Coach's Corner

The XFLdebut: It has to get better, doesn't it?.

Keep in mind, virtually no one commenting on the XFL is a part of the program's target audience. To find relevant written critiques on the XFL, don't look at Sports Illustrated, but at your teenager's school newspaper, or maybe The Daily Texan. I'll admit to some curiosity about the league, but when a major network gets behind a cause (and with NBC owning half the league, they are definitely behind the cause), they can interest most of us in almost anything short of the WNBA. A few observations:

1) An obvious fact -- buried under the avalanche of noxious hype -- struck me quickly. It's still football. Very, very bad football, but football nonetheless. All the electronic gizmos can't hide this fact. So the problem: These young WWF skinheads need to be closet football fans or the thing won't fly. But if they sat with their dads watching the Cowboys on Sunday, they'll quickly notice that these quarterbacks are not Aikman and Manning. The linebackers aren't fierce guys named Armstead or Lewis. The cornerbacks are not dating hot babes like Angie Harmon. Did you like the movie The Replacements? This is what the "replacement" teams really looked like -- except they were slightly better. Wrestling, with a good guy and a bad guy, is scripted. Football, no matter the quality, can't be scripted. It's football.

2) The open microphones were a disappointment. Hearing a quarterback say, "Slam right, trip left on 2," isn't Shakespeare. And the "announcers" were usually screaming over the live feeds anyway. The heavily hyped on-field interviews revealed another facet I never thought about before. It's one thing to want to know what Troy Aikman's thoughts (in a manner of speaking) might be as the smelling salts bring him back to consciousness, quite another to hear what Las Vegas QB Mike Cawley was thinking as he tossed another ball into the ground.

3) TV ads for local gentlemen's clubs are puritanical compared to the hardcore sex sell of the XFL. It got my attention. The wanton, naked sluts we were promised turned out to be local topless dancers dressed in nothing less and doing nothing more than the Laker Girls do 42 nights a season, except XFL's girls got more -- for lack of a better phrase -- face time. Some cynics speculate this modest start might change quickly if ratings slide too low.

4) If it's still football then it follows: just because you scream into a microphone it's third and 10 doesn't change the fact that it is, indeed, still third and 10. Howling, half-hysterical announcers don't make it more exciting, just louder. Even teenagers get headaches.

5) Minnesota's a pleasant, summertime state; filled with nice lakes, golf courses, and trees. It also comes with a longtime, serious liberal political tradition. Jesse Ventura, the state's governor and lead XFL broadcaster, is embarrassing, even to a profession that not only hatches vermin like Tom DeLay, but vaults them to powerful, influential positions ... or maybe I have this backward. Perhaps Ventura is the only honest politician in America, unafraid to admit he's a shameless huckster, a grinning hyena with fresh blood still dripping from his muzzle. Instead of debates, perhaps we should ask our candidates to call the Talladega 500, a WWF Death Match, and a season of XFL football. Then we'd vote.

6) The XFL's best rule change is the elimination of the extra point, instead making teams run a real football play. I'm for that. Forget the one-foot-in-bounds rule. The incredible body control of a Randy Moss or an Isaac Bruce is what distinguishes a college receiver with good hands from a pro.

7) NBC needs to keep in mind that the kids watching the game most likely are not drunk on blackberry brandy, like their dads are on Sunday afternoons. Announcers should stop touting the "sellout crowds" when even the network's considerable technical expertise can't hide vacant upper decks, empty end zone bleachers, and large swaths of unpopulated lower-level seats.

8) We'll be hearing too much about ratings. Always recall the fantastically low bar NBC will hold up as validation of the league success. NBC always claims its other ugly child, the WNBA, is a success because it beats out bowling and a swim meet, but I've personally never met anyone who watched a WNBA game. So when the XFL outdraws The Parent Trap on ABC and Cops over on Fox, keep in mind that even personal videos of your Midwestern vacation, if relentlessly promoted, would draw five million viewers for a few weeks.

A TV network is a powerful, hungry, dangerous beast. Dr. Josef Goebbels would've loved this league and made an outstanding first commissioner. Or maybe he's been reincarnated as Vince McMahon. Anyway ...

Though I despise being force-fed shit by television networks, I'm not as closed-minded about the XFL as I sound. I like football ... sex too. As noted in a column some weeks back, at the very least the XFL's trying to entertain us -- more than I can say for their blue-blood cousins. It was their first week. It has to get better. I'll revisit the subject later.

This is, quite possibly, much more than you wanted to know. Please consider -- you can bet NBC did -- it's February ... the Waco of the annual sports calendar.

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