When the NFL season finally ends, as it did a little over a week in Super Bowl LIII, there is normally a sadness that comes over me that there will be no more football until the late summer. Yeah, there's the combine and the draft, and there's spring ball in college, but I want actual games (and yes, gambling is part of this take).
Well, clearly, the market is recognizing this void, as there are not just one, but two leagues with designs on taking over the spring portion of the calendar. The more famous of the two (and the one that will be getting a team here in Houston) is Vince McMahon's reprisal of the XFL, which is slated to kick off in February 2020 and is being commissioned by former Dynamo president and former Houston Oiler, Oliver Luck.
The less famous of the two leagues actually kicked off this past weekend, as the brainchild of Charlie Ebersol (son of longtime NBC Sports exec Dick Ebersol) and former NFL GM Bill Polian, the Alliance of America Football, conducted its first regular season weekend of games. The league has eight teams, with a decided warm weather slant to its cities, and a clear strategy to sprinkle the rosters with players whose college ties align geographically with the placement of the AAF teams.
Overall, the product was pretty slick, and very watchable, all things considered. Also, the product was very accessible, as the league had WATCH NOW buttons on the website for the Saturday games, and the video player was high quality. Diving in a bit deeper, here are some winners and losers in the AAF's opening week of football:
4. Speed and innovation
Overall, I liked the tweaks that the AAF made to the rulebook and the game flow. They used split screen for some of the advertisements, so you could choose to watch player interactions on the sidelines during stoppages on one side of the screen, or an ad on the other. Ironically, this will probably get MORE people watching ads, as viewers are less likely to flip channels. The innovations they used to speed up the game seemed to work, as the San Diego-San Antonio game lasted around 2.5 hours or so, which is a completely underrated advancement of which the NFL should give serious examination. There were no kickoffs, which I actually didn't mind, surprisingly. There were no PAT's, only two point conversions, which makes for a crazy-fun-possible-nightmare if you're a gambler who's accustomed to the cookie cutter "football numbers" of the NFL's scores. Unfortunately, on Saturday, we didn't get to see the AAF's onside kick replacement, the kicking team's offense being placed on the field having to convert a 4th and 12 from their own 28 yard line.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the telecast was the replay official being mic'd up in his booth, and allowing the audience to listen in on how a replay challenge is vetted and parsed out by the officials. That is truly something fans never, ever get to see or hear on the professional nor collegiate level. Like with the first iteration of the XFL back in 2001, the NFL will steal some things to make their own product better, and they'll do that here in 2019 with the AAF and new XFL, but I'd be shocked if the NFL ever, ever, ever allowed fans MORE access to the officiating of a game. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think we learned in the NFC title game that the NFL wants LESS transparency, not more.
2. University of Houston
I watched most of the San Diego-San Antonio game, and I'll be damned if it wasn't a reunion for the Herman Era Cougars, with Kenneth Farrow getting the below treatment at running back, Greg Ward making plays at wide receiver, and defensive tackle Joey Mbu clogging up the middle of that defensive line. I love this part of the AAF's strategy, allocating players with college ties to an area with the proper AAF teams. That was cool.
1. The ol' ball coach
I think I speak for most of society, when I say that having Steve Spurrier back in our lives is a very good thing...
4. Anyone trying to find stats or box scores
I wanted this bullet point to actually be a snarky paragraph on how San Diego's starting QB, Mike Bercovici, was basically the Brock Osweiler of the AAF, and how he is now embroiled in a QB battle for his job. I wanted to back up my paragraph with stats, like any good journalist, but what I discovered is that finding an AAF boxscore online is like trying to find a cyber needle in a cyber haystack. In fact, nearly 12 hours after the first two games in league history ended, clicking on "SCORES" on CBSSports.com takes me to the league's schedule website, which has no score updates. Hey AAF, for a league trying to be on the cutting edge, you may want to update your final scores within a day of the game ending. Making box scores and live scoring updates nearly impossible to find is a quick way to turn off gamblers and fantasy players, which (this just in) will comprise like 98 percent of your audience.
3. Human brains
I'm pretty sure if this hit occurs in the NFL, the player delivering the blow would have been suspended for half the season and fined a kidney.....
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Which brings me to....
I'm not sure if the no-call there was a misinterpretation of the AAF rulebook, or if this league is really going to take the skirts off the quarterback, but what I do know is that officiating in the game I watched on Saturday was significantly less crisp than that of an NFL game, which is saying something, considering the NFL had one of its worst officiating seasons ever in 2018. The AAF crew in the San Diego-San Antonio game missed badly on some ball spotting on key downs, and the head official needed to be reminded by a second official that a game can't end on a defensive penalty. Woof.
1. Atlanta Legends
I'll always remember the Atlanta Legends as the team I wagered against on my first successful AAF bet — go Orlando -7.5, baby! Part of the reason I bet against Atlanta was because of all the completely unconventional drama leading up to the first game. Former NFL QB Mike Vick was the OC for the Legends, until about two days before the first game, when he left the team. I guessed, correctly, that ol' Mikey was probably not putting max effort into his AAF OC duties. The Legends lost 40-6. For what it's worth, AAF director of football strategy, Jeff Fisher — digest those last seven words for a moment, and try not to laugh... OK, continue —- said the league hopes that Vick will still have a role in the AAF. Whatever. I'm just floored that a new league that is attempting to be on the cutting edge would see Jeff Fisher as the right guy to spearhead any initiative whatsoever.