The NFL and Alliance of American Football are already on friendly terms.
Could they be headed toward a “friends with benefits” relationship?
Don’t bet against it.
Last week during a conference call with media members, AAF co-founder Bill Polian and San Antonio Commanders general manager Daryl Johnston discussed the possibility of a formal working relationship between the leagues down the road.
“We have had no specific talks with the NFL on that subject, but lots of NFL people have bandied about that thought with us,” Polian said. “We all talk about it, but there have been no formal discussions about it at this point. I think there’s enough discussion about it that those discussions are going to continue. Whether or not it bears fruit remains to be seen.
“There are a lot of procedural hurdles that have to be crossed before you can make that happen, but the talk is ramping up, I’ll say that.”
A union between pro football’s 600-pound gorilla and the developmental league that’s halfway through its first season has plenty of upside.
Currently Alliance players have an “out” in their contracts in which they can sign with an NFL time any time except during AAF training camp and the regular season.
“Our season ends just before OTAs begin, so a player could go from our league to the NFL without missing any significant OTA time,” Polian said. “Obviously he’s in shape from playing football so he doesn’t need a lot of conditioning.”
But what about a player coming from the NFL to the spring league?
Having the NFL’s brand, muscle and money behind the Alliance would be a huge boost for the upstarts, especially with a rebooted XFL set to go head-to-head against it in 2020.
Vince McMahon’s do-over will be in eight major markets (Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, Seattle, Tampa Bay and D.C) and has no shortage of cash, so it certainly poses a threat to the AAF as a direct competitor.
But while the current spring league is stocked with players not on NFL rosters, Johnston likes the idea of turning the Alliance into an offseason home for big league backups.
That, ultimately, could be the biggest difference between the AAF and XFL 2020.
“I think when we started this journey we wanted to be complementary to the NFL with hopes we could become a developmental component to what they’re doing,” Johnston said. “As a broadcaster for almost 20 years now and after talking to coaches week after week, one of the things they’ve been frustrated with in the latest (collective bargaining agreement) is the reduction in meeting time, the reduction in practice time … they just don’t feel that the guys are getting enough repetition.”
Johnston envisions a scenario where the Alliance becomes a proving ground for players such as quarterbacks and offensive lineman. So instead of a quarterback like Orlando’s Garrett Gilbert trying to work his way into the NFL, an Alliance team could have a signal caller already in the NFL but trying to work his way up the depth chart by getting actual game reps in February and March.
“Some of the positions coming out of the college game that need more work to help players be successful at the professional level … this is what the Alliance would be perfect for,” Johnston said. “So hopefully at some point in the future there will be an opportunity to bring guys down from the back ends of rosters, and especially quarterback positions, offensive line positions, some of the areas where coaches think there needs to be more development to get the guys ready to compete at the NFL level.”
AAF games are already being televised on the NFL Network, and the NFL website is even providing game summaries of the league. It’s a far cry from the adversarial relationship pushed by the original XFL in 2001, where McMahon’s wrestling-influenced shtick included insulting the NFL.
And while the new XFL is avoiding that approach and, in fact, also sees itself a springboard league, the Alliance has been preaching cooperation with the NFL from the start.
Moreover, the best chance of long-term survival for any developmental circuit is to hook up with the big boys.
From a fan perspective, I enjoy seeing guys like Aaron Murray try to fight their way back into the NFL. However, I’d also like to see NFL players “on loan,” which would give a league that had such an arrangement an actual “farm system” feel.
As Polian said, nothing is official between the leagues and there might never be an agreement in writing.
Right now, it’s just talk.
But since they’re already flirting, there’s at least a chance they could take things to the next level.
And who knows?
They might wind up as a happy couple.