By Scott Adamson
The Alliance of American Football is heading into the midway point of its inaugural season, and today AAF co-founder Bill Polian and San Antonio Commanders general manager Daryl “Moose” Johnston offered up their thoughts on the state of the league.
In a nutshell?
So far, so good.
The pair spoke with media members via conference call, and sounded upbeat about the direction of the spring circuit.
“First of all you want to take a look at fan engagement, and television numbers have surpassed anything that we would even remotely dream about for a brand new endeavor, so that’s been a huge success,” Polian said. “And it continues to grow. We’re holding the rating, which is something that other leagues have not done.”
The original XFL, which played one season in 2001, had spectacular ratings for its season opener before the league quickly – and dramatically – dropped from viewers’ favor.
“I think the fact that you’re holding the rating shows that it’s moved beyond the curiosity factor and, ‘Hey, let me see what this is about,’ to an appreciation for the game and the style of play that’s being displayed on the field,” Johnston said. “I think we’re getting back to where the league has parity in it and like any Sunday in the NFL, you can be knocked off by your opponent and if you haven’t prepared, you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of a scoreboard.”
With rules that curtail blitzing and generally favor the offenses, it was expected that the Alliance would be a scoring-heavy league.
Overall, however, that hasn’t been the case.
The average score of a league game is 24-13, and last weekend’s slate of contests had the lowest scoring output of the season.
The winning teams combined for just 72 points while the losers totaled 56. Final scores were Memphis 26, San Diego 23; Orlando 20, Salt Lake 11; San Antonio 12, Birmingham 11; and Atlanta 14, Arizona 11.
Still, Polian insists such score lines aren’t unexpected.
“It’s always easier to put together a defense because it’s reactionary,” Polian said. “An offense requires choreography and difficult and complicated movements. And they require synchronization, so that’s the last thing to come. And although we’ve moved the ball, generally speaking, up and down the field quite well, we’ve been very, very slow to develop in the red zone and that’s an area I think the coaches are going to take a hard look at going forward.”
Dropped passes have been a huge culprit in stalling drives and keeping teams off the scoreboard.
“I was taught a long time ago if you can touch it, you can catch it,” Polian said. “That’s an old Bear Bryant line. I put most of it on the receivers, although there have been some bad balls. I facetiously said today I’m going to send a little note around to each team because they all have JUGS machines (electronic passing and kicking equipment) to remind them to get out there and have receivers catch about 50 balls after practice every day. If you work on the JUGS machines, you can improve your hands. I’m the first to admit we need to be better there.”
Johnston adds that it’s frustrating to see offenses click everywhere but within striking distance of paydirt.
“Our game last week with Birmingham, we had six running plays from inside the 2-yard line and couldn’t get it in the end zone. A little bit of that is good defense on the goal line by Birmingham, and poor execution by us.
“I’ve seen teams move up and down the field. We had a 21-play drive for nine minutes and 54 seconds and ended up with a field goal. So we’ve got to get better in the red zone and get better with the 2-point play. The offenses, in my opinion, have been much more efficient than I thought they’d be, but when we get into the red zone, that advantage shifts to the defense.”
San Antonio, in a three-way tie for the Western Conference lead with a 2-2 record, has been the league’s biggest box office hit. In two games at the Alamodome, the Commanders have drawn 57,033 fans for a 28,517 average.
The only other team in the league averaging at least 20,000 fans per contest is the undefeated Orlando Apollos, which opened the season in front of 20,191 fans and had a paid attendance of 20,394 at their second game at Spectrum Stadium on the University of Central Florida campus.
The other six teams have had modest to poor turnouts; last Sunday Birmingham drew an AAF-low 6,539 fans while Arizona had just 8,865.
Through 16 games, the league has seen 250,267 fans click the turnstiles for an average attendance of 15,642.
“We have franchises like San Antonio that are really remarkable at the gate,” Polian said. “And we have other franchises like Birmingham, for example, which has a really good team, but has had a slew of bad weather.”
Polian thinks better weather – and a good matchup – could result in a big crowd when 4-0 Orlando takes on 3-1 Birmingham on Saturday at Legion Field.
“We’ve got a big game this week, Orlando at Birmingham, that’s a big game in the Eastern Conference,” he said. “A high-powered offense against a dominant defense, so it’s everything you want in a football game. I’m pretty excited about seeing that. It’s the fifth week of our league, and I think we have a game that a lot of people around the country, not just the local markets, will be interested in.
“We’re really positive where we’re going and all the credit belongs to the GMs and coaches and players who put on a tremendous show.”
As for level of play, Polian thinks the Alliance is acquitting itself quite well.
“Our hope was that we could put a quality product on the field that would be real football by real football people for real football fans,” Polian said. “We have some different rules than the NFL, but the thing that’s so gratifying is that these guys play as hard as can be, all the time. These are hard-hitting, professional games.
“Take away the four finalists in college football and maybe two or three other teams and put any other college team out there (against an Alliance team) and it might not be a fair fight. These guys are men.”
Scott Adamson can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamsonsl