After the United States Football League’s “Welcome to Birmingham” news conference back in January, I asked the league’s president of operations, Brian Woods, what kind of rules fans could expect. He told me it would be “90 percent” of the NFL playbook, with a few tweaks here and there to speed up the game.
I’m not gonna lie – that kind of bummed me out. One of the things that draws me to alternative football leagues is innovative (and sometimes off the wall) rules, and that comment made me think things this spring and summer wouldn’t be much different than what we see on Sundays in the fall and winter.
This morning, however, I was pleasantly surprised when the fledgling league announced its “10 percent” modifications. Truthfully, there’s not a single one I dislike.
“Fans are the USFL’s top priority, so our rules are designed to give fans the traditional physical play they know and love while adding some modern fast-paced elements,” Mike Pereira, USFL head of officiating, said in a statement. “The overwhelming majority of rules that govern game play in the USFL are standard at the professional or collegiate level. But we are incorporating a few unconventional ideas that we’re convinced will add offense, alter some coaching decisions and strategy for the better, and make it easier to get major penalty calls correct. Collectively, these changes will be good for the game of football and keep fans more engaged and entertained.”
For starters, post-touchdown conversions can be old school or new school. In recent years in alt-football there has been a move away from the kick entirely, but the USFL will offer the option of a single point kicked from the 15-yard line; 2-point conversion attempt ran or passed from the two-yard line, or a 3-point conversion for a successful run or pass from the 10-yard line.
Solid multiple choices, there.
The kicking game is also getting an upgrade as the league improvises an innovation from the 2020 XFL.
Kickoffs will be from the 25-yard line and no kicking team member may line up any further back than one yard. The receiving team must have a minimum of eight players in the set-up zone between their 35 and 45-yard lines. After a kickoff travels 20 yards, the first touch must be by the receiving team. If an untouched kick becomes dead, the ball belongs to the receiving team at that spot.
(The XFL rule had 10 players from the receiving team lining up on their own 30-yard line while the kick coverage team lined up five yards away on the 35-yard line).
I think this trend of eliminating high speed collisions on kickoffs is the wave of the future, and I like this rule very much.
Punts will be safer as well, since the USFL rule forbids gunners from lining up outside the numbers and being double-team blocked until the ball is kicked.
The onside kick vs. scrimmage play will make for some tough decisions by coaches. After scoring, a team can either attempt an onside kick from the 25-yard line or run a fourth-and-12 play from its own 33-yard line. If the team makes a first down, it retains possession.
(The Alliance of American Football had a similar rule in 2019, although the fourth-and-12 play was made from the 28).
Overtime looks fun, too, thanks to a “best-of three-play shootout” also inspired by the XFL. Each team’s offense will alternate plays against the opposing defense from the two-yard line. Each successful scoring attempt will receive two points. The team with the most points after three plays wins. The subsequent attempts become sudden death if the score is tied after each team runs three plays. The overtime period will extend until there’s a winner.
Other rule changes include the legality of two forward passes from behind the line of scrimmage; the clock stopping on first downs inside the final two minutes of the second and fourth quarters; all replay decisions made at the Fox Sports Control in Center in Los Angeles; defensive pass interference 15 yards from the line of scrimmage unless a defender intentionally tackles a receiver beyond 15 yards, which is a spot foul; and if a pass doesn’t cross the line of scrimmage, there can be no pass interference or ineligible player downfield penalties.
Pereira and the rules committee deserve a lot of credit. There are people like me who have no trouble with changes that go way outside the box, while others don’t want to see anything too abrupt.
The USFL rules package for 2022 does a nice job, I think, of making all of us relatively happy.