Transcript: ESPN & XFL Season-Opening Media Conference Call
Today, ESPN and XFL executives broke down the upcoming season, including Disney platform-wide programming, innovative production elements, one-of-a-kind fan access and more during the first half of the call. In the second half, head coaches also discussed the on-field action and their approach for the upcoming season.
The 2023 XFL kickoff season begins Saturday, Feb. 18 across ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, FX and ESPN+. Full schedule details available at ESPN Press Room.
A transcript of the conversation is below:
ESPN: Tim Reed – Vice president, programming & acquisitions | Bryan Jaroch – Coordinating producer | Tom Hart – Play-by-play commentator | Greg McElroy – Analyst
XFL: Jay Rothman – Senior vice president, broadcast operations | Dean Blandino – Vice president, officiating and rules innovation
TIM REED: I just want to thank all the media for joining us today and everybody taking the time to spend with us prior to an exciting kickoff in week one this week.
The first half we’ll talk about programming, production, rules and innovation, and in the second half we’ll spend time with Coach Barlow and Coach Becht, Coach Barlow from the D.C. Defenders and Coach Becht from the St. Louis Battlehawks.
We’ll keep this as conversational as possible, but I do just want to highlight a few of the key programming initiatives or key notes from the programming perspective.
First and foremost, we’re really excited about where we landed just in terms of overall distribution. All 43 games, 40 regular season, two playoffs, one championship, will be featured on a combination of the Walt Disney Company networks, including ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, FX, and in one case we will simulcast between ESPN and FX.
In addition, one or more games each week, including the playoffs and the champ, will be available in Spanish on ESPN Deportes, and as a backstop, all XFL games will be streamed on ESPN+ in the U.S.
From an international perspective all games will be distributed across 142 countries globally. The first game is this week, Saturday, February 18, 3:00 p.m. on ABC, and we’ll have the Vegas Vipers facing the Arlington Renegades at Choctaw Stadium. We’re excited for kickoff. It’s coming here this weekend, which will be great.
Just want to highlight a couple other items. Right before the game on ABC this week you can catch Player 54: Chasing the XFL Dream, which we just announced right before this webinar. It chronicles — this is the exciting docuseries that will chronicle the building of the XFL and allow us to dive deeper into player stories, back stories.
I think that will help create more interest in the league, and we’re excited to premier that this week. The original airing will be on ESPN2 on February 15 at 5:00.
From a personal standpoint, I’m obviously really excited. We’ve been working on XFL here since the deal was announced even before that, last May. It’s been an exciting road to kickoff to this point. Just want to acknowledge the XFL and the tremendous partners that they’ve been from the ownership side, DJ, Dany, RedBird Capital, the XFL management team led by Russ Brandon, and also the XFL coaches, Coach Barlow, Coach Becht who are on this call.
I think the combination of the ownership, the management, the coaches, what we think is an exciting player roster going into the season, combined with the Disney platform, really make for a strong foundation for the league to launch.
As I said, we’re excited to get rolling.
I think the other key thing here is that the XFL and our partnership here, we really do have a tremendous opportunity for innovation, innovation in our production, and we really feel there’s an opportunity here to redefine how sports are covered.
To provide more detail on that, I’d like to welcome in Bryan Jaroch, Tom Hart play-by-play commentator Greg McElroy, analyst, Jay Rothman, the XFL senior vice president of broadcast operations, and Dean Blandino, vice president of officiating and rules innovation. Thank you again.
Bryan, I’ll kick it over to you to give more details on what our production is going to look like.
So thank you.
BRYAN JAROCH: Thank you. My name is Bryan Jaroch, coordinating producer here at ESPN, along with Steve Ackels, Lee Fitting. We manage college football, XFL, and the NFL, as we’re well positioned there.
Just a little bit about myself. I’ve been with the company for 23 years and I’ve covered some form of football, whether NFL or college, my entire career, so football is a passion of mine.
From our standpoint, we’re super excited to launch the XFL this weekend. From a production standpoint, we’ll have four primary crews with the breadth of experience, with college experience, pro experience. Most of these folks work on college football with us, so it’s going to be a fantastic group of announcers.
Every crew will have two in the booth, a play-by-play person and analyst, and then on the field we’ll have a reporter and what we call a field analyst for every crew.
We’ll have coverage all over the place, and one thing that we’re leaning heavily on is our three As. That’s our pillar for this XFL is action, audio, and access. Action speaks for itself with the players on the field. From an audio standpoint, we are going to have microphones with head coaches, coordinators, quarterbacks, and select players. We’re going to be dipping in and out of those microphones throughout the telecast, much like we did in the last version of the XFL.
It’s going to be fantastic. That access and that audio is unprecedented in sports, and I think it will change how we cover sports and football moving forward.
We’ll also have access, whether it’s access to the bench area, locker rooms pregame, halftime, postgame, all that access we’re going to take full advantage of. And then I see Dean Blandino on this call, as well, the access to the officials, the transparency we’ll have with the officials making their calls and also Dean Blandino as the head of officiating, that communication during a replay review is something that I think will change the way we cover sports and football moving forward.
