Two years ago, after the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, a new brand of pro football debuted. The eight-team XFL premiered on February 8, 2020, bringing with it new rules, new philosophies, and spring football for us freaks who just can’t get enough of the sport.
Unfortunately, as it did for most of society, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the XFL after only a month of play. The league intends to reboot in February 2023, a week after our Buffalo Bills get to lift their first Lombardi. But for now, the league has partnered with the NFL to ”increase player development opportunities on and off the field” (per the XFL’s official statement).
The two leagues will not share players. However, the NFL hopes that it can use the XFL to test new equipment to make the game safer, develop coaches, players, and officials, and – what I will stress here – to experiment with new rules.
When XFL 2.0 debuted, it was almost like watching a different game. It had several rule differences from the NFL, college, and high school football. At first, many seemed wacky, but they worked in-game to make a more entertaining product. Others, though, were just plain strange. With this NFL-XFL partnership, there’s a good chance that Roger Goodell and Park Avenue will study these differences and then decide whether to implement them themselves.
I’m sure the Bills Mafia would welcome a few rule changes, particularly in regards to overtime. Fortunately, the XFL has a very different overtime rule, and many others, which I’ll talk about below.
The XFL’s overtime rule is probably the most different from the NFL. Presently, – as we’re all unfortunately aware – at the beginning of NFL overtime, the team that wins the coin toss will elect to receive the ball. If they score a touchdown, they win the game. If they kick a field goal or don’t score, the other team will have the opportunity to answer or win the game. This method seems cruel, even in an early-season game; it’s a travesty to happen in the playoffs.
The XFL has removed this possibility entirely by making their overtime akin to a penalty shootout in soccer. Essentially, each team takes five alternating “penalty kicks” at the endzone from the 5-yard line. If the team succeeds, they’re awarded 2 points. If they fail, no points are awarded. These continue until one team has scored more points than the other team can possibly reach. If it’s tied at the end of five attempts, then it heads to sudden death, whereby the game ends the first time one team scores and the other does not.
I can’t help but think this method is gimmicky. Then again, back in the day, I lost a high school county soccer final on kicks. Perhaps it’s my biases, but the XFL sees logic in it, stating their overtime “allows both teams to play offense, in under 10 minutes, and always has a winner”. This is hard to argue with, particularly after the game the Bills played in Kansas City a month ago. I’m not sure if this is the right way forward for the NFL, but man could you imagine the end of the Bills-Chiefs game with this format??
In the name of both safety and creating the possibility for big plays, kickoffs in the XFL are radically different. The kicker kicks off from his own 30-yard line. However, instead of his teammates lining up with him, they line up 35 yards in front of him, on the opponent’s 35.
The kicker must kick the ball overtop of his teammates and the 10 return team blockers. The ball must be caught by the returner or land somewhere between the 20-yard line and the goal line. If it is caught, the play begins immediately. If it hits the field, it begins after three seconds. The logic behind this rule is that, with only five yards separating the kicking team gunners and the return team blockers, there is less possibility for violent collisions and injuries, like the one that nearly killed Bills special teamer Kevin Everett in 2007.
But what happens if the kicker messes up and the ball doesn’t land between the 20 and the goal line? It all depends on where it lands.
If the kicker boots it short and it lands before the 20-yard line, the officials call an illegal procedure penalty, and the ball is moved to the kicking team’s 45. This is a huge penalty. If the kicker hits it long and it lands in the end zone, the ball is taken out to the return team’s 35. That’s still more punitive than a regular touchback in the NFL.
The XFL’s logic behind making the returner field the ball is that the league wants excitement on kick returns, which are far too often some of the most boring plays in an NFL game. When the NFL changed its kickoff rules, it encouraged touchbacks for safety. The XFL has discouraged touchbacks and still ensured that the kickoff is a worthwhile play. This is a really fun rule to think about the NFL possibly adopting.
Removal of Field Goals and Extra Points
In the XFL, there is no such thing as a field goal or extra point. When a team has a fourth down decision, their only options are to go for it or punt. Though eliminating field goals led to a shift in coaching philosophy, it is not nearly as significant of a change as the elimination of extra points.
After scoring a touchdown, XFL teams are given three choices:
- 1 point: Successful play from the 2-yard line.
- 2 points: Successful play from the 5-yard line.
- 3 points: Successful play from the 10-yard line.
This rule change makes things more exciting near the ends of games. A nine-point spread means it’s still a one score game. An 18-point comeback is possible in just two possessions. The rule also makes things more fun if the defensive team takes turnover back for a score. In this situation, the defense is awarded as many points as the offense was trying for.
However, an unintended consequence of the removal of this rule is the impact it will have on the kicking profession. Kickers in the XFL now have one job: landing their kickoffs between the 20 and the goal line. Punters too, will have their roles reduced; they’ll focus strictly on punting as there will be no need to hold a field goal. Guys like Matt Haack might be out of a job if these rules were implemented in the NFL.
Double Forward Passes
This is a strange change and one that might make for a few wonky play designs. Theoretically, a quarterback in a shotgun formation can throw the ball forwards to a receiver, and if that receiver is behind the line of scrimmage, he can throw it forward again.
With imaginative offensive coordinators everywhere conjuring up plays for non-quarterbacks to pass the ball, like this play from 2020, this rule allows for even more creativity. Instead of Josh Allen throwing a backwards pass to Cole Beasley before he looks to the end zone, the Bills could – theoretically – have completed two forward passes on the same play, so long as the ball never crosses the line of scrimmage.
It’s hard to imagine this rule having a significant effect on the game. You’re still likely to see these types of plays just a few times a season, but it would still make for some fascinating play designs if the NFL ever implemented it.
Independently of testing safer equipment and developing coaches, players and officials, the NFL has to be excited about using the XFL as a petri dish for experimenting with new rules. There are several odd, but intriguing, rule differences between the XFL and NFL. With the leagues’ impeding partnership, there’s a possibility that a few of the above rules end up in the NFL in the near future.
With the USFL starting in April 2022 and the XFL returning in February 2023, there’s likely to be year-round football in the coming years. Now, it’s just a matter of picking a favorite team for each league and embracing the time frame is no longer just September-to-January when we yell at our television screens.