In February 2022, the XFL announced its plans to serve as a "petri dish" for NFL innovation, offering its platform to experiment with proposed rules, test new equipment and develop prospective officials and coaches.

The midpoint of the XFL season provides a natural moment of reckoning. The league has now played a total of 10 weeks -- five in its pandemic-shortened season of 2020, and five in 2023 -- under a set of rules originally developed by former XFL director of football operations, innovation and strategy Sam Schwartzstein under previous owner Vince McMahon.

Those rules have made the XFL a faster-paced version of football, with funky kickoffs, new levels of broadcast transparency and a different set of end-game math to consider. Some of them make more sense for an upstart spring league, most notably an option to use a double-forward pass, but many of them appear durable enough to consider for eventual NFL integration.

Let's consider six such rules and philosophies and compare them to the way the NFL operates.


Kickoff formation

XFL rule: The kicker lines up at his 30-yard line, with the other 10 members of the kickoff team lining up at the opponent's 35 -- 5 yards away from the returning team. Only the kicker and one returner can move until the ball is fielded. Touchbacks are spotted at the 35-yard line.

NFL rule: Kicking team lines up at its 35-yard line, with eight members of the return team within 15 yards. No double-team blocks allowed. Touchbacks are spotted at the 25-yard line.

The XFL's rule was one of many preserved from the league's 2020 incarnation, and it has continued to hit its goal of maximizing returns and minimizing the incentive for touchbacks while avoiding the high-speed collisions that made the traditional kickoff so dangerous. It takes some getting used to, as 20 players stand still with the ball in the air, but the numbers don't lie: More than 90% of XFL kickoffs have been returned this season, compared to about 40% of NFL kickoffs.

Most XFL teams have blocked these returns like zone running plays, which hasn't led to many long returns. But in Week 5, the St. Louis Battlehawks' Darrius Shepherd reeled off an 80-yard return. The progression followed a similar pattern in Week 5 of the 2020 season, when the Battlehawks used a trick play to record the league's first kickoff return for a touchdown.

The NFL rewrote its kickoff rules in 2018, responding to data that showed the high-speed collisions involved had made concussions five times as likely to happen on kickoffs than on standard offensive or defensive plays. But the rules in essence led to touchbacks being the most likely outcome rather than a return.

If nothing else, the XFL's efforts here demonstrated there are creative ways to preserve the kickoff as a live play while also protecting players from unnecessary risk.