by Bryan Knowles
Our one-week football-less nightmare is over.
This weekend sees the kickoff of the Alliance of American Football, a brand new football league from Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian. There have been alternative football leagues in the recent past, of course; we've seen the birth and death of a whole alphabet soup of minor leagues over the past decade, including the UFL, SFL and FXFL. The AAF, however, promises to be a little different -- it's the most prominent minor football league launched since the XFL back in 2001.
The AAF launches with a bevy of household names on the sidelines and on the field, assuming your household loves journeyman NFL players and not-quite-there college stars looking for a second chance. It has multiple TV deals, with CBS broadcasting both opening day and the championship game, and the NFL Network, CBS Sports Network, and TNT picking up the slack between them. There's a mobile app offering live streaming of all games, while B/R Live will also offer at least one streaming game per week. This is a league you can actually follow, and we hope you'll follow along with our coverage of the league this season!
The AAF has eight teams playing a ten-week schedule for 40 total games, mostly playing on Saturdays and Sundays with a few Friday night games mixed in. Each team will play every team in their conference twice and every team in the opposite conference once, culminating in a four-team playoff and a championship game on April 27.
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Arguably the most exciting aspect of this new league are the rule changes they are making; it serves as a fantastic laboratory for testing new rules and concepts that could eventually bubble their way up into the NFL. There are a handful of major rule changes we're excited to take a look at, to see how they affect the strategy of the game.
Most notably, there are no kickoffs in the AAF. Teams will start drives from their own 25-yard line, as if they had received a touchback. In 2018, 81 percent of the NFL's drives after kickoffs started between the 20- and 30-yard lines, so the thought is that this change will remove a frequently meaningless play and avoid unnecessary injuries.
Because there are no kickoffs, there are also no onside kicks. Instead, when a team is down by 17 points or is in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter, they can run a scrimmage play from their own 28-yard line; essentially a fourth-and-12. This means there will be no surprise onside kicks in the AAF. It also means that teams trying to make a comeback will get to do so with their offense on the field running a play, rather than hoping a ball bounces randomly in a scrum back to them. It might also entice teams with the lead to play more aggressively, because converting a fourth-and-12 is more likely than recovering an onside kick. We'll see how the presence of this rule affects late-game strategies.
There are a bevy of other rule changes to follow, as well:
- There will be a ninth official, ominously named the "Sky Judge." The Sky Judge is an off-the-field official whose job is correct clear errors involving player safety anytime during a game and pass interference inside of five minutes left in the fourth quarter. They have the ability to call or take away penalties that the on-field officials might miss, so if there's a borderline roughing the passer call -- or, say, an uncalled pass interference penalty in the conference championship game -- the Sky Judge can correct the ruling on the field.
- Overtime uses a modified version of the collegiate rules. Each team will get the ball with a first-and-goal from the 10. They have to score a touchdown, and must go for two afterwards -- no field goals. Both teams will get one shot, and the game can end in a tie if both teams score the same number of points.
- The games are designed to be faster paced. There will only be 35-second play clocks, no television timeouts, and, they claim, 60 percent fewer "full-screen" commercials. The goal is to squeeze an entire game into a 150-minute block, as opposed to 180-minute NFL games.
As mentioned, the AAF is an eight-team league, filled with names you may find familiar.
The oddsmakers have made the Hotshots the early favorites to win the whole thing, with an over/under of 6.5 wins and +250 odds to take home the title at the end of the season. They're led by Rick Neuheisel, who compiled an 87-59 record and finished with four ranked teams at Colorado, Washington, and UCLA between 1995 and 2011, including a win in the 2000 Rose Bowl.
They'll be led by quarterback Trevor Knight, an athletically gifted (if accuracy-challenged) quarterback formerly of Texas A&M. Knight is one of the bigger draws in the league -- but don't be surprised if John Wolford, formerly of Wake Forest, gets some snaps as well. The Hotshots will have former NFL starters Josh Huff and Joseph Fauria catching passes, with ex-New Mexico Lobo Jhurell Pressley, a 1,000-yard rusher back in 2014, handling the ballcarrying duties. Their defense will have a couple former stars from Arizona and Arizona State leading the way, including linebacker Scooby Wright and defensive tackle Will Sutton, as well as former Beaver Obum Gwachum. Safety Rahim Moore, a regular starter for the Denver Broncos from 2011 to 2014, is arguably their best player on that side of the ball. From top to bottom, this appears to be the most talented AAF team.
