With live sports halted by the coronavirus pandemic, many of us have been entertaining ourselves with live dealer casino games in NJ. But when the football season resumes, fans may have a new league to follow and place wagers on. Established by wrestling impresario Vince McMahon, president and CEO Jeffrey Pollack and league commissioner Oliver Luck (since dismissed), the first season of the XFL (not counting an earlier one-season incarnation in 2001) kicked off with a game between the Los Angeles Wildcats and the Houston Roughnecks on February 8. Although its post-pandemic future is in doubt, it’s worth brushing up on the rule differences between the two leagues.
Faster, safer games
Oliver Luck said that in formulating the rules for the XFL they listened to what fans most liked about the NFL, and what they would like to see done differently. While the NFL does occasionally introduce new rules, the main point that came up was that fans wanted faster-paced games with more action. The XFL also recognized the importance of making player safety a priority, and so new rules were created to speed up the game, with fewer wasted plays, while at the same time reducing risk.
While most NFL games last over three hours, the XFL aims at an ideal game length of two hours thirty minutes: in practice, the average game lasts 2h 50. They nevertheless include the same number of plays as an NFL game. Fans watching also get greater access, with coaches’ pep talks to team and all comments by game officials being broadcast. Interviews with players during the game are also a feature.
Research showed that in college football, kickoffs accounted for 21% of concussion injuries despite only making up six percent of plays. The NFL tried to tackle this by creating more touchback opportunities, but this led to fewer returns and fewer meaningful plays. The XFL approach aims for more kick returns but without the 30-yard sprint that can lead to injury. Players can’t move until the ball is caught by the returner, or until after it touches the ground.
Kickoffs take place five yards further back than in the NFL, from the 30-yard line, while the coverage team line up on the return side 35-yard line. The ball must be kicked into the air and be in play between the opponent’s 20-yard line and the end zone. If the ball is kicked into the end zone and is downed it’s considered a major touchback, and the ball is placed on the 35-yard line of the return side. Kicks falling short of the 20-yard line will be treated as out-of-bounds kicks and will incur an illegal procedure penalty: the recovering team gets the ball on the other team’s 45-yard line.
Another major change is the introduction of a proper overtime system, closer to penalty shootouts in soccer than to the current NFL method. Arguably fairer and more exciting, the XFL overtime consists of five alternating rounds of single-play possessions from the opponent’s five-yard line. Each scoring play is worth two points and the team with the most points after five rounds is declared the winner. If the game is still tied it goes to “sudden death” rounds until one team is ahead. The defense cannot score during overtime.
The XFL wants to increase the percentage of punts that are returned while discouraging punting within the opponents’ territory. Accordingly, the punting team can’t release past the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked, and punts going out of bounds inside the 35-yard line, landing in the end zone or going out of the end zone are considered a major touchback, with the ball going to the 35-yard line. If a team completes a pass behind the scrimmage line it can throw a second forward pass so long as the ball hasn’t crossed the line.
Touchdown point system
The XFL has a three-tiered point system for scoring after touchdown, with a play run from the two-yard line worth one point, a play run from the five-yard line worth two points, and a play run from the ten-yard line worth three points. There are no kicks for extra points.
In order to fit the same amount of plays into a shorter game, the XFL sees the game clock stop until the ball is spotted, except for the last two minutes of each half, when a play ends out of bounds or when there is an incomplete pass. It uses a 25-second play clock as opposed to the 40-second NFL play clock. There are only two timeouts in each half, as opposed to three in the NFL, and half-time lasts ten minutes rather than 12. All plays are subject to review by a replay official, and coaches are not allowed to challenge their rulings.
Whether the XFL will resume its season this year or next remains to be seen. During February it certainly presented an interesting alternative to the NFL and it will be a shame if the experiment is abandoned due to financial difficulties. We will wait and see.