It was Christmas season last year when news first leaked that the XFL might be making a comeback. As someone who fell in love with the 2001 version as a sophomore in high school in the Washington, D.C. area, the XFL’s return, coupled by the announcement that D.C. is getting a team, has been nothing short of surreal. So as I make my Christmas wish list for XFL D.C., I’m focusing on the payoff, not the hurdles. After all, we’re already living in my own personal pipe dream.
Pick a color scheme that matches Audi Field
Audi Field was built primarily for D.C. United, affectionately known as the Black-and-Red by its supporters. That color scheme is featured prominently in its home stadium, and my hope is that XFL D.C. uses a similar palette as the foundation for the team: black and red as a loose starting point, with charcoal/grey/silver/chrome as possible directions to go.
This has less to do with the quality of the color scheme itself (although it’s strong; look no further than the greatest uniform in football history) and much more to do with creating the feel of a team playing in its home stadium, rather than just some building its renting.
Name the team the Federals
For the unaware, the Washington Federals were a USFL team, best remembered for their atrocious on-field performance (7-29 over two seasons). If the XFL is passing on bringing back their own brands, their certainly not going to want to borrow from other leagues as they seek to forge a new path and sell new merchandise.
But this isn’t a nostalgia request — the Philadelphia Eagles-esque logo and colors ought to be left in the 1980s. The name, on the other hand, is just perfect. It’s uniquely D.C., versatile (the team can be called Feds for short), and marketable.
The name is so good that it would be my choice for a Redskins or Wizards rebrand should either come to pass. If Martians land on Earth and teach us marsball, my vote for the name of the D.C. franchise is Federals. It’s just a fantastic name, and the XFL would be lucky to jump on it.
Run the triple option
Note: The triple option is technically a play, not an offense. I think “flexbone spread option” is the preferred nomenclature; I’m using the colloquial “triple option” because I’m lazy and willing to perpetuate ignorance.
The XFL’s vision of its game seems like its being based on a Chiefs-Rams utopia. But they would be smart to take a broader view of the game.
One of college football’s great strengths is the schematic diversity. You can see pro style, the spread, pure air raid, pistol, old school run and shoot, etc., each week. In the NFL, homogeneity reigns, as teams relentlessly copy the strategies of one another, while the sheer volume of teams in college football allows different visions to flourish. As a single entity, the XFL can manufacture diversity if they so choose. As they seek to create a compelling television product, they would be wise to consider the value of giving different teams a different offensive DNA.
It’s also a way to improve the team’s offensive talent. Schools that face recruiting challenges (the service academies and academically rigorous Georgia Tech being recent examples) have turned to the triple option as a way to change the recruiting dynamic. Rather than fighting for the same type of players with their unencumbered rivals, the triple option lends itself to a different body type at most offensive positions. This allows the school to work on a comparatively higher place on the food chain. An XFL team running the triple option will be able to target first or second tier option-style players that otherwise are left out of pro football or playing out of position, as opposed to fighting with the other XFL teams (not to mention CFL and AAF teams) over the NFL leftovers. We’ll get to one very specific example soon.
Finally, it would be likely be very effective. Personnel aside, a well-run triple option is extremely challenging to defend, especially for defensive coaches who aren’t practiced in it. (It’s telling that triple option teams tend to struggle the most against other triple option teams.) Assuming the other seven XFL teams feature pro-style defensive coaches, running the triple option would likely amount to a significant competitive advantage. But here’s the brilliance: Even if the triple option fails spectacularly, that would be OK too. The triple option getting a chance to prove itself in a professional setting is a built-in storyline for the league to market. No matter which way the results fall, it will be an interesting and compelling journey to follow.
Hire Paul Johnson
A willingness to run the offense isn’t useful without a coach qualified to teach it, and fortunately for the XFL, one of the masters just became available. Paul Johnson retired as Georgia Tech’s coach after amassing a record of 189-98 at Georgia Tech, Navy, and Georgia Southern.
He retired due to burnout; The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz, who broke the story of his retirement, said shortly after that Johnson “still enjoys game day but a lot of other stuff that goes with being a FBS [head coach] today has worn on him.”
It’s a big leap from that to being willing to join the XFL, but supposing that the lighter workload and the chance to run his offense on a pro stage sparks his interest, the XFL shouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.
