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Thoughts on the Alliance

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Football in mid-February.

The Alliance of American Football (AAF) kicked off its inaugural season on Saturday, with all 8 teams playing in a full slate of 4 games this past weekend. I couldn’t find a full-game replay of the Memphis-Birmingham game, so I opened up some youtube highlights. I got to 9-0 in the first quarter before my computer blew up the video — my laptop doesn’t get along well with certain youtube videos for some reason.

On the other hand, I watched all of the first half and parts of the second half of the three other games.

I thought I’d share a few thoughts about the games and the league.

First, and most importantly, the uniforms

Without a doubt, the best uniforms belonged to the Birmingham Iron.

I mean, those uniforms are bad ass.

Second, picking a team to follow

Normally, picking a team to follow has one basic rule: pick the team with the best uniform.

Using this criterion, my team should be the Birmingham Iron, but I just can’t root for a team that features Trent Richardson at running back.

So, I go to some backup rules. Don’t root for a team with a goofy name. That eliminated the Arizona Hotshots, even though I enjoyed watching them play. What? Did the owner lose a bet or something? The Hotshots? Really?!

Second worst name is the Memphis Express. I get enough FedEx with the Redskins. Hard “no” on the Express, the only team in the Alliance not to have scored a point yet.

Not only does Birmingham have the coolest uniforms, they have the coolest name... the IRON. Damn you Trent Richardson!

What does that leave?

Salt Lake City Stallions? No. I have no affinity at all for Salt Lake City, and they lost their first-ever game to a team called the Hotshots. Not the Stallions.

The Atlanta Legends? Purple & gold uniforms and their logo is a crown. A crown? The logo and uniform colors make me think of a Las Vegas casino, not a football team. Plus, they lost 40-6. Not the Legends.

San Diego Fleet? With the dark blue & gold (dare I say, ‘navy’ blue?), and the name Fleet, this team reminds me, not of Las Vegas and casinos, but my home town of Norfolk and growing up next to the Naval Air Station. I look at the colors and feel the hard stare of my father, Chief Petty Officer Horgan, who was a hard man. The only good impression I have about the Alliance San Diego team is that they resisted any temptation to revive the powder blue so common on football uniforms from that city’s past. Definitely not a Fleet fan.

The San Antonio Commanders? Pros: the logo is pretty cool, and the helmet is too:

Cons: Unfortunately, the uniforms suck.

The Commanders squeaked out a win 15-6 over the Fleet. All that nautical language... Commander... Fleet... I can’t take it. I was scarred deeply by being brought up in a Navy family. No. The Commanders, with their white knee-britches and Atlanta Falcon red topped by .. what is that, maroon? Not for me.

How about the Orlando Apollos? Well, their uniforms look like a bad marriage between the NY Giants and the Denver Broncos.

That makes them hard to root for.

They did win 40-6 in their first-ever game, but then, there’s the question of the head coach, Steve Spurrier, who makes Jerry Jones seem like “an okay guy” by comparison.

Spurrier’s comment after winning the game against Atlanta? “I even won my first game with the Redskins, and that’s not easy to do.”

Fuck Spurrier and the horse he rode in on. Orlando’s a crappy city anyway, and the only reason “Apollos” isn’t the worst name in the league is because of that lame Hotshots decision. I’m not backing the Apollos.

With only eight teams, it looks like I’m gonna have to compromise. The uniform and logo are likely to be around for a long time; Trent Richardson won’t last forever. Birmingham scored 26 points and their defense put up the only shutout in league history on Sunday.

That seals the deal. Despite having only seen about 92 seconds of highlights of their game, I’m a Birmingham Iron fan!

TV Coverage

NFL Network broadcast one game (Salt Lake City at Arizona), while the other three, including both Saturday games, were broadcast by CBS.

The CBS guys had to have been tickled pink, as the games got a better-than-expected share of viewers.

