Imagining a reimagined game of football

The XFL’s goal is to make a great game even greater.  An ambitious mindset for sure, but everything about the league’s mission thus far has been just that.

The average amount of actual action in an entire NFL game has been calculated to be anywhere from eleven to fifteen minutes. This is what the viewer at home, and in the stadium, experiences over a three-hour span of watching an NFL game. Fifteen minutes or less of actual football.  A sixty-minute game that only produces a quarter of actual gameplay. More than three quarters of an actual NFL game clock is spent on camera shots, commentary and players huddling and regrouping before the next play from scrimmage. The average three-hours plus of an NFL game is dedicated to advertisements, replays, multiple breaks in the action, and then more advertisements. Fifteen minutes, at best, of actual football plays, and nearly three-hours of everything else. In defense of the NFL, after all these studies came out, in recent years they have to attempted reduce all the dead spots in their telecasts.

People will often point to advertisements eating up the three-hours plus of a football game. The NFL has taken steps, in recent years, to increase their in-game advertising through picture-in-picture technology, with quicker commercial breaks and on-field advertising.  The real issue is that it’s not just about how long a game or broadcast takes. It’s about what happens during the actual game. It’s about the amount of in-game action, and the lack of it, or the delays between plays.  It’s not just about the fans at home watching. It’s about the people watching live at the games. Oftentimes, the home viewer has a better experience than the fan seated in a stadium. TV Ratings have been up for the NFL, but attendance is down; simply because people would rather watch the games at home. Part of that is a financial decision, but a large part of it has to do with being able to better enjoy the game at home. The breaks in action and momentum throughout the course of a football game are way more noticeable when experiencing a game live in person, than they are from the comfort of your own home. The breaks in momentum also effect the players and the play on the field.

The XFL’s mantra of “less stall and more ball” is less about fitting a football game into a three-hour window, and more about increasing the importance of the action on the field.  It’s about minimizing the dead play time and meaningless plays, and maximizing the meaningful plays.  So, the number of plays and the overall time of the telecast is important, but not the main focus. It’s only part of the overall picture.  Actions speak louder than words, and for these words to matter they need to be put into action.  How exactly does the XFL plan on doing that?  The experimenting of this is still on-going, and will continue later this month with the league’s broadcast partners, ABC, Fox and ESPN, when the league partners again with the Spring League to continue their research, development, and testing of game rules and in-game technologies.

One way of speeding up and increasing the action is to shorten the play clock. Rather than the current 40-second play clock used in the NFL, the XFL is working towards having a 25-second play clock.  With a 40-second clock, two offensive plays can potentially take up to a minute and twenty seconds of game clock. The 25-second play clock will, in theory, add an extra play for every minute played on the field.  However, it doesn’t stop there. The XFL’s goal is to quickly run another play once a play has ended. The league is planning to speed up the process by having a designated official, whose sole job will be to line up the football immediately after a play has ended. The quicker the ball is spotted, the quicker the next play happens. In theory, a shorter play clock with a system in place to set and reset for the next play will help speed things up, but there is a reliance on human execution.  This is where modern technology comes into play to help boost the operation further.

The XFL is planning on using an “all-11” audio communication system, for both offense and defense. In modern day football, a play call is relayed from a coach to his quarterback, who then relays the play to his teammates before the next play can be run. Some NFL and college teams that implement a faster style of offense will often use signals and even drawings to speed up the process.  With an all-11 audio system,  every offensive player will immediately know the next play call. Once again, time is being saved before the next play happens. This will extend to the defense as well. What’s unknown at this point is if there will be a cut off time in the audio transmission to players.  In the NFL, the audio is cut off before the team is at the line of scrimmage. Will the XFL decide to keep the audio transmission going right up until the snap? It would be the equivalent of Tom Brady hearing Josh McDaniels instruct him at the line of scrimmage, while Brady is scanning the defense. Imagine if that audio exchange was also available to the audience. During NFL telecasts, Tony Romo has expertly surmised where the play should, and could go, right before the snap. Imagine a scenario where he was actually telling Jared Goff, where to throw the ball based on the defensive look.  An “all-11” audio system not only helps players know the play and line up quicker, but it can also help them execute their designed plays better. Using this type of technology will almost make the need for a huddle unnecessary.

Technology can also be a useful tool in other areas. Some of the dead spots in football telecasts are unavoidable, like injuries for example.  The one area where games do get dragged down, and the action gets slowed down to a halt, is with officiating delays and replays. The XFL plans on implementing a modified officiating protocol. They are looking to speed up the process in which penalties are called, and in how quickly replays and challenges are resolved. One of the nine game officials is going to be in the booth, with access to all angles and replays. This official’s job will not only to be to correct a call, but to communicate it quickly to the head referee on the field.

Simplifying the rules will also help cut down on penalties and game stoppages. The XFL’s proposed “multiple forward passes behind the line of scrimmage” rule, not only adds an extra layer to the offensive strategy, but it makes the referee’s job easier when it comes to determining where the ball is. The XFL’s proposed one foot in bounds catch rule also helps officials as well. So much time is spent on stoppages and replays determining what is, and what isn’t a catch. One foot in-bounds as a catch eliminates the referee conferences after a catch and the potential challenges that usually follow these types of plays.

Meaningful versus meaningless plays. Since taking multiple safety measures, the NFL has seen a big increase in touch-backs and fair catches over the last few seasons. Kickoff and punt returns, to a lesser extent have been reduced significantly. One of the bigger dead spots and lulls in action in the NFL, comes after a team scores. A break in the action is then followed by the next play, being yet another break in the action. No time is taken off the clock during this operation, but usually nothing happens. This really hurts the live in-game experience and the momentum and flow of the game, not to mention eliminating the excitement that was attached to kickoffs in the past. The now defunct AAF eliminated the kickoff altogether, and an offensive play followed a score. However, what that effectively did was to guarantee that no offensive team would have the ability to start a drive in good field position. Every team started their drives at the 25-yard line. Eliminating the kickoff also eliminated the excitement and shift in momentum that comes from big plays on kick returns.

