Scramble for the Ball: An AAF Football-Like Substance
by Bryan Knowles and Cale Clinton
Bryan: Welcome back to a special Scramble for the Ball! We're now six weeks deep into the Alliance of American Football's debut season, and we're getting to the point where we have almost come close to possibly knowing what's going on down there.
Cale: In its inaugural season, the AAF was first able to capitalize on catching football fans in a particularly vulnerable state. Fans had just watched a Super Bowl that 1) was a generally boring game upon first watch, and 2) resulted in another unexciting New England Patriots victory. Football fans were coming off the high of five straight months of football, all to have it end in such an unappealing fashion. Of course we would have at least given this new prospective league a chance.
Bryan: I think the best thing about the AAF, at least for me, is that it just feels like ... football. I naturally compare the league to the original XFL, the last minor league that looked determined to make a huge splash, and that felt entirely different. The inaugural XFL broadcast had Vince McMahon, owner of the WWF, give a long, rambling speech about how the NFL was terrible and the XFL was going to revolutionize things, and it had The Rock cutting a promo, back when he was a dude with an eyebrow and an elbow and not Hollywood's most in-demand action star. It had Jesse Ventura and Jim Ross on commentary, it had some halftime skits straight out of an episode of Monday Night Raw, and it felt like it was trying to be this big event.
That's not what the AAF has felt like. I worried it would be a bit gimmicky with the new rules and whatnot, but it doesn't feel like it's trying to be something it's not. It's a bunch of familiar football faces, presented in a very familiar football fashion by CBS and the NFL Network and Turner. I'm enjoying it so far! How about you?
Cale: For me, the feel of the AAF doesn't mirror any one of the adjacent football leagues, college or professional. Rather, the AAF almost has a similar energy to baseball. The league has ingrained itself in cities with populations that are starved of football. Communities like San Antonio and Orlando have welcomed their new football teams with open arms. San Diego now has the Fleet to lean on in the absence of the San Diego Chargers. The game has a very regional energy, and I think that compliments its smaller scale. If I were a city waiting for the NFL to bless me with an expansion team, I'd start to look to the Alliance as a legitimate second option.
In terms of the play thus far, I think there's no better way to describe it: it's exactly the kind of football you'd expect. It's not as tightened up as the NFL, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Of course the offensive play isn't going to be there yet, but that's to be expected. The defensive flashes we've seen are reminiscent of an early 2000s NFL: not the smashmouth style of yore, but still a lot of pop in those hits. The one thing I could critique is that the play calls offensively have lacked a lot of creativity thus far. Again, this is a league that's six weeks old; I think that's something that's going to evolve in the future. When that time comes and the offensive skill catches up to the defense's, we might be cooking with gas.
Bryan: You know what it reminds me of? MAC-tion. It's not as polished as an NFL game, and I don't have the same rooting interests I would have from franchises that I've followed for decades and whatnot. But it's very similar to flipping on a random mid-major college game on a strange night during the fall and watching that for an hour or two. It's not appointment TV for me, and I've certainly seen better football, but pretty decent football is better than most things on TV, I find.
I may be slightly biased being, you know, a sportswriter and whatnot. But the networks seem to agree.
Both CBS and TNT have added games to their broadcast schedule this month. Some of the highest rated games are drawing just under 500,000 viewers, meaning they're beating out random NHL and MLS games. We don't know, at the moment, how much money the AAF is actually getting from these broadcast deals, but one of the big reasons the XFL collapsed after one season was NBC backing out of broadcasting more of their games. If the networks are loving the AAF's ratings, that bodes really, really well for the long-term survival of the league. We'll see what March Madness does to those ratings, of course -- that's something that has a bit more appeal than a random soccer game in the middle of March -- but I think, overall, we'd have to say so far, so good for the AAF. In general.
Cale: What originally drew me into the AAF were the forgotten NFL names re-emerging on Alliance rosters. Guys like Trent Richardson (who is averaging the exact numbers you'd expect Trent Richardson to average), Christian Hackenberg, Denard Robinson, Matt Asiata, and Scooby Wright were all guys who immediately jumped out to me. I wanted to see what these guys would look like, and how they would fare if given a second shot. Steve Spurrier was the biggest name any team landed as a coaching hire, and the Orlando Apollos are the best team in the league right now. If more names continue to hop on board, the league will hold my interest.
Oh, and Johnny Manziel's back. Beyond pumped to see what that'll look like, good or bad.
Bryan: See, I'm coming at it from another angle. I've seen plenty of Manziel to this point, and I think we have a good idea of what sort of quarterback he is if he couldn't cut it in the CFL. We've seen what Trent Richardson can do in the NFL, which is run straight into a wall of blockers, ignoring the 15 yards of daylight 3 feet to his left. I get that names like this are the draws, but that's not at all what I cared about seeing. I like Keith Reaser.
Reaser was a fifth-round pick by the 49ers back in 2015, missing his entire rookie season due to injury. Because the 49ers of this era were a dumpster fire, going from coach to coach and scheme to scheme, Reaser got quickly lost in the shuffle, with just over 400 defensive snaps in the NFL before being released. He's now getting a chance he never got in the NFL, and he's doing tremendously well. He is probably the single best cornerback in the AAF today, and his tenure with the Apollos has been good enough that I will be shocked if he's not in an NFL uniform come August. That's the kind of story I was hoping to get out of the AAF; not an early-round bust getting a fifth chance, but someone who had seen their chances get taken away from them for reasons beyond their control showing off what they can do.
Mike Purcell of the Stallions is another example -- a preseason wunderkind who ended up stuck behind three first-round picks on the 49ers' defensive line, who is getting a chance to shine. That's the stuff I love. If I never saw Trent Richardson again, I'd be just fine.
Cale: All fair points. It'll especially be interesting to see what names turn their AAF stint into second chances for the NFL. Guys like De'Vante Bausby of the San Antonio Commanders, who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2015. He had short stints with the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, but never lasted more than a single season with one team. As a cornerback for the Commanders, he leads the league with four interceptions while also amassing nearly half the number of tackles he made in the NFL. Or D'Ernest Johnson, a former University of South Florida running back who is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and acting as a growing contributor on the Apollos offense.
Bryan: If the AAF is to survive in the long term, this is what it's going to have to be; a place for these players to develop and then get sent back to the NFL. Really, with their current attendance numbers, they're right on the cusp of surviving as an independent thing, so a direct relationship with the NFL might be just the ticket to get them over the proverbial hump. AAF teams are already loosely attached to four NFL teams each; letting practice squad players from those teams play in the AAF in a quasi-NFL Europe-esque relationship seems like a win-win for both sides.
The attendance issue is interesting. The league's averaging just over 15,000 fans a game at the moment. That's higher than FCS football (~8,000) or the Arena League (~9,000), as well as AAA baseball (~7,000). It's less than Major League Soccer (~22,000) or the XFL during their one season of operation (~23,000). There's some hope this number might go up. Week 4 saw a cold front that destroyed attendance numbers, and San Antonio has been on a crazy four-week road trip which has hurt; they're the AAF attendance leaders with over 28,000 a game.
Your point from earlier was right on the money -- San Antonio, Orlando, and San Diego really are embracing their teams, with all of them drawing at least 19,000 fans a game. San Diego does miss the Chargers, while San Antonio has been begging for an NFL team since before the Saints took their one-year forced relocation there in the wake of Katrina. I'm a little more surprised at Orlando's numbers, but hey, drop Steve Spurrier and the best team in the league there, and you have yourself a draw.
Those numbers aren't universal, however. Birmingham, Memphis, and Atlanta are all doing fine, or fine-ish, with about 10,000 fans each, but the league is really struggling to find footing in Arizona and Salt Lake. Sun Devil Stadium looks nearly empty at every Hotshots game, as does Rice-Eccles Stadium. Arizona's easy to explain -- they already have a football team, so why would fans want to go watch a minor league unit play? Salt Lake just ... isn't grabbing their fans, for reasons I can't fully put my finger on.
Cale: If the NFL does eventually establish a formal relationship with the AAF, I hope that relationship isn't a one-way street. The NFL could honestly benefit from taking some of the rule changes implemented in the AAF and tweaking their own product. The pace of play feels much faster with the shortened play clock, and while NFL teams still manage to incur offside penalties with the standard 40-second timer, the league could probably benefit from the boost in pace.
Bryan: We're in total agreement there; the faster pace of play cuts an hour off of game times, and makes it a much more tolerable watch. I enjoy lower-quality football, but I don't think I could carve out NFL-esque windows to watch these games.
And, hey, it appears that some people in the NFL are watching. The Broncos have proposed a variation on the AAF's onside kick replacement rule -- not exactly what the AAF is doing, but close enough. We haven't seen too many of the AAF's onside conversions to date, but I think that also just goes to show that it's not going to radically change football as we know it; it's just an improvement to the existing product.
The one thing I do hope the NFL steals immediately is the Sky Judge. Having someone away from the action to confirm things is an incredibly logical idea that I'm surprised it took this long to come up with. I love it in the AAF -- just, please, don't make them wear the AAF's terrible ref uniforms.
Cale: Also, the AAF has joined college football in using the "goal-line stand" format for overtime, proving yet again that the NFL needs to somehow address the way they settle tied games.
Bryan: The Chiefs have suggested a couple of rule changes there (guaranteeing both teams a possession, eliminating the overtime coin toss, etc.), but they're not fully on board with the goal-line stand format ... and I'm not fully on board with it, either. It feels a bit like a truncated version of the thing, and I'd prefer if they just left those games as ties. Either way, though, the AAF is at least inspiring the NFL to look at their rules and maybe make tweaks, which would be a phenomenal result for the fans.
But enough with the 30,000-foot view. We're four weeks from the inaugural AAF playoffs, and I think we've learned one thing: the race in the East is boring. Yes, the Apollos finally lost this week, falling 22-17 to the Arizona Hotshots, but they're still sitting pretty at 5-2 with the best offense in the league, bar none. They're joined in conference by the best defense in the league in the Birmingham Iron, sitting at 4-2. That race is pretty much done before it began, though the Week 10 matchup between the Iron and Apollos could be very interesting and decide home-field in the semifinals.
The other two teams in the conference are just bad. The Memphis Express can't find a quarterback, going from Christian Hackenberg to Zach Mettenberger and now to Johnny Manziel; a trio of NFL washouts who have provided no spark whatsoever. The Atlanta Legends, even at 2-4, are easily the worst team in the league, which is I suppose what happens when your head coach and offensive coordinator beg off weeks before the season begins. They're a disaster of a franchise at the moment.
Cale: I actually thought Atlanta was starting to put things together, too. They strung together back-to-back wins, and the team looked at least a bit more cohesive under quarterback Aaron Murray. Plus, it helps that kicker Younghoe Koo had been lights out through five weeks of play. But that all fell apart on Sunday with a putrid showing against the San Antonio Commanders. Oh well. Maybe Koo can come out of this with a big-league deal.
That performance also showed off why the Commanders are dominating the picture in the West. The team has names encroaching the top of every major statistic across the league. Quarterback Logan Woodside is second in the league in passing yards, running back Kenneth Farrow II is second in the league in rushing yards, linebacker Jayrone Elliott is second in the league in sacks, and aforementioned cornerback De'Vante Bausby leads the league in interceptions.
Bryan: With everyone within a game of .500 in the West, it really is anybody's race. I'd agree that the Commanders are the best team in that conference, though I think they're not as good as either of the top teams in the East. But there are no pushovers here -- the Fleet, the Hotshots, and the Stallions are all roughly the same level of quality; they pretty much make up the league average by themselves.
