL Debuts With Games in Las Vegas and Orlando

On February 3, 2001 a new pro football league launched its season with two games. The XFL, founded by World Wrestling Federation promoter Vince McMahon, promised a brash and hard-hitting style of play that would contrast with the more staid, established NFL (it was assumed that the “X” stood for “Xtreme”, but the league insisted it was not an abbreviation). While there would be plenty of entertainment surrounding the games, much in line with the WWF’s format, the football was to be serious with adjustments to the rules that would heighten the action – for instance, while there would still be extra points, and they would be worth a single point as in the NFL, they could not be kicked but either run or passed for; fair catches on punts and kickoffs weren’t allowed; the opening coin toss was replaced by “the scramble” in which a player from each team vied for possession of a ball placed at the 50 yard line; and there would be no penalties for taunting or celebrating.

There were eight teams, all part of a single league entity (as opposed to individually operated franchises as in the NFL) and utilizing a set pay scale. They played a 10-game schedule, with two games per week on Saturday nights and two on Sundays throughout the season, which was played in the late winter/early spring months and thus not putting the XFL in direct competition with the NFL.

The first game on the opening Saturday night was at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas between the Las Vegas Outlaws and the visiting New York/New Jersey Hitmen. There were 30,389 fans in attendance and a national viewing audience for the game on NBC that exceeded expectations. Unfortunately for the new league, the game was a rather drab affair as the Outlaws defeated the Hitmen, 19-0. None of the three quarterbacks for the New York/New Jersey club (Charles Puleri, Wally Richardson, and Corte McGuffey) were effective as they combined to complete 18 of 40 passes for 205 yards with two interceptions.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas QB Ryan Clement (pictured at right) threw touchdown passes of 14 yards to TE Rickey Brady and 27 yards to WR Nakia Jenkins among his 13 completions (of 28 attempts) for 188 yards as the Outlaws scored all of their points in the first half. RB Rod Smart led the running attack with 46 yards on 13 carries and also caught two passes for 48 yards. In addition, he used the nickname “He Hate Me” in place of his last name on the back of his jersey, which made him an instant celebrity in the league (it was reported that he had actually wanted to use “They Hate Me”, but it was too long to fit).

The network cut away to the second game of the evening, at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl in front of 35,603 fans where the Orlando Rage hosted the Chicago Enforcers. This was a far closer and more high-scoring game, won by Orlando, 33-29. There were big plays as the Rage’s QB Jeff Brohm connected with WR Kevin Swayne on a 51-yard pass play for the first score of the contest and Chicago’s Tim Lester twice hit RB John Avery on TD passes that covered 68 and 64 yards respectively.

Avery (pictured at left), who had played for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, ran for 157 yards on 25 attempts and had 93 more yards on three pass receptions. But it was Brohm’s four touchdown passes that carried the day for Orlando – even though they missed all five extra point attempts (Chicago converted two of four).

The high television ratings of the first week failed to last into the second – the dropoff was significant, and they never rebounded. Football fans were disappointed in the caliber of play as well as the professional wrestling-style trappings that in turn fed a distrust of the legitimacy of the games. In attempting to appeal to both professional wrestling and football fans, the XFL failed to satisfy either, and it would ultimately doom the venture after one season.

Orlando put together the best record during the regular season at 8-2, but lost in the first playoff round. Chicago finished at 5-5 and second to the Rage in the Eastern Division, also losing in the first postseason round. Las Vegas and New York/New Jersey both missed the playoffs with identical 4-6 records, putting the Outlaws at the bottom of the Western Division and the Hitmen in third place in the Eastern.

John Avery built on his strong opening game performance to lead the league in rushing with 800 yards; Rod Smart was second with 555.