How USFL’s different rules impacted the league

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Peter King is on vacation until July 18, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today’s guest is Paul Burmeister, a play-by-play voice and studio host for NBC Sports.

Mike Pereira created a buzz for the USFL before the games even started. The USFL head of officiating rolled out the league’s own brand of rules that didn’t reinvent the wheel, but unapologetically put its own spin on things.

“We wanted our own tweaks to make it feel a little different,” said Pereira, former NFL vice president of officiating and current FOX rules analyst.

THE KICKOFF

“We wanted kickoff returns back in the game,” Pereira said. “But how could we do it, AND make sure it’s safe?”

Pereira and his team took three measures to thread that needle.

• First, the USFL moved the kickoff back to the 25-yard line, quite a difference from the NFL’s 35, where 60 percent of the kickoffs end in touchbacks.

Mission accomplished, as 80 percent of kickoffs were returned during the USFL regular season.

• Second, regarding the “how to make it safe” issue, the technical definition reads like this in the USFL officiating manual:

III Rule 6b
“Kicking team players must have one foot within five yards of the kickers restraining line.”

111 Rule 6d
“Receiving team must align with a minimum of 8, and a maximum of 9 players, within 10 yards beyond the restraining line.”

Bottom line: The players on the kicking team and receiving team are closer together, similar to a punt. You don’t have the receiving team getting way downfield, gaining separation, with the time to set up and take on the kicking team charging at full speed.

The result: fewer, less severe collisions, and more potential for big plays.

• The third tweak was the most subtle, but also served its intended purpose. Once a kick went past 20 yards, it wasn’t a live ball. Basically, it became a punt: Only the receiving team could advance it. So the incentive to pooch or bloop kick with the hope of recovering the ball was removed.

Pereira was pleased see to see more kick returns, with safety in mind. “We loved having kickoff returns back in the game,” he said.

ROUGHING THE PASSER

I always see the game through the lens of an ex-quarterback—I played QB at Purdue in 1989-93—and I’m mostly in favor of the passing-friendly rules that are abundant in the NFL.  But even I shake my head multiple times each Sunday at the flags thrown for breathing on the quarterback.

It’s okay for quarterbacks to get hit the moment after they throw the ball. That contact—if in the spirit of football, not in the spirit of injuring the quarterback—shouldn’t cost the defense 15 yards. And Pereira agrees.

“It sometimes doesn’t look like a foul, it doesn’t feel like a foul, but it’s still costs the defense a huge chunk of yardage,” he said.

So, the USFL installed a rule that all Roughing the Passer penalties could be reviewed. And if deemed non-vicious and didn’t involve a blow to the head, the flag was picked up.

It’s a delicate situation; no one wants the quarterback put in danger. He’s vulnerable in that moment right after release. But as Pereira put it to me, “If everyone in the world knows it’s an act that didn’t put the quarterback in danger” that flag should be picked up.

It happened numerous times throughout the USFL season, including on broadcasts I was calling. I enjoyed listening to Mike think out loud as he watched the plays in slow motion, explaining why the flag should or shouldn’t be picked up.

I thought this rule made the game better; a little more fair to the defense, while still reserving the right to protect the QB when needed.

And it wasn’t just Roughing the Passer; all Unsportsmanlike penalties were subject to review. If the call on the field didn’t hold up during a slo-mo review, the call didn’t survive. I think it worked.

POSSESSION SCRIMMAGE PLAY

This was known as the “4th and 12 Rule” or the “Make It/Take It.” Pereira and his team came to determine that converting 4th and 12 in the USFL was just as likely as recovering an onside kick.

The idea is that after a touchdown or field goal, instead of kicking off, the offense can opt for the “Possession Scrimmage Play.” That play is a 4th and 12 from their own 33-yard line.

If you convert, you keep the ball. If you don’t convert, whether the result was an 11-yard gain or an 11-yard loss, the opposing team takes over from where the play ended.

“We took a look at the normal success rate of an onside kick before the NFL implemented the restrictions in 2018,” Pereira said. “It was 10 to 12 percent.”

In the NFL, the average success of a 4th and 15 play is 11 percent. Factoring in the skill rate of USFL players is a little lower, the USFL decided to set the Possession Scrimmage Play at 4th and 12.


I called a few games where the Possession Scrimmage Play was called. I loved the excitement and energy it brought.


So, what rule adjustment would Pereira like to see find a home in the NFL?

“I’d like to see the NFL adopt some form of our kickoff rule to get more returns,” he said. “I think fans miss them, and there are ways to make it safer without being too gimmicky.”

Pereira notes that any NFL rules changes wouldn’t take effect until the 2023 season. Standby.

Read more in the full Football Morning in America column