The CBS coverage was superior. They took more chances and had more fun with it, while the NFL Network treated it like an NFL game, or perhaps an NFL preseason game.

CBS mic’d up the players and the coaches. They broadcast sound and pictures of the replay official reviewing challenges. The camera angles were all over the place during live action — sometimes at field level, sometimes the normal high-angle side view, sometimes behind the line of scrimmage. CBS earns 5 gold stars from me for creativity and simple fun. NFL Network has a lot of catching up to do, and only a short season in which to do it. The AAF season ends just ahead of the April draft.

The games themselves

The play was uneven but entertaining. It was like watching preseason NFL football, but better, because this was genuine competitive football.

I had expected the players to be, basically, the almost-good-enough-to-survive-final-traning-camp-cut quality.

They’re not that good.

I realized midway through the second game who these guys are.

At the end of training camp, each team has 53 players on the active roster, 10 players on the practice squad, and a handful of injured guys.

During the season, the injuries stack up. Perhaps 300 guys league-wide across the NFL end up on IR and have to be replaced.

The guys playing in the AAF didn’t make an NFL roster out of training camp, they weren’t signed to a practice squad, and they didn’t get signed as a replacement when an NFL player went on IR.

The AAF players are the guys that are left after all of that.

The NFL Network guys mentioned that 81% of all AAF players have signed an NFL contract in their careers. I saw Matt Asiata, Brandon Oliver and Trent Richardson playing. These are guys that had their 15 minutes of NFL fame.

I saw Rashad Ross, one-time training camp darling of the Redskins, shine for the Hotshots in their victory over the stallions. Former Redskins special teams standout and backup linebacker Terrance Garvin looked to be the player of the game for Orlando on Saturday, with a sack and two interceptions, including a pick-6.

This is competitive football played at the level of a Week 2 or Week 4 NFL preaseason game.

The rule differences

The most noticeable differences involve special teams. There are no kickoffs in the AAF, and there is no extra-point kick. After a touchdown, the team runs a play from scrimmage for a potential two points.

If anyone had asked me anytime in the past two or three years what my opinion was on eliminating kickoffs from football, my answer would have been: Absolutely not! Removing kickoffs is a perversion of the game.

One weekend of AAF changed that opinion. I didn’t miss kickoffs. Starting from the 25 yard line seemed just fine. It’s the most common result of most kickoffs anyway; it keeps the game moving, and takes away one more opportunity for the referees to throw penalty flags.

Speaking of penalties. I get the feeling that the refs were instructed to “let ‘em play”, at least for the initial games.

The AAF is a faster game. It utilizes a 35-second play clock (I saw it reported as a 30-second clock on one tweet, but I believe 35 is correct). The difference is noticeable, with the pace of play much brisker. This also has to do with the league having less opportunity to sell commercials, resulting in fewer commercial breaks. At times, the announcers were having trouble calling the game in their normal fashion, as the pace of play was brisk. I liked it.

Expand the rosters to 55 active players and change to a 35-second play clock, I say.

I also like the elimination of the 1-point PAT kick.

One rule difference involves limitations of blitzes. The defense can’t bring more than 5 men on a pass rush, and cannot rush both linebackers from the same side (no ‘overload’ blitzes). This has everything to do with the very short season and limited ability to train offensive linemen. This is NOT a rule that should ever be considered for the NFL, but it was easy to see its usefulness in the AAF games this weekend.

Women in the AAF, and I don’t mean cheerleaders

I didn’t see any cheerleaders, but I did see a female ref with long black hair in a pony tail that hung nearly to her waist (which is how I spotted the female ‘zebra’). The NFL Network also featured a female wide receiver’s coach on one staff.

Anything that opens up the league to a wider pool of talent, whether it’s for players on the field, officials, doctors and trainers, coaches, owners or league executives — I’m for it.