Salt Lake Stallions
The Stallions have one of the two most lauded coaches in the league. They're led by Dennis Erickson, who won two national titles at the helm of the Miami Hurricanes in 1989 and 1991, with championships in the Big East, Big Sky, and Pac-10/Pac-12 conferences on his resume as well. He has a 179-96-1 record as a college coach, and while those Hurricanes teams are more talented than his Stallions, he's had at least some success everywhere he's been ... with the possible exception of the NFL, never breaking .500 with the Seahawks or 49ers.
It appears that Josh Woodrum will get the start at quarterback for the Stallions; he led Liberty to three consecutive Big South championships from 2012 to 2014. More familiar to most people will be running back Matt Asiata, who played in 74 games with 16 starts for the Vikings as the regular fill-in player for Adrian Peterson. He's a former Ute, so he's returning home to play for the Stallions. Branden Oliver is the change-of-pace back; he also has NFL experience with the Chargers, though his career was waylaid by injuries. Speedy receivers Kaelin Clay and Kenny Bell also have NFL experience, and Clay has shown some success as a punt returner as well. The cupboard is a little more bare on the defensive side of the ball, but defensive tackle Sealver Siliga won a Super Bowl ring as a starter for the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX.
San Antonio Commanders
If anyone's going knock the Hotshots out of first place in the West, it'll probably be the Commanders. Head coach Mike Riley is best known for his time at Oregon State from 2003 to 2014, with a quartet of ranked teams in those years. He also spent time as the coach at Nebraska, and led the San Diego Chargers for three years in the early 2000s.
The Commanders' starting quarterback will probably be Dustin Vaughan, the West Texas A&M record-holder for passing yards and touchdowns. He had some cups of coffee in the NFL as a third-stringer and a practice squad guy thanks to his prototypical frame and accuracy, but he was primarily a spread quarterback without a huge arm in college. The Commanders actually have another former passer in their starting lineup, Greg Ward, who bounced back and forth between quarterback and receiver at Houston. Many expect him to be one of the league's biggest stars thanks to his versatility and athleticism. They also feature David Cobb, a bruising back from Minnesota; hulking ex-TCU tight end Cole Hunt; and former Cincinnati speedster Mekale McKay on offense -- they might combine to be the most dynamic attack in the league. They look to be a bit weaker on the defensive side of the ball, though linebacker Jayrone Elliott had some success with the Packers.
San Diego Fleet
The Fleet, led by ex-Rams head coach Mike Martz, have not had a very good offseason. They were supposed to feature Josh Johnson and Bishop Sankey as their offensive focal points, but Johnson got called up by the Redskins when they ran out of quarterbacks, and Sankey was injured during training camp. This is not an auspicious start for the franchise, who are already on the back foot before anyone has played a game.
Mike Bercovici, who threw for 30 touchdowns with Arizona State back in 2015, ended up winning the starting job after a lengthy competition in training camp. As was typical of Martz's Rams teams, Bercovici will have plenty of targets to find on the field. On paper, ex-SDSU stars Kameron Kelly and Gavin Escobar should lead the Fleet's receiving attack, and there's some pretty nice depth there, too. You won't exactly see Greatest Show on Turf-level performances here, but a Martz offense always finds plenty of ways to air out the ball. On defense, another former-SDSU star, Alex Barrett, should lead the pass rush. Their linebackers include yet another SDSU alum, Eric Pinkins, and ex-Husky Travis Feeney leading the way. Every team gets territorial rights to players from their region, but none are likely to get as many snaps out of one school as the Fleet should from San Diego State; there are seven ex-Aztecs on the 52-man roster.
The Legends have already had two head coaches in their history, with Kevin Coyle stepping up from defensive coordinator after Brad Childress resigned last month. This will be Coyle's first head coaching job; he was the Dolphins' defensive coordinator from 2012 to 15. He's outshined by his offensive coordinator, Michael Vick, who is likely to at least draw some Atlanta fans, even without any prior coaching experience. (UPDATE: News broke Thursday that Vick will not be the Legends' offensive coordinator after all; his role with the team is undetermined.)
We thought the Legends' starting quarterback would be Aaron Murray, the second pick in the inaugural AAF draft, but he surprisingly lost the starting nod to Matt Simms, son of Phil, former Volunteer and NFL journeyman. Simms actually backed up Vick on the 2014 Jets, so maybe Vick saw something in him back then that led him to pick Simms over Murray. Their running back, Denard Robinson, was a dual-threat quarterback at Michigan, transitioning to full-time running back in 54 games with the Jaguars from 2013 to 2016. Receiver Malachi Jones likely won't be a familiar name to NFL fans, but he's a former first-team All-Arena League star, and has had success in a number of lower profile leagues; this may well be the biggest stage of his career.
