Steve Young and Jim Kelly engaged in one of the greatest quarterback duels of all time 35 years ago this week.
The two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks combined for 829 passing yards in a 34-33 thriller. Kelly had a record 574 yards and five touchdowns. It was one of the greatest games of all time — and it happened in a 1985 game between the Houston Gamblers and Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League (USFL).
Fast forward to the 2019 version of the XFL, which has seen ratings dip for the second straight week. It's no accident why those ratings are slipping: The quarterback play, even with the emergence of players such as Houston's P.J. Walker, needs to be better for this league to survive past the incubation period.
The average XFL game through three weeks of the season features 432.3 passing yards, 3.1 touchdowns and 2.3 interceptions. Teams average 216.1 passing yards per game, which would have ranked 22nd in the NFL in 2019. That's not enough to captivate a new audience.
Walker has been great through three weeks. He leads the XFL with 748 passing yards and 10 passing touchdowns to one interception. He might even get a look at an NFL roster. The XFL needs at least half of its quarterbacks to perform at that level. Walker needs to be the rule, not the exception.
Take out Walker's stats, and the rest of the league averages 211.4 passing yards per game with 28 touchdowns to 28 interceptions. DC's Cardale Jones and St. Louis' Jordan Ta'amu are the only quarterbacks who have started in all three games and average more than 200 passing yards per game (and Jones is coming off a four-interception disaster after an encouraging start). Dallas' Landry Jones and Los Angeles' Josh Johnson would be in that group too, had they not missed a start.
That is the good group of XFL quarterbacks. Keep in mind, this league was selling Landry Jones as a star from the start. But if you take out Walker's stats again, there have been eight games in which quarterbacks have thrown for multiple touchdowns. That matches the eight games in which quarterbacks have thrown multiple interceptions. Again: nowhere near good enough.
Quarterback is the toughest position in sports, made more difficult with a struggling pass protection (XFL games average more than four sacks per game) and absence of a consistent run game. A quarterback who averages 216.1 yards in the NFL would have fallen between Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky and Denver’s Joe Flacco last season. Those two aren't exactly beloved by their fan bases at the moment.
None of this should come as a huge surprise for the viewership. Arena Football and the CFL have quirks to get around that. Does the XFL have the same thing in mind? This is the bind for XFL commissioner Oliver Luck.
If it truly is to be a developmental league, then you have to stick with quarterbacks such as Walker, Jones and Ta'amu. But in a league with eight teams, quarterback disasters such as the one in Tampa Bay (whose three quarterbacks have combined for one touchdown and six interceptions) and New York (whose quarterbacks have combined for two passing touchdowns and three interceptions) — are much more visible.
With that said, should the XFL seek out more visible quarterbacks? The list is easy to come up with: Colin Kaepernick is too expensive. What about Johnny Manziel? Tim Tebow? Could the commissioner pull Andrew Luck out of retirement? What’s Brett Favre doing? The problem with that solution is you admit that the current system is broken. It would become more of a sideshow than a true developmental league. The better option is to get through the growing pains at quarterback soon, if possible.
The USFL had the advantage of attracting star players such as Kelly and Young. The XFL is nowhere near that zip code.
In the meantime, the best hope is for these current quarterbacks to deliver. There's an opportunity for that this week when Houston meets Dallas on Sunday. The XFL needs Walker and Jones to put on a show to rekindle some interest.
Chances are people won’t be talking about Walker-vs.-Jones matchup in 35 years.
But the XFL needs to make sure people are talking about it right now.