Trent Richardson, shown here with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2017, is trying to get back in the NFL through the AAF’s Birmingham Iron. (Getty Images)
Saturday night on CBS, the same network that just broadcast Super Bowl LIII, there will be more football games.
Depending where you are in the country, you can catch the San Diego Fleet at San Antonio Commanders, or Atlanta Legends at Orlando Apollos. Hey, it’s football.
Plenty of people looking for a new NCIS episode on CBS might wonder what they’ve stumbled upon. It’s the Alliance of American Football, an eight-team league that kicks off (but without kickoffs, those have been eliminated in the AAF) on Saturday and goes through the championship game in Las Vegas on April 27. And then another pro football league, Vince McMahon’s XFL reboot, will start in 2020.
There has long been a place for a second professional football league. If one can even get a fraction of the NFL’s popularity, it will do just fine. Maybe the AAF can be that league.
What is the AAF?
The league was founded by Charlie Ebersol, son of longtime NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol, and Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian. The main focus of the league seems to be the football itself, and putting out as good of an on-field product as possible. Terrible football is something that doomed the slickly produced first run of the XFL.
There are eight teams: the aforementioned San Diego, San Antonio, Atlanta and Orlando franchises that play Saturday, and then on Sunday the Memphis Express play at the Birmingham Iron, and the Salt Lake Stallions play at the Arizona Hotshots. You can see the AAF wanted to mostly get into the biggest markets that lacked an NFL team.
Who is playing in the AAF?
The AAF didn’t get any huge stars, but there are plenty of players that serious fans will recognize.
The most famous player in the league could be Trent Richardson. Richardson, the third pick of the 2012 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns who was later traded to the Indianapolis Colts, is still trying to get back in the NFL after failing his first time around. Richardson is with Birmingham, where people will fondly remember him from his Alabama days.
There are a few quarterbacks whose names should be somewhat familiar: Trevor Knight (Arizona), Aaron Murray (Atlanta), Zach Mettenberger (Memphis), Christian Hackenberg (Memphis), Garrett Gilbert (Orlando) and Mike Bercovici (San Diego).
Among the non-quarterbacks you might know, from college stardom or flaming out as high NFL draft picks: receiver Josh Huff (Arizona), linebacker Scooby Wright (Arizona), safety Rahim Moore (Arizona), kicker Nick Folk (Arizona), running back Denard Robinson (Atlanta), kicker Younghoe Koo (Atlanta), kicker Nick Novak (Birmingham), running back Zac Stacy (Memphis), running back Matt Asiata (Salt Lake), receiver Greg Ward (San Antonio), tight end Gavin Escobar (San Diego), defensive end Damontre Moore (San Diego).
There are a few intriguing players. There are also sure to be a handful of breakout stars who turn a solid AAF showing into a shot in the NFL.
Who are the AAF’s coaches?
The AAF did land some big name coaches. Mike Singletary will coach Memphis, Rick Neuheisel is with Arizona and Steve Spurrier returns to coaching with Orlando. Dennis Erickson, Mike Riley and Mike Martz will head the teams in Salt Lake, San Antonio and San Diego, respectively.
Singletary is a Hall of Fame player, Spurrier is one of the all-time greats in college and a former Heisman Trophy winner, Martz was one of the NFL’s big-name coaches for a while as he led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl … the AAF at least has plenty of recognizable faces on the sideline. Unfortunately for the league, Mike Vick had to bow out of being Atlanta’s offensive coordinator; he’ll be with the team in an unspecified role according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Will the AAF have any different rules?
The AAF is implementing some new rules, and the one that seems most likely to catch on with the NFL is its “sky judge.” The ninth official on the crew will be in the press box and can correct “obvious and egregious” officiating errors, including pass interference in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter. Insert your New Orleans Saints joke here.
Some other rules:
• No kickoffs. Teams will start at their own 25. That’s a nod to player safety and the NFL might watch that closely.
• A 35-second play clock, five seconds shorter than the NFL.
• No TV timeouts and fewer commercials as the AAF tries to get its games done in two hours and 30 minutes, a half-hour quicker than NFL games, according to its site.
• One overtime period. Each team gets the ball for a first-and-goal at the 10-yard line. No field goals and teams must go for two after touchdowns. The game can end in a tie after the overtime period.
• No onside kicks, but “onside conversions.” According to the AAF’s site, if a team is trailing by 17 or more in the final five minutes, they must convert a fourth-and-12 from their own 28 to keep the ball.
• Defenses can’t rush more than five players on pass plays.
Will people be watching the AAF?
The XFL is known as a failure, but it did very good TV ratings right away. The USFL had a following for a while too.
The AAF has some strong television partners, with CBS, CBS Sports Network, NFL Network, TNT and B/R Live showing games. They have embraced gambling (MGM is the official sponsor of in-game wagering — take note NFL, football fans actually like to gamble) and the fantasy aspect of the game. The league seems to be fairly in touch with what younger fans want as well.
Some football fans will tune in simply because it’s live football in the offseason. The AAF might have drawn a bigger audience and more hype had it landed a huge name at quarterback (think about the ratings boost had someone like Johnny Manziel, Tim Tebow or Colin Kaepernick wanted to join). But there are still some players people will know.
The AAF has put a lot of work into its debut. Starting Saturday, it finds out if fans will respond.
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