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The NFL is One Step Closer to New XFL-Style Kickoff Rules That Will Twist Your Brain into a Pretzel

Frank Polich. Shutterstock Images.

It's an irony that should be lost on no football nerd that at the same time the NFL was inducting the best kick returner in history, Devin Hester, into the Hall of Fame, they've been working out ways to eliminate kick returns practically altogether. It's the equivalent of MLB electing a base stealer to Cooperstown while trying out outlaw stolen bases or the Rock 'n Roll Hall inducting a Metal band while trying to ban devil worship and catching chlamydia from groupies. At least in a rough equivalent sense. 

And the issue has been an obvious one. It's been a struggle trying to come up with a practical way to keep special teams a part of the game while reducing injuries.

 So there's been talk going back as far as last spring of turning to the one football organization on the planet that has always made the right call in every situation. The highly successful and profitable XFL. As Will Burge discussed in May:

And it seems that day is about to arrive, but with changes. The XFL rule is relatively simple and easy to explain. It merely puts the kicking team's defenders and the receiving team's blockers five yards apart and says no one but the kicker and returner can move until the ball is touched or it's been on the ground for three seconds:

But bear in mind, this still the NFL. Where words like "simple," "easy" and "merely" never seem to apply. Where they can take "the catch," a concept that every toddler can grasp from the time they can … well, grasp, and make it harder for the average fan to comprehend than Oppenheimer trying to make me understand how the Trinity bomb works after I was starting at Florence Pugh's nipples on the big screen for 20 minutes. So here's the latest proposal being sent to the league for approval:

SI - It came after two years of work by New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi and Dallas Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel, and it was helped along by the XFL kickoff of a year ago. The proposal was presented to commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s competition committee in Indianapolis by Rizzi, Fassel and Bears STC Richard Hightower eight days ago. It’ll be discussed at the league meeting later in March. …

They then discussed it among a group of nearly 60 special teams coaches from across the league on Saturday. There may be some more adjustments still coming, but we can take you through the rough draft of the proposal: 

• The kickoff team would follow the current alignment rules, with the 10 cover players, excluding only the kicker, required to have a foot on the opponent’s 40-yard line.

• The bulk of the return team would be in a so-called “setup zone”, between the 30- and 35-yard line. At least nine players would have to be in that area, and six of them would have to have a foot on the 35.

• Teams would then put one or two returners in the “landing zone,” which would be between the 20-yard and the goal line.

• No one would be allowed to move other than the kicker and returners until the ball was fielded by a man on the return team.

• No fair catches.

• To incentivize creating returns, if the ball landed in the end zone, or went through the end zone, on the fly, a touchback would take the ball out to the 35-yard line.

• If the ball, on the other hand, bounced in the landing zone, and was then downed in the end zone, a touchback would only take the ball to the 20-yard line.

• If the ball didn’t get past the 20-yard line on the fly, it’d be treated as an out-of-bounds kick, and the offense would take possession on the 40.

See? It's as straightforward as that. Elementary. Child's play. All it takes is understanding these eight bullet points, the alignment of every player, the specific yard lines where they're allowed to line up, the distance of the "setup zone," and the exact specifications of how many players are allowed to be in the "landing zone." 

Let's get back to Florence Pugh.

Giphy Images.

I think I've long since established that I'm fine with rules that make any sport safer. I can afford to be a wiseass about the XFL because in it's first iteration Vince McMahon bragged about how "Our quarterbacks won't wear dresses." Not realizing that while Americans have a thirst for violence, we don't have one for watching backup quarterbacks and third stringers. After we've been to NFL Shop to blow $250 on a guy's jersey, we like to see him stay in the game. And as I've mentioned before, the goalie mask was introduced to the NHL about 100 years after the invention of the slap shot. And I guarantee you the first guy who strapped one on had his manhood questioned by people who never lost teeth to anything but tooth decay. 

But you know what Americans hate just as much as losing players to injury? Rules. Specifically, rules that are needlessly complicated and therefore unenforceable. Every year the NFL becomes more and more about the officiating. Practically every game now ends up in a debate about the calls that made the difference in the outcome. Or the spread. Judgement calls. Bad spots. Misinterpretations. Inconsistencies. Reputation calls. Stars getting away with penalties some rookie or roster bubble guy can't. It's sucking the fun out of the game. And the more complicated you make things, the more you invite this stuff. 

Years ago when they were talking about changing the extra point to make it less automatic and more of a competitive play, I had the misfortune of taking dozens of calls about it on sports radio. People proposing rules ranging from as ridiculous as requiring whoever scored the touchdown to make the kick, to as preposterous as saying on a passing touchdown, you have to kick it from the spot the quarterback was in when he released the throw. When the answer was to simply move the line of scrimmage back. Boom. Problem solved. 

Like they say, a camel is a horse designed by a committee. With all due respect to the committee of over 60 special teams specialists, they've designed a camel with 17 humps, 12 heads, 10 cover players, a setup zone and a landing zone. And unlike the bomb in Los Alamos, it's not going to work. Just adopt the XFL's alignment rule and be done with it.