The football void of February to August is normally a waiting game for pigskin lovers; while the NFL Draft and free agency are fun, they don’t carry the same joy of actually watching a game.
A new professional football league is attempting to fill that hole with a product that will attract NFL fans who want to continue watching the uniquely American sport.
Co-founded by Charlie Ebersol, a wealthy filmmaker, and Bill Polian, a former NFL executive who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Alliance of American Football played its inaugural regular season games on Feb. 9 and 10. Those involved believe the Alliance will become a successful business venture.
The Alliance is not designed to be a competitor to the NFL. While earning a profit is obviously the main goal, from a purely football perspective the idea is to serve as a developmental league for the NFL. The program hopes to offer players who could not make it in the league a second chance to build and showcase their skills in hopes of earning an NFL contract. The Alliance is filled with former NFL coaches to ensure that players are learning what it takes to prosper at the highest level.
Delving more into the concrete details, the Alliance features eight teams in eight cities across the southern portion of the country. Among the rosters there are some notable names, like former Heisman Trophy running back Trent Richardson, who never found success in the NFL, and former second round quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The majority of players, however, are likely unrecognizable for even the most devoted football fans. All players are given a three-year, $250,000 non-guaranteed contract with an opt-out clause to go to the NFL.
The rules are almost exactly the same as the NFL’s with a few exceptions. The game is slightly shorter, creating a more fast paced game than the NFL version. To shorten the length of broadcasts, there are no TV timeouts and fewer commercials. The biggest changes regard the kicking game. There are no kickoffs or extra points; when a team scores, they must go for two, and after scoring the ball is simply placed on the 25-yard line. Field goals still count, so kickers are not forgotten entirely.
After watching every game of the opening weekend, a couple takeaways stood out. First, capable quarterbacks are extremely rare. Even against lesser competition, most of the quarterbacks struggled to hit open targets. But that leads to another takeaway: the offensive line play was embarrassingly bad. I understand that the teams have only had limited practice time, but it was atrocious how few running lanes there were and how many times quarterbacks were rushed to throw. I am sure every coach will be hammering offensive line preparation heading into the second week.
A third, more positive conclusion is that the games were actually enjoyable to watch. Sure, it wasn’t NFL quality, but even given the poor play from the offensive lines and lack of quarterback accuracy, I loved watching a new, different football league. Plus, knowing that these guys are fighting for their dream job added a level of intensity to the game that is not always found in the NFL. From a quality of play perspective, there’s obviously room for improvement, but overall I liked it.
Perhaps the best entertainment feature of the Alliance is microphones. Almost everybody involved with the game is fitted with a microphone. The players, the coaches, the referees and even the replay officials are audible. The transparency of hearing the replay official talk through what they see was immaculate. Listening to coaches instruct their players brought you inside the game; the only downside was the somewhat frequent silence when the station had to mute out cursing. I would love to see the NFL adopt some of these entertainment changes because they undoubtedly bring the viewer closer to the game.
Yet, despite its success on its first weekend, the Alliance still has much to prove. Will it have staying power? Will viewers continue to tune in to a secondary football league? Will any players actually succeed in making it to the NFL? All of these questions will be answered soon, and they will determine the viability of the Alliance.
If you’re interested in checking it out for yourself, week two begins Sat. Feb. 16, when the Birmingham Iron will host the Salt Lake Stallions at 2 p.m.