When World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon announced nearly two years ago that he was relaunching the XFL, he promised faster-paced football with more plays and fewer stoppages.
“Less stall, more ball” became the league’s mantra.
Now, with the XFL a month away from kickoff, we have more than a catchphrase. After 18 months of brainstorming, research, testing and surveying, the league confirmed its long-rumored rules Tuesday.
One of the minds behind the scenes: Dean Blandino, whom the XFL hired this summer as its head of officiating. Blandino used to be the NFL’s vice president of officiating and has been a Fox Sports rules analyst since 2017.
The XFL game will be faster, yes, but it will still feel like football, Blandino said.
“Our rules are based on the NFL’s rules — 98 percent of them are going to be NFL rules that everybody’s used to seeing — and we feel like we’ve made some innovations that can make the game even more exciting,” he said.
Here’s a rundown of those innovations and what to expect when the league begins play Feb. 8, one week after the NFL’s Super Bowl:
Most consequential rule: 25-second play clock
In the NFL, offenses have 40 seconds between plays. In the XFL, they will have 25 seconds.
The shorter play clock will lead to more plays, but will it lead to better plays? The XFL has a plan to contain the chaos:
• The play clock won’t begin until the ball is spotted by a referee whose sole job is to spot the ball. The league expects that to take six or seven seconds, so offenses technically will have 31 or 32 seconds between plays.
• All skill position players will have speakers in their helmets, not just quarterbacks, as is the case in the NFL. This will allow coaches to communicate with players immediately after the end-of-play whistle. For example, say a receiver is 30 yards downfield after an incomplete pass. He won’t have to return to the huddle to hear the play call. He’ll learn where he is supposed to line up on the next play as he’s jogging back to the line of scrimmage.
“The play clock definitely jumps out,” Blandino said. “When I first saw it, I said, ‘That’s quick,’ because we’re used to 40 seconds. But when you think about the ball-spotter and how we have a built-in buffer from the end of the play to when the ball will be made ready for play, it makes sense.”
The return of the return game
Whereas NFL rules have all but phased out kick and punt returns, XFL rules will make them eventful plays. There will be returns on virtually every kickoff and punt.
On kickoffs, there will be a shorter distance between the coverage team and the return team, which should, in theory, reduce high-speed collisions. The coverage team will line up at the opponent’s 35-yard line. The return team will line up 5 yards away — at its own 30-yard line. When the ball is kicked, only the kicker and the returner can move. Once the ball is caught, all players are free to move.
"When you get the kicking team running downfield, typically that’s where the kicking team and return team end up (5 yards apart),” Blandino said, “So we’re just starting them there to eliminate some of those high-velocity collisions from a safety perspective.”
There are similar restrictions on punts. The punting team can’t cross the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked, which should give the returner more room, and therefore more incentive, to run. XFL rules also discourage punts out of bounds. If a punt lands out of bounds or in the end zone, the offense takes possession of the ball at its 35-yard line.
Watch for the increased likelihood of punt returns to change the fourth-down calculus for coaches. Why bother punting on fourth and short if the opponent is capable of gaining 15 to 20 yards on the return?
Most fascinating rule: “The Comeback Period”
Say goodbye to kneel downs. In the NFL, the game clock stops after an incomplete pass, when a player runs out of bounds and at the two-minute mark during the second and fourth quarters. In the XFL, the clock will continue to run — except during the final two minutes of each half. During that period, the clock will stop after every play. Essentially, the team that has the lead won’t be able to run out the clock and the team that is trailing will have a better chance of orchestrating a comeback. It makes you wonder: Why doesn’t the NFL do this already?
Another rule the NFL might want to consider adopting: Overtime shootouts
Say goodbye to one-possession overtime wins and games ending in ties, too. In the XFL’s overtime, 44 players will be on the field at the same time — 11 vs. 11 at opposite ends. Each offense will line up at the 5-yard line and, like in the NHL or in soccer, take turns trying to score. Overtime periods will consist of five rounds, or until one team is mathematically eliminated. If both teams are tied after five rounds, they’ll play single rounds.
There will be math
Down by nine points? In the XFL, that’s a one-score game. After scoring a touchdown, teams can elect to attempt a one-point conversion from the 2-yard line, a two-point conversion from the 5 or a three-point conversion from the 10, all of which will be plays from scrimmage. No kicks.
“Even with the NFL moving (the extra point) back, it’s still automatic,” XFL commissioner Oliver Luck said. “It’s fait accompli. Critical extra points have been missed, to be fair, but anything that happens (94 percent) of the time, there’s no drama in it.”
Oh. No drama in it, eh? See: Buccaneers, Tampa Bay. Every kick here is an adventure.
How difficult will XFL conversions be? Let’s use NFL fourth-down attempts as a reference point. Since 2010, teams have converted 54 percent of their fourth-and-2 tries, 41 percent of their fourth-and-5 tries and 29 percent of their fourth-and-10 tries. Given the potential rate of return on two-point attempts vs. one-point attempts, the guess here is that we see more teams elect to go for two.
The don’t-call-it-a-gimmick gimmick
Most of the XFL’s rules are more tweaks than radical reforms. The closest the league comes to introducing a gimmick is its “double-forward pass” rule. In the NFL, teams can throw only one forward pass. In the XFL, teams can throw multiple forward passes as long as they don’t cross the line of scrimmage.
We probably won’t see such plays often, especially early in the season as teams focus on nailing down the basics of their offenses. One team to watch, though, will be the Tampa Bay Vipers. With quarterback/running back Quinton Flowers in the fold, they’re well-suited to take advantage of this quirk.
Testing in progress
All eight XFL teams are in Houston through Jan. 22 for training camp and scrimmages, giving the league one last chance to test its rules before games start counting.
The XFL clearly felt comfortable enough with its rules to publicize them Tuesday, but if it learns over the next couple of weeks that a rule is having unintended negative consequences, it can make a change, Blandino said.
• There will be no challenge system. The replay official present at the game will determine whether to initiate reviews of scoring plays and changes of possession. He also can provide input to the onfield crew on player safety matters and on egregious errors he sees during the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.
• Receivers only need to keep one foot in bounds while making a catch.
• Each team will have two one-minute timeouts per half.
• Halftime will be 10 minutes (it’s 12 minutes in the NFL).