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The UFL hasn't even started yet, but It's already proving to be a disappointment. The recently-merged XFL and USFL announced some of its rules recently, which give an insight into how the league's managers are approaching the sport. And it isn't good.

Easily the single best idea that the XFL implemented was its lower-risk kickoff rules. This rule lined the kickoff coverage team at the receiving team's 35 and the kick return team at their own 30 -- only 5 yards apart from each other. The only 2 players not lined up on these yard markers are the kicker (who kicks the ball from his own 30), and the returner (who lines up around his own 10). No return blocker or coverage player may move until the ball has been fielded by the returner or has bounced no the ground. This rule put all of the players only a few yards apart from each other, instead of staggering the blockers across the half the length of the field. This eliminates the high speed collisions that resulted from coverage players running into blockers or the returner at a full sprint, and was expected to dramatically reduce major kickoff injuries (the kickoff being one of the most dangerous plays in all of football).

There has been talk over the years of eliminating kickoffs from football entirely, because of the danger inherent to the high speeds on the play. But the XFL rule provided perhaps the best opportunity to save the kickoff. It was such a smart idea, that both the NCAA and the NFL have considered adopting the XFL's kickoff. Neither has done so yet, but they should. If kickoffs are going to stay in football, I think this is how it will be done.

The XFL's old kickoff rule should be the standard for all football leagues -- but apparently not the UFL.

But the UFL apparently doesn't think so, as the UFL's rules managers are apparently opting to ditch the XFL kickoff rule in favor of the traditional, higher-speed, kickoff.

The UFL is claiming that the XFL kickoff did not result in a significant reduction in injuries, but I'm skeptical of that claim. The league only operated for 2 seasons, and teams didn't play more than 10 games in either of those 2 seasons. That's not a whole lot of time to establish long-term trends. It's not like major injuries are happening in NFL kickoffs every single game. It would take years to establish whether the rate of injuries is actually lower than the NFL, or if it is substantially higher than on any other football play from scrimmage.

Other than a flimsy excuse that the XFL kickoffs didn't apparently reduce injuries in the highly limited sample size that was available, the league's head of football operations, Daryl Johnston, said "the stationary kickoff [...] just didn't look like football.". So the XFL rule is at least as safe as the NFL rule, but the UFL provided no justification (that I could find) based on fair competition -- only a superficial preference that the traditional kickoff "looks better".

In fact, the UFL is actually moving the spot of the kick back to the kicking team's 20 yard line (instead of the 35 yard line in the NFL, or the 30 yard line in the XFL). This is their attempt to eliminate touchbacks and force more returns. This means that the UFL's kickoff rule will likely end up being more dangerous than the NFL's kickoff rule because the UFL will have a higher rate of kickoffs being fielded and returned, which means a higher rate of players running into each other at a full sprint and risking major injuries.

The XFL's kickoff, by the way, had more than a 90% return rate. So it also successfully resulted in almost all kickoffs being returned.

If this lack of forward-thinking is going to be common in the rationale that the operators of the UFL are using to create their rules, then I have zero faith in their ability to run a successful football league.

Other hit-or-miss rule changes

It isn't just the kickoff rule that bothers me. I didn't care much for other XFL rule changes either, and so I don't like that those rules are being retained in the UFL. I don't like the overtime shootout, since I think that doesn't look anything like actual football. It's even worse than the college football overtime. I'm not going to rehash my entire rant about college overtime, but in summary, both college and UFL overtimes

  • have completely different rules compared to regulation play,
  • they completely eliminate special teams from overtime,
  • they artificially inflate scores (though the XFL inflated scores to a lesser degree, since teams were scoring "2-point conversions" instead of touchdowns),
  • they don't allow for the possibility of a tie in a hard-fought game between 2 evenly-matched teams,
  • and it has the potential to unnecessarily drag a match on indefinitely.

I hate college football overtime, and I hate the XFL / UFL overtime even more, because it isn't football. But apparently, it looks enough like "real football" for Daryl Johnston.

I'm fine with the addition of a 3-point conversion option, but I don't like the elimination of the 1-point kick after a touchdown. I think the double forward pass is a silly gimmick that just complicates and obfuscates the rules even more than they already are. I don't like the elimination of coffin corner punts, since this eliminates one of the primary skills in punting that make punting the highly-specialized job that it is. Oh, and it also means more punts will be fielded and returned, which means there will be more injuries on punts. So much for player safety...

fake spike
Will UFL offense have to waste a down
to spike the ball and stop the clock?

I did, however, generally like the XFL's idea of the "comeback period", in which the game clock will always stop after 5 seconds have run off between every play inside of 2 minutes of a half. This eliminates a need for a 2-minute warning, eliminates the need to spike the ball to stop the clock, and allows offenses the opportunity to use their entire playbooks (rather than having to become completely 1-dimensional) at the end of each half. But I don't see any mention of this rule in any of the articles outlining the UFL's new rules, so I'm assuming that they are dropping this rule and using timing rules more like the NFL.

So, in my opinion, it looks like the UFL is abandoning the only good rule changes that the XFL had made, and is only keeping the worst rules.

Good riddance to coin tosses

The only new UFL rule that I think I actually like is the elimination of coin tosses. Instead of a coin toss, the home team gets to choose whether to receive, kick, or defend a goal at the start of a game or in overtime. This is a rule change that I have suggested for the NFL. It serves as another element of "home field advantage".

My only note is that I don't think the home team should get to choose possession again in overtime. I think they should just alternate possession again. So if the home team kicks off at the start of the game, they would receive the 2nd half kickoff, and should be on defense first in overtime. With the shootout rule, this makes deferring to the 2nd half much more of an optimal play, since the home team can choose to "double dip" at halftime, and also gets to force the opponent to play offense first in overtime (which allows the home team to play its overtime possession knowing exactly how many points they need to tie or win the game).

The UFL is eliminating coin tosses. Good riddance.

But, if the UFL had gone back to more of a sudden death overtime, then this would change the possession meta. Choosing to defer to the 2nd half would also mean having to kickoff in any potential sudden death overtime. This would make the choice of possession much more interesting part of strategy. Do we defer to the 2nd half to try to double-dip, but at the risk of losing a sudden death overtime on the rare occasion that the game goes into overtime? Or do we play it safe and receive the opening kickoff, so that we have the advantage of receiving the kickoff in a sudden death overtime? That is actually a meaningful choice, and if a home team looses sudden death overtime without ever having possession of the ball, that would have been the home team's own fault because they made the decision to take the halftime double-dip opportunity. It wouldn't be the result of the luck of a coin toss.

But the UFL is using its stupid 2-point conversion shootout to settle overtime, so my idea is moot anyway.

Regardless of my misgivings with the rules, I will be watching the UFL when it kickoffs in March. It remains to be seen whether I'll watch through the entire season.

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