Tim Lewis is the other AAF coach making his head coaching debut; he was the defensive coordinator for the Steelers and Giants from 2000 to 2006. Birmingham is occasionally batted around as a place for potential NFL expansion; the problem is, being located firmly in both Alabama and Auburn country, any professional team would likely play third fiddle to the two college powerhouses. The Iron are leaning into that, with plenty of former players from both schools dotting the roster.
Like Trent Richardson! The former third-overall pick and Heisman Trophy finalist has gone down as one of the NFL's biggest draft busts, but he's looking to re-spark his career in the AAF. Against lesser competition, perhaps he can find some of the form that made him such a highly touted prospect seven years ago. At quarterback, the Iron have another potential reclamation story in Luis Perez. Perez won the Harlon Hill Trophy, Division II's equivalent of the Heisman, thanks to his standout performances at Texas A&M-Commerce, which I assure you is an actual school. Perez went undrafted in 2018 and nearly turned to professional bowling before getting a shot with the Iron. If I had to pick one potential quarterback who could get serious NFL attention out of the AAF, Perez would be my guy. The Iron also have NFL experience on defense in Devin Taylor, as well as the most experienced kicker in the league in Nick Novak.
That hasn't convinced the oddsmakers, however, who have installed the Iron as the worst team in the AAF to this point, with an over/under of just 3.5 wins.
Mike Singletary heads up the Express in his first head coaching spot since a somewhat underwhelming tenure with the 49ers from 2008 to 2010. Perhaps with the Express he has finally found his winners -- and has learned his lesson about dropping trou in the locker room.
The Express have the most interesting quarterback battle in the league, with Christian Hackenberg and Zach Mettenberger fighting it out to be named the starter; call it the "Unrealized Potential Bowl." Hackenberg somehow didn't get a single NFL snap despite being a second-round draft pick in 2016, while Mettenberger started 10 games for the Titans in 2014 and 2015. It looks like Hackenberg is the guy for now, but that's a situation that's very much likely to be in flux as the year goes along. The Express also have running back Zac Stacy, who had some success with the Rams before Todd Gurley came along. Stacy retired from football in 2017, partially to take care of his brother (who has Down Syndrome), but is coming back to try to re-spark his career. Also adding to the "untapped potential" feel of this team are the starting wideouts. Kayaune Ross is a 6-foot-6 target from Kentucky who never really played up to his frame, while Damore'ea Stringfellow was a talented receiver with a major case of the dropsies in Ole Miss. There's some potential here, though nearly every big name on the roster has underperformed when given the chance.
We finish with the oddsmakers' favorites to win the East, the Apollos. The Head Ball Coach himself, Steve Spurrier, is coming out of retirement to lead the Apollos. Spurrier needs no introduction; he's the biggest name the league has on the sidelines. A national championship at Florida; 16 ranked teams in his career; a record of 228-89-2 between Duke, Florida and South Carolina … there are few coaches in the history of football who can match Spurrier's resume. He seems rejuvenated after a few years off, and he hopes to bring his tradition of high-scoring offenses to the AAF.
His quarterback will be Garrett Gilbert, a dual-threat quarterback who set records at both Texas and SMU. It has been quite some time since his college days, as he has bounced around the NFL ever since 2014, finally entering his first professional game in Week 17 of this year. So hey, he's fresh. Akeem Hunt looks to be the starting running back, though that's probably a misnomer -- in his short time in the NFL, Hunt was far better as a receiver out of the backfield than a runner. Add to that Charles Johnson, who briefly looked like a potential superstar with the Vikings, and you have a bunch of key pieces in place for the Fun 'n' Gun offense. There's quite a bit of defensive power here, too -- safeties Will Hill and Josh Evans have extensive NFL experience, as does cornerback LaDarius Gunter, making this possibly the best secondary in the league. On the defensive line, Jerel Worthy was a bust as a second-round pick, but he's getting another shot in the AAF to revitalize his career. All in all, it's a very solid roster from top to bottom.
Week 1 Schedule
Every week, the AAF will have four games -- there are no bye weeks. To kick off the season, they have two games on Saturday, and two on Sunday.
Saturday, February 9
Atlanta (+5.5) @ Orlando (CBS, 8 p.m. Eastern)
San Diego (+5) @ San Antonio (CBS, 8 p.m. Eastern)
Sunday, February 10
Memphis (+1) @ Birmingham (CBS Sports Network, 4 p.m. Eastern)
Salt Lake (+4.5) @ Arizona (NFL Network, 8 p.m. Eastern)