Before I get into a long-winded analysis of why college football rules and why Ohio State football needs to embrace its stupidity and ridiculousness, I'll start by acknowledging the elephant in the room: Vince McMahon isn't bringing the XFL back in 2020 to be the ersatz crazy drunk uncle to the NFL that it was back when McMahon tried it the first time back in 2001.
Nope, this time it's a nakedly opportunistic ploy to lure away the hypothetical viewer who is still angry about players kneeling during the national anthem, or too many commercials, or dumb rules or whatever. The head of the WWE would disagree, but that's okay because he'd also disagree with himself like half a second later.
"The start of this league has nothing to do with the NFL's troubles," McMahon said. "What has happened there is their business, and I'm not going to knock those guys, but I am going to learn from their mistakes as anyone would if they were tasked with reimagining a new football league."
Here is some footage of Vince saying the above quote:
Anyway, I'm not really interested in having a discussion about the protests in the NFL. I mean, I am, but maybe like three words at a time via telegram, like how people in the 1950s used to play chess with someone in another country.
Right now, I'm more interested in another quote from McMahon:
“I think the most important thing we learned with the older XFL and now the new XFL is the quality of the play,” he said. “We have two years to really get it right. It’s the quality of the play.”
And he's smart to do this. The XFL, for all of our nostalgia about custom nicknames on uniforms, really obvious kayfabe between teams, and WWE announcers trying like hell to make a two yard gain sound like the end of the world, wasn't that much fun to watch, because by and large the football wasn't that much fun to watch.
That's not to say that the XFL wasn't important! It pioneered a lot of broadcast techniques and camera angles that later became standard at all levels. It was obnoxious and crude, but there was a sort of fly-by-night accidental genius that sometimes popped up in terms of how the games were shown.
The problem was the games. If you forget what the XFL was like, you can watch pretty much every single matchup on YouTube. And really, it's not that the players were terrible (they sometimes were, but for the most part weren't some affront to football), it's that the actual football itself wasn't really interesting or new. Teams still lined up in the same formations and ran the same plays that you had already watched on Sunday, just more slowly and with less competence. Despite a ton of window dressing, the XFL didn't revolutionize the sport any more than arena football or the Canadian Football League already had years before.
Vince doesn't quite seem to know how he's going to rectify that in 2020. He knows that he wants to speed up the game and make the rules more basic, but beyond that, he didn't really elaborate much beyond saying that he was talking to experts on the subject. Cool.
Here's the thing, though: if I'm a football fan who wants to watch a version of the game with bigger personalities, more interesting plays and players, and a built-in narrative that people can latch onto, then why the hell would I bother waiting until 2020 when college football is on every fall? Would I rather watch some Thursday night MAC-tion between Toledo and NIU, or a random XFL game between the Seattle Whiplashers and the West Palm Beach Bodysurfers? Because one is going to be a guaranteed mess of flea-flickers, crappy defense, players single-handedly winning the game by themselves, and coaches throwing their headsets. The other will be an XFL game trying its hardest to emulate the NFL.
Vince McMahon is right when he points out some issues with football at the NFL level, but his biggest problem is that many of those issues have already been solved by a college game that is by and large way more fun to watch on a weekly basis. On any given Saturday, you can watch teams that play a style of offense that few (if any) other teams in the country emulate. You can find a 54-50 barnstormer between conference foes just as easily as you can find a low scoring defensive struggle between teams that have never played each other. You can find rivalries that date back over a century, played in stadiums that hold 100,000 screaming fans.
None of that negates some reasonable points about dumb rules, commercial breaks, and so on, but it does go a long damn way towards mitigating it. It may be possible to get some people to get on their computers and stream what amounts to a minor league NFL game (despite McMahon's protestations to the contrary) while they do laundry or something, but if people want better football, well, dammit, it's right there! Instead of watching teams named the Bengals or the Browns or the Patriots, you just need to tune into teams called the Sooners or the Knights or the Rockets.
Or the Buckeyes.
Where Ohio State fits into all of this is that in the past few seasons, at least on offense, I've seen a team that's been almost ashamed to let its freak flag fly, that seems almost insistent on proving the point of the original XFL that football in general had gotten too boring and stagnant. Bill Connelly tweeted this out earlier today:
Ohio State just baffles me. So awesome on average, so randomly conservative. Barrett was an incredible security blanket, though. Better or worse, itll change without him. pic.twitter.com/ZNz5NQmFP5— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) January 25, 2018
I'm not sure why Bill is baffled here. A good-to-excellent running game coupled with a predictably boring passing game helmed by a generally consistent and risk-averse quarterback led to a team capable of putting up a lot of points in a really unspectacular way.
During the season I tried to figure out why that annoyed me so much; after all, the Buckeyes put up over 41 points and 500 yards per game. You'd think that be enough for me to be satisfied, but it turns out that they way in which they accomplished that mattered to me as much as the fact that they did it.
So the conclusion that I came to is not that I was unhappy with how the 2017 Ohio State football season turned out, because I definitely wasn't, it was that I was unhappy with the fact that the success that the Buckeyes had seemed to come on the back of a thousand quarterback keepers behind the center. Under Tressel, winning in the most painfully staid and boring way was a fun anachronism that served the purpose of pissing everyone else off. Under Meyer, it just seems like a betrayal of what college football is all about.
My hope for the 2018 season is that Urban Meyer and company rediscover what has made Ohio State football during his tenure (and by extension, college football as a whole) more fun and interesting to watch than anything that the NFL or XFL is capable of producing: an exciting game backed up by well over a hundred years of traditions and pomp. Throw the ball downfield, get creative with the running game, and for the love of God, extend leads, don't preserve them.
At its best, college football can't be touched in terms of sheer entertainment, and at its best, Ohio State football is the best example of this. Vince McMahon is welcome to try, but if He Hate Me couldn't do it, a watered down version of a failed brand powered by nostalgia probably won't do the trick either.