Transparency is something that resonates with the fans. It’s what they want. Instead of on the production side us replaying and trying to interpret a call, we can listen in to the call, and if we need further clarification, we can tap into Dean afterwards and get that clarification if need be.
But that’s going to be an exciting element for all of our telecasts.
Another thing to know, we’ll have SkyCam on all four games, which is a game changer as well from a coverage standpoint.
I think with a robust production plan, these telecasts are going to be exciting, energetic, and fun, entertaining, informative. They’re going to be really entertaining.
With that, I’ll open it up to Greg and Tom and anyone else that would like to add to our plans for this fall.
GREG McELROY: Yeah, I’m Greg McElroy. Really looking forward to working with Tom, and Jaroch hit the nail on the head. This has been a bit of a passion of mine, as a guy that three consecutive years was player 53. Had I continued my career, likely would have found myself in situations in which I was player 54.
With how the world has changed at the highest levels of football right now, the lack of development with fewer preseason games, the lack of development as far as the amount of OTAs are concerned, one thing that you lose as a young player are just sheer repetitions in fall camp.
The one thing that used to be extremely beneficial, NFL Europe, was something that was really good for young players to get reps and to have those game-like opportunities to go out there and put their best foot forward. I think that there is a desperate need for player development at the highest level.
So many times you’ll see starters that get all the reps. I can remember going into fall camp getting one rep at practice, and that was usually a handoff.
I believe in the XFL. I’m a believer in what RedBird and obviously DJ and what Dany are doing. I believe in their message.
I think this is a great opportunity for people to go out, and we’ve already seen even from XFL 2.0 we’ve seen success stories.
I think this is something that a lot of people are going to be captivated by. There are no rules as far as our access is concerned. We’ll be able to interpret to the best of our ability what the offensive play is going to be, what the defensive play is going to be pre-snap, and that is obviously access that cannot be manufactured elsewhere.
It’s a cutting-edge, forward-thinking broadcast, and one which will involve gambling discussion and things of that nature, as well. It’s something that we’re all very, very excited about, and the opportunity to have 10 regular-season games in a period on the calendar in which football consumption and the cup that we have as football fans is not full even after the Super Bowl is an opportunity that I think we’re all very excited about.
We’re thrilled to be a part of the project. We’re off to a great start. The last time around before some hurdles obviously got in our way with the COVID-19 pandemic back in ’20, so we’re very, very excited about this new rendition and believe in the ownership group and believe in the players that have decided to choose the XFL for the future, for the next step of their career.
- When broadcasting an XFL game, how do you balance getting fans closer to the action and taking them behind the scenes as much as possible while keeping the focus on the action on the field.
JAY ROTHMAN: Good afternoon, everybody. Yeah, I think Bryan articulated certainly well all the access that we’re giving up, and just being a longtime producer, we’ve been in many discussions as a former longtime ESPN producer on NFL and college, and candidly it’s a thrill for me to be working back with my brothers and sisters on this, great partners.
But it’s a balancing act.
This is a much more difficult game to — I don’t want to put my producer hat on — but to produce than an NFL or college game because you have access to, as Bryan articulated, four talent, our Dean Blandino will be integrated command center, action on the field, all of the mics, et cetera. It’s a delicate dance, and candidly it’s a challenge integrating all.
But I think as Bryan articulated, to be able to hear head coaches, hear quarterbacks, hear the coach-to-player communication in game, access with reporters in the bench area interviewing players and coaches during the game, access to Dean when he’s hot and in the midst of a replay challenge or something of that nature, also being able to integrate him in, fans will get closer to the game. Fans will get right in it.
We’re proud to be a league of all access. We’re proud to be a league that’s saying yes. We’re proud to be building this partnership together with the best media company in the world.
We’re excited. We’ve been working hard for close to two years now on this, and we’re ready to roll.
- What’s the biggest rule change you’re looking forward to? What’s the biggest adjustment going to be for viewers in terms of the rules?
DEAN BLANDINO: Sure, hey, it’s Dean. Good to see everybody. I think we’re really excited. When we looked at the rules and the innovations that we made in 2.0, we felt like we were in a good place, had a good foundation, but we wanted to just take a step back and see if we needed to make any tweaks.
One of the things that I know I’m most excited about and intrigued by is we’re giving our coaches an opportunity to challenge anything. One time per game, it’s an all-in challenge, and any officiating decision a coach — if they have a time-out remaining, they can challenge that decision.
This has never been done before at any level of football, and something that we’ve talked about in my time, during my time with the NFL. Again, when you think about whether it’s a pass interference call that is made or maybe it’s a holding call that was not made and the coach thinks it should have been called, we’re going to give our coaches that opportunity.
I’m really excited, and like I said, intrigued to how they’re going to use that, when they’re going to use it, what type of play we’re going to see those coaches challenge that.
