For football fans, this is the week that normally marks the start of the gridiron doldrums until the draft in April and then the start of training camps in August.
Just one week after the end of the NFL postseason, the XFL is here and widely available across multiple major television networks, such as ESPN, ABC, FOX and Fox Sports 1.
Long-suffering Chiefs fans just watched their team bring home its first Lombardi Trophy in 50 years and hadn’t even had a full week to celebrate the Chiefs’ come-from-behind win over the San Francisco 49ers before professional football games were back.
Admittedly, in past years, fans have still been able to get their football fix through the Arena Football League or last season’s Alliance of American Football, but many fans might not have known about their existence. By virtue of its broadcasting deals, the XFL is already receiving much more prominent coverage than the AFL did in its 32 seasons or the AAF did in its one and only season.
If you had a chance to take in any of the games this past weekend, some of the league’s rule variations from the standard jump out at you right from the opening kickoff.
First, kick return formations are far from what you are used to.
In recent years, the NFL identified the kickoff return as one of the most dangerous for head injuries and sought to make it so the play rarely happened if ever by moving the point of kickoff closer to the point of a touchback.
However, the XFL seeks to keep kick returns part of the game, but minimize risk to player safety by limiting the space for defenders to run and making it so they cannot take off until the ball is caught by the receiving team. Instead of lining up with the kicker, members of the kicking team line up well downfield, separated by just five yards from the opposing team’s blockers. The kicker and the kick returner are set off by themselves on opposite ends of the field, several yards behind their teammates.
Second, the cameras, microphones and broadcasters go everywhere.
Viewers of Saturday and Sunday’s games were taken inside the coaching booths along with offensive and defensive coordinators and were able to listen in on play calls and conversations between the head coach and quarterback in the huddle. The sounds of the quarterback running down the field from the microphone in his helmet were even sometimes a part of the broadcast.
Viewers were also allowed to join officials in the replay booth in a level of transparency that goes well beyond that offered by any other league.
The cameras were also rolling in the locker rooms during halftime, interviewers were allowed to walk up and ask questions to players on the bench while play was going on, and there were even cameras on the field.
That’s right, a camera lines up about 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage and films the play as it happens from right there on the field alongside the rearmost referees.
That last development could have had disastrous consequences for the unpadded cameraman in Sunday’s St. Louis BattleHawks game against the Dallas Renegades, which the BattleHawks won, 15-9.
During that game, one snap got away from BattleHawks quarterback Jordan Ta’amu in the shotgun formation and squirted along the grass in the direction of the cameraman, who had to scamper out of the way to avoid being pancaked by Ta’amu and the defenders chasing him.
During the BattleHawks game, former NFL Pat McAfee frequently provided commentary from the sidelines almost as much as the commentators in the broadcast booth. McAfee was able to pick up commentary from anyone else down on the field, including Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who also happens to be the lead game analyst for NFL on FOX broadcasts.
Trick plays also get trickier in the XFL where two forward passes can be allowed on the same play, provided the first is received behind the line of scrimmage.
The XFL is doing exactly what it set out to do, which is shake things up in the landscape of professional football. The league isn’t about to start stealing top players away from the NFL any time soon, but it is taking viewers even closer into the game in a way that could affect aspects of the broadcast the next time we see NFL teams back on the field.
The amount of transparency in the replay booth when a ruling on the field is challenged is something other leagues should certainly take note of right away, and not just in football. By the end of this XFL season, that may be just one of the improvements fans of other leagues are clambering for.