The XFL is bringing the kickoff and kick return back, keeping safety in mind with a new alignment that reduces collisions but brings back the exciting aspect of a big return. This is one of the original “reimagine” concepts that the XFL has been tinkering with and testing for quite some time. This concept was heavily aided by the league’s health advisory committee members. One of the most recent proposals was for touch-backs to result in teams starting on offense at their own 35-yard line. An incentive to not kick the ball deep into the end zone and to ensure that a return happens. The punt return will also be different, but familiar to football fans. A 5-yard halo will be in place that allows the returner to set up and return the football. This is borrowed from the Canadian game. One of the more exciting plays in the CFL is the punt return, and CFL special teams coaches have a field day designing plays with reverses and all kinds of gadget plays stemming from the point of the return. Another reimagining that has safety and the big play in mind at the same time.

There is no play that goes against the competitive nature of pro sports, and is more meaningless, than the kneel-down in football.  The NHL has its own form of clock killing during penalties, and it comes when a team is trying to run out the clock when they are facing the disadvantage of having one less player on the ice. However, this form of action requires skill and risk. It’s the boxing equivalent of being up against the ropes and trying to avoid being knocked out until the round ends. The kneel-down in football has no such skill involved. It’s always been a way of retreating and copping out. An extremely boring end to first halves and the end of games. Although things are still being ironed out, the XFL plans on reducing or eliminating the kneel down altogether by enforcing that teams have to attempt to gain yardage by moving forward. To further this rule, the clock automatically stops within two minutes. This forces teams to have to try and get first downs rather than attempt a series of quarterback sneaks and then punt. You are essentially waving the white flag and giving the ball back to your opponent inside of 15-20 seconds if you don’t try to maintain possession. To keep the ball, you have to keep moving it forward. The competitive action continues, and it doesn’t come to a screeching halt.  One of the sequences that almost always gets booed by a home team crowd is when a team decides to take a knee before a half, simply because they don’t have enough time or timeouts and don’t want to risk trying to advance the football.  Increasing the amount of meaningful plays and action actually extends to a few other different aspects as well. The first ties into the kneel-down and the final two minutes of each half, and what is being loosely referred to as the “comeback period”. The game clock is supposed to stop after every play within two minutes. This has been, and is still being tested by the XFL. If implemented, it will no doubt increase the amount of plays run in the game’s most crucial moments, but this type of “reimagining” may dramatically change the whole time honored aspect of game and clock management as we know it.

In the original and in the current XFL, the extra point kick is no more. This is another untimed play that is virtually meaningless. In recent years, it has been moved back to create drama but it’s still one of the more automatic and boring plays in football.  Replacing the extra-point kicks in the XFL are three tiered conversions: a one-point conversion from the 2-yard line, a two-point conversion from the 5-yard line, and a three-point conversion from the 10-yard line. After a team scores a touchdown, they will have one of these three options to choose from. What they choose will be based on strategy, and if they are ahead or trailing in the game. Teams that attempt a three-point conversion will be in desperation mode. Converting one play from the ten-yard line will be very difficult to pull off.  The premise of this concept is to create more scoring related plays that add drama to a game, and create the possibility of a late comeback.

Then there’s the XFL’s proposed overtime concept. This has safety and fairness in mind.  The safety aspect is to avoid having players play multiple series and quarters. Doing so increases the likelihood of injuries.  The fairness aspect is allowing both teams the opportunity to win the game on offense and defense, with no coin flips or kickers determining the outcome. A tie is broken when both teams get the opportunity to score in what has been loosely labeled as a “shootout”.  As presently proposed, both teams’ offenses get five scoring opportunities at the opposing teams five-yard line. Although similar “shootout” concepts exist in hockey and soccer, those shootouts come down to a version of their games that is not played during regulation. The XFL’s shootout is traditional 11-on-11, offense versus defense. No field goal kicks, “Oklahoma drills,” or 40-yard dashes. The concept is trying to resolve a tie quickly and fairly with the players health and safety in mind. Trying to accomplish all of this and still make it an exciting sequence for football fans to watch. The XFL is still working out the kinks and rules on this concept. The truth is that overtime games are very rare, especially in an 8-team league. The original XFL had 43 regular season and playoff games. Only one of those games resulted in overtime. The AAF played 8-weeks of play, resulting in 32 overall games. Only one of those games ended up in overtime. So, the likelihood is that the XFL could only have one or two games that would result in this overtime concept seeing the light of day.

The XFL is trying to walk a fine line of being different enough to get noticed, but still appear to be familiar. The idea is appealing to college and NFL fans, by trying to resemble the game of football that those groups love, while also trying to improve upon aspects of football that can be upgraded for the year 2020 and beyond, all the while using advanced technology to be the driving force behind all of it.  Change always produces resistance.  There was a time when people didn’t want 2-point conversions.  Many rule and presentation changes over the years were first met with skepticism and scrutiny.  While the XFL will be adopting ninety-percent of NFL rules, it’s the other ten-percent that could create hesitation for those who may consider following the league.

A lot of these concepts seem very exciting. When imagining the possibilities of what’s being reimagined, can the league pull it off? The attempt to increase action and plays and to make the game more exciting and evolved than it already is. The XFL’s goal is to make a great game even greater.  An ambitious mindset for sure, but everything about the league’s mission thus far has been just that.