It's remarkable what recency bias can do.
Week 2 of the XFL heading into the final game of Sunday night between St. Louis and Houston was ... well ... bleh. The quality of football was lacking. Quarterback play was mostly forgettable, and as I wrote earlier this week, that's a hard area for XFL teams to get right. There aren't 32 great NFL quarterbacks, so there surely aren't going to be eight great XFL quarterbacks. Granted, it's not only the quarterbacks' fault if the games are boring, but it is the most apparent when things are off. In watching multiple games with missed throws and few touchdowns, it became clear again why these start-up leagues can struggle to maintain attention.
But then the BattleHawks and Roughnecks kicked off. It was the game of the week on paper and it lived up to the hype. Houston's P.J. Walker was excellent again with three touchdown passes -- all to Cam Phillips -- and St. Louis' Jordan Ta'amu was mostly good himself despite two interceptions that, frankly, weren't really his fault. An entertaining 28-24 win for the Roughnecks was a reminder of what the XFL could be when it's really clicking.
But not every team can click in Week 2. For some, it'll take a few more weeks. That's the byproduct of having no preseason and a team made of spare NFL parts. It'll get there, I believe, so patience is key for anyone following along. If you can weather the dull stretches, the payoff has proven to be there.
Here's what else we learned from the second weekend of XFL action.
The BattleHawks are a championship contender
We already know the Roughnecks are. They have the best quarterback in the XFL, one of the best wide receivers in the league and a defense to boot. But the BattleHawks gave Houston everything it could handle on Sunday evening. Give credit to Jonathan Hayes' team. Being down 21-6 at the half is not where you want to be against possibly the XFL's best team. In this league, though, a 15-point deficit is nothing and St. Louis got to within three points heading into the fourth quarter. It also pulled back to within four inside two minutes after a Houston touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The point being, the BattleHawks had a good second-half plan to possess the ball and keep it out of Houston's hands. With only 10-minute halftimes, that's a strong adjustment by Hayes and his coaching staff. The BattleHawks will kick themselves for their mistakes -- Ta'amu's second pick, leading to a Houston score, was likely because he thought he had a free play on an offsides that wasn't called -- but they proved they could hang with the most explosive team in the XFL. That'll come in handy down the road.
Dallas finds its running game
Remember how this was supposed to be the big debut for quarterback Landry Jones? About that: the Renegades should have been running the ball with Cameron Artis-Payne and Lance Dunbar from the start. The pair rushed for 141 yards on just 20 carries in their 25-18 win over Los Angeles. Artis-Payne specifically scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns of 21 yards and 17 yards, respectively. For reference, Dallas rushed for just 58 yards on 12 carries in its Week 1 loss to St. Louis.
There he goes again! Cam Artis-Payne now has 99 rush yards to go with TWO TDs. #RaisingHell 🔥 pic.twitter.com/brWiG9ejRI— Dallas Renegades (@XFLRenegades) February 16, 2020
Offensive coordinator Hal Mumme is known as the mastermind behind the Air Raid offense, but the most success the Renegades have had at all has been running the ball. Gabe Ikard, a former Oklahoma offensive lineman who played with Jones in Norman, knows that the best way to get into the end zone is to be as multi-dimensional as possible.
Hard to score points in professional football when you don’t have an effective play-action passing element in your offense.— Gabe Ikard (@GabeIkard) February 16, 2020
Los Angeles' defense has been a hot mess through the first couple of weeks, but it played better on Sunday against the pass. As Jones continues to develop into his starting role, it would behoove the Renegades to keep pounding the rock and taking some pressure off of him.
What to make of Matt McGloin's comments
Everyone who watched New York's 27-0 loss to D.C. on Saturday knows what they saw. The Defenders are a far superior team to the Guardians, who through two weeks have struggled to find anything that works on offense. New York mustered just under four yards per play in Week 1, an average that fell to just under three yards per play on Saturday. It was a frustrating day, to be sure, and such sentiments were shared by quarterback Matt McGloin during multiple in-game interviews.
Matt McGloin at halftime to @diannaESPN: "We need to change the whole entire gameplan."— ESPN (@espn) February 15, 2020
Head coach Kevin Gilbride: "I need to go talk to him & figure out what the problem is because he needs to play better."