For starters, he’s really, really good, and would thrive in a start-up environment like the XFL. From a career retrospective by TheMidReport.com’s fantastic Mike James:
Throughout his career, Johnson has repeatedly accepted the challenge of situations that others would label as impossible tasks. He helped to build Georgia Southern up from literally nothing and turned it into the most successful FCS program of its era. His offense was the catalyst that Hawaii needed to advance to the program’s first bowl game since moving up from Division II. Two years after Sports Illustrated published a column suggesting that Navy drop to I-AA, that same offense won the Aloha Bowl. Navy wouldn’t return to a bowl game until Johnson returned as head coach. He took Georgia Tech to two Orange Bowls, the Yellow Jackets’ first major bowl games since 1966.
In addition, he carries a lot of respect in the D.C. media thanks to his success at Navy, especially amongst the stuffy old guard that will be least inclined to give the XFL the benefit of the doubt. He’s also a fantastic quote and carries petty grudges that Vince McMahon would be proud to script. An example of one reared its head this season, when Johnson’s Georgia Tech faced Louisville, whose defensive coordinator was Brian VanGorder — the same man that had succeeded Johnson at Georgia Southern. From a SB Nation breakdown of the feud:
Before season began, VanGorder made a point that he wouldn’t be running Johnson’s flexbone option. From the Statesboro Herald:
In the advertisement, Georgia Southern’s marketing department promoted the 2006 season with a series of video clips that ended with VanGorder pointing at the camera and proclaiming “There is no option.” The school later chose to edit out the coach’s comment. The four words drew criticism, became a catch phrase for the season and spawned t-shirts reading “Win Coach. There is no option.”
Well, word of VanGorder’s overhaul made its way to Johnson, the head coach at Navy at the time.
”VanGorder had made some comments that he didn’t think too highly of the offense,” longtime Georgia Southern administrator Robert Inman said via USA Today. “And Paul called me up and said, ‘I need to talk to (athletics director) Sam (Baker) and get Georgia Southern on the schedule,’” Inman said. “I said, ‘Why do you want to play us?’ And he said, ‘Because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder.’ “
That was 12 years ago. Fast forward back to this October, Johnson kept the foot on the gas as Georgia Tech beat Lousivlle 66-31, and VanGorder was fired at the end of the season.
All of which is to say, the D.C. press will enjoy covering a Paul Johnson-led XFL team.
Sign Keenan Reynolds to play quarterback
If we’ve gotten this far, Johnson will need a pivot to execute his offense, and one of the all-time greats is theoretically available in Keenan Reynolds. The former Navy quarterback and NCAA rushing touchdown record holder is currently bouncing off and on NFL practice squads as a wide receiver (at the time of publication, he is on the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad). From the aforementioned Mike James:
There is no position in football that has more impact on his team and on a game than that of a triple option quarterback. None. Every play revolves around him. Playing quarterback is difficult in any offense, obviously, but the option quarterback doesn’t have a chance to hand the ball to a tailback 20-30 times per game. He’s not getting easy yards by throwing a bunch of screen passes. When you run the option, even the running plays depend on your decisions, and nobody makes those decisions better than Reynolds.
There’s no guarantee he would be willing to trade that for a top-tier XFL contract and the opportunity to return to his natural position, but if he was, XFL D.C. would be running the triple option with one of the best, if not the best, option quarterbacks on the planet, while other teams would be running standard offenses with, at best, the 150th-best quarterback for that system.
In addition, XFL D.C. gets a star with local cache, thanks to his record-setting career at Annapolis, and the XFL gets a picture-perfect poster boy to market as it seeks to set themselves apart from the ugliness of domestic violence that haunts the NFL.
Are any of these wishes likely to come to fruition? The color scheme would really be prudent, but even there, it is important to remember that these decisions will not take place in a vacuum, It is the clash of colors that makes football its most visually appealing, and there are seven other teams to think of. Even if the league is sold on using the venue as a starting point, that still leaves Houston and Tampa Bay vying for red as a primary color. (Although we can hold out hope on the latter doing a full Houston Oilers revival.)
So no, none of this likely. But we live in a world where the XFL is coming back, nearly two decades after one of the most spectacular sports failures in history. Anything is possible, so I invite us all to dream big this Christmas season.