By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
The Alliance of American Football kicked off their first weekend of existence Saturday evening, a bit of an ironic phrase given that this version of football doesn’t incorporate kickoffs.
This brave new world of (developmental) football action started with a pair of primetime games regionally shown on Saturday followed by two games on Sunday. Whenever a league or a team makes their debut, there an automatic curiosity seems to draw fans in droves and that didn’t change for tha AAF.
Posting a higher rating on Saturday than the huge NBA game between James Harden’s Houston Rockets hosting Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NFL-aligned AAF got off to a great start and somewhat struck back for “football America” after a very questionable Super Bowl week.
It should be kept in mind that back when the XFL first launched, the league saw huge numbers in the beginning but faded as the season went on, ultimately leading to the league ending after its lone season.
Now that the AAF has stepped up to the national sports scene, the question will be if they can maintain a place in the mix as the season moves along.
One way to stay relevant is by producing a quality product, which the AAF did for the most part this weekend, it looked and felt like a regular NFL game with a few twists in the rules and style of play. Week 1 saw some great performances from teams down to individuals, even if the overall play was clunky at times.
Clearly, viewers are willing to give more football a chance as football is still king of the sports landscape. Let’s take a look and recap the weekend’s actions with some key takeaways.
Orlando Apollos Dominate the Atlanta Legends 40-6
No one had a better opening game than the Apollos.
The old ball coach, Steve Spurrier, did an excellent job getting his team ready to play in all facets. Offensively, Orlando has weapons in the pass game and run game with Garrett Gilbert as the quarterback. Gilbert ended his day with 60 percent completion percentage, 227 yards passing, two touchdowns and a rating of 116.6.
The defense for the Apollos was just as impressive with linebacker Terence Garvin leading a big and fast linebacker core. Garvin had two interceptions and the first pick six in league history. As for Atlanta, the Legends were not impressive and have gone through some coaching changes.
Ex-NFL quarterback Michael Vick was set to be offensive coordinator but he has taken on an administration role instead now. Even big name Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray didn’t do much in the game and instead the bulk of the quarterback time went to Matt Simms, the son of Super Bowl champion Phil Simms.
San Antonio Commanders Lock Down the San Diego Fleet 15-6
The Commanders were considered a strong team heading into the opening weekend, they were able to get a win but they will have a tough opponent in the Apollos next week.
San Antonio’s defense was the overall star of the game against the Fleet’s offense with Mike Martz as their signal caller. The Commanders forced three interceptions and forced two fumbles along with six sacks. On offense, ex-Eagles wide receiver Greg Ward Jr. was a play maker with a long reception of 37 yards among his highlight plays.
As for the Fleet, terrible quarterback play was a problem but the main issue was the horrible play from San Diego’s offensive line.
Coach Martz’s team was able to gain yardage but unable to score when they were in the red zone on three trips. The Fleet’s defense kept their team in the game with a couple interceptions and three sacks.
Birmingham Iron Shut Out the Memphis Express 26-0
This matchup turned out to be the most lopsided of all the contests. Memphis quarterback Christian Hackenberg was awful with a stat line of 43% completion percentage, 87 yards with 21 coming from one pass, one interception and a rating of 36.
Hackenberg was replaced by backup Brandon Silvers but the passing attack and the offense continued to stall all game. The Iron wanted to get their top running back, Trent Richardson, going but he had a mostly forgettable day, averaging two and a half yards a carry but he did have two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The story from this game was the stout defense played by the Iron. They created turnovers, got pressure and two sacks on the quarterback, the secondary created plays with seven pass deflections and an interception. Memphis head coach Mike Singletary will have to figure out his offensive woes quickly otherwise it could be a long season in Memphis.
Arizona Hotshots Explode On Salt Lake Stallions 38-22
The final game of the weekend was the best game in terms of competitiveness. The Commanders and Fleet game had less of a scoring differential but the Hotshots and the Stallions played a great opening half using their contrasting styles.
The Stallions are more of a running team while the Hotshots are employing more of an uptempo spread style offense. The game was 19-16 at halftime favoring the Hotshots and had there not been a muffed punt, the Stallions may have had the lead.
However, the Hotshots were too strong in the second half led by quarterback John Wolford and wide receiver Rashad Ross. Ross finished with 103 yards and two touchdowns.
The Stallions lost their starting quarterback Josh Woodrum and the offense felt like it lost its mojo and they are a running team but their run game wasn’t strong enough with only 88 yards gained on 29 carries.
Overall, it was a home run of an opening weekend for the Alliance of American Football. Viewers came to watch even if the games weren’t particularly competitive, the curiosity factor was too strong for many to overcome and the AAF does seem to fill the missing football void currently in a fan’s life.
It will be interesting to see how the ratings will look after next weekend — will people continue to watch even if the football isn’t great? New innovations like the rule changes, the extra on field microphones, hearing the conversation of replay officials and the fast pace were all good ideas for the NFL to start incorporating and they themselves could be main reasons why the AAF should be given a chance to flourish.
These games should get better as teams get more and more practice time is instituted, which should result in better games. Its going to be a fun journey following this inaugural season and seeing what the AAF can grow into.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR