They came to CenturyLink Field in dragon costumes and team gear, nearly 30,000 strong, filled with curiosity and ready to unleash full-throated vigor. But all of the hoopla was wrapped in an unspoken challenge:
Show me why I should care about XFL football, and more to the point, the Seattle Dragons, as more than a disposable oddity.
That was a reality the Dragons, playing their initial home game in a startup league whose future is far from guaranteed, intuitively understood. They knew the buzz that the XFL had generated with a generally positive first week could easily be short-circuited if they don’t provide a reason to invest emotionally, or at least aesthetically.
“I think this is a league where the people are going to want to judge whether or not we’re worthy of having a support group,’’ said Dragons coach Jim Zorn. “I was talking to our players before and after the game that everything we do, we have to earn.”
Despite a lackluster first half by the Dragons that threatened to instantly deflate the perceptible initial energy of the crowd, they earned a second look Saturday with their 17-9 victory over the Tampa Bay Vipers.
Oh, it was patently clear throughout the afternoon that the level of play was nowhere near NFL caliber, particularly by the quarterbacks. But it would have been naïve to expect otherwise. The defensive effort by both teams was genuinely stout, the presentation was crisp and entertaining, and the quirks of the XFL continue to be compelling.
The second half, meanwhile, was filled with splashy, combustible moments, the majority of them by the Dragons. It was enough to work the official crowd of 29,172 into the sort of unbridled frenzy that has become the Seahawks’ trademark in this venue.
As Zorn wisely pointed out, when asked to compare the noise Saturday to a rocking Seahawks’ game, “It wasn’t quite as loud as a full stadium. But it was loud for our players. … It felt like a real game. Eventually, we’re going to say, it felt like a real XFL game.”
That’s music to the ears of XFL commissioner Oliver Luck, who envisioned just such a cacophony when Seattle was awarded one of eight franchises. Luck was in attendance Saturday and had to have been secretly exulting when the place erupted in noise from a succession of Seattle splash plays: A 68-yard touchdown pass from struggling quarterback Brandon Silvers to Keenan Reynolds and a 1-yard pick-six by defensive end Marcell Frazier, followed by a goal-line stand inside the 5.
“I’m in awe of Seattle sports fans,’’ Luck said afterward in the Dragons’ locker room. “It’s somehow in the DNA to create the best home-field advantage possible. And they do it. And they’re dead serious about it.
“Take a step back. This was the first time this team ever appeared in Seattle in a game. And 30,000 people were screaming their lungs out, like they do for the Seahawks or Sounders or UW. I think it’s remarkable.”
So did the Dragons players, who had heard about the fabled 12th man but wondered if it would translate to the XFL.
“(Former Seahawks cornerback) Mohammed Seisay was telling me how loud it gets,’’ said Dragons defensive back Jeremy Clark, who added to the din with an interception. “I just had to experience it for myself. I believe it now. It felt like a full stadium.”
Frazier said he believed the noise disrupted Tampa Bay enough to aid his interception of a screen pass, which turned the game Seattle’s way. The Seahawks, of course, have long credited their fans for having an adverse effect on foes, and galvanizing their own players.
“It makes a huge difference,’’ said Reynolds, who had a taste of it during a stint with the Seahawks. “You feel the juice, you feel the electricity in the building. It matters.”
But the players, coming off a lackluster showing in their opener, also keenly felt the necessity to give fans a reason to cheer them on, when the only logical reason to root for the Dragons right now is geography. They have no history to draw upon, no emotional ties. To borrow Jerry Seinfeld’s famous line, it’s about rooting for laundry. At least for now.
“I just knew we had to win so they’d keep coming out, and get more people coming,’’ Reynolds said.
“We were all talking about, get a win, get the city behind us, because nobody likes a loser,” Frazier said. “We’re hoping by the end of the season we can get 40,000 people in here. Hopefully, the city starts to buy in with us, and we can fill that stadium.”
Who knows what will happen once the novelty wears off? The Dragons, held scoreless with just 41 total yards in the first half, are still offensively challenged. This is a league that in its first incarnation, back in 2001, died an ignominious death after one year, declared “a colossal failure” by its founder, Vince McMahon.
McMahon and the XFL seem to have learned multitudes from that experience. The rollout has been about as smooth as could be hoped. And Seattle’s first impression seemed to be: This is worth checking out some more.
“We earned the right to win today,’’ Zorn said, “and hopefully we’ll earn the trust of our fans to support us.”