A true developmental league that pays players

For most of my life, I’ve felt like the greatest weakness of the NFL was it’s lack of a professional developmental league. Baseball has a great farm system that allows teams to take huge chances on young players, and provides the opportunity for veterans who need a chance to reestablish themselves following an injury or to play out of a slump.

As a kid, I was a regular in the bleachers at Tidewater Tides games, and when I lived in Richmond during and immediately after college I went to see the Richmond Braves several times per year. These two Triple-A teams had young players with promise who might someday be stars for the Mets, or the Atlanta team, as well as some players who had been to the big league and were on the way down, but had some name recognition. In 1970, at the age of 10, I watched Ken Singleton play right field for my local team in Norfolk. Everyone in the stands knew that he would be playing for the Mets in no time, and it was fun to watch him knowing he was on the way up.

Living in a second-tier city means second-tier sports. We went to the Wings ice hockey games - minor leagues. Dad took me to golden gloves boxing — mostly sailors trying to outscore each other on the judge’s cards on a Saturday night.

We even had a semi-pro football team - the Norfolk Neptunes, who played at Foreman Field. The only real pro-team we had was our basketball team, the Virginia Squires, led by “Doctor J” - Julius Erving, who once visited my local playground in the afternoon for an hour-long basketball ‘camp’.

It’s easy to say that a league like the AAF doesn’t have a place in the national sports scene because it is a big step down in quality from the NFL, but as a guy who grew up watching minor league sports in a Triple-A city, I can tell you that there very much is a place for minor leagues and professional developmental leagues.

I don’t know if the AAF is the best model for an NFL developmental league, but I think it’s better than nothing at all.

And having the opportunity to watch guys play “Spring League” football from mid-February to late-April is better than having no football at all.

I imagine that a better developmental league model may be available, but until it comes along, I’m happy to see the AAF filling the void.

An article that I won’t write

With the Redskins’ current awkward situation at quarterback, there’s been a lot written about the team’s options for 2019 (and perhaps beyond) in terms of filling the QB void.

The options have boiled down to:

(a) draft a quarterback

(b) acquire a cheap veteran

( c ) do both

The concept is to fill the QB position cheaply in 2019, with the flexibility to welcome Alex Smith back in 2020 if he’s healthy enough to play, or to carry on without him if he isn’t. As I said, awkward.

I entered the weekend thinking that I might be able to write an article this week about another overlooked option for the Redskins. The front office could look to the developmental league — the AAF — as a source of a cheap but ready signal caller. Let the front office find the starting quarterback from the 8 guys playing, and offer him a vet minimum contract. All the Alliance players earn $250,000 for three seasons of play (2019, 20, 21), topping out at $100k in the ‘21 season. A $1m per year, 2-year non-guaranteed contract and a chance to play for the Redskins would represent a massive opportunity for any of these guys.

No other NFL team is in the unique situation the Redskins find themselves in, so this would be a virtually competition-free move. Grab a quarterback who’s in shape, in games, and talented enough to play professional football. Double down on the Josh Johnson decision.

Prior to the weekend, I was thinking Mike Bercovici of the San Diego Fleet would be a likely candidate. I remembered him from the show, Undrafted, and he seemed like a guy who might good enough to fill the bill. The first half of his game on Saturday was enough to change my mind.

What about the other starting quarterbacks from the weekend?

Matt Simms - Atlanta Legends

6’3”, 210 pounds with limited regular season experience with the Jets in 2013-14. If being unable to keep a spot as a quarterback on the Jets weren’t damning enough, Matt’s surname sounds familiar for a reason; his father is the former NY Giants quarterback and current second-worst-ever tv sports analyst (behind Witten), Phil Simms. No thank you.

Josh Woodrum - Salt Lake Stallions

6’3”, 231 pounds, Josh has spent time on the practice squads of 6 different NFL teams (two stints with the Ravens) in the past three seasons. He went 10-22 with one TD and one INT this weekend. Honestly, he played better than those statistics would indicate, but not good enough to make me want to see him play for the Redskins.

Logan Woodside - San Antonio Commanders

6’2”, 213 pounds, Woodside was drafted by the Bengals in the 7th round of the 2017 draft, but couldn’t stick in the NFL past September that year. Marvin Lewis was in the broadcast booth as an analyst during his game, and couldn’t muster any real enthusiasm about a kid that he had in training camp year before last. Even the Commanders depth chart can’t decide between Woodside and Dustin Vaughn. If he’s not a clear-cut starter in the AAF, then I doubt he’ll impress Jay Gruden.

Christian Hackenberg - Memphis Express

The Express is the only team in the history of the Alliance to have ever been shut out in a regular season game. Hackenberg couldn’t get on the field with the Jets. He may be the worst starting quarterback in the AAF league. Nope.

John Wolford - Arizona Hotshots

6’1”, 200 pounds. Formerly a Wake Forest QB, Wolford set single season records at the school. Another former NY Jet (is there any quarterback they didn’t draft?), Wolford had the best performance of any passer on the Alliance’s opening weekend, throwing 4 touchdowns and no interceptions while amassing 275 yards, earning a 132.9 passer rating.

Wolford actually looked like an Alex Smith-type quarterback, with good mobility, decent passing skills and command of the huddle. His team won 38-22 and controlled the scoreboard for most of the contest. Arizona frequently ran a hurry-up offense that seemed to tire out and trouble the Stallion defense.

(By the way, that’s former Redskins Rashad Ross on the receiving end of that TD pass)

If there’s one quarterback this weekend who did look like he might be worth a camp invite, it was Wolford. The real issue with Wolford is that he appears to be a very small 6’1”. He looked smaller than Drew Brees and bigger than Doug Flutie, and he struggled on several occasions with defensive linemen batting balls out of the air... but then, so did Alex Smith, if I recall correctly.

Maybe. Just maybe on Wolford.

Garrett Gilbert - Orlando Apollos

6’3”, 230 pounds. Gilbert threw 49 total touchdown passes for Texas and SMU before giving the NFL a shot. From 2014 through this season, Gilbert bounced around spending time with five different teams, primarily as a practice squad member, but did see action in the regular-season finale for the Carolina Panthers in relief of spot-starter Kyle Allen.

I thought he looked pretty good leading his team to a 40-6 win over Atlanta. He went 15 of 25 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, and actually caught a TD pass on a play reminiscent of Nick Foles in the “Philly Special” from the Eagles’ superbowl win.

Gilbert has the size that one looks for in an NFL QB that Wolford lacks, but it’s not promising that he was the backup to Kyle Allen for a QB-desperate Carolina Panthers team in 2018.

Poll

If you could wave your magic wand, what choice would you make?

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    Go back to the kickoff system the NFL used in 2016
    (75 votes)
  • 14%
    Continue with the kickoff system the NFL used in 2018
    (31 votes)
  • 51%
    Eliminate kickoffs and use the AAF system
    (112 votes)
218 votes total Vote Now

Poll

What’s your feeling about John Wolford, current starting QB of the Arizona Hotshots?

This poll is closed

  • 50%
    It would be a good idea for the Redskins to invite him to camp and let him compete for a roster spot
    (104 votes)
  • 49%
    Waste of time. He’s not good enough. He’ll never be good enough.
    (101 votes)
205 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Following the inaugural weekend of the AAF, which is your favorite team?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    Salt Lake City Stallions
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    Atlanta Legends
    (2 votes)
  • 8%
    San Diego Fleet
    (17 votes)
  • 4%
    Orlando Apollos
    (9 votes)
  • 1%
    Memphis Express
    (3 votes)
  • 12%
    Arizona Hotshots
    (26 votes)
  • 24%
    Birmingham Iron
    (52 votes)
  • 6%
    San Antonio Commanders
    (13 votes)
  • 40%
    Seriously?
    (84 votes)
210 votes total Vote Now