My gut is to give the edge to Mike Martz's San Diego Fleet in the race for the second Western playoff spot, but they're the only team left in the West who haven't played the Apollos yet, and that tough road game might derail their chances. The Hotshots still have to get past the Iron, and the Stallions are already a game back with two to play against the Commanders. If I had to put money on it, I'd say the Week 10 Hotshots-Fleet game will be a play-in game to face the Commanders in the Semifinals, but I could see this going any number of ways. If the Stallions hadn't lost those heartbreakers against the Fleet and Iron, they'd probably be the favorites, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
Cale: All of that is exactly why I think the Commanders will go on to win the AAF championship. This past week proved that this team is finally finding unlocking that next level of play. Their defense suffocated Murray, sacking him twice and notching three interceptions on the game. The offense's 37-point performance, complete with two touchdowns by Woodside, is evidence of what this team can do when everything comes together. Their only two losses came against the top two teams in the league (one being in their own conference), and those were relatively close performances. A second matchup could certainly yield a different result. Plus, it helps that the Commanders will be coming out of a much weaker conference, while the Apollos and Fleet will have to beat up on each other in the Eastern Conference championship.
Bryan: I'm still on the Apollos. Even Garrett Gilbert's bad games are better than what half the league can get out of the quarterback position, and that matters a lot. Yes, they finally fell this week, but that was in Gilbert's worst game, and they were still in position to potentially win at the end, were it not for a penalty and a ten-second runoff. Gilbert is still in line to be the AAF's MVP, and his connections with Charles Johnson are the prettiest and most pure passing the AAF has had this year. I've already raved about Reaser on defense, and Spurrier seems to be the one coach who really gets that this is a developmental league, busting out trick plays on a semi-regular basis. Even with the loss, I think they're head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league at this point, and we'll see the inaugural AAF championship come to Florida. It would save the league money on the traditional trip to Disney World, too, so it's a win-win.
Let's wrap this up with some final thoughts. Is there anything you've learned from this so far? Anything you'd change, if the AAF called you up and asked what to do?
Cale: I personally don't want to change much, because the league is evolving on its own week to week. On the AAF's opening weekend, the Atlanta Legends and the Memphis Express didn't look like fully functioning football teams. They were awful. Now, six weeks in, the Express look like they at least care and the Legends strung together two good wins. The product is improving. Teams are clicking. Let it continue to flesh itself out before we make alterations.
However, I do hope that some of these teams can lure in a big-name head coach. Spurrier and the Apollos are the only truly dominant time in this league. Considering the fact that this could be a potential developmental league for the NFL, focus on coaching and development of players should be top priority. Spurrier has coached at both levels of the game. He's a guy who knows how to develop guys like an NCAA team, while getting the most out of his players situationally in pro-style offenses. It's why Orlando has consistently looked like the most competent team in the Alliance. Instead of landing Manziel, land a Mike McCarthy.
Bryan: The thing I would be doing this offseason, as I prepped for the soon-to-be-arriving XFL, would be to take a real long, hard look at the Hotshots and the Stallions, and try to decide if it's worth keeping them where they are now. Successful leagues have seen teams move before -- the Chargers started in Los Angeles for a season before moving to San Diego, while the Kansas City Chiefs started as the Dallas Texans for three years. If Arizona and Salt Lake continue to see dramatically lower attendance numbers than some of their rivals, it may be in the best interests of everyone involved to move them sooner rather than later -- El Paso? Albuquerque? Sacramento? There are plenty of options.
I would not, at this point, go in for the rumors of expansion that have already leaked, with the idea of four new teams being added for 2020. With the XFL right around the corner, potentially diluting the player pool available to these minor leagues, I would work on securing what they have now, rather than rapidly over-expanding. That was one of the (many) mistakes made by the USFL back in the '80s, and I'd hate to see the AAF repeat that error. Stay small, stay regional, and promote quality over quantity.