It’s the rules: A look at the good and the not-so-good of the XFL’s new rules and gameplay innovations

When XFL teams hit the field this weekend they will be playing under a different set of rules. (Photo: XFL.com)

The XFL’s release of the its new rules and gameplay mechanisms seems like it occurred in a previous decade, especially as we are in the thick of the first game-week of the relaunched league. While many gave immediate knee jerk reactions to the new rules, I wanted to sit back and take time to digest them. That said, here are two newly created rules I like, two I’m taking a wait-and-see approach with, and two from the 2001 incarnation of the XFL that I would’ve like to have seen utilized.

Rules I like

Kickoff: Aside from overtime, this might be the most controversial new rule in that it will be one that looks much different from what fans are used to watching at the college and pro level elsewhere. The XFL has two goals in mind with the kickoff rules: (1) increase the number of kickoffs returned, adding excitement and another play to the game; and (2) reduce injuries.

I think the league can be successful on both fronts given how the kickoff rule has been explained and tested (I’ll assume readers of this column know the gist, so I won’t spend a lot of space breaking down the minutiae; you can find details here. It’s important to note these aren’t hamfisted ideas trotted out that league big-wigs are crossing their fingers will work; these have been tested in Your Call Football, The Spring League, and elsewhere.

It remains to be seen how this translates to every week action, and how special teams coaches may look to take advantage of loopholes they discover after studying film. But on paper, the kickoff rule can be something interesting that sets it apart from the NFL and others, which the league needs a certain amount of to attract fans.

Overtime: The other rule that has garnered some of the most negative feedback from football purists is the overtime rules. It’s being done shootout style, with each team alternating plays from the five yard-line. It’s been interesting to see how the overtime rules have been molded over time and how they’ve morphed into what was eventually announced.

Shootouts are arguably the most exciting part of hockey and soccer, and it sure makes more sense than the NFL’s overtime rule. College football’s overtime can artificially inflate the scores by the end of the game if multiple overtimes are played, so the XFL’s OT scores being worth two points is a nice compromise. The league may not see all that many overtime games so it ultimately may not matter as much, but like the kickoff rule, it’s a cool way to set the league apart from others and also doesn’t feel completely gimmicky.

Others: PAT, 25-second play clock, two timeouts per half, running game clock, one foot inbounds for a catch, ball spotting official, coach-player communication, shorter halftime, simplified man downfield rule

Wait-and-see rules

Comeback period: I don’t like rules that change depending on the point of the game (except, obviously, overtime). The comeback period is designed to make the plays inside two minutes of each half more exciting and allow for more thrilling comebacks. To me, the operation of the clock should be the same no matter what point in regulation we’re at.

It feels like an artificial way to keep teams in the game as long as possible and avoid blowouts. I get that’s important, especially to a league looking to build fanbases from the ground-up in each city. But the XFL already established multiple point-after touchdown options designed to accomplish this very task. I think it’s a bit much to add yet another way to guarantee a team is never out of it, even if it means the better team may win more infrequently than other leagues. I think that would be more of a problem than blowouts.

Double-forward pass: Of all the rules established by the XFL, this feels the most gimmicky and unnecessary. Was there some outcry in the far corners of the Internet for this play to be made legal of which I hadn’t caught wind? Part of me feels like this may be nothing to worry about because I really wonder how many times per game (per week?) coaches will actually utilize such a play.

I’m more than willing to be proven wrong on these rules that I question; in fact, I hope in practice they impress. That’s why I’ve termed them “wait-and-see” rather than dismissing them out-of-hand. The XFL wants to stick to traditional football while tweaking gameplay a bit; to me, this is more than a tweak and it’s another rule that gives further advantage to the offense.

Others: Punt

Rules from 2001 I would’ve liked to see return

Punts live after 25 yards: Want to make special teams truly exciting again? Make the punts live after 25 yards. Directional punting would increase in value and it would put pressure on the returning team rather than just become a ho-hum change-of-possession. It would also force returners to field the ball rather than let it drop to the ground and be downed by the kicking team, thus increasing the amount of real live plays in a game, something the league has worked hard to provide.

In this era of player safety, adopting a no fair catch rule would be difficult in the sense that you’d have to put protections in place for the returner to the point that the no fair catch rule would likely be significantly watered down. But making the punt live after 25 yards (or whatever distance is reasonable) would make up for that.

Forward motion for receivers: The XFL in 2001 adopted this CFL rule where receivers could be moving toward the line of scrimmage prior to the snap. Not every team took advantage of this, but some did. Giving the receiver a running start would theoretically give him an advantage over the defensive back covering him. As the XFL tilts the game toward the offense, this could’ve been a rule they considered.

It’s a small rule, yet one that would differentiate it from the NFL but not seem so gimmicky as to cause traditionalists to break out their fainting couch. That push-pull likely played a part in the XFL deciding on many of the rules for year one of the league. Not all may stick for year two, and they may decide to adopt others as they go along. Perhaps they wanted to distance this league so much from the one nearly two decades ago that they didn’t want to repeat too many of the same rules. Too bad…I think they may have missed out on a few that made sense even in this era.

Others: Scramble for the ball (okay…maybe not)

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