- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2020

Just six days after the Super Bowl — and six weeks after the Washington Redskins packed it in — professional football was back on TV Saturday.

The new-look XFL debuted in Washington, D.C., with a tight, high-scoring game, a few trick plays and thousands of fans enthralled by the action.

The DC Defenders defeated the Seattle Dragons 31-19 to kick off the new iteration of the XFL 19 years after the original league’s one and only season.

At the first of four XFL games this weekend, those in attendance included Shane McMahon, son of XFL founder Vince McMahon, and commissioner Oliver Luck. Audi Field, D.C. United’s 20,000-capacity stadium, brought in an announced crowd of 17,163 fans.

The XFL has promised a more exciting twist on football and a more fan-friendly viewing experience, which includes shorter games. Though league officials had a stated goal of keeping games under three hours, the inaugural game concluded at 5:07 p.m. after a scheduled 2 p.m. kickoff.

Defenders coach Pep Hamilton said there were “so many unknowns” leading up to the game, including “paranoia” about how to manage a 25-second play clock, which is faster than the NFL’s 40 seconds. In the end, everyone from the coaches and players to the fans was glad to get the season off the ground, two years and one month after the XFL’s initial announcement.

“I thought our fans were outstanding,” Hamilton said. “I thought it was a great atmosphere. The energy was great. Our players, they fed off of the energy … We’ve been behind closed doors for the past couple months, and we’ve been fighting each other in a tactful way. We’ve been fighting each other like brothers.”

DC quarterback Cardale Jones earned premature “M-V-P!” chants from fans on his first drive of the game, but when it came time to live up to the hype he made a stellar debut. Jones threw several perfectly-placed passes on his way to going 16-for-26 for 235 yards and two touchdowns.

The Defenders fulfilled the defining attribute baked into their name by coming away with four takeaways — a blocked punt, two interceptions and a fumble — and scoring touchdowns on defense and special teams.

“I talked prior to the game about us having a desired identity, and now I think we have actual fingerprints,” Hamilton said.

Dragons receiver Austin Proehl, son of former NFL veteran Ricky Proehl, scored the league’s first touchdown with a 14-yard catch late in the first quarter.

The Defenders’ first trip to the end zone came on special teams. After a bad unnecessary roughness penalty on center Dillon Day backed Seattle up into its own end zone, Elijah Campbell blocked a punt and linebacker Jonathan Celestin recovered it for the score.

An instant ABC sideline interview with Day went viral, as the offensive lineman dropped an F-bomb on live television and it went uncensored.

Defenders kicker Ty Rausa nailed a 54-yard field goal that cut the Dragons’ lead to 13-12 entering halftime.

Saturday’s game did not feature any double-forward passes, which the new league legalized, but the Defenders’ biggest highlight came on a double-reverse flea flicker. A handoff to Donnel Pumphrey was reversed to receiver Eli Rogers — then pitched back to Jones, who tossed it to a wide-open Khari Lee for a 39-yard touchdown on the first drive of the second half.

“Practicing it, it was pretty difficult because Khari was not patient enough to get this play done (and) the defense kept sniffing it out,” Jones said. “I was a little skeptical, but Khari came to us, not just me but the coach, and let us know, ‘Hey, I got it. Trust me, I got it in the game.’ We called it, like ‘What do you think about Boilermaker?’ The coach headset comes through to all of us. Khari gave ‘em the nod, and we ran it and he scored.”

Proehl added a second touchdown in the second half: a pitch-and-catch he took 57 yards to the house right after the Defenders’ trick-play touchdown, tying the game at 19.

But the Defenders drew back ahead with a 31-yard toss to former Redskins receiver Rashad Ross. On the ensuing Seattle drive, quarterback Brandon Silvers was intercepted by DC safety Bradley Sylve for a 69-yard pick-six. That made it 31-19, where the Defenders held firm the rest of the game.

At least one Defenders fan had the Redskins on his mind, illustrated on a handmade banner that read “HTTD” instead of “HTTR” along with “Sell the team, Dan.”

There was another Redskins connection in this game: Seattle is coached by one-time Washington coach Jim Zorn.

“No emotions about coming back to D.C., although, nice job by the XFL making that happen,” Zorn said. “I enjoyed it because of the familiarity of being here.”

DC is 1-0 and plays at home again next Saturday against the New York Guardians. Each XFL team will play 10 regular-season games before a four-team playoff, with the championship game coming April 26.

McMahon told reporters before the game the XFL’s success will be defined by “smiles on faces,” a sentiment echoed later by XFL president and COO Jeffrey Pollack.

“If the fans who attend and watch at home feel as though it was a good football game and they had a fun time either watching or being in this awesome venue with us, that’s success,” Pollack said. “We’re taking a long-term view in this. Success ultimately will not be measured in the first game or the first weekend or the first season. We know we need to earn our stripes with our fans and we’re prepared to put in the time and do that.”

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