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XFL rules, explained: How new football league differs from NFL, including overtime, kickoffs & more

Sporting News — (Jordan Heck)

The 2020 XFL season kicks off on Feb. 8, about a week after the Super Bowl.

So if you're craving for some extra football after the NFL season, you might want to tune in to the XFL to see what it's all about. But while the XFL is a football league, its rules differ greatly from the NFL. The league announced its rules in early January, and there are several key differences between the two football leagues. 

"What we did is listen to fans," XFL commissioner Oliver Luck said in a statement. "And what they told us is that they love this game, but they would like it at a little more of a faster pace and with a little more excitement. They thought there is too much idle time. We tried to listen to what they didn't want, also. They didn't want gimmicks or things that were inauthentic. They also didn't want to be complicit when it comes to player safety. So what we wanted to do is take a great game and make it a little better."

The XFL isn't changing the sport entirely, but there are a few notable rules to point out, which we'll go through below.

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XFL kickoffs and punts are radically different

You can read about all of the specific kickoff rules on the XFL's website, but the important thing to know is that players can not move until the ball is caught by the returner. Similarly, on punts, the "punting team cannot release past the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked." The XFL rulebook is made in a way to encourage returns on kickoffs and punts.

If you've watched any NFL game over the last few years, you know it's extremely irritating when the broadcast goes to commercial after a touchdown, comes back to show a kickoff get a touchback, and then goes to commercial again before the offensive drive starts.

The NFL has changed its rules lately to encourage touchbacks as kickoffs are dangerous. But the way the XFL has set it up is supposed to safer.

"In college football, kickoffs are only 6% of plays but lead to 21% of concussions," the XFL explains. "To eliminate the safety issues with kickoffs, the NCAA and NFL created more opportunities for touchbacks. The increase in touchbacks naturally leads to fewer returns which means fewer meaningful plays. The XFL’s proposed rule change will encourage more kick returns while making the play less dangerous by eliminating the 30-yard sprint to collision."

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Scores after touchdowns

Similarly to the now-defunct Alliance of American Football (AAF), the XFL is not doing field goals for extra points. Instead, they have a three-tiered point system for teams following touchdowns. It's actually very simple and is broken down as such:

  • 1 point: Run a play from the 2-yard line
  • 2 points: Run a play from the 5-yard line
  • 3 points: Run a play from the 10-yard line

No kicking points are allowed. If the defense returns a turnover, they get however many points the team on offense was going for.

This rule change makes things fun because it means an 18-point game is just two possessions behind. We can also get a lot of special play designs from coaches coming up with plays that work for short distances. We saw a lot of this in the AAF with teams getting more creative following their touchdowns.

MORE: Ranking the best, worst XFL 2020 team names and logos

Overtime rules are brand new

A big complaint about the current NFL overtime system is that it can end without both teams touching the ball. The NFL made rule changes to make it a little more fair, but sometimes all it takes is a team winning a coin toss and they essentially win the game.

The XFL has a really unique overtime system unlike anything we've really ever seen in football. Here's how the league explains it:

If a team gets mathmatically eliminated early (such as one team scores on the first three plays and holds the opponent scoreless), then there's no need to play all five rounds. And if the score is tied after five rounds, then it goes into sudden death until one team scores and the other doesn't in a single round.

There are plenty of ways this is better than the NFL system from a viewing perspective, but as the league explains, "XFL overtime allows both teams to play offense, in under 10 minutes, and always has a winner." Overtime in the XFL will be a fast-paced offensive spectacle that always results in a winner, what's not to like?

Minor rule changes

Overtime, kickoffs/punts and the point after touchdowns are the most notable changes to know about the XFL. But there are plenty of other smaller things to differenetiate itself from the NFL. The full set of rules can be viewed on the XFL's website, but we'll list a few that you might be interested in.

Double forward pass: "If a team completes a forward pass behind the line of scrimmage, that team may throw a second forward pass, as long as the ball has at no time crossed the line of scrimmage. ... Once the ball has passed the line of scrimmage, no forward passes are permitted." This is something that's not allowed in the NFL or college football, so it could lead to some interesting play designs. But overall, it's a fairly minor rule that we'd only expect to see a few times throughout the season.

Much faster play block: The XFL has a 25-second play clock compared to the NFL's 40-second play clock. A difference of 15 seconds may not sound like a lot, but this change will definitely be felt on the field. Expect a much faster pace of play as teams must hurry up their playcalling. Something to note, however, is the NFL clock starts once the play is ended and the XFL's clock starts once the ball is spotted for play.

Comeback period: During the 2-minute warning (the final two minutes of the second and fourth quarter), there are a few tweaks to allow teams more time to come back, hence "comeback period." From the XFL, "On plays that end in the field of play, the game clock will be stopped until the ball has been spotted and 5 seconds have run off of the play clock." This makes it so a team cannot run the clock out until there is only one minute remaining (assuming the opposing team has no timeouts). In the NFL, a team can run the clock out when there are two minutes remaining.

Running game clock: "Outside the last 2 minutes of each half, the game clock will run after incompletions and out of bounds plays." This will take some getting used to for football fans, but the objective is to just make games go as quickly as possible.

Teams have two timeouts per half instead of three: Another pace of play change, less timeouts equals faster games.

Players need just one foot in bounds instead of two: Yet another pace of play rule, makes it easier to determine catches, leading to faster reviews.