Then McGloin threw a pick-six on their next drive. @xfl2020 pic.twitter.com/R2ssCwfzfx
McGloin then doubled down on his disappointment after he was benched for Marquise Williams, saying "at no point in time did I think we were comfortable out there. At no point in time did I think we were in a position to try to be successful."
Matt McGloin gets benched after completing 8-of-19 pass attempts with 2 INT, then proceeds to rip his team/coach while the 4th quarter is still being played.— Kevin Boilard (@247KevinBoilard) February 15, 2020
This is peak XFL pic.twitter.com/JKVwShqTrQ
Those are strong words, so what should we make of them? From a media standpoint, it's hard to get on McGloin for his honesty. Part of the XFL's appeal -- and part of what makes our jobs easier -- is the access of the league and the candidness of its players or coaches. And to be clear, I don't think his words were entirely wrong ... but they also weren't entirely right. The truth is McGloin played terribly. He was 8 of 19 for 44 yards and two picks -- and they were bad picks. And there were definitely instances in which he missed open receivers down the field. That's a problem with execution, not the game plan or the call. The backdrop of those misfires makes the optics of McGloin's words ring hollow.
With that being said, the Guardians' offensive failures Saturday aren't entirely on McGloin -- if for no other reason than that's not how football works. Just as there aren't enough great quarterbacks to go around in the XFL (or NFL), there aren't enough great offensive linemen, either. And it's hard to develop a passing attack when there's not much of a running game of which to speak. And it's not like these teams have benefited from a preseason to work out the kinks.
In the heat of the moment, you can at least understand McGloin's frustrations. Remember: these types of emotions are on display all the time on the sidelines of a football game, we just never heard them until now. In time after cooler heads prevail, I wonder if he'll look back on them and change his tune. But since there is a microphone in his face now, McGloin needs to at least be more aware of what his words will mean to the coaching staff and his teammates when they hear them. And he will be. If he starts again.
Nelson Spruce can make it in the NFL
If the AAF taught us anything, it's that a handful of players really will get another crack at the NFL. I believe Wildcats wide receiver Nelson Spruce will be one of them. In a 25-18 loss to the Renegades on Sunday, Spruce had six grabs for 89 yards and two touchdowns. Through two weeks, he leads the league in catches (17) and yards (190). He is a matchup problem with his speed and ability to stretch the field and be a sure-handed pass-catcher. Spruce's story is like so many others in the XFL. He entered the NFL undrafted out of Colorado, was hampered by injuries and then bounced around some practice squads. At 27, he is entering the prime of his pro career. He won't get major second contract money if he does make it to the NFL, but if he keeps up this production, he'll get a real shot.
The @XFLWildcats secure the TD and the first 3-pt play in the @xfl2020 🔥 pic.twitter.com/7TEomMYBLW— ESPN (@espn) February 16, 2020
D.C. has quietly been the most dominant team
The Defenders are humming after a 27-0 win against the Guardians. Through two weeks, D.C. has the second-highest scoring offense with 58 points and have allowed the fewest points in the league with 19. They've beaten New York and Seattle by an average of nearly 20 points. But those teams also have a combined 2-2 record and both those wins came over Tampa Bay (more on the Vipers below). D.C. should be road favorites in its next two games at Los Angeles and Tampa Bay, too, so it wouldn't be surprising if it enters the second half of the season undefeated. Quarterback Cardale Jones can sling it and this defense is awfully opportunistic with four interceptions.
Tampa Bay has 12 points (and no offensive TDs)
Technically that's not a takeaway, just a fact. Still, after a 17-9 loss to Seattle, the Vipers are the only XFL team to have not scored an offensive touchdown through two weeks. Quarterback Taylor Cornelius was somewhat better than Aaron Murray in Week 1, but not that much better. And Quinton Flowers continues to be a complementary piece behind center. The Vipers already have a revolving door at quarterback and the next two games are against arguably the two best teams in the XFL: Houston and D.C. This may get worse before it gets better for the team picked by bookmakers to have the highest win total prior to the start of the season.
Week 2 MVP: Houston wide receiver Cam Phillips
It could go to Walker, but he was our Week 1 MVP and here's betting he'll get plenty more nods over the course of the season. Besides, Phillips was excellent with eight catches for 63 yards and not one, not two, but three touchdowns. And two of those touchdowns were not easy catches, either.
Sheesh, @camphil5 got UP for this TD— XFL (@xfl2020) February 17, 2020
🖥 https://t.co/Gme53LcuVh pic.twitter.com/YpW4hL8YmP