The relaunched XFL's inaugural season is 20 percent complete, and there's a lot to like.
It's football when football wouldn't ordinarily take place, which is fun. And the league's outside-the-box approach—live play calls! In-game player interviews! Three-point conversions! A cool new spin on kickoffs! Explicit betting content!—has often made up for the fact that the games have lacked big plays, big scores and big talent.
But the novelty will wear off, and football fans will begin to crave a semblance of what makes the NFL the world's most lucrative, popular professional sports league: home run plays; touchdowns; exciting, close, high-scoring games; and—maybe most importantly—strong quarterback play.
It's hard to consistently get the home runs, the points and the excitement when you lack that last part.
And despite promising Week 1 ratings, the XFL's shoddy quarterback play has held it back.
The leaguewide completion percentage is just 60.1 (compared to 63.5 in the NFL), the yards-per-attempt average is 6.3 (versus 7.2 in the NFL), the passer rating is 78.5 (against 90.4 in the NFL), and XFL quarterbacks have barely thrown more touchdown passes (24) than interceptions (19).
That ratio was almost even before Jordan Ta'Amu of the St. Louis BattleHawks and early standout P.J. Walker of the Houston Roughnecks put together strong performances in Week 2's final game. And while Walker has shined thus far (he's got a 108.5 passer rating and did this Sunday) it's hard to get excited about any of the startup's other signal-callers.
There's 30-year-old former NFL journeyman Matt McGloin, who has completed fewer than half his passes for the New York Guardians and was benched after calling out his coaching staff before throwing a pick-six Saturday. He was replaced by 27-year-old Alliance of American Football alumnus Marquise Williams, who couldn't cut it in the CFL and has a definitive ceiling elsewhere.
There's 29-year-old Aaron Murray, who is also a former NFL journeyman with almost no shot at long-term success in professional football. The 2014 NFL fifth-round pick completed just 16 of 34 passes in a two-interception debut for the Tampa Bay Vipers and sustained a foot injury.
There's some guy named Brandon Silvers, who has completed just 48.2 percent of his passes and averaged just 5.3 yards per attempt for the Seattle Dragons.
There's the 30-year-old Landry Jones, who in his first pro football start in over two years threw two interceptions (and should have thrown at least two more) for the Dallas Renegades on Sunday.
And there's Josh Johnson, who completed just 18 of 34 passes in a Los Angeles Wildcats loss in his XFL debut Sunday. Johnson is the ultimate pro football journeyman, and he'll be 34 in May, so there's no growth potential there.
Cardale Jones hasn't been bad for the D.C. Defenders, but he's also been far from special with a completion rate of 61.9 through two weeks. With him, the highs will always be accompanied by nearly as many lows.
Even if we give you Jones, Ta'Amu and Walker, more than half the league's teams are already in desperate need of a boost under center.
What's the problem? It's essentially a supply-and-demand issue. There are only a few dozen great quarterbacks in the world, and under its budgetary circumstances, the XFL can't afford any of 'em.
When XFL teams were putting their rosters together in the fall, more than 100 quarterbacks were already on NFL rosters or practice squads. Those on rosters were making a salary of at least $495,000. Shalise Manza Young of Yahoo Sports reports that top XFL quarterbacks are making the same amount. That could enable the league to steal some NFL backups who are making the minimum by promising them significant playing time at a similar or identical pay rate. But according to Spotrac, 59 NFL quarterbacks finished the 2019 season with contracts that contained average annual salaries of $1 million or more.
That leaves the XFL fighting for NFL third-stringers, practice-squad passers and those who have already been kicked to the NFL's curb.
The good news is it only needs eight, not 32. But that's why the league should strongly consider upping the ante at that position.
The highest-paid XFL quarterbacks already make about 10 times the salary of their teammates, but there shouldn't be a limit on QB contracts. If the XFL can add game-changing signal-callers who can both generate buzz and make contests more interesting, it has to be willing to invest millions of dollars in those players.
"If there's one thing we learned from watching the [AAF], it was that quarterback play is critical," XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck told Thomas Bassinger of the Tampa Bay Times in December. "In the game of football today—whether it's pro, college or even high school arguably—your quarterback play is determinative."
So he knows it. We all know it. And yet, when Colin Kaepernick apparently became a candidate to join the league, Luck says the XFL shied away for financial reasons.
"We spoke with his representative, and the salary requirements that were broached in that conversation were exorbitant and certainly out of our range," he told NPR's Michel Martin earlier this month.
Surely the league conducted a cost-benefit analysis regarding Kaepernick's demands, and maybe it figured the financial risk wasn't worth the potential reward in terms of increased fan interest, stronger ratings and more ticket sales.
But there's an intriguing middle ground between Kaepernick and the likes of McGloin, Jones, Johnson, Murray and Silvers.
In its first year, the XFL essentially waited to collect the NFL's scraps after the latter's rosters were cut to 53 at the end of August. But to survive long term, the XFL should compete to sign NFL quarterbacks before they sign NFL contracts in March.
This year, for example, that could mean signing a quarterback such as Marcus Mariota, who could try to prove himself on that stage rather than take a backup job for, say, $5 million.
That would require the XFL to make major scheduling changes, but an argument could be made (and probably should be made in another column) that, considering the many failed attempts at spring professional football, the XFL would be better off playing midweek games in the fall.
Essentially, the XFL might realize that the best approach to building a successful alternative pro football league is to outbid the NFL for its top backups in the spring and then play those quarterbacks on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the NFL has already whetted fans' football appetites in August, September and October.
Imagine XFL doubleheaders on both of those nights every week next fall, with Mariota, Nate Sudfeld, Blake Bortles and Case Keenum running offenses. All of those quarterbacks are slated to hit free agency next month, but the XFL can't pursue them then for a 2021 season that is still 11 months out, it can't afford them under these budgetary restraints, and it likely can't sign them in the fall because they'll all likely stick on NFL depth charts.
That whole process might soon have to change, because fans will grow impatient with the league's batch of quarterbacks.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter. Or don't. It's entirely your choice.