The USFL Sets Itself Apart from the NFL with Intriguing Rule Adaptations

(John Amis/Associated Press)

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With the NFL soaking up all of the headlines with trades and signings occurring seemingly every single day, the USFL has flown under the radar the past several weeks.  However, the USFL did their best to steal a few headline spots back today by announcing the rules they will be implementing to their new league.  The start of the season is just around the corner, with the opening game set for Saturday, April 16th, and it's officially time to solidify how the games will be played.  After going through the differences in rules between the NFL and the USFL, I'm certainly intrigued to see how these play out and the ways they will affect the game, whether it's for the better or worse.

Overtime Rules

The first difference the USFL announced on their Instagram page this morning was the overtime rules.  For overtime, the league is using what they are a calling a "Best of 3 Shootout."  Each team will get the ball at the 2-yard line, much like a two-point conversion in the NFL.  However, the format is a Best of 3, so each team has three opportunities on offense and defense, with the winner being whoever scores the most out of those three attempts.  If they are still tied following the Best of 3, it will then become a sudden death scenario, where the first team to score while also stopping their opponent from scoring, is the victor.

Overtime has always been a point of contention for the NFL and its fans.  The coin toss to see who gets the ball first has always been lauded, giving the clear advantage to whichever team wins it.  And in recent years at attempting to fix this, the NFL adjusted its overtime rules so that it was no longer just the first team to score wins if the first score was a field goal.  

However, those changes haven't completely solved the issues, as we recently saw in the playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills.  Many fans clamor for the NCAA rules, where it's a sudden death 2-point conversion style of overtime that gives each team a fair chance.  Therefore, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that the USFL is adopting much of their overtime rules from them.  The Best of 3 is an additional wrinkle that will definitely up the excitement and hope to draw fans in for close games.

Clock Management

The second adaptation of an NFL rule we will see in the USFL also mimics something done by the NCAA.  For this one, the clock will stop for first downs inside of two minutes for both the 2nd and 4th quarters.  The reasoning they provide behind this one is that it should create more offensive plays during the final two minutes in each half and thus, will add excitement before halftime and at the end of each game.

As I mentioned, we currently see this done in college football games, and I must agree with the USFL that it does add excitement at the ends of these quarters.  If your team is down and trying to drive the length of the field to tie the game or go for the win, it creates more opportunities for them to do so, which is always exciting.  It also, in turn, creates a more nerve-wracking experience for fans of the team on defense.  Either way, it creates a more engaging experience for the fan, something the USFL is looking to do when acquiring new fans to their league and I think this is a good way to go about it.

Extra Points

The third rule change they've announced involves the scoring following a touchdown.  After a touchdown, you have three options to add to the six points you just received.  The first two we already see in the NFL - you can either kick an extra point with the ball being snapped at the 15-yard line or go for a two-point conversion from the 2-yard line.  The third, and new, option is worth three points, however.  With this one, you are attempting to get into the end zone from the 10-yard line, similar to a two-point conversion but farther back.

Not only does this change affect the scoring on the surface level, but it also will change the strategy deployed by teams over the course of the game.  Now, nine points is still just a one-score deficit and double digit leads are the only way to secure a two-possession cushion.  There will undoubtedly be a learning curve to this, but it will be interesting to see how early in the game teams start to go for two- or three-point conversions and try to create a larger lead/keep a deficit within reach.  This also should lead to less blowouts and keep fans' interest piqued over the full course of the game.

Onside Kicks

Additionally, the USFL announced how they will be approaching onside kickoffs.  Similar to the NFL, you will have the option for a normal kickoff from the 25-yard line or an onside kick.  However, there is a new third option that a team can opt for to try to keep possession of the ball, aside from an onside kick.  Now, they will have the opportunity to complete a 4th-and-12 from their own 33-yard line.  If the offense converts, they will keep the ball.  If they fail, the defense gets the ball at the spot where the play was completed.

I like this rule because onside kick conversions have become few and far between in the NFL.  The excitement just isn't there anymore with how little success teams have in converting them.  This change should greatly increase a team's chances of keeping the ball, while also risking turning over the ball deep within their own territory.

Defensive Pass Interference

The league also stated how it will differently handle defensive pass interference.  I must admit that I'm a little confused by their explanation so I'll let you decide for yourself:

The penalty for defensive pass interference will mirror the NCAA rule with exceptions.  First, a defender intentionally tackling a receiver beyond 15 yards would become a spot foul.  Also, the penalty will be a spot foul if it occurs 15 yards or less from the line of scrimmage or a 15-yard penalty from the line of scrimmage if the spot of the foul is beyond 15 yards.

It will be left up to the instant replay crew to determine whether a pass interference foul downfield was "intentional" for it to be a spot foul.  If it isn't, then the foul will be a 15-yard penalty or less.  If this is truly the case, leaving the subjectivity of a foul up to the officials has always been a recipe for disaster and I can see this going much the same.  Plus, I don't really understand how a pass interference call should be less than a 15-yard penalty.  It should be interesting to see how this one plays out.

Two Forward Passes

The USFL also added their most unique rule, one not seen at either the collegiate or professional level.  Teams will have the ability to complete two forward passes on a play, as long as both are thrown from behind the line of scrimmage.  This will add a completely new twist to way offenses play and defenses scheme.  It's hard to speculate on how much teams will use this over the course of the game but it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for offenses.  I can't wait to see how teams utilize the rule and if it helps to create more explosive plays than we traditionally see in other football games.  

Instant Replay

Lastly, the USFL will handle instant replays differently as well.  There will be a replay crew that will make all decisions to "achieve accurate, consistent and faster rulings."  They have the authority to overrule incorrect calls and will be responsible for interpreting whether the pass interference calls are intentional or not.  As a result, coaches are only permitted one replay challenge per game.  

I like that the instant replay crew is there to overrule incorrect calls but at the same time, we've seen in mostly all sports how instant replay can take too long and interrupt the flow of the game.  It's going to be tough to balance getting a call correct in a quick, efficient manner, while also not completely taking over the game with replays.  I hope they are able to use this effectively for the sake of the game and the fans.

Fan Excitement

All of these adaptations have one common denominator - keeping the gameplay exciting for the fans.  The USFL clearly recognizes how difficult it has been for new football leagues in the past to garner attention from the typical NFL fan.  In order to combat this, they've done their best to implement different rules from the NFL that not only should keep fans excited, but also have been critiqued heavily over the years by NFL fans.  

It will be interesting to see whether these differences are actually successful and help to change the potential outcome of games, but nonetheless, I'm intrigued with the outlook of them.  I think they provide plenty of exciting opportunities for fans and should create some fun endings to games over the course of the inaugural USFL season.