If you’re a fan of football, this time of year is usually one of the worst.
The Super Bowl, the zenith of the sport and perhaps its most widely watched broadcast, is now in the rearview with the rest of the NFL season. The College Football Playoff probably left a bad taste in your mouth yet again, Clemson and Alabama fans notwithstanding. And there’s only so much excitement we can gain from Joe Flacco changing teams and the NCAA transfer portal.
But luckily for football fans everywhere, there’s a brand new league for those itching for a pigskin fix. The Alliance of American Football premiered last week as an alternative professional football league, with two games airing on CBS. The league’s debut was a success, drawing higher viewership numbers than the Rockets/Thunder game that in the same time slot on ABC and almost as many as the highly anticipated college basketball matchup between Duke and Virginia.
Some Saturday sports viewership numbers:ESPN: Duke-Virginia men's hoops: 3.32 million viewersCBS: Alliance of American Football: 3.25 million viewersCBS: PGA Tour at Pebble Beach: 2.93 million viewersABC: Thunder-Rockets: 2.67 million viewers— Austin Karp (@AustinKarp) February 12, 2019
The league is largely a response to the previously-defunct-but-soon-to-be-resurrected XFL, founded by current WWE CEO Vince McMahon. Its focus is to create a solid football product in the hope it will attract fans as an alternative to NFL play. In function, it makes one dream of an increasingly modernized NFL run by former players a reality. While the quality of play might lag behind some conferences of D1 college football, the end product is entertaining and fun to watch. Here are some of my likes and dislikes to help you get a better feel for the AAF.
AAF App: The AAF app is one of the more intriguing aspects of the league, with potential to provide new avenues for football fandom. The app allows fans to follow games on their phone in real time, showing where the ball is and where all players are through live tracking. The league is planning to stream games that aren’t broadcast elsewhere through the app, and it is using the app to feature a new style of integrated fantasy game. The game as it currently stands allows fans to predict what type of play will happen next (run or pass), where it will go (left, right, up the middle) and what the end result will be (first down, touchdown) and earn points for each correct prediction.
Executive Structure: The AAF is innovative, and as such, wants to create the best football product it can. The league’s executive structure is designed with this goal in mind, with members of player relations and football operations being former NFL players. Troy Polamalu, former Steelers safety, serves as head of player relations, while J.K. McKay, former Buccaneers wide receiver, serves as head of football operations. Former Steelers receiver Hines Ward and former Vikings defensive end Jared Allen serve as player relations executives, while former Giants defensive end Justin Tuck is a member of the player engagements board of advisors. With so many former football players involved, the AAF has made players a major focus.
De-emphasized Kickers: Chicago Bears fans will like this one. The kicker has been heavily de-emphasized in the AAF, only really kicking field goals. There are no kickoffs; instead, teams start at their own 25-yard line. No extra points, either. Teams are required to go for 2-point conversions. Perhaps the most interesting rule is the removal of onside kicks. Teams can keep possession of the ball after scoring by attempting a scrimmage play from their own 28-yard line and gaining at least 12 yards. A team may not attempt such a play after a field goal or touchdown unless it is trailing by more than three possessions or if there are five or fewer minutes remaining in regulation.
Throwback players: As an NFL junky, I’ve spent a majority of my young life getting to know names and faces of players and getting invested in their college careers and professional starts. This can be a difficult aspect in football, where many players flame out fast. In the AAF, fans get to watch players such as failed Jets quarterback Christian Hackenberg and disappointing Browns running back Trent Richardson play football again. These are guys the football world considered dead, and now they’re scoring touchdowns in front of audiences on par with other major sports leagues. That in and of itself is to be celebrated.
Blitz limitations: One of the best developments over the past decade in the face of increased NFL passing offenses has been the rise of the pass rush and edge defender. NFL teams now pay premium money for players who can get after the quarterback, and schemes are increasingly putting more pressure on offensive lines. That’s why the AAF’s rules on blitzing seem silly. Defenses are forbidden from rushing more than five players at or across the line of scrimmage, and no defensive player can cross the line of scrimmage from more than 2 yards outside the offensive tackles. Violating these rules prompts a 15-yard penalty. In a time where quarterback safety has taken precedence, this seems like a step in the wrong direction.
Throwback players: As I said earlier, I get to watch Christian Hackenberg and Trent Richardson play football again in front of millions of eyes, and that should be celebrated. But after watching Hackenberg and Richardson’s teams play each other this past Saturday, I’m not sure if this is a good thing. Hackenberg looked like the same guy who couldn’t have bought an incompletion when he was with the Jets, and Richardson showed that he still misses wide open rushing lanes with the best of them. While the overall league structure and rules might make the game more entertaining, the lack of quality players right now isn’t a good thing.
Overtime rules: With all the debate that took place this NFL postseason about overtime rules in football games, the AAF’s overtime rules seem a little underwhelming. The rule is as follows: each team gets one possession from their own 10-yard line, with four downs to score a touchdown. No field goals are allowed. Games can end in ties. Personally, I think that college has the best overtime rules in football now, and I hate that football games can end in ties. These overtime rules feel a little gimmicky, with the 10 -yard line seeming too easy.
Sky Judge: The NFL has now outsourced all of their replays to an officiating center, where multiple people aide officials in making the right call. The AAF has boiled this down to one person, who they call the sky judge. The sky judge will be in the press box and can instantly correct “obvious and egregious” officiating errors. The sky judge uses real-time technology to correct errors involving player safety, as well as pass interference inside of five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Putting this all on one person feels like it could lead to increased personal pressure or unchecked mistakes based off opinion.