By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
When the Super Bowl ended (mercifully) on February 3rd, football fans across the country were left with a familiar feeling that comes every year around this time — anticipation for next fall when football will start again.
For many, that sinking feeling of not knowing what to do with most weekends through the coming summer, may not be necessary anymore. It certainly won’t be needed for the next two years, which will see the premieres of two more leagues which will try to expand the options regarding professional football in America.
In the case of both the resurrected XFL (coming in 2020) and the Alliance of American Football (AAF), which will be unveiled this weekend, expensive yet scrappy pursuits are being made to fill the void in football fan’s lives by playing after the NFL is completely finished in the late winter and spring.
First up to bat, the AAF will be the talk of the football world with games starting this weekend for eight new teams across the country. The season will unfold over the next 10 weekends, which will decide the top two teams from the East and West conferences to compete in the playoffs for a chance to win the championship on April 27th.
Unfortunately, none of the eight teams will represent Chicago but there will be some names that are blasts from the past on a few of the teams. Overall, this league is not trying to compete with the NFL, in fact its actually partnered with the league. Instead, the AAF is trying to be their own thing with a slightly different approach to the NFL.
Background on the League
Founded by Charlie Ebersol, son of Dick Ebersol, and former NFL executive Bill Polian, the AAF is featuring among its executive staff many people who made names for themselves as players, coaches and executives in the NFL.
Among this group is Troy Polamalu as Head of Player Relations, J.K. McKay as Head of Football Operations, Tom Veit as Head of Business Operations, Hines Ward as a Player Relations Executive, Jared Allen as a Player Relations Executive and investor and Justin Tuck is listed as a Member of Player Engagements Board Of Advisors.
The league will start out with two conferences being the East and West with four teams apart of each conference.
- Atlanta Legends
- Birmingham Iron
- Memphis Express
- Orlando Apollos
- Arizona Hotshots
- Salt Lake Stallions
- San Antonio Commanders
- San Diego Fleet
In order for teams to acquire players, the league set up a system for how players would be eligible to sign with what team. The rules, as provided by the AAF, are listed below.
A draft was held last year on November 27th for the selection of quarterbacks. Every team drafted the signal caller while signing the rest of their players based on the player allocation process.
Some familiar names from the college and pro levels were signed throughout the league and for Bears fans, a few interesting names will be apart of this league. The most notable name will not actually be on the field playing, that name is Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, head coach of the Memphis Express.
As mentioned before, ex-Bear defensive lineman Jared Allen will be apart of the operations and invested in the league. Will Sutton, a Phil Emery-era Bears pick from 2014 (Arizona State), will suit up for the Arizona Hotshots at defensive lineman. Another Emery draft pick with the Bears from 2012, tight end Evan Rodriguez (Temple), will suit up with the San Antonio Commanders.
Also joining Rodriguez on the Commanders will be De’Vante Bausby, who most Bears fans won’t likely remember. Bausby was an un-drafted free agent out of Pittsburg State and only lasted on the Bears’ active roster for four regular season games in 2016.
More big names for the rest of the teams will come up later in this preview.
Differences from the NFL
In an effort to set itself apart and maybe seem a bit more progressive than the NFL, the AAF is trying to establish a different approach to its style and pace of play compared to pro football’s big brother.
The AAF will also be implementing some different rule changes as well but overall the game will be similar to that of traditional football. One of the first differences starts with the opening play of any football game. Fans will not see any type of kickoff, in an attempt to improve player safety, the AAF does not allow any type of kickoff. This means that onside kicks will not be allowed and instead teams can elect to try to convert a fourth and ten at their own 35.
If the conversion is successful then the drive continues, otherwise the opposing team gains possession from the spot of the ball. Place kicking will be eliminated also, since there will not be any extra points, each team will have to go for two point conversions.
Overtime will be sort of a cross between college football and the NFL with each team getting one possession from the opposing team’s 10 yard line and have four downs to get a touchdown followed by a two point conversion upon scoring. If the score remains tied after both teams have a possession the game will end in a tie in the regular season.
Another element that is being used to enhance the viewing experience is a faster paced game. The NFL averages about three hours per game with commercials and all the various stoppages of time. The AAF is looking to have their games closer to two hours and thirty minutes by using a few viewer friendly tricks.
First off, TV timeouts will not exist in the league and there will be no stoppage for halftime to keep the pace of play going. The traditional 40 second play clock will be cut down to 35 seconds. One sort of similarity to the NFL is the replay system, both coaches will get two challenges but no challenges in the last two minutes of each half and overtime. Under two minutes and overtime, replays will be automatically initiated without a challenge by the officials.
One main thing both Ebersol and Polian wanted to create was a safer league that is very viewer friendly, it’ll be interesting to see if these differences from the NFL actually make the game more enjoyable.
Now its the time to get some information on each team in the AAF and outline the match-ups for the league’s inaugural weekend.
The league’s eight teams — each with a roster of 52 players ranging from
former NFL names and college football stars on to a few Canadian football League standouts — are about to embark on a 10 week journey beginning with two nationally televised games Saturday evening.
