Don’t tell anyone, but the XFL is bringing back a lot of its 2001 rules

The XFL is keeping the similarities to its ancestor on the down low.

The XFL followed up on its announcement of its first eight cities by pulling back the curtain on the work being done to develop its 2020 rulebook.

There some original tweaks the league is implementing — most prominently in the way the game is timed (clock runs continuously until the final 2:00 of each half; 10 second stop after every play thereafter) and the kickoff (players line up five yards apart on the receiving team’s 30- and 35-yard line; players can begin to move once the ball is caught).

But what stands out to me is how much is unoriginal. Here’s XFL Commission Andrew Luck talking about the rules on the The Grueling Truth’s “Survive and Advance” podcast:

We’ve even borrowed an idea from the CFL [Canadian Football League], which is on a punt, no fair catch allowed, but there’s a halo rule.

It’s true that the CFL uses the halo, which prevents tacklers from coming within five yards of the receiver until the punt is caught. It also happens to be true that the XFL used the halo itself in 2001, infamously marketing it as “no fair catches” and sort of implying that punt returners might be decapitated.

Also recycled from 2001 is the 1-, 2-, and 3-point conversions from the 2-, 5-, and 15-yard lines. The XFL added tiered extra points for the playoffs in 2001, with the 3-point attempt then coming from the 10-yard line.

That these are presented as “reimagined” or even “borrowed from the CFL” is illustrative of the complicated relationship XFL 2020 has with its ancestor. Vince McMahon cited “brand equity” when asked why he decided to bring back the XFL name, but Luck is keenly aware of the baggage that accompanies it. Here is Luck at the Sports Business Radio Road Show, in response to a question about whether the league will again put nicknames on the uniforms:

We’re going to be careful not to do things that are viewed as gimmicky. I’ll be very candid; one of the challenges XFL 2001 had were there a couple of things that the viewing public looked at as gimmicky. … We want to make sure that what we do is not viewed as gimmicky. That doesn’t mean you cannot innovate and do some things we think are fairly clever and will help the game. … But we want to stay away from gimmicks.

Of course, nicknames on jerseys is now mainstream, and in the same interview, Luck floated the incredibly gimmicky idea of letting the fans call the first play of each game. It’s not the ideas that Luck fears, it’s the source. XFL 2001 was basically ruined by the sports media, and XFL 2020 is going to do everything they can to prevent today’s sports media from saying “here we go again.”

And on that front, so far, so good. Most mainstream coverage of the league lately has ranged from positive to benign. The bulk of that credit goes to Luck, who oozes professionalism and has sports administration bona fides that command respect. If that trend holds, it will be interesting to see if the XFL ever publicly warms to its legacy. After all, the apple doesn’t seem to be falling terribly far from the tree.

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