Oliver Luck insists the XFL doesn’t hate kickers. It’s the first thing I asked him about but, joking or not, he wanted to make it clear that the new spring football league hasn’t “completely taken the foot out of football.”
The XFL commissioner said he has many “good” friends who are kickers. The XFL just expects better of them, he explained. And so the league’s new rules will make it tougher for punters and kickers on kickoffs, take kicking out of overtime altogether and incentivize coaches to keep the offense on the field in short yardage situations on fourth down, especially in opponent territory.
“I think the approach that we have taken is that you have to really either incentivize or de-incentivize certain behaviors,” Luck said. “One of the things we’ve really created is a draconian punishment for kicking the ball out of bounds.”
Giving an opposing team the ball at the 35 on any kick out of bounds is one of the many rules that turned heads when they were announced the first week of January. The XFL may be an organization that had a previous life with a reputation already established to some, but in an interview with Uproxx Sports, Luck describes its rebirth as an opportunity to further evolve the sport. Football, he says, has never been better. But his league has a chance be an intriguing addition to the world of “peak football.”
“It seems like it’s a time when we’re actually witnessing what I would call Peak Football,” Luck said. “I think the game is as good as it’s ever been. The athleticism, the strategy, the way the game is packaged. The fitness of these guys. I really think it’s at an all-time high. Which tells me there’s a neat opportunity for us to build our brand in the spring.”
Luck is careful not to categorize the XFL’s rule changes as improvements on the product the NFL or college football gives fans. They’re not the competition, after all.
“The NFL is a juggernaut, we’d like to view ourselves as a complement, playing great football at a time when the NFL is not playing football,” Luck told Uproxx Sports. “Obviously there’s a rough, tough history of failed spring leagues and there’s no question we have a lot of work to do, but I think we have as good a chance as anybody to establish sort of our niche in the spring.”
That compliment does come with a fair bit of experimentation baked right into the league. Luck said the XFL met with fan focus groups, safety officials and current and former coaches as well as players to figure out what to tinker with. The result is a league with simplified catch rules, one foot needed to stay in bounds on catches and a variety of options for conversions after touchdowns. The league bills these changes as an effort to make the game more exciting, and a shortened play clock and other changes are intended to speed up the pace of the game as well. But that does present some real challenges for coaches developing teams under these new rules.
“In some respects it will be a little more challenging for coaches but, all in all, they make sense,” said Kevin Gilbride, head coach of the New York Guardians.
Gilbride won two Super Bowls as an offensive coordinator with the New York Giants and broke down some of the changes offenses will have to deal with in a sped-up game, including the difficult reads quarterbacks will have to make that impact basic play-calling. In the NFL, for example, you can call two or three plays for a quarterback to pick from once they’ve reached the line of scrimmage and identified defensive concepts. But there’s no time for that in the XFL.
“That pretty much is out the window. You just don’t have time to do that,” Gilbride said. “So your adjustments or solutions to any unforeseen problems — whether it’s a blitz or an extra man that shows up, whatever it could be — essentially has to be built into the play. So that’s a little bit different, the fact that the play clock is so fast.”
Another big difference in the XFL will be the sheer number of goal line plays in an offensive playbook. The incentive to go for it more, and the additional goal line tries on extra point attempts means a larger portion of the playbook will find offenses operating at the goal line more often. And then there’s the kicking game, which Gilbride said will test the old adage coaches like to drill into teams that special teams is one third of the game.
“When people see the kickoff for the first time, they’ll think somebody lost their mind,” Gilbride said, explaining that the penalties for kicking it out of bounds and opposing players just five yards apart on kickoffs will reduce injury risks and create more opportunities for exciting returns. He did admit, however, that he hadn’t seen many of the crazy trick plays the league’s double pass rule may make possible, though it may be a case of teams playing it close to the vest before the season gets underway.
“It’ll be interesting to see. I think there’s no question that you need to know what the opportunities the rules are presenting to you,” Gilbride said. “It’s definitely football that will incorporate a lot of the concepts offensively where you see a lot of college teams doing and a few of the NFL teams like a Baltimore Ravens where the Lamar Jackson incorporation of RPOs and zone read options. I think it’s going to be exciting I think the fans will enjoy it.”
Both Luck and Gilbride spoke to the importance of line play, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Getting a cohesive unit in a startup league is a challenge, and many spring leagues have been sunk by the struggle. It all takes time, Luck said, and he stressed that the XFL has worked hard to give its employees the necessary time to learn the rules and work together as professionals. That includes the six officiating units put together by Dean Blandino, former NFL head of officiating and Fox broadcaster who was hired to run the XFL’s new collection of rules and enforcement.
Interestingly, the XFL eschewed big splashes in new technology to enforce rules, going with a single official dedicated to spotting the ball and other more traditional technologies to enforce rules and regulations. Luck said the lack of technology is both a fiscal decision as well as one of practicality.
“Everybody talks about it but when you start thinking about it it’s much harder to replace those old-school chains than you think because if you think about it you need redundancies and not all these stadiums have all the technology that you need,” Luck explained, adding that the league wanted to be sensitive to long delays for officiating decisions. There’s also the worry that too much change can hamper adoption of all the new rules.
“You have to keep in mind players and coaches are creatures of habit,” Luck said. “The idea of introducing a dozen or so rule changes and a bunch of other tech changes at once, that could be challenging. You don’t want to overburden the player.”
We’ll see how it all shakes out when the XFL kicks off its (second) inaugural season on February 9.