From my perspective, in addition to the access, I think the access is tremendous. I echo what was said previously, that our fans want that, but I’m very excited about giving our coaches an opportunity to challenge any officiating decision once during the game.
TOM HART: I’ll jump in. First of all, Greg, don’t sell yourself short, you made an entire career on handing the ball off, so that one rep may have been the one that got you to this point, and I want everybody to remember that.
I did a deep dive on the rule book and usually they put you right to sleep, but this one was a page turner for me. I’ve been excited about the kickoff rules that we had last time around, and those are back. There’s nothing more exciting to me in the game of football than the kickoff.
I was just at the Super Bowl as a fan. I don’t think I saw one single kickoff return in that game, and that was a sensational game. Last time around, if my numbers are right, 97 percent of the kickoffs in the old version of this league were returned. That’s a huge number, considering in the NFL it’s one out of three, four out of ten, somewhere in that range, between 30 and 40 percent.
The other thing that I found deep in the rule book that hasn’t been discussed much that I think fans, and this is another opportunity to be the league of the fan, is that there’s no more touchbacks on fumbles into the end zone. The offense will get it back out at the point of the fumble.
Dean can correct me on that, but that was buried in the rule book. It’s a rule that comes up every once in a while during the college season, during the pro season, and everybody throws up their arms and social media loses their collective minds. It’s the worst rule in football so they took it out, and I think that’s absolutely genius.
GREG McELROY: I would say probably my favorite rule as far as the changes, alongside with Tom, I think the kickoffs are phenomenal. I just think that’s the most exciting play, but it’s also the most dangerous play. As a former player, lost countless friends to season-ending injuries, to part-time injuries, just on kickoffs alone. Knowing that we’re trying to make the game safer, I think it’s a great alternative and one that creates a lot of action.
The one that I am most looking forward to, the last thing I want to do is see the game come down to a kicker. I know it sounds bad to say that, and obviously the Super Bowl was determined by a field goal and that was a great play, a heads-up play by the Kansas City Chiefs to declare a down and kick it with eight seconds on the clock.
But kicker meaning an onside kick. With a 12 to 13 percent success rate, I’m not really super fond of the onside kick in an end-of-game situation, but if I have a quarterback, like say Patrick Mahomes, I really like the idea of having a one down to get it on a 4th and 15 to extend the drive and to essentially keep my offense on the field and give them another chance.
The 4th and 15 gotta-have-it situation at the end of game as an alternative to the onside kick is something that I’m very excited about and something that I’ve thought about for a really long time.
- Aside from SkyCam on all four games, are there any exciting new cameras or technology that will be deployed for the XFL this year?
BRYAN JAROCH: I’ll lean on the microphones and the access that we have. The systems that we have in place are dynamic, and that audio access is going to be a game changer in terms of our coverage.
We will have wireless cameras on the field, whether to get on to the field after scoring plays, as we’ve seen, but also to get into the bench area and to get into areas that in other leagues we’re not able to get to.
That’s going to be a differentiating factor for us. We have a saying at ESPN: We like to humanize then analyze. All of these elements help us humanize and tell these stories and not just lean in on the audio and everything else. It’s using the technology as a vehicle to tell these stories and to show the access that we’re going to have.
And then the other thing, and I’ll toss this a little bit to Jay on this one, but the tablets that the coaches and the players will have on the sidelines are a game changer in terms of what they have access to. They’ll have the ability to sync up the all 22 and the high end zone camera at the same time and look at moving video on the sidelines and review that.
So that’s something that we’ll tap into from the production side and look into either watching a coach and player go through that or even have our reporter or field analyst go through a play with a player on the sidelines after a key play.
I’ll throw that to Jay if there’s anything else on the XFL side that you want to highlight.
JAY ROTHMAN: Yeah, that’s not in the box score innovation. We announced a partnership with Bolt6. The cool thing going back to the command center with Dean, to help with continuity and consistency for all games, through Bolt6, we’ll be getting individual camera feeds from all games back to the command center.
That same group, Bolt6, will be providing, as Bryan articulated, cameras to the sideline tablets on the sidelines, and also up in the coaches’ box. There will be three tablets per team in the bench area, two tablets up in the coaching box, where again, they’ll be able to — when you talk about improving play, coaching up players, being able to use two different camera angles, the high end zone, all 22 coaches’ film in action, in game, to coaches players up, for coaches to be able to challenge, that is a big game changer.
The other one I would say in the not-in-the-box-score category is the coach-to-player communication where in the NFL, for example, coordinator calls in a play to quarterback only. That communication cuts off with 15 on the play clock. We’re going to have no cutoff, and 15 helmets, 15 players per team will have access to coach-to-player communication, both offensive and defensive, and that will run up until the snap.
If you’re Greg McElroy and you’re a quarterback, it’s not cutting off at 15. Me, the offensive coordinator, can speak to Greg in real time – not that he wants that – but up until the snap on each and every play. Same thing on the defensive side of the ball.
Again, you talk about improving play, sort of that not-in-the-box-score innovation, we’re pretty excited about that element, as well.
- How excited are you for the three-point conversion?
GREG McELROY: Well, I love it, first and foremost. I loved it last time around. But what I love most is the analytics that ultimately come into play.
The last time I remember meeting with June Jones in week 5. He was the head coach at the time of Houston. He said, we’re going for three every time. Like just based on our study of every single XFL game up to this point, three-point conversion success rate is whatever percentage it was, and he just opted at that point, hey, it’s best to just go for it, and if anything else, there’s advantages to being at the 10-yard line, as opposed to being at the 5, when going for a gotta-have-it situation because you have more room.
I think, while I love the rule and I love knowing that even down 18 it’s a two-score game, what I love most is just the theory behind why you go for three, and at what point of the game do you start to make that change.
Obviously different analytics will tell you different things, but the analytics side has been such a huge part of the discussion at all levels of football recently about when to go for it on 4th down, where to go for it on 4th down, at what stage of the game do you need to start thinking about four-down territory.
Now incorporating different variances in the extra point try, knowing why they might do certain things at certain points of the game, I just think it’s great because it keeps you within striking distance, too, even if you’re playing awful.
Down 18 is rough, but as I continue to tell my team on the sidelines, hey, two-score game, that’s a great feeling, and it’ll obviously keep games tighter for longer, as well. It’s a great innovation. It’s one I wish all levels of football would consider.
TOM HART: I’ll echo a lot of what Greg said, but to his point about the analytics, it kind of runs parallel with our broadcasts. There will be some trial and error figuring it out on the fly.
The last time around in this league, at the very beginning of the season, Coach just said, we’re going for two. We think two is the way to go, that three is too much of a risk, that everybody is going to go for two and we’ve got to keep up with the Joneses.
But as more data came in, more teams did different things, that started to shift a little bit and that started to change towards what was the end of the season.
Yeah, I’m with Greg in terms of let’s think about football differently. Let’s think about it at a higher level. If that’s finding the right tools to decide where are we in this game, where are we with our personnel and what makes more sense, I think you’ve got a lot more options than a traditional game.
- Question around the topic of sports betting or fantasy coverage and how some of the content might be integrated into the broadcast.
BRYAN JAROCH: I can take that one. We’re going to grow sports betting with the XFL as Vegas grows. From our understanding, Vegas needs to see a few weeks of football before they expand on prop bets and live lines and other things, so to start the season they plan to put out a closing line and over/under, so we will have that displayed on the clock and score the entire game.
Then as Vegas expands to more betting options and more options, whether it’s prop bets, live lines, all of that, we will expand, as well, and we will be very aggressive with talking about sports betting during the game, talking about prop bets at the start of the game, hitting live lines after scoring plays. We will be aggressive with that as Vegas adds more options to that.
- What about reaching international fans? Is there anything we want to talk about how we are going to engage international fans into the XFL since the package is so robust outside the U.S.?
TIM REED: I can jump in on this one. I think from a marketing perspective from the XFL, if there’s specific international opportunities you think, Jaroch, are worth mentioning. I think from our end, like where we have distribution, both on owned and operated networks, and also on our syndication clients. The expectation is in those markets, like there’s going to be efforts made to pull people into the platforms and make sure there’s an awareness.
So there’s campaigns that will run in the various international markets where the content is going to be available, and I think that’s primarily how we’re going to end up reaching new audiences around the globe.
- With a thriving market in LA, are there any plans in the future for another LA or California team? Anyone want to speculate on that one?
JAY ROTHMAN: Not as of today. We’re excited about the eight markets we have. I would defer to our president, Russ Brandon, to speak with further expansion or our ownership group. Certainly that’s in play.
But we’re looking forward to launching this this season with the eight markets, the eight teams that we have, and go from there. But certainly there’s a vision to expand and grow.
- XFL Head Coaches: Reggie Barlow – DC Defenders | Anthony Becht – St. Louis Battlehawks
THE MODERATOR: I’m going to start by asking our coaches to give an overview of their teams, and just as a question to get it started, maybe just talk a little bit more about your teams and what you’re excited about as we head into the season opener this week.
REGGIE BARLOW: Thank you, everybody, for being on here. Obviously this is exciting times. Really excited about the opportunity to be in a leadership position and be a head coach in the XFL for the D.C. Defenders.
Our guys, our coaches, support staff, everybody obviously has been working really hard to be ready to put out a good product for our first game. The players have been really dialed in and really excited about this opportunity. They’ve been working hard, of course, learning schemes and how we’re going to do things around here.
It’s been fun to watch our guys grow, offensively, defensively. It’s been a long process. We’ve watched a lot of guys, and ending up with these 51 guys is really exciting. They’re putting in the work, and of course we look forward to seeing them continue to develop.
Of course on Sunday we get a chance to put our product out there and see how we measure up. It’s going good though.
ANTHONY BECHT: Appreciate everybody being on the call. Same sentiments for me, like Reggie said. I’m excited, number one, about my players. Such a unique opportunity. There’s a lot of players out there that want to be in these chairs and these seats.
It was very tough coming down to the 51 players and ultimately the 45 that we’re going to dress on game day. But a national audience, between ESPN, ABC, all the affiliates, to be the only show in town in their time block nationally, this is an excellent opportunity for our players.
Our job is to put them on the platform, number one, and their job to perform. This league will be built around the product on the field, like Reggie was talking about. Our preparation has been phenomenal. Our culture has been built.
The biggest question mark always when you’re forming a team from the ground up, the work put in to get those guys is can you develop a culture, a mindset and a team in 40 days leading into your first game?
We feel like we’re on the right track. I think the biggest thing probably for all the coaches is what it will look like on game day, how they’ll perform and what they’ll be. It’s always about the way you practice, the way you do it day-to-day, and putting the best staff around these players.
I think we have the best staff in football, and I’m sure Reggie thinks the same. That ultimately gives our players the best chance to be successful, but excited about the opportunity here on Sunday.
- Is there anything about the rules you find exciting or interesting that you think is really going to enhance the game experience?
REGGIE BARLOW: Well, some of those things were talked about earlier as I listened in, but obviously the kickoff, the rule for our kickoff, the way we do that is interesting. Obviously it’s safe. We’re talking about player safety. But it still allows us to give the fans what they want, and that’s action.
As mentioned, there’s 97 percent of kickoffs were returned, and that’s what people pay their money for, to come and see these guys perform. Looking forward to that, and that’s definitely one of the different rules that I think our fans will enjoy.
ANTHONY BECHT: For me it’s probably the point after touchdown, to have those three options available to you. The scores are going to be unconventional game to game, week to week, and there’s challenges there to figure out what best approach you want to have in a football game.
I love those situations that we’re going to be put in week to week to be on top of that as a coaching staff, but it also brings a lot of excitement. The fact that you can tie a game if you’re down by nine points, to me that’s pretty cool.
You’re really never out of this thing, and with the play and the parity, games should be close. We all want to blow the other team out of the water, but we also know that from our talent level, it’s pretty equal across the board. We all feel good about our players.
I think that’ll be an interesting part of what we’re doing. Even though it returns, it’s still something much different than the fans have seen in the traditional NFL rules.
- What are some of the key aspects of player development moving forward in the season?
REGGIE BARLOW: Well, I know for us, the league has done a great job, one, for off-the-field player development, hiring Brian Westbrook who brings a lot of value, and that’s to help these guys with finances, to help them with education, just anything that involves things that are outside of football.
I think from professional development, he’ll do a good job for us. Our guys have had a chance to engage with him and they’re excited about having the opportunity to meet a guy who has such a wonderful career and cares enough to be involved with the XFL.
ANTHONY BECHT: I think for us with our players, it’s just really giving them the belief that they can do it. I was pretty adamant and open to them on the first meeting that for whatever reason there’s holes in their game, in their process, in the situation they’re in, and it’s our job as a staff and coaches to fill some of those holes and give them an opportunity to shine, give them a platform, like I said earlier, for them to go out there and be their best.
It’s a challenge every single day because you’re trying to get the best guys on the field. You hope that you have some depth and you can roll guys. But in the trenches those things are difficult, as well, because trying to find the best available linemen to play for you. And then you worry about the uncontrollables. Injuries happen, and having counters for that.
I just think sometimes it’s a belief factor, getting your players to believe that they’re good enough to play at the level consistently and play at the next level. Ultimately they have to go out on the field and perform and do it, but I think for us to rise them up, push their buttons to be accountable, push their buttons to know what it takes to be a pro, but understanding we’ve got to lift these guys up so they can be at their best.
Because I think the fans and everybody watching this, they want to see a good product. They want to see good players out there performing, and we want to show them some great skill sets.
I think that to me has been something since day one, trying to mentally charge every single player on this roster is going to be key.
- We had a question about noting some of the high-profile head coaches in this league, and also Coach Becht, wanted to ask you about competing against Hines Ward in your season opener and just any thoughts there, as well. Any comments about yourselves and your peers in terms of that as well as maybe some of the rivalries?
ANTHONY BECHT: Absolutely, yeah. I have a lot of respect for obviously the tenured head coaches that are in this league, the quality, the product, what they’ve done in their career.
I’ve got a lot of respect for them. I’ve been around them playing 12 seasons in the NFL and I know a lot about them. There’s a lot of information out there about them.
Then you get into guys like Reggie and Hines and Rod and T Buck, the information is a little different. Different coaching staffs, different mentalities not really common to a lot of us. And then you have me and my coordinators. You don’t have anything on us.
That’s going to be good for probably one game, and then after that the product is kind of there and the shell of what you’re trying to accomplish is live for everybody to see.
Playing against Hines Ward, I just know how Hines played the game: physical, tough, focused, dialed in, attention to details. That’s something to me that’s going to be in the forefront of what the culture of his team is going to be. If it’s not, then that’s not a Hines Ward type of style team, so I’m fully expecting that. I expect a team that’s trying to be physical at the point of attack from the inside, all the way out to his receivers.
I know for me the bar is set high for our tight ends in respect of the standards that I place on them, while I know the receiver play for his team is going to be very similar.
I’m excited to go against him. I’m excited to be a part of that opener. I think it’s going to be electric. I’m excited to be in front of the fans, but I’m really excited to see our players compete, and ultimately that stuff will be great to kickoff.
And then from there it’s going to be the players’ game, the players’ showcase, the players’ platform, and I’m excited for that, as well.
- Any unexpected players we should be watching for league-wide, standouts, whether on your team or in the league?
REGGIE BARLOW: I think as far as coaches, we’ve done a good job of building a team. We kind of picked from the same (indiscernible). Obviously there will be a lot of parity in our league, but for our team, obviously our quarterback, Jordan Ta’amu, a guy that’s been around, played the game for a while. Santos Ramirez, a safety for us that’s had an opportunity to play in the NFL a few years.
There’s a list of them. Abram Smith, he was a guy that we chose the first round as running back, and obviously got to be able to run the ball. He’s a good one.
We’ve been blessed to have a lot of guys that have shown flashes. Joe Wallace comes to mind, a defensive tackle for us that played at Sam Houston.
But there’s a good bit of guys that I expect or that we expect to go out and really show their stuff, show the world that they belong and that they deserve an opportunity not only to stay and play in this league, but an opportunity to hopefully play in the NFL one day.
ANTHONY BECHT: Yeah, for us, obviously with our quarterback situation we looked at 100 quarterbacks like everybody else, and AJ McCarron was a guy that we felt like was going to be best to lead our football team. He’s been phenomenal. He has bought in and he’s got a chip on his shoulder.
He’s been a great leader for our football team. He’s been a great almost coach, general on the field, as well, and he has really helped groom a lot of players for our football team, in particular the other quarterbacks who we think very highly of and also the receiving corps of the details of what’s expected week in and week out.
As far as our defense is concerned, I think we may have some of the best group of linebackers in our league. We have speed. We have smarts. Our football IQ across each level of our linebacking corps is extremely high in my opinion. They’re very understanding of what they do, but they play fast, they play aggressive, and they play as one.
I’m excited. I think practice shows us some things. I see NFL players on my roster. I watch the practice film, and I see guys that quite frankly I scratch my head, and I’ve seen a lot of players over my career. I’ve seen a lot of different organizations. I know what NFL players look like.
We have those guys from a practice standpoint. Now it’s okay, when they get on the field, the lights are on and the showcase is now theirs, can they perform in that level on a consistent basis. I fully expect them to do that. If they have the aspirations of hitting the next level and getting back for some of them to the next level on a consistent basis, they’re going to have a great opportunity here with the XFL.
Those are just a few guys, obviously, but every player on our team has the opportunity to do the same thing. Just like all the other teams, as well.
I can’t speak for much of the other teams. I just don’t see them day-to-day. But clearly, like Reggie said, there are some guys that him and Von picked that I wish I had them, or initially they said the same thing about other guys getting picked.
We love our guys. We love who we have now. It was hard to whittle it down, at least for us. I felt like we had 70 guys that could have made this team. So the fact that we have 51 and we still can’t dress them all, I think that’s a good problem to have.
- Talk about some of the challenges, whether it’s preparing for the first game or just over the season as you’ve built something new.
REGGIE BARLOW: I mean, just to speak on it, the only challenge, obviously going into the first game with not much film, we’re playing Seattle. Obviously Coach Haslett has been around for a long time; Coach June Jones has been around for a long time, as well as Coach Zook who’s his defensive coordinator. Just trying to find relative good film on those guys in terms of what they do and defensively and offensively and special teams, so that’s been a challenge obviously going into this first game.
But in terms of other challenges and how this thing is set up, being in a hub city, I think it’s just all about your approach, just rather than focus on the challenges you focus on the great opportunity, you focus on an opportunity to develop these players and try to help them get to the next phase in their lives.
The only challenge I would say is just not having as much information on your first opponent that you would like.
ANTHONY BECHT: Yeah, I would say that that clearly is the same for us from an informational standpoint. I think how we counter that, it really doesn’t matter what they do. It’s all about us and how we control our circumstances.
You’re going to know the first snap. When I played the game and when Reggie played the game, I knew exactly how that D-end was going to be first time I blocked him. You gather information, you try to find clips of them in college or wherever they were in years past, and you try to find common people they went against that maybe you went against and you gauge it, but there is a challenge there from a personnel standpoint to see what you’re going to get in the first game.
I think the other thing to me that is a big challenge is playing four quarters of football. Some of these guys have not played more than four, five, six snaps in practice straight, let alone four quarters. Knowing that the first day we got together, how do you build them up, ramp them up, so that they’re prepared physically, conditioning-wise, so that they can go out, and if they have to go 10 straight plays or they have to drive down the field in the fourth quarter, how do you replicate that. It’s almost impossible to do even if you do those kind of things.
But for all these players, a lot of them, outside of the guys that were maybe in — even the practice squad NFL players that have come on, none of these guys have played in a full game in at least 12 months minimum, up to maybe 18 months on the high end.
Do I worry about it? No, because you feel good about your prep and how you got them ready, but man, clearly with only 45 players dressed and some of the things that happen and you get into that second half of the game, that’s something that kind of pops up to me that, again, could be something to keep an eye on.
- With the teams traveling, how does that impact the players’ and the staffs’ ability to keep them healthy during this season?
REGGIE BARLOW: Well, obviously the league has hired some of the best people and trainers and managers that will be able to provide services. We have a good one in pro Chris Lacsamana here. He’s been doing a good job for us. Obviously these guys are wanting to be pros, so they’ve got to understand and they know how to take care of themselves, how to get maintenance when they need it, going in to see the trainers.
We have a nice setup at our hotel. We have a nice setup here at Mansfield Stadium where the trainers are always available for them.
The league, the XFL understands the importance of safety and health. We’ve got great strength coaches. I see no challenges there.
ANTHONY BECHT: Me and Reggie share the same strength staff. Jesse Ackerman and his crew, they’re unbelievable. They come from NFL, they come from college, Eric Avila, our trainer, has been in the NFL and college. Kerry Gordon has done an excellent job in taking our feedback as coaches, as well. It’s very similar to what I had as a player when I played in the NFL.
Injuries will happen, soft tissue injuries will be at a premium obviously because of the fact, like I just explained, playing four quarters is going to be something new.
If we can find the best practices to prepare them, and hopefully we did, we can minimize that. We always push for body maintenance since day one for these players to stay on top of that. Don’t wait for something to happen; try to prevent it from happening, and try to coordinate that every day with our trainers, strength coaches and medical to make sure that we can limit those things from happening, but unfortunately things will happen. It does at the highest level and it does at our level and we have to deal with it.
We only have 45 players, but we have enough players to back up those players in certain situations, and we have to lean on them and have confidence in them when they’re on the field.
- Any thoughts or perspective on building a fan base and things that you’re doing as a team to build your fan base?
REGGIE BARLOW: Well, I think obviously when we were named the head coach here and was thinking about exactly where, which team would be over, and just knowing that the D.C. team and the tradition that they’ve already started the last time out, the fans participation was outstanding. They had a lot of enthusiasm about football there in D.C. We’ve gone out a few times to do some fan engagement stuff that has been really fun, and I’ve had a lot of people show up for that.
There are some other things that we’ll do when we arrive there the day before the game to obviously engage our fans even more, and then of course the product, playing well and letting them see that it’s a good product, and then of course after the game, before the game.
We understand. They talked about the four A’s and access is one of them. We want our fans to have access. We’re going to do whatever we need to do to make game day and the game experience a fun one for them.
ANTHONY BECHT: Listen, St. Louis fans are going to be incredible to see. This is the standard, I think, that was set back in 2.0. Ticket sales have been phenomenal. I’ve tried to take a very active role pre-draft to be up in St. Louis multiple times.
I’m probably a little unorthodox the way I use social media as a head coach. Quite frankly I’m not afraid to get on there and engage with fans and say things and give them updates because they’re a big part of our league’s success.
I want fans to be up to date and in tune to what we’re doing, and I want them to know their players. It’s up to me to put a product on the field and Reggie to get them excited, and there is a lot of excitement. There’s always that buzz.
We had a similar team experience in St. Louis a few weeks ago in the middle of training camp. We had close to 750 fans there. It was pretty impressive. I think it actually opened the eyes of our players because I don’t think they really realized the depth of what the St. Louis fan base will be.
Now, the league didn’t do me any favors putting me on the road for the first three weeks of the season, and we’re putting together something so that when we get home they can be excited about. But I’ll take that challenge; that’s fine. First year head coach, why not, put all the screws on me and see how we kind of get through it.
But I am excited to come through St. Louis, walk into that dome and see that crowd week 4. It’s going to be special. But right now I’ve got to figure out how to deal with everybody else’s crowd the first three weeks.
- A question taking us back to the draft. During the draft process, how did your strategy develop as it progressed, and did your preferred scheme change as a result of other teams taking certain players?
REGGIE BARLOW: Yeah, I appreciate that question. Actually a good question. We’re of the mindset that to be successful on offense you’ve got to be able to run the ball. There was an opportunity to get the running back that had great production at the college level. He has had great opportunities in the NFL and that’s Abram Smith, so we wanted to go with him. Obviously you’ve got to have guys to run behind, so we had to make sure that we got offensive linemen.
As Becht said earlier, there were players that we liked that other teams picked. You kind of have to make a change on that.
We know for us we want to be able to run the ball. We want to be physical at the point of attack. Having a good running back or two, having offensive linemen that can get that done, and then your pass rushers, obviously Greg Williams is our coordinator, I think everybody understands the style that he likes to play at, and of course we had to find guys that fit that.
I think Von, our director of player personnel, did a good job of casting this net and our coaches helping him out. He has great recall, and it’s impressive how many people and names that he can recall and the experience in how they play.
We’ve got good players. Obviously like we mentioned there were some guys that we really liked that other teams picked up, but that’s all a part of it. We’re happy with these guys. We’re developed our culture and who we are into that, and we’re just looking forward to them going out and competing on Sunday.
ANTHONY BECHT: Same for us, myself and Dave Bowler, our DPP, were really hand in hand. I took a very pointed role in finding and helping collaborate the players we were looking for.
I would say going into the draft when we finished we probably were about 85 percent of the guys that we wanted we got, and we stuck with it, and that’ll happen moving forward. When we got guys that go down, we’re going to bring back the guys that we have because that’s what we’re true and we feel that we had more than just 51 guys that were really good for us.
Obviously the trenches are always important, finding players that can play offensive line, defensive line. They’re just far and thin, and then if you find some, are there some out there that you feel like they have those pieces but you can lift their game in a short amount of time to be a pertinent part of what you’re looking for on the field in 50 days.
But my experiences obviously with the decade calling college football, I probably called a game by every player on my roster and some in the league, so I have a lot of mental notes on it these players that I can go back on, which is great to have through this process. It was a part of the reason that the process of me becoming a coach and the different areas as you go along your career as a player and the path that I chose that gave me some visuals of some of these guys and what they’ve done, and of course the network of coaches from the NFL level and the college level that I was able to kind of stay abroad with helps me find out the character side and those kind of things for the players so that you build a very good team from the top of the bottom that has nothing to do with their play on the field.
Love my team. These guys have bought in. I think it’s always difficult to start from the ground up, put it through a draft, pick guys that have never roomed or had a relationship to each other. Now they’re roommates and they spend time with each other.
It’s the greatest game in the world. It’s the greatest team sport. It’s been fun to watch that happen. I see relationships unfold in front of me at practice, at the hotel, at dinner, at lunch, our team events, everything that we do.
It’s been great, and that is an important part of how your team is successful, and we recognize that, and we feel like the guys that we got are exactly the ones that we needed to fill our uniforms for our team starting this week.
- You both talk so passionately about your teams and about this experience. Anything you want to talk about in terms of this career opportunity and making the decision to actually become coaches? What drew you to the opportunity overall?
REGGIE BARLOW: Well, for me, obviously I’m humbled and just blessed to have this opportunity. When it started out, having a conversation with some of the league executives, obviously I was coaching in college, but just was really excited about the opportunity, and then as I read more, got more information about the league, you look at the leadership, extremely impressive the leadership, the owners. Definitely want to be a part of that.
Obviously Ms. Garcia, the things that she’s accomplished in life, and RedBird Capital, just the entire league and the owners, just wanted to be a part of it.
Then of course guys like Russ and Mark and those guys, they obviously have been in the NFL for a long time, have had a lot of success, just an opportunity to get around them guys, to learn even more about the game of football and building a team and all that stuff has been extremely exciting.
Then of course the coaches that they’ve chosen, all really great guys, lots of experience.
Then the other part is being able to develop men. That’s what I’ve been doing the last 15 years. This was another extension of that.
All of those factors, and then just the opportunity to continue to coach, obviously, on a professional level was impressive, as well. Extremely humble and blessed, excited about the opportunity. I look forward to building these guys and competing as the season goes.
ANTHONY BECHT: Yeah, listen, there’s a lot of strong candidates out there that they had to whittle through to find the candidates they felt that best fit. Learn every day from Reggie, guys that have done it, Haslett, Wade. I got a tremendous amount of respect for what they’ve done in their career.
But for me, I also know that there was a vision, a path. There’s information. There’s things that I’ve been waiting for this moment. Some would say it’s unorthodox maybe to jump into a head coaching role quickly, not having that head coaching role experience or for whatever path they feel like I came from, but if you’re ready for the moment and you’re ready to become the leader of men and put a great staff together and have a plan in place, I think those things obviously fall in line to being successful.
I’m just incredibly grateful to leadership from this company. When Dany and Dwayne and Jerry bought this league back in August of whatever it was, 2020, I immediately put pen to paper, and like I said before, I’m getting one of these jobs. I was not on their radar, but I made myself available to be on their radar.
And just like all of us trying to drive and strive to be somewhere, we don’t take handouts, I don’t take handouts. You’ve got to be proactive in everything you do. If you get in that chair and you get in that seat, be ready for it and be ready to sell something that makes sense and buys in with their plan.
Again, just incredibly fortunate and can’t wait to be a part of it on game day, but at the end of the day the players, having them prepared and showcasing them, for me I just want to be the best coach each and every day, the next day, today, and hopefully I did yesterday, and whatever lies for me moving forward to this is what it is, but right now I’m just happy to be here and can’t wait to start the season.
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