On Feb. 19, Sea Dragons will fly into Washington, D.C. Thankfully, the District has gained new knights in shining helmets. The D.C. Defenders of the newly reformed XFL—a new springtime football league—will play them on the gridiron, to defend the castle that is Audi Field.
When the XFL first hit fields in 2001, D.C. did not have a team. Vince McMahon, then chairman of the World Wrestling Federation, wanted to create a springtime competitor to the NFL and make the sport more physically brutal after the NFL implemented rules to protect player safety—changes which, to some, fumbled the spirit of the game. He founded the XFL to fill that gap. But the league ended in disaster and folded after just one season, with commentators citing the poor quality of play and low ratings.
So when McMahon announced the return of the XFL in 2018, fans were more than skeptical. Few wanted the return of the bloodsport witnessed in 2001, especially with increased scrutiny on concussions and player safety. In order to match modern audiences’ preferences, McMahon marketed the new XFL as a faster-paced version of the “No Fun League” and introduced new rules for player safety. Those rules included faster game clocks, double forward passes to make defense more difficult, and creating safer kickoffs by preventing dangerous collisions.
Buzz developed around the league when play kicked off in 2020, with millions of people tuning in to watch spring football. That popularity propelled P.J. Walker, Josh Johnson, and other athletes to legitimate stardom. The D.C. Defenders debuted in this iteration of the league and went 3-2 over five weeks. Sadly, the league lost its momentum when the COVID-19 pandemic deflated the XFL once again.
The XFL was revived for a third time, though, when Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson purchased the league from McMahon for a reported $15 million. The 2023 season includes eight teams, some from the 2020 season as well as several newly formed clubs. The future of the league seems more stable, as The Rock has reached a research and development deal with the NFL, allowing him to test out new replay and player safety policies.
So with the new season imminent, excitement around the D.C. Defenders is exploding. One XFL news site ranked the team as second best in the league. And while rules that promote offense may make the Defenders’ name hard to live up to, the team’s coaching staff seems well-equipped to utilize player talent. Reggie Barlow, head coach of the Defenders, previously coached football at Virginia State, where he won both a championship and a coach of the year award. Not only is he an accomplished leader, but he also hopes to open the door to more coaches of color being hired in professional football.
Barlow is also surrounded by experienced coordinators. Fred Kaiss is a lifelong friend who worked with Barlow at Alabama State and will be coaching the offensive side of the ball. On defense, the Defenders hired Gregg Williams, who played an integral role in the New Orleans Saints’ 2010 Super Bowl win, ranking second in total forced turnovers. Despite his success, Williams was at the center of a scandal called “Bountygate” in 2012, when defensive players were paid to injure opposing players. There’s hope that Williams will turn over a new leaf with the XFL, but fans should be wary of supporting his coaching.
The Defenders also have a stellar roster for the 2023 season. D.C.’s quarterback room is a dangerous Cerberus; each player is a threat in the air, on the ground, and receiving. Jordan Ta’amu will play a central role in the position, as he has the most experience in the XFL. Formerly a quarterback for the St. Louis Battlehawks, Ta’amu finished the COVID-19 season with a passer rating of 101.3 (better than every NFL quarterback this season). His arm isn’t his only weapon, so expect to see him pick up a few rushing touchdowns to complement his excellent throwing skills.
QB Eric Dungey’s success is harder to predict, as he has not played significantly since graduating from Syracuse in 2018. Dungey’s athleticism may complement Ta’amu well, as they run at similar speeds and can create plays for each other. The Defenders shared a video of Ta’amu throwing to Dungey, highlighting the shifting positions bound to confuse XFL defenses.
D’Eriq King is the youngest of the three QBs, graduating in 2021 from The University of Miami. He threw more touchdown passes than either Ta’amu or Dungey during his college career, so it will be interesting to see him develop as the season progresses.
Turning over to the other side of the ball, D.C.’s defensive roster seems primed to take over the league. Safety Kentrell Brice should be utilized well by Williams (who is known for outstanding safety play). And with Brice’s experience in the NFL, he should be an anchor for this defensive unit.
Even as the Washington Commanders prepare for their fall season, the XFL may present a unique opportunity for D.C. residents bored by the typically slow pace of professional football. Tickets are well below the price of an NFL game, which makes the sport more financially accessible to those who are not wealthy, diehard fans. Audi Field, home of the D.C. United soccer team, is easier to get to from Georgetown compared to FedEx Field. Additionally, the Defenders’ fans have a tradition of forming a “beer snake” with their empty cups; clearly, the game environment will be electric come Sunday. So for those who want to see D.C. defended from Sea Dragons, Battlehawks, and the like, the 2023 Defenders are the team to watch.