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Spring Football Made the NFL Cool Again

As the NFL considers new rules like a fourth-and-15 replacement for onside kicks and a Sky Judge, the AAF and XFL deserve credit for having the audacity to try.

Let’s not waste too much time thinking about when, exactly, the NFL pivoted from stodgy, self-important old coot to divorced, clove-smoking-dad-in-a-Tesla cool. All that matters is that it happened before it was too late.

There are more teams in the playoffs now. Good uniforms. Reviewable pass interference was, mercifully, put out to pasture.

And now, ahead of the latest round of league meetings, an alternative to the onside kick is gaining steam, according to an report. The rule, proposed by the Philadelphia Eagles as an amendment to Rule 6, Article 1, Section 1, would “allow a team who is trailing in the game an opportunity to maintain possession of the ball after scoring” by going for it on fourth-and-15 from their own 25-yard line. They could attempt this twice in a game.

This is going to make games immeasurably better. Much-needed safety measures incidentally killed the onside kick, sinking its probability rate from somewhere near 25% to below 10. A team without Patrick Mahomes under center that is down more than a score with five minutes to play was, essentially, out of luck. This is a way to counter the demise of the improbable late-game comeback.

There also seems to be momentum for a Sky Judge booth official (both Baltimore and the Chargers proposed an amendment to Rule 19, Section 2 to add an eighth booth official to the crew.

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But before we give dad too much credit for suddenly finding a personality, let’s not forget what made this all possible in the first place: spring football. This is not to suggest in any way that the NFL felt threatened by the rise of the Alliance of American Football before its expedited demise. Nor is it to say that the XFL registered on its radar as a legitimate threat. What they did manage to do was show the league the potential it had once it emerged from a state of mental hibernation.

The onside kick alternative proposal is a version of the Alliance of American Football’s fourth-and-12 rule. Both the XFL and AAF successfully demoed a version of the Sky Judge officiating process, which added a valuable transparency to the process along with the time it saved correcting missed calls on the field. It stood in stark contrast to the NFL’s officiating woes of 2018-2020, which bordered on comical. Recently retired official John Parry told me last year that refereeing was breaking down before his eyes. Good officials were left to decide the difference between right and wrong on a nightly basis with little to no clarity.

There’s a chance this all doesn’t take off right away. We could all see a coach in his best, stoic Jason Garrett face opting not to risk going for it on fourth-and-15 because that’s just not how we play footbaw around here. The progress for either of these proposals could also be derailed by some good old-fashioned politicking from some cantankerous traditionalist.

If they both pass, though, the game will be better for it. Much like the NFL got better by watching two leagues with the audacity to try and fail.

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