The last time American sports fans were graced with a big budget spring pro football league – 2001 – it was the rasslin’ influenced XFL begging for our attention.
Vince McMahon vowed that his rough and risqué circuit would change the face of football, but by the end of one disastrous season, TV viewers had simply changed their channels.
XFL 1.0 was one-and-done.
The reboot is set for 2020 (and kudos to the Dallas franchise for hiring Bob Stoops as head coach and general manager on Thursday), but McMahon can’t take credit for reviving February football for a new generation. Staking that claim is 36-year-old Charlie Ebersol, whose Alliance of American Football kicks off in four cities this weekend.
The honor of competing in the first game goes to the San Diego Fleet and San Antonio Commanders, who’ll meet at 8 p.m. EST on Saturday at the Alamodome.
At 8:30 p.m. on opening day it’ll be the Atlanta Legends at the Orlando Apollos.
Sunday at 4 p.m., the Birmingham Iron hosts the Memphis Express, and at 8 o’clock that night the Salt Lake Stallions will be in Phoenix to meet the Arizona Hot Shots.
So what makes this spring league different from the ones that have come before it?
The United States Football League (1983-85) is the gold standard in that it paid major league money and had major league aspirations.
The first iteration of the XFL was minor league, but pretended it was a major league.
(McMahon and company even spent an inordinate amount of time barking at the NFL, which was the equivalent of a Chihuahua going after a Doberman).
The AAF doesn’t want to be labeled, but it doesn’t claim to be the apex of pro football, either. If it can one day attain “Triple A” status and serve as an informal (or formal) feeder league to the NFL, I think all involved will be fine with that.
“It’s really about helping guys fulfill their dreams,” said former Georgia and Pittsburgh Steelers star Hines Ward, now the AAF Head of Development. “I played 14 years in the NFL – I know what players want and need both on and off the field, so being an executive in the league, being able to implement great policies for our players to help our players, I’m extremely blessed and honored to be a part of it.
“The talent is awesome. It’s not to sit there and say they can’t play at the next level, they just weren’t given the opportunities. Having these guys, I know they’re extremely excited. You can see them playing with a chip on their shoulders. They really want to prove to the world that they can play at the next level. I just think that you’ve got a bunch of hungry guys who love the game of football.”
When it comes to coaches, the AAF has done a terrific job of bringing in names you know.
Steve Spurrier was the first one announced, and it didn’t take much convincing to get the Head Ball Coach to take a retirement job two hours away in Orlando.
Dennis Erickson pried himself out of the rocking chair to take over as boss of Salt Lake, while Rick Neuheisel (Arizona), Mike Singletary (Memphis), Mike Martz (San Diego) and Mike Riley (San Antonio) have varying degrees of star power.
The coaches in Atlanta (Kevin Coyle) and Birmingham (Tim Lewis) have plenty of experience; Coyle was an NFL assistant from 2001-17, while Lewis’ NFL coaching resume spans 23 seasons.
“This is an opportunity league for coaches and players alike,” Neuheisel said.
As for the players – yeah, there are some known commodities, but this might just be a league where guys you’ve never heard of get the chance to make some noise.
The teams draft players territorially, so naturally there’ll be plenty of college guys familiar to AAF fans.
But even though former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was drafted by the Legends – and expected to be a major draw – he was beaten out for the starting job by 30-year-old NFL castoff Matt Simms.
Blake Sims quarterbacked Alabama in 2014, but he’ll play behind Luis Perez in Birmingham on Sunday.
Perez was a Division II dynamo, but likely a stranger to Iron supporters.
It’ll be fun to see who steps up and who stands out early on, regardless of what led them to an AAF count. And with each player getting 3-year, $250,000 contracts, there was no shortage of legitimate talent seeking roster spots.
Of course any new league needs some kind of gimmick, and the Alliance will be doing fairly serious rule tweaking.
There are no kickoffs; offenses will begin play at their own 25-yard line to start the game and following a score by the opposition. Instead of an onside kick a team can try to convert a fourth-and-12 from its one 28 following a score, but only if it trails by 17 points or more or there is under five minutes remaining in the game.
Extra point kicks are also out. Teams have to go for two following a touchdown.
The overtime procedure is similar to the one used by many high school leagues. Each team gets the ball once, first-and-goal from the opponent 10, and field goals aren’t allowed. The other team then gets a series and must either win or match the score, which results in a tie.
There are also several other changes, including an extra press box official who can quickly overturn obvious bad calls, and the play clock has been reduced from 40 to 35 seconds.
Of course ultimately, it’ll all come down to how this version of spring football resonates with fans – or doesn’t.
The league’s broadcast partners include CBS, CBS Sports Network, the NFL Network and TNT, and success or failure will largely depends on who watches throughout the 10-week regular season and playoffs.
And butts in the seats will be helpful, too, although Spurrier says that kind of loyalty must be earned over time.
“I’d hope for around 20,000 or so (on Saturday), and that would be a wonderful start, but we’ve got to earn our way,” said Spurrier, who’ll also serve as offensive coordinator and QB coach of his team. “I’m a believer that the team will get the fans in the ballpark if we do well. So I’m not going to beg everybody to come. Hopefully they’ll want to come, and we need to go out there and put on a good performance.”