After what was an up-and-down start to the season, the Arlington Renegades were able to overcome adversity and claim the 2023 XFL Championship in San Antonio.
It all started with Director of Player Personnel Rick Mueller, head coach Bob Stoops, and his coaching staff constructing a team from scratch that resulted in an XFL title coming home to Arlington. The roller coaster that was their season started with a mixed bag of great defensive play and weak offensive performances. Everything seemed to change when the team traded for quarterback Luis Perez and the offense started to click.
Despite the team finishing at 4-6 on the season, they got into the playoffs with second place in the South Division behind the Houston Roughnecks. The Renegades would go on a magical ride through the playoffs with a blowout win against Houston and eventually a championship win over the DC Defenders.
There’s a lot to uncover from this team that deserves to be reviewed for multiple reasons. The main reason is to tell the whole story of how Arlington overcame their struggles to put it all together when it mattered the most. Here’s a review of the Arlington Renegades’ 2023 season ending with a championship trophy.
Arlington Renegades 2023 Season Review
First Five Games: Mixed Results
The Arlington Renegades had the pleasure to host the very first XFL game of the season as they took on Luis Perez and the Vegas Vipers. Arlington’s offense struggled to produce big plays on offense, only recording 246 yards of offense. It was their defense that came through with two defensive touchdowns that would make the difference in the game giving them a 22-20 win to start the season with a 1-0 record.
Week two was a step-back performance against the Houston Roughnecks with Houston sacking quarterback Drew Plitt five times and forcing three Plitt turnovers. Arlington’s offense had a season-low 125 yards of offense as they took a 23-14 loss in Houston to drop to 1-1 on the season.
Arlington would win two of their next three games without scoring over 12 points in a single game. Despite a quarterback change with Kyle Sloter, they found ways to win on defense with six turnovers created in three games. They would record wins against division rivals Orlando Guardians (10-9) and San Antonio Brahmas (12-10). Their only loss came in week four against the St. Louis Battlehawks in their first home game of the season. Arlington fell to St. Louis 24-11.
The bad news for Arlington during this time was the offense had only hit over 250 total yards of offense once in week five against the Brahmas when they gained 253 yards. If the Renegades had good news, their defense was among one of the best in the league allowing just 17.2 points per game and creating a turnover in every game. One lingering question heading into the second half of the season was what changes would come in the offense and in particular the quarterback position.
Last Five Games: Team Faulters, But Still Survives
The second half of the season got off to a bad start with the Renegades losing a home game against a Brahma’s team they had just beaten a week ago with a 15-9 loss. Questions intensified about changes to the offense with their play caller co-offensive coordinator Jonathan Hayes and their quarterback Kyle Sloter. Arlington would respond with Sloter being released from the team and trading with the Vipers for Perez.
While Perez was getting ready to learn the offense, the Renegades lost a second consecutive game at home to the Seattle Sea Dragons 24-15. This would be the last game Plitt would start as he was knocked out for the rest of the season with an injury.
Perez started the last three games of the regular season with mixed results from the offense. The offense showed improvement with moving the ball down the field, but scoring touchdowns continued to be a struggle for them. Perez won his first start against Orlando 18-16 thanks to five turnovers created by the Renegades’ defense.
After a hard-fought 28-26 overtime loss to the DC Defenders on the road, Arlington went back to bad habits losing their season finale against the Houston Roughnecks 25-9. The positive for them is the losses didn’t hurt their playoff chances as San Antonio lost their last game of the season against the Defenders to give Arlington their playoff spot.
Critical Trades/Signings During the Regular Season Including Perez
There were a lot of moves made by the Renegades during the season that ended up paying off for the Renegades that were key contributors to their championship run.
Let’s start with two early season signings that were great depth players on the team left tackle Willie Beavers and linebacker Darnell Sankey. Beavers spent a good portion of the season on the bench before having to replace George Moore at left tackle late in the season and into the playoffs. He proved his worth and blocked well for Perez’s blindside. As for Sankey, he was tied for third on the team with 47 tackles one sack, and three tackles for loss during the season. Sankey played a critical role when Donald Payne was knocked out with an injury at the end of the season being their leading man at inside linebacker.
On March 6, the Renegades traded their tight end, Alex Ellis, to the Defenders in a three-team trade that resulted in Arlington acquiring wide receiver JaVonta Payton from the Guardians. While Payton had a quiet regular season, he proved to be a major factor in the playoffs, being the only receiver on the team to record over 100 receiving yards in a game with two touchdowns in the South Division title game. His big play ability gave some life to a Renegades offense that wasn’t producing enough of them.
Another under-the-radar move made was on March 16 with the signing of running back Leddie Brown. While Brown did not make the St. Louis Battlehawks’ final roster, Brown made an instant impact from the beginning after Kenneth Farrow’s season ended with an ACL injury. In five games, Brown finished as the second-leading rusher on the team with 179 yards and scored two touchdowns in the XFL Championship game.
The last trade to discuss is the one that changed everything for Arlington. On March 28, the Renegades traded linebacker Ryan Mueller to the Vipers for Perez. Little did anyone know that Perez would be what Arlington needed to change the football team around. While Perez didn’t light it up in the last three regular-season games, he threw for 577 passing yards and six touchdowns to zero interceptions in his two playoff starts. It should go without saying that Perez was the one thing the Renegades needed to win a championship.
South Division Championship Blowout
Fans would find out quickly that there is a big difference between the regular season Renegades and the postseason Renegades. They would get their first glimpse of the postseason Renegades in the South Division Championship game against the Houston Roughnecks. Arlington got off to a fast start for the first time all season, the team scored over 20 points in the first half as they took a 23-8 halftime lead. Only six total points were scored the rest of the game as the Renegades won 26-11 over Houston to punch their ticket to the title game.
Payton was the star of the game recording 121 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Perez was on point as well with 289 passing yards and three touchdowns thrown. The defense got three sacks, and one interception, and allowed just 225 yards of offense. This game was also important for the defense as Donald Payne made a surprise return to the lineup finishing up with ten tackles which would be the most on the team.
XFL Champions Reside in Arlington
It all came down to the championship game in San Antonio as the Renegades were taking on the DC Defenders who were 10-1 heading into the contest. Arlington were heavy underdogs in the game as DC was favored by nine points to win the game which was one of the biggest spreads of the season. Most journalists were picking the Defenders to win the game. Once again, little did anyone know what kind of Renegades team would show up at the Alamodome.
The Renegades got off to another fast start scoring points in their first five drives of the game including three touchdowns and two field goals. DC only ran three plays in the first quarter with Arlington possessing the ball for almost 40 minutes compared to DC’s 20 minutes in the game. Arlington’s defense forced three Jordan Ta’amu interceptions including the last one sealing a 35-26 championship title win for the Renegades.
Perez was named the MVP of the game throwing for 288 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions. Wide receiver Tyler Vaughns and tight end Sal Cannella combined for 12 catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Running back De’Veon Smith and Leddie Brown combined for 86 rushing yards with Brown scoring two total touchdowns.
MVP of the Arlington Renegades: Luis Perez, QB
There are so many players on the Renegades who can be named MVP of the team, but one seemed to be the easy choice. Luis Perez is the clear-cut MVP on the team due to the impact he made on the team. Arlington was missing a leader to take charge and control the flow of the offense. Nothing against Plitt or Sloter, but Perez seemed to be more of a vocal leader that offense was needed.
The offense for Arlington scored over 20 points per game with Perez as the starter compared to the 13 points they were averaging before him. They also gained over 110 yards per game more with Perez starting at quarterback than they did before his arrival. There was more confidence in the playcalling from Hayes as he knew Perez would make good decisions with the football. It made sense to put more on Perez as he could handle it.
Without the Perez trade, Arlington most likely would not have won the title or even made the playoffs. His leadership, experience, and humility are what makes him not only a great leader for this team but a great teammate for the other players. He singlehandedly changed the team in a direction that now is the standard for Arlington Renegades football moving forward.
Offensive Player of the Year for the Arlington Renegades: De’Veon Smith, RB
Throughout the regular season, there wasn’t a lot of support from the offense as they struggled to score touchdowns and finish drives. The only consistency to the Renegades was how their running game stayed consistent with running back De’Veon Smith.
Smith finished third in the league in rushing yards with 365 and was tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns with seven. He also added 18 catches for 148 yards receiving in nine regular season games. Smith was also the leading rusher of any player in the XFL in the playoffs as he recorded 148 rushing yards in the two playoff games. His best game came in the South Division Championship game against Houston where he ran for 94 yards in the win.
Coach Bob Stoops has spoken highly throughout the season of Smith as a consistent performer as well as a great leader for the team. The offense scored the least amount of passing touchdowns in the league with just five, so it was Smith who was able to get most of the touchdowns. Arlington leaned on him all regular season to score and get the tough yards needed. Even when he didn’t gain a lot of yards, Smith’s toughness and grit are what helped keep the team in games and win them.
Defensive Player of the Year for the Arlington Renegades: Donald Payne, LB
The quarterback of the defense, Donald Payne was literally in the middle of every big tackle made for the Renegades throughout the season. From the start of the season, fans knew Payne was going to be a difference-maker for the defense and be their leading tackler. He did it in the USFL last season for the Houston Gamblers and he was going to do it again for 2023.
Payne indeed did lead the team in tackles with 61 while also recording a half sack, five tackles for loss, one fumble recovery, and one interception in eight games. He missed the last two games of the season due to an injury that was originally thought of as season-ending with surgery possibly needed. The team made the announcement on Twitter the day before the South Division Championship game that he would be active and play. He finished the playoffs leading in tackles with 17 in two games.
Payne made such an impact on the team with his high motor and energy to get to the ball carrier. The defense had some rough moments in the second half of the season and when he returned, there was a difference in the way the unit played. It would be disappointing to see Payne not get a shot in the NFL because he can make an impact on any defensive unit in the NFL.
Special Teams Player of the Year for the Arlington Renegades: Taylor Russolino, K
It would be wrong to leave off the impact punter Marquette King and long snapper Antonio Ortiz had on the team before diving into the special teams player of the team on the team. King was second in the league in average yards per punt with 46.5 with a long of 70 yards. He was consistent throughout the season and someone who should get looks in the NFL. Ortiz is another consistent player who didn’t have to mess up on a snap whether it was field goals or punts. He did just about as good of a job as any long snapper can.
Now to take a look at kicker Taylor Russolino and the type of season he had to earn the special teams player of the year honors. Russolino finished second in the XFL in field goals made with 16 and converted 84 percent of his kicks during the regular season. He converted all five of his field goals in the playoffs with a long of 51 yards in the XFL Championship game.
All four of their regular season games were decided by at least two points so every kick that Russolino made in those games was make-or-break for them. His foot was able to help Arlington win every regular season game. He rarely missed a field goal, and the team knew they could rely on him to come through with points, especially with the offense struggling in the red zone. If the Renegades didn’t have a reliable kicker like Russolino, they would not have won the games they did.
Coach Bob Stoops and Coaching Staff Performance
Starting with the offensive staff, co-offensive coordinators Jonathan Hayes and Chuck Long received a lot of criticism for most of the regular season for their lack of creativity in play calling and poor performance. Once Perez came into the picture, play caller Hayes changed his style and got more aggressive in the passing game. The offense ended up being a strength to this team in the playoffs scoring 26 and 35 points with eight total touchdowns. All Hayes and Long needed was the right quarterback to run their offense and they would open the offense. A lot of credit goes to them for adjusting and getting the offense back on track.
The defense was steady from the beginning with co-defensive coordinators Jay Hayes and Tim Lewis leading the charge. Despite multiple injuries hurting their secondary and linebackers, Hayes and Lewis construct a unit so deep they could have any player step up and make plays. Two players in the secondary recorded their first interceptions of the season in the championship game. From the beginning of the season, the Renegades were considered a top-three defensive unit because they were coached well and disciplined. Hayes and Lewis put together a dominant unit that carried this Arlington team to a title.
As for the head coach Bob Stoops, he stuck to his guns all season despite the team having an up-and-down performance throughout the season. Stoops was asked about changing play callers on offense and he never did, which ended up being the right move. That’s because he knew he needed the right quarterback in place and found one in Perez. Even as a general manager, the roster he built was constructed to be able to make it through the whole season. He’s a champion for a reason and he proved it this season leading a 4-6 team to an XFL Championship trophy.
It will be a season that no one will forget just because of the pure shock that a 4-6 team can still overcome all obstacles to win a championship. What remains to be seen is how many players from the championship team will return. Regardless of who is back, the foundation has been built on what a championship team looks like so Stoops should feel confident heading into 2024 that he has the right pieces in place for a title defense.
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