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AAF Preview: A New Spring Football League is Born

Georgia State Stadium

Football season officially ended on February 3, 2019, at 10:02 p.m. EST with the New England Patriots’ 13-3 defeat of the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.

142 hours later, on Saturday, February 9, football returns. Did you miss it? The Alliance of American Football (AAF) hopes so. Founded by television executive Charlie Ebersol and Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Polian and featuring former NFL stars Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward in key executive roles, the Alliance has worked to prove its viability as a spring football option where others have failed in the past.

“[E]veryone that’s tried to do this before focused on trying to be different,” Ebersol told SB Nation. “They focused on trying to differentiate themselves between the NFL, which ultimately I think was part of their demise.” The AAF, by contrast, is presenting itself, as Hines Ward says openly, as “a developmental league,” working to help players reach the NFL – or, in some cases, return to the NFL – through coaching, reps, and the opportunity to prove themselves.

The AAF kicks off its inaugural season with four games over the weekend: On Saturday at 8 p.m. EST, the San Antonio Commanders host the San Diego Fleet at the Alamodome while the Atlanta Legends play at the Orlando Apollos in Spectrum Stadium, the UCF Knights’ home digs. On Sunday, the Birmingham Iron welcomes the Memphis Express to historic Legion Field at 4 p.m., followed by the Salt Lake Stallions visiting the Arizona Hotshots at 8 p.m. at Sun Devil Stadium, where the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals played from 1988-2005.

The visiting teams’ home stadiums meanwhile prepare for play in subsequent weeks. Georgia State Stadium (above), previously known as Turner Field when it was the home of the Atlanta Braves, will host the Legends. The San Diego Fleet’s home field is another longtime baseball field, albeit one with a strong football heritage: SDCCU Stadium, the former Jack Murphy Stadium and Qualcomm Stadium, hosted the Padres, the Chargers, and three Super Bowls. The Memphis Express will play out of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, the Memphis Tigers’ den, where the Tennessee Oilers played during the 1997 NFL season. And the Salt Lake Stallions will entertain Alliance foes at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the current home of Utah Utes football, which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The coaches are equally memorable. Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Singletary had an ignominious end to his NFL coaching career in San Francisco; he gets a fresh start in Memphis. The creator of the Fun ‘n Gun, Steve Spurrier, is at the helm in Orlando, while the Greatest Show on Turf’s architect, Mike Martz, captains the Fleet in San Diego. Mike Riley is perhaps better known for his time with the Oregon State Beavers, San Diego Chargers, and Nebraska Cornhuskers, but he was once the coach of the World League of American Football’s San Antonio Riders. Now he returns to San Antonio, the chief Commander. Atlanta head coach Kevin Coyle was formerly the defensive analyst at LSU, though he’s overshadowed by his offensive coordinator, Michael Vick. Arizona is led by head coach Rick Neuheisel, who coached Colorado, Washington, and UCLA, with former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze running his offense. In Birmingham, the head coach is former Steelers and Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, with first-round running back Trent Richardson in the Iron’s backfield trying to restart his career. And the head coach of the Salt Lake Stallions is Dennis Erickson, who won two national championships at the University of Miami and coached six seasons in the NFL in Seattle and San Francisco.

Among the more notable of the Alliance’s rules: There will be no kickoffs and no extra-points. Instead, teams will begin possession at their own 25-yard line and two-point conversion attempts are mandatory following touchdowns. Instead of an onside kick, a team is given the chance to convert a 4th and 10 from its own 35. Following a safety, the offending team can choose to attempt a 4th and 12 from its own 18 in order to retain the ball. Field goal attempts are allowed during regulation but not in overtime, at which point each team has one chance to score beginning on its opponent’s 10-yard line. After two possessions, the game will end in tie. On the defensive side, all-out blitzes are eliminated, with a maximum of five pass-rushers allowed per play. The six-person crew of officials will be aided by a seventh referee, the “sky judge,” who will sit in the press box and overrule any incorrect or missed decision. And the games will be played in as brisk a pace as possible, with one-minute team timeouts and zero television timeouts.

This weekend’s quartet of games begins a 10-week whirlwind of a regular season wrapping up April 14. Four of the Alliance’s eight teams will advance to the postseason, two each from the Eastern (Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Orlando) and Western (Arizona, Salt Lake, San Antonio, San Diego) Conferences, with a semifinal round leading into the championship game on April 27 at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, home of UNLV football. The games will be aired on multiple networks and platforms. Both the Alliance’s opening game and the championship game will receive the national spotlight on CBS. TNT will air Salt Lake/Birmingham on February 16th as the undercard for the NBA All-Star Game. And one game each week will be broadcasted on CBSSN and on Turner-owned B/R Live.

With pitchers and catchers readying to report and March Madness around the corner, the Alliance of American Football asks the American public this weekend, in the spirit of the old Monday Night Football tagline: Are you ready for some more football?

Image courtesy Georgia State Athletics. 

This article first appeared in the weekly Football Stadium Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Football Stadium Digest newsletter.

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August Publications