Team information provided by the Sporting News, all times central
Atlanta Legends at Orlando Apollos — Saturday, 7 pm (CBS); Announcers: Andrew Catalon, Gary Danielson, and Melanie Collins
Atlanta — Former Rams general manager Billy Devaney tabbed former Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle as head coach but the highlight on the coaching staff is offensive coordinator Michael Vick.
Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray will be the signal caller and he’ll have ex-Michigan star Denard Robinson as one of his primary weapons.
As the AAF rosters are mostly built via regional drafting, the defense here is filled with players from Georgia universities such as T.J. Barnes, Brandon Watts, KeShun Freeman and Corey Griffin from Georgia Tech plus Damian Swann and Quincy Mager from Georgia.
Orlando — Former Seahawks and Falcons GM Tim Ruskell brought back Steve Spurrier out of retirement, they previously spent time with the Tampa Bay Bandits in the USFL.
This team will be helmed by a couple of collegiate quarterbacks Austin Appleby and Garrett Gilbert and will feature running back Akeem Hunt from Purdue. On defense the Legends have linebacker Azeem Victor from Washington and defensive lineman Jacob Pugh from Florida State at their disposal.
San Diego Fleet at San Antonio Commanders — Saturday, 7 pm (CBS); Announcers: Spero Dedes, Trent Green, Tiki Barber, and Jamie Erdahl
San Diego — Dave Boller is the GM and ex-Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz will be his head coach in the return of pro football to the Chargers’ former home. Arizona State’s Mike Bercovici and East Carolina’s Phillip Nelson are battling to earn the starting quarterback spot.
A few other college standouts offensively are Colorado’s Nelson Spruce and Stanford’s Francis Owusu. On defense, Damontre Moore was a pass-rusher at Texas A&M and linebacker A.J. Tarpley is another Stanford product.
San Antonio – Ex-Cowboy Daryl Johnston is the GM with former Nebraska coach Mike Riley the head coach. Former Wake Forest and Baylor coach Jim Grobe joins him as the defensive coordinator. The quarterback is former Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside.
The Commanders have a host of familiar running backs including Minnesota’s David Cobb, Houston’s Kenneth Farrow, TCU’s Aaron Green and Texas A&M’s Trey Williams.
Memphis Express at Birmingham Iron — Sunday, 3 pm (CBS Sports Network); Announcers: Ben Holden, Adam Archuleta, and John Schriffen
Memphis — Former Seahawks director of player personnel Will Lewis is the GM and boss of Chicago’s favorite Samurai/linebacker who’ll be head coach.
Singletary will be joined by Dennis Thurman and Pepper Johnson on the staff. Christian Hackenberg and Zach Mettenberger are the quarterbacks and receiver Terrence “Pig” Howard played at Tennessee.
Former Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy looks to be the feature back. The defense is filled with former SEC players, including former LSU stars Sam Montgomery and Anthony Johnson.
Birmingham — Longtime NFL assistant and former Alabama offensive line coach Joe Pendry is the GM and former first-round pick Tim Lewis is the head coach.
There may be some in-game fighting amongst fans of Alabama and Auburn as the Iron have former Crimson Tide stars Blake Sims and Trent Richardson, plus former Tiger receiver Quan Bray. Chris Davis, who returned the legendary “Kick Six” in the Iron Bowl for Auburn against Alabama is also on the roster.
Salt Lake Stallions at Arizona Hotshots — Sunday, 7 pm (NFL Network); Announcers: Dan Hellie, Marvin Lewis, and Maurice Jones-Drew
Salt Lake — Longtime NFL exec Randy Mueller is the GM, and he brought Dennis Erickson out of retirement. Erickson famously coached at Miami University with the 49ers and Seahawks being his most famous professional stops.
Utah running back Matt Asiata will be a fan favorite in his old stadium, and there is a heavy Nebraska presence on the offense with Terrell Newby and Kenny Bell. Former BYU standouts Handsome Tanielu and Micah Hannemann are on defense.
Arizona — Former Browns GM Phil Savage is in charge, and Rick Neuheisel is the head coach.
Trevor Knight from Texas A&M, the quarterback who passed for 348 yards and four TDs in the 2014 Sugar Bowl against Alabama, will lead the offensive charge.
Larry Rose II from New Mexico State is pegged to be the ball carrier. Former Georgia defensive tackle Trenton Thompson is on defense.
The AAF will be a fun football experiment to watch, who knows if this will be a flash in the pan football league or something that could grow into a yearly staple like its fellow league the NFL. A lot will depend on the league’s star power, which along with quality and style of play is drives any league.
Doubters of the AAF will point to the lack of recognizable star power and label who is recognizable as scraps from the NFL, but things can change quickly especially in a sport like football.
Regardless of what anyone may think of the AAF, any football fan should rejoice for the opportunity to get an extra helping of touchdowns, catches, sacks and ornery coaches. Time to unpack the smoker and get the beer ready for another football weekend.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR