by Keith Avallone, PLAAY Games
As most of us sports game fans know, Vince McMahon recently announced that he was resurrecting his alternative pro football league, the XFL, in 2020. During the press conference, he used the phrase "football re-imagined" to describe what he was trying to accomplish with his second go-round of the league. "Football Re-Imagined." Hmmmm. For some reason, that phrase has really stuck with me.
Because frankly, I think it might be time to re-imagine pro football. The sport has come under criticism for a number of reasons: player health and safety concerns, over-saturation/overexposure, games that are too long and lack flow because of the number of commercial interruptions. McMahon spoke of playing XFL games in a two-hour time frame—a comment that raised more than a few eyebrows. However, I do think that, in this era of "instant" gratification, three and a half hours is too long for a football game. I didn't watch a single NFL game last year in its entirety—I found myself frequently feeling like it wasn't worth the time investment. Many weekends, I wouldn't watch football at all, choosing instead to watch the post-game video summary at nfl.com—all the big plays, in chronological order, no commercials, start-to-finish in maybe 10 minutes. Perfect for anyone (like me) who's chronically crunched for time!!
I mentioned this idea of "football re-imagined" in the March Mid-Month Facebook video cast. Afterwards, I got an e-mail from Ron Arnst, Winnipeg, MB suggesting that Gary Brown's faux sport Gridball might fit the bill as "football re-imagined." Ron wrote, "The more I thought about it, the clearer it became. No clock so games would likely be shorter. Fewer total plays, less physical abuse to players. It’s a pretty good example of out of the box thinking."
Agreed, Gridball IS a cool tabletop football alternative—a complete game of GridBall can be played in about 20 minutes. But I’m talking about real-life football, the spectator sport kind. I lived in Dallas when Gary Brown was developing Gridball, we used to hang out a lot together, and I saw Gridball as it came together. If my memory serves (and, it might not!) I thought we concurred that even if you could find a facility in which to conduct a real-life game of gridball, it probably wouldn’t make that great of a spectator sport. The real beauty of Gridball is in the tabletop experience it provides.
Back to real-life "spectators in the stands" football. Say what you want about Vince McMahon, but I think he is very smart about putting a product out there that matches what people want to see. I think he understands that people don't want some sort of watered-down version of what we currently have. They don't want "Pro Football LITE." There’s been a lot of talk about player safety in recent years, but I think the reality is people enjoy the physical aspect of the game. That's not to say they enjoy seeing players get hurt, but if you eliminate the risk of injury by restricting contact, you're taking away the heart of the sport's appeal. A few months ago, there was some media buzz about a proposed professional flag football league, with several former NFL stars signed on to help promote it. Here’s the link for a telecast of the league’s inaugural game. Note the empty stands.
What about arena football? Arena football has, I think, demonstrated pretty definitively that it is NOT an acceptable mass-appeal alternative to the NFL. Otherwise, wouldn't it have caught on by now? Some make the argument that maybe with better funding, it could take off. Remember here was a time when the NFL was VERY actively plugged in to arena football, with owners like Jerry Jones and Tom Benson owning and operating arena league teams. There was massive TV exposure from NBC, with weekly featured games and even some regional coverage. And it all quietly went away. Clearly, it's not what the average pro football fan wants to watch.
So, what DO people want? My sense is that McMahon is on the right track. People want a faster game, with less down-time, fewer interruptions, safer playing conditions for players. But they don't want gimmicks or "football LITE."
As I was creating the 2017 Canadian pro teams for COLD SNAP, the idea occurred to me: maybe the XFL should try three down football. With three downs to make ten yards, there's more urgency, more importance to every down. I think that would be an excellent place to start.
And since we're reducing the downs from four to three, let's reduce the game time by the same ratio. That is, instead of 60 minutes of clock time, let's play 45. Even better, let’s go with 40 minutes of clock time—four, ten minute quarters—and only play the final five minutes if the game is close. Right there, you would be reducing player injuries by at least 25% and—assuming that the more fatigued a player gets, the more likely he is to be injured—probably the reduction in injury would be more like 33%. That's pretty significant. Think of it another way: a sixteen game season with 45 minute games would equate to the same amount of minutes played as only twelve 60-minute games. And if you assume that maybe a quarter of the games aren't close enough to play the final five minutes, you just reduced it to ten or eleven games of 60-minute football. Without adding a single rule, or taking away a single current game strategy, you've just reduced player injuries by a third.
More thoughts: We'll keep the field the same size—100 yards—and the same number of players per side, eleven. We'll retain the game's current penalty structure, and play with the same basic game rules. I do think that the Canadian football rule of a one-yard neutral zone separating the offensive and defensive lines would be a smart thing to implement. Otherwise, since we're not using a larger, wider field, it might be too difficult to establish any kind of run game. This is—in my opinion—one of the things that killed arena football, that there was no real way to run the football. It made the game very one-dimensional, which is not what we're looking to do. By establishing a one-yard buffer zone, you're making it tougher for defenses to shut down a run play. I think that's a good idea.
In my re-imagining of pro football, the clock will run continually, except that it will stop after a penalty, change of possession, and after a score. (Penalty reasoning, you could conceivably run out the clock by committing a series of egregious fouls—that wouldn’t be fair!)
We'll leave the kicking game intact, although in my league I would say that there are no kicked extra points allowed. You'd have to convert your touchdown with an untimed scrimmage play, for one, two, or three points. But, I'd be totally OK with leaving the current pro rules (one point kicked PAT from the 25, or two-point PAT with a scrimmage play from the two-and-a-half yard line) in place for consistency's sake.
How would all this translate to SECOND SEASON Pro Football Board Game? Well, you'd have four, twenty-play periods. No half-plays: I woulnd't mark off time on kicking plays (kickoffs, field goals, point-after touchdowns, punts) to reflect the fact that the clock would stop after those plays to allow platoons to change. If the game is close (i.e., within two scoring possessions), the fifth "bonus" period is played, ten additional plays, same rules. You could use a real-time clock with "hurry-up" rules, maybe you say that you go back to traditional timing for the last two minutes. To replicate the one-yard "buffer zone" between lines, you'd simply add a yard to all OU and IN run results. So, a one-yard loss would be read as no-gain, no gain as a one-yard gain, and so on. I think that's about all you’d need to do, outside of observing three downs instead of four. I'll plan on running a test game to see how it works, and report back.
In any case, I do think football is worth re-imagining, and I hope that if the XFL ever does re-launch, it does so with a fresh pro football approach, something new and different. What do YOU think?