With a scant eleven weeks remaining until the UFL kicks off on March 30, 2024, decisions on a rulebook are pending.
As far as kickoffs are concerned, we have already heard rumors that the UFL has decided on which kickoff rule they will go with. Although the decision has not been made official yet, rumors suggest that the newly merged league will likely stick with the USFL kickoff rules instead of adopting the XFL kickoff format.
What’s the difference?
Kickoffs in the USFL take place at the 25-yard line. The receiving team must have at least eight players in the set-up zone between their 35- and 45-yard lines, and no member of the kicking team may line up farther back than one yard. The receiving team typically gains possession at the 50-yard line when the kickoff goes out of bounds 30 yards from the kick location.
Kickoffs in the XFL take place at the 30-yard line, with all players lining up at the receiving team’s 35-yard line except for the kicker. The only players that can move before the returner touches the ball are the kicker and the returner. It is necessary to kick the ball into the air and let it land between the end zone and the other team’s 20-yard line. Kicks that land on the kicking team’s 45-yard line and stay inside the 20-yard line are considered in bounds.
Both kickoff formats prioritize player safety.
XFL Kickoff Development and Testing
Leading up to the XFL restarting in February 2020, the league knew how important its rules would be to the success of their league.
Alarm bells would harken back to the first XFL, where the rules were thrown together quickly and required many adjustments after the league’s opening kickoff had already taken place. To avoid these types of changes, the new XFL decided they would test their rules extensively prior to the season starting. In addition, where the old XFL had hired Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus as its “Director of Competition,” the new XFL determined they wanted someone with more experience.
In 2018, newly hired XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck didn’t waste any time finding a person he trusted to work out the details well in advance of the beginning of play. Luck knew Sam Schwartzstein, a former player who was a center and guard for the Stanford Cardinal football team, could handle the role.
“We started off trying to reimagine the game of football,” Schwartzstein would later remark. To do so, Schwartzstein and Luck began the process by establishing what they referred to as a “Reimagination Committee,” consisting of “folks who really understand the game.” Among those in attendance were former NFL coaches John Fox and Jim Caldwell, former USFL, NFL, and CFL quarterback Doug Flutie, Bill Squadron, Special Counsel, Genius Sports, and Kevin Guskiewicz, Dean, UNC College of Arts and Sciences.
Schwartzstein wanted to limit the high velocity impact possibility of the standard kickoff but maintain the excitement that can come with a long kickoff return. At the time, one of Schwartzstein’s tweets featured a photo of a simulated kickoff recreated using eleven packs of Splenda, eleven packs of Sweet’N Low, and one sugar packet on a table. At this point in time, Oliver Luck began to be confident enough to attend various pitch meetings and talk about the kickoff as the innovation that would stand out the most when the XFL began to play.
To become more comfortable with what they had devised, the XFL reached out to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) to see if their teams would be willing to play a mock game. The Mississippi Gulf Coast Bulldogs and the Pearl River Wildcats jumped at the chance, and the XFL first got to see the new kickoff format played out on George Sekul Field in Perkinston, Mississippi, in December 2018.
The next test came in March 2019 with Your Call Football, at practices on March 7-9 and continuing on March 14 and 15, 2019. To further this undertaking, the XFL hired The Spring League to coordinate three mini-camp style tryouts and test their new rules throughout this process.
With testing in place, the XFL was confident their newly designed kickoff would work. The league used the same format in training camps prior to the 2020 season, and it became a part of history.
As the 2020 XFL season kicked off, broadcasting announcers explained the new XFL kickoff.
Who still wants an XFL kickoff?
Used during the protracted 2020 XFL season and throughout the complete 2023 season, the XFL kickoff has had plenty of “air time,” meaning the XFL kickoff format is no longer foreign. With over 60 games under its belt, it has proven to be a safer and more exciting option for returns.
We recall how Vince McMahon railed against the NFL’s fair catch in 2001, billing his league as one where there were “no fair catches.” Unfortunately, XFL 2001 had zero interest in increasing player safety.
Since then, the NFL has taken steps toward safety, moving kickoffs up to the kicking team’s 35-yard line and instituting a fair-catch option anywhere inside the receiving team’s 25, where that team would next scrimmage the ball. The change bothers most purists, as the majority of kickoffs now result in touchbacks, removing one of the most exciting plays in the game.
As research shows concussions are more likely to occur on kickoffs, during recent winter meetings held in Nashville, the CFL has been considering changes that would cut down on injuries. It has been reported that the CFL is looking at the XFL kickoff as a possibility. The NFL is also considering the XFL kickoff to enhance the excitement of their game while maintaining player safety.
With other leagues considering the XFL kickoff format, why would the UFL be thinking otherwise? We will soon discover which direction the newly merged league will take.