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Spring football returns for Tampa Bay in XFL Vipers debut Sunday

Florida Football Insiders

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Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in 35 years spring professional outdoor football is back in the Tampa Bay area as the XFL’s Tampa Bay Vipers take to the field in their first ever game to open the 2020 regular season Sunday at the New York Guardians.

The re-boot of Vince McMahon’s Football League commenced on Saturday, when the D.C. Defenders defeated the Seattle dragons 31-19 in the nation’s capital and then, the Houston Roughnecks took out the L.A. Wildcats 37-17 in game two in the Lone Star State.

Now, the other four teams in the professional wrestling promoter’s relaunch of the XFL are in action on Sunday. And, that includes the Vipers led by former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and former Bears and CFL Grey Cup-winning coach, Marc Trestman at the helm.

We wrote earlier this week, when the Vipers finalized their roster there will be some familiar names to state football fans when they take the field in the Meadowlands this afternoon.

That’s led by Murray, who was drafted in the NFL by the Kansas City Chiefs but is better known in Tampa, as he won a state championship at Plant High School before heading to star at QB for Georgia. He will be challenged by former Marshall quarterback Chase Linton, but also USF record-breaking quarterback, Quinton Flowers.

Flowers, who lit up Raymond James Stadium game after game with the Bulls, is listed on the final roster as a QB / RB for his tremendous quickness and rushing stats from his USF days. It’s not expected that Flowers will see a lot of action at quarterback, except maybe on an occasional “Wildcat situation.” It will be fascinating to see if Trestman, who has long been a previous successful offensive coordinator in the NFL, uses him as a running back and maybe, even a receiver to start the season.

There are other recognizable names from the state like: former Gators and Cleveland Browns receiver Antonio Callaway. Although, Callaway has had a checkered career involving a drug suspension at the University of Florida and then also in the NFL before the Browns released him last season.

The Vipers also kept former Buccaneer wide receiver Donteea Dye on their final roster, as well.

And, a familiar name will be carrying the ball some for the Vipers, at least to begin the season. That’s De’Veon Smith, a former Michigan College running back, who played briefly with the Dolphins in 2017. However, Smith also starred for Steve Spurrier and Orlando in last Spring’s one and only year of the Alliance of American Football League.

Smith will battle against former Florida State running back, Jacques Patrick and Gators running back, Mack Brown. Some more familiar names will include former Florida Gator defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson, and UCF defensive back Rannell Hall.

Speaking of Spurrier, the outstanding Heisman winning Gators QB, who eventually led Florida to a National Title in 1996, was the coach of the previous Spring football entry in Tampa, the USFL’s Bandits from 1983-85. The wildly successful Bandits made the playoffs each of the three years in front of nearly sold out crowds every game behind Spurrier’s offensive innovation.

And clearly, McMahon and the league are trying to regain that interest in a market that enjoyed success 30+ years ago.

The Vipers defense will be coordinated by former flamboyant Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville. Glanville was always known for his aggressive physical defenses, when he coached in the NFL and has recently been a college head coach at Portland State and a college defensive coordinator in the Pacific Northwest.

The Guardians, who are obviously making their debut are quarterback by former Penn State and Raiders QB Matt McGloin. The Vegas sports books have made New York a three point favorite in this opener.

Tampa Bay will play its first two games on the road before opening at home on Saturday February 22nd with Houston.  And, Sunday’s game is televised nationally by Fox Sports and will be followed by the remaining two teams who have yet to play their first game St Louis and Dallas.

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Time for concern after XFL TV ratings declined again last week?

Florida Football Insiders

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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For the second consecutive week, the XFL televison ratings continued to slide in the wrong direction. And, the troubling part is that if the trend continues, the XFL will have no leverage for sponsors and revenue to keep it going long term.

First, here are the specifics on the bad viewership news: According to Showbuzzdaily.com all four XFL broadcasts last Saturday and Sunday afternoon had lower ratings in their slot than the previous week.

That includes the Tampa Bay Vipers home debut against Houston, which was the early game on ABC Saturday. And, while that window had 400,000 less viewers than week 2, the bigger concern is ABC has lost almost 40% of the audience from the 3.3 million average that watched their Week one debut game on Saturday afternoon.

