Credit: Kelyn Soong

Inside the press box at Audi Field last Saturday, former NFL All-Pro wide receiver Santana Moss watched intently alongside 17,163 football fans at the game between the DC Defenders, the city’s newest professional football team, and the Seattle Dragons.

On the field below, he saw former NFL peers and coaches competing in the game they love: Jim Zorn, the Dragons’ head coach, coached Moss during his tenure with the local NFL team, and Defenders head coach Pep Hamilton overlapped with Moss when they were both with the New York Jets. Even an ex-NFL teammate, Defenders wide receiver Rashad Ross, was on the field.

Moss wasn’t going to miss the debut of the rebooted XFL in his adopted hometown. 

“I just wanted to see the atmosphere,” says the 40-year-old Moss, who retired from the NFL after the 2014 season. “I was going to pay attention regardless because I love football. I wanted to see how different it was from the last time around and how different it was from the NFL.”

Wrestling mogul Vince McMahon first launched the XFL in February 2001, taking the NFL, already criticized for its celebration of violence, and infusing it with his appetite for manufactured entertainment. 

New rules like eliminating fair catches on punt returns and implementing a “scramble” instead of a coin toss to start games meant the league encouraged the potential for more violence. Cheerleaders in outfits considered revealing by NFL standards, roamed the sidelines. Players had a wrestling-inspired penchant for using nicknames like “He Hate Me” and “Baby Boy” on the back of their jerseys.

The league, which consisted of eight teams located mostly on the east and west coasts, initially garnered interest for its gimmicks, but ceased operation in May 2001 after NBC pulled out of its broadcast contract. Other attempts at a spring outdoor football league have also failed. The Alliance of American Football (AAF) league, founded by film and television producer Charlie Ebersol and football executive Bill Polian, filed for bankruptcy before the completion of its inaugural season in 2019.

But this year, the XFL is back. The league’s second act has focused more on the product on the field with the tagline, “For the Love of Football.” Team rosters include former NFL players and collegiate stars. Cardale Jones, who led the Ohio State University to a national championship in 2015, is the Defenders’ starting quarterback. 

“To me, [it’s] similar to what we watch on Sundays compared to back in the day where it was more entertainment like WWE, where it wasn’t giving football fans what they need,” Moss says. “But this time around, it’s allowing guys to play football.”

In its new iteration, which includes eight franchises scattered across the country, teams have a 25-second play clock compared to 40 seconds in the NFL, with the goal of completing games under three hours. Instead of kicks, teams have the option of running a play from the 2-, 5-, or 10-yard line after a touchdown; each is worth a different number of points. 

Coaches are mic-ed throughout the game, and sideline reporters chase down players after a big play for interviews, giving fans watching on TV behind-the-scenes access that the NFL doesn’t allow.

Moss hopes the new version of the XFL can give ex-NFL and collegiate players another chance to prove their worth to NFL teams. Moss has stayed close to football since retiring from the NFL. He’s worked as an analyst for NBC Sports Washington, has his own podcast, The Santana Moss Show, makes regular appearances on sports talk radio, and served as the color commentator for the Washington Valor, the local team in the Arena Football League, which folded last year.

“I want to [see] a league that’s more than what we know. That can be clutch for us in the spring. If it stays around longer, that’s great,” Moss says. “I think it’s another tool we can use for guys who need another year after school and for guys to have that second chance again. I’m all for football being year-round. The NFL itself can’t be that long. It’s better to have something else to give these guys a shot to live out their dreams and make a living doing it.”

On that front, the XFL might already be succeeding—a handful of players on the DC Defenders’ 52-man roster were previously selected in the NFL Draft, and the majority of players have at least been on an NFL practice squad roster.

And the league’s debut showing indicates there’s a local appetite for more football. Fans wearing Nationals World Series gear, Capitals jerseys, and NFL hoodies showed up well before the 2 p.m. kickoff at Audi Field for the inaugural game and watched the Defenders beat the Dragons, 31-19.

According to Darren Rovell of The Action Network, the XFL surpassed ticket sales revenue for the entire AAF season before kickoff on Feb. 8.

“I think you had a good sense just based on the energy in the stadium that we all love football,” Hamilton said after the game. “We all love football, we all were dying to have an opportunity to come together and enjoy something that’s been a favorite pastime for us for quite some time. And I mean, D.C. is a great sports town, and the energy was great.”

It doesn’t hurt to have ESPN, Fox Sports, and ABC as broadcasting partners and McMahon’s deep pockets. Sports Business Journal’s Austin Karp reported that ABC’s XFL opener averaged 3.3 million viewers, and ESPN reported in 2018 that McMahon expects to spend “closer to $500 million in the league’s first three seasons.”

Not many upstart leagues, particularly in women’s sports, have that type of support or investment.

“The XFL provides us yet another reminder that in men’s sports, the rules are simply different,” wrote sports journalist Lindsay Gibbs in her Power Plays newsletter.

Players on the DC Defenders recognize the opportunities the XFL offers. On Saturday after the game, safety Rahim Moore and wide receiver Eli Rogers sat together in a post-game press conference and spoke about their affinity for the sport. Both players have competed in the NFL and aren’t taking anything for granted.

Rogers, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers after going undrafted in 2015 out of the University of Louisville, chose to play on Saturday, just a few days after his mother passed away. He never considered skipping the game.

“She would want me to play,” Rogers said. “I love football, so football has always been a haven for me to be free.”

The Denver Broncos drafted Moore in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft, and he bounced around the league before the New York Giants released him in 2017. Moore also played for the Arizona Hotshots of the AAF last season. The Defenders selected him in the seventh round of the 2020 XFL Draft.

Moore said he doesn’t know what he’d be doing right now if the XFL didn’t exist.

“Definitely a second chance for your career,” he said of the league. “I mean, ball is ball. We have an NFL coaching staff. We got a lot of NFL players … A lot of guys I feel like on our team should be in the NFL, but this is where we are now and we got to take care of business here now. I mean, I love it. I have no complaints.”