The XFL didn't make it through its reboot season, but could its legacy live on in college football?
The league officially ceased operations April 10; some would say by falling TV ratings while others would argue it was a victim of the coronavirus pandemic. No matter the reason, the XFL may have provided the NCAA with a model to alter its own rules to provide for a safer, yet still exciting kickoff.
According to its own guidelines, XFL kickoffs featured the place-kicker alone at his own 30-yard line, from where touchbacks are less likely. The coverage and blocking teams line up across from each other between the returning team's 30- and 35-yard lines, an alignment that minimizes high-speed collisions. The average drive after a kickoff return has started at the 30-yard line, five yards ahead of the 2019 NFL average.
A February ESPN story by Kevin Seifert noted the effort to increase the number of kickoff and punt returns, compared to recent NFL averages, had been largely successful.
Through the first eight games of the XFL's 40-game season, 90.1% of kickoffs and 63.4% of punts were returned. Last season in the NFL, 34.1% of kickoffs and 36.2% of punts were returned.
While those numbers are arguably a small sample size and the XFL folded just five weeks into its season, it certainly is food for thought for the NCAA rules committee.
Prairie State Pigskin sought the opinions of FCS coaches from around the state.
Adam Cushing, Eastern Illinois
"I wouldn’t be surprised to see continued alterations of the kickoff rules, especially for the health and safety of the game. The NFL has studied this in depth and there is a disproportionate number of injuries on kickoffs.
"I can see in the next x number of years, certainly single digits, that you’ll see the rules committee take a really hard look and continue to make the game safer. At our head coaches’ meetings, they continue to talk about it. Last year they eliminated wedge blocks, so two-person, shoulder-to-shoulder double teams. This year they’re discussing, though nothing has gone through, eliminating all double teams (on kickoffs). I think we’re going to continue to see, in a very positive way, things get safer on that play.
"Any time you can see a model that is in action and working, it’s going to be particularly salient to what we’re talking about. The XFL had to go out on a limb to make up the rule, but college football has the opportunity to look at it and say, ‘boy, look at the statistics there.’ I think it has the chance to be really causative.
"It’s an interesting discussion. We could sit here and talk about it for quite awhile . . . while that becomes safer for the guy covering kicks, it’s now alternatively not as safe for the guy catching the kick because he has less protection from the (coverage) player running full speed.
"Is the XFL model the right one? It will be interesting to see statistics at year’s end on injuries with that play. It’s an alternative moving forward. It’s not just the guys covering the kick, it’s everybody in general. Sometimes the unintended consequences for a rule change are good for Team A, but what about Team B?"
Jared Elliott, Western Illinois
“When you look at just the last five years, there’s been so much change, almost annually with kickoffs. The wedge was eliminated. They’re constantly exploring the different ways that we can make that play in football safer but yet still be exciting and not take away from the tradition of the game.
“There’s no question that that one play in football is the play that can cause the most physical and violent collisions. You’ve got two opposite players running full speed with a great distance and green grass between them. They’re building up a lot of force and power.
“What the XFL did set another lightbulb off for a lot of people. This is a creative way to still keep the tradition of the game, the importance of that play in terms of field position and trying to find ways of creating explosion on special teams and the strategy behind it. This [XFL] model maintains that and is also creating a much safer play.
“I do think it will be looked at. I have not seen anything come across yet from our league that it’s being considered, but I do think it’s made a lot of people think about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see that trickle down to college football at some point.
“Personally, I thought it was a great idea. It’s still a fun play to watch, it’s unique and there’s still strategy involved. I even saw St. Louis return one for a touchdown, so it’s not a play that favors one side or the other. It’s still a fun and very critical play of a game. But it creates a much safer situation for the players."
Brock Spack, Illinois State
“I liked it. I really, really liked it. After seeing it the first week [of the XFL], I told my staff that I could really see this being adapted in college football. That’s probably one of the most dangerous plays in football. I’d like to see what their [XFL] injury rate was.
“We kind of practice the kickoff that way. Sometimes we don’t run through the kickoff completely. We work on those different phases so we don’t run 60 yards and have those big collisions. Obviously there are points during preseason where you have to work on it live and cross your fingers [that no one gets hurt].
“I thought it had some merit. Our staff thought it was pretty cool. As the [XFL] weeks went by, I watched how people were attacking the coverage. What kind of blocking schemes they could use within that alignment. It looked to me like running inside or outside zones on offense, the leverages people were using. How far you had to reach. It was very interesting. I could absolutely see college football wanting something like that.”
Khenon Hall, ISU running backs coach
"I think it would be good for our level. With all the rules in place right now, it would be good to go to that format. It would definitely save some hits and stay with [the] safety first [concept].
"I think it’s gonna happen, I don’t know when, but I think it’s going to happen. With this time off, that’s more time for them [rules committee] to look at it. . . I like it. It’s still entertaining, but with the safety factor, it’s better for football."