Compared to other major American sports, football players have the shortest careers. The average pro football career lasts 3.2 years, where the MLB (5.6), NHL (5.5), and NBA (4.8) athletes typically last much longer.
Off the gridiron, we’ve seen a rash of talented players and potential Hall of Fame candidates retire in their physical primes. In the recent years, Luke Kuechly (28), Andrew Luck (29), Rob Gronkowski (29), Patrick Willis (30) and Calvin Johnson (29) left the game due to injury concerns. Between them are 29 Pro Bowl selections and 17 First Team All-Pro nominations.
This certainly isn’t unique to football, and other sports lose stars young but the safety concerns have been at the forefront of the game for years. Against this backdrop, the XFL and its brain trust under Oliver Luck have been innovating the game not only to make it more streamlined but also to minimize player risk and help push football forward into the future.
Kickoff and Punt Return Safety
By the numbers, kick and punt returns are the most dangerous plays on a football field. In recent years the NFL has taken measures to make this phase of the game safer, most notably by moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line. This resulted in most, if not all kicks going out of the endzone for a touchback, and while this reduces the number of full-speed collisions, it also largely nullifies returns as a factor in the game.
The XFL has its own designs to renovate the return game. On kickoffs, the ball is spotted back at the 25-yard line, but coverage and receiving unit players won’t move until the returner catches the ball. This places the emphasis more on blocking and angles than flying downfield at full speed and making a big hit. It gives returners more opportunities to create plays, but it also gets rid of many collisions that occur when players sprint at each other head-on.
On punts, the coverage team’s players can only pass the line of scrimmage once the ball is in the air, preventing gunners from already being at top speed when the returner catches the ball. These new rules may sound like they’re slowing down the game, but the intent is actually to create more exciting returns.
They’re de-incentivizing touchbacks by moving the spot of the ball to the 35, and the coverage rules open the field up for returners. The idea is to make special teams a crucial and impactful phase of the game again, all while making it safer for players on the field.
The paramount of player safety has also affected other minor rule changes. For instance, a receiver only needs to land one foot in bounds, which Oliver Luck stated allows players to position their bodies better, and not fall as hard while trying to land two feet in bounds.
Head of Officiating Dean Blandino will have his crews try to streamline the game as much as possible by not slowing things down with procedural calls, but any play that threatens player safety will be under review.
As we move forward into the 21st century, prioritizing player health and longevity will be a crucial part of evolving football, and it looks like the XFL has gotten off to a good start.
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