SEATTLE — On Saturday afternoon, the XFL’s Seattle Dragons took their flying leap off the top turnbuckle at CenturyLink Field. The question was whether the Dragons would deliver the knockout blow, bringing the crowd roaring to its feet, or whether they’d crash face-first into the canvas because nobody was there to land on.
The XFL made its Seattle debut Saturday afternoon, as the Dragons hosted the Tampa Bay Vipers in their first ever home game. This was the test of whether professional wrestling magnate Vince McMahon’s latest attempt at creating a second outdoor professional football league had legs in the Pacific Northwest.
And while the football may have been more at the level of a regional wrestling outlet, the crowd was the equivalent of WWE champion Brock Lesnar’s F5 finishing move.
Indeed, the Dragons may have opened their CenturyLink account with a 17-9 victory over the Vipers. But perhaps more important, the Dragons drew 29,172 orange-towel-waving fans, showing the area may just have a thirst for professional football beyond the Seahawks.
— Nick Patterson (@NickHPatterson) February 15, 2020
This is the XFL’s second go-around. Its first iteration lasted only one season, and there’s been further skepticism about a second pro football league following the AAF’s abject failure last year. Seattle saw encouraging first signs during its season-opening 31-19 loss on the road against the DC Defenders last Saturday, which drew 17,163. But what would the reception be like around the Puget Sound, which was getting a second football team for the first time?
A foray down to the field-level concourse about an hour before kickoff revealed Seahawks-like activity. A surprising number of fans were decked out in Dragons gear, including several wearing green dragon onesies. And for the most part the fans were respectful enough to leave their Seahawks gear at home — with the exception of the throwback No. 10 jerseys, a nod to Dragons coach and Seahawks Ring of Honor member Jim Zorn. Every location selling Dragons gear had lines 50 deep.
— Nick Patterson (@NickHPatterson) February 15, 2020
By the time the game began the lower bowl at CenturyLink was essentially full, displaying all the vim and vigor of a Seahawks crowd.
This was a chance for the Seattle fans to get their first look at the rule changes implemented by the XFL. The new kickoff rules, in which the teams line up at the receiving team’s 35- and 30-yard lines and don’t move until the ball is caught, will take some getting used to. The changed extra-point rule, in which teams can go for one, two or three points, with the plays starting at the 2, 5 and 10 respectively, is interesting, though one has to wonder whether a possible three-point swing gives too much weight to one play from scrimmage.
As for the action itself, those used to seeing Russell Wilson operate at CenturyLink were in for a letdown. The obvious difference between what we saw Saturday and an NFL game was the quality of the quarterbacking. There were inaccurate throws, quarterbacks and receivers on different pages, and poor pass protection resulting in sacks.
Evidence of this came early when Tampa Bay’s Taylor Cornelius lofted a ball up for grabs that was intercepted by Jeremy Clark for the Dragons’ first big play at CenturyLink. It also manifested itself when Seattle’s Brandon Silvers threw well short of Meadowdale High School graduate Connor Hamlett on a tight-end screen and was picked off by Tarvarus McFadden for a 78-yard pick-six, giving the Vipers a 9-0 lead early in the third quarter.
But Silvers earned redemption when, just two plays later, he hit former Seahawk Keenan Reynolds in stride on a deep post route for a 68-yard touchdown, which got Seattle back in the game.
Then the Seattle defense — where have we heard that before? — went to work. Defensive end Marcel Frazier picked off a screen pass point blank, with his momentum carrying him into the end zone for a 1-yard TD that gave the Dragons a 14-9 lead. Then Seattle mounted a huge goal-line stand, with a botched snap on a field-goal attempt leaving Tampa Bay empty-handed.
The end of the game gave us another look at the rule differences, as the clock stopping after every play following the two-minute warning set up a dramatic finish. The Vipers had the ball caught in the end zone, but Daniel Williams was flagged for offensive pass interference. On the game’s final play, Seattle’s Kyle Queiro came down with the interception in the end zone, and the CenturyLink crowd went wild.
“It wasn’t quite as loud as a full stadium,” Zorn said. “But it was loud for our players, and to see the fans in Dragons gear and all the things our marketing group put together for the players and fans, I was really excited about that because it felt like a real game. Eventually we’re going to say it felt like a real XFL game. I’m excited for what the crowd brought with the enthusiasm and the backing.”
It was far from an offensive masterpiece, especially through the air. The teams combined for just 263 yards passing, with Silvers going 7-for-18 for 91 yards. The long TD to Reynolds was just about all Seattle got in the pass game, but it was enough.
“We just needed one big play to get us up and going,” Silvers said. “I didn’t play very well in the first half. We knew coming out in the second half we just needed one good play to get us going, and it was a big play by Keenan getting open.”
Maybe it wasn’t a classic, but it was a win.
Will the XFL have staying power? That’s hard to say, particularly if it can’t make the offense more watchable.
But, thanks to the fans, at least in Seattle it appears the XFL has a foundation to work with.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.