The ratings downward trend is following the same pattern as last Spring’s Alliance of American Football, where the ratings dwindled to under a million fans for broadcasts by week five and eventually the league shut down after just eight weeks. This was in part because of concerns on how the AAF could make any revenue, through television in specific, if they had very little audience for the end of year one and to sell off of for year two.

Now, WWE owner Vince McMahon, who folded the XFL the first time in 2001 in large part because the television audience plummeted over the course of the first month or so of its existence and never recovered, has the same issue in 2020.

And, as we wrote previously, this audience decline while negative is far less McMahon’s original XFL and it’s first season of 2001.  That’s when, it debuted on its first Saturday night on NBC with a massive 10.1 rating, which translated 18 years ago to more than 9.5 viewers on network TV. A Smashing success.

However, the XFL’s ratings plummeted starting the following week and had fewer than 25% of that opening night audience just a month later with the games still being shown on a Saturday night coveted slot on NBC. It doomed the league from a P.R. and sponsor standpoint and McMahon pulled the plug.

Now, in 2020, McMahon reportedly has money to burn and is apparently prepared to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in year one. So, even if the XFL TV ratings continue come down significantly, it will not spell the end of the XFL (like it did nearly 20 years ago) after just a single season.

At least, that’s what we think.

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Vipers better but drop third straight game in home opener

Florida Football Insiders

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Mary Holt- USA Today Sports

Although their play was improved offensively, in the end it wasn’t enough for the Tampa Bay Vipers after they dropped their third straight XFL game to start the season 34 – 27 to Houston Saturday afternoon in Tampa.

Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker threw for three touchdowns and ran for another, as Houston scored early in the fourth quarter to go up by seven and held off the Viper the rest of the way.

The Vipers offense came to life after they had failed to score in the offensive touchdown in either of their first two games. Both of which were losses on the road. Quarterback Taylor Cornelius, subbing for starter Aaron Murray who missed his second straight game with an injured foot, once again had modest numbers 16-31 for 193 yards 1 TD, 1 INT.

However, he did pull the game even at 18 – 18 at the half after scoring on a one yard QB sneak and Tampa Bay got the two-point conversion.

Still, the former Oklahoma State quarterbacks day was inconsistent and the home crowd at Raymond James Stadium began to chant the name “Flowers, Flowers” for former USF Star Quarterback Quinton Flowers, who played sparingly for the third straight game in a reserve role.

Flowers got Tampa Bay’s first offensive TD on the young season with a seven yard run in the first quarter, but only played QB sparingly in the game, again. He was just 4-6 for 57 yards passing with 29 yards on six attempts on the ground.

Meanwhile, the former Temple star Walker found receiver Cam Phillips for the third of their three touchdown hookups from 17 yards out to give Houston a 34 – 27 lead with just over 10 minutes to play. Phillips devastated Jerry Glanville’s Vipers defense for 194 yards receiving on eight catches with the three TDs.

The Vipers look like they were going to have a chance to re-tie the game when Cornelius (above) completed a pass to his top target on the day, Jaylen Tolliver, at the two-yard line. However just like a week ago in Seattle when a critical fourth quarter drive stalled and Tampa Bay came away with no points in a 17 – 9 lost the Dragons, the Vipers got no points after Cornelius threw incomplete on second, third and fourth downs.

Many in the crowd and observers in the media were curious, as to why coach Marc Trestman didn’t go to Flowers as the dual threat running QB to at least try something different on one of those plays? Flowers even questioned why he did not play more after the game to the media.

The Vipers got the ball one final time, but Cornelius was picked off near midfield with just over a minute left to seal the defeat.

The Vipers played the first spring professional football game in Tampa, since the closing of the USFL 1985 season. That’s when Steve Spurrier’s Tampa Bay Bandits were a popular item at Old Tampa Stadium. Saturday’s home opener drew and announced crowd of 18,117.

However it’s little consolation for former Bears and CFL coach Trestman and his team, as they remain winless on the season. The L.A. Wildcats playing Sunday are the other 0-2 team in the league, currently.

And, you have to wonder whether Trestman will be forced to go to Flowers for the start when they host the D.C. Defenders next week.

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