OPINON: The AAF is exactly what the NFL needs

Henry Palattella headshot

Henry Palattella

There was football this past weekend. 

This phrase in itself is a new concept. Outside of the Super Bowl, February and March are usually devoid of all things football, save the occasional roster shuffle that makes headlines.

That is no more, thanks to the Alliance of American Football. The AAF, as it’s being called, debuted with four games this weekend, two of which were played on Saturday and two on Sunday.

Let me start off by saying that it wasn’t good football. This in itself shouldn’t be a surprise, as all of the rosters are comprised of undrafted rookies, fringe NFL players and former stars looking for a second — and in some cases, last — chance to prove themselves (looking at you, Matt Asiata).

Now, I’m not just saying this without having gathered any empirical evidence. I’ll have you know I watched the first half of the Birmingham Iron’s game against the Memphis Express on a bootleg reddit stream that had someone talking on the phone in the background, and I was not impressed by what I saw. It was a game that was football in theory but not in practice; dropped passes, false starts and overthrows plagued the high-flying action the Alliance is trying to sell to us.

Despite these gripes, it doesn’t matter what I think; I’m just a humble ol’ guy who has Good Sports Opinions. It matters what the American public thinks and, on Saturday at least, they thought it was okay. The AAF posted a 2.1 overnight rating on Sunday while ABC’s primetime matchup between the Thunder and the Rockets did a 2.0. That’s legit.

It also, however, will not last.

I have no doubt in my mind that the curiosity of a new league — combined with our society’s obsession with football — played a massive role in the AAF’s strong inaugural showing. But I highly doubt that those numbers will be sustainable.

And while the AAF’s rating might not drop like an anvil in Lake Erie, it will never be the “NFL killer” that some people are billing it to be, which is an unfair characterization of the league. Not only is it a lower grade of football (seriously, did I mention how bad these games were?? Christian Hackenberg started for Memphis and went 10-for-23 for 67 yards and an interception. Women and children, avert your eyes) but the crux of the league is also different.

Instead of kickoffs, teams start with the ball at their own 25, and instead of onside kicks, teams must complete a 4th and 12 from their 28-yard line to keep the ball. The way the game is called as different as well, as there’s a ninth member of the officiating crew called the “Sky Judge” who can change calls in real time based on replay.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but officiating was a point of contention in the NFL last year. The disconnect between the players and referees is growing stronger daily, and the added transparency and accountability that the AAF referees are supposed to have could go a long way to helping mend that disconnect.

Competition brings with it change, which is exactly what the NFL needs. While there’s other football that exists in North America, it’s too far removed from the core of the NFL. The CFL is too different, Arena football is played on a field the size of a foosball table and the XFL was too much like the WWE. (The XFL’s revival in 2020 will serve as a measuring stick for how much football we as a society can consume).

The NFL has been a monopoly with no one to hold it in check, up until now. While a league that features Trent Richardson rushing for 60 yards on 23 carries will never topple that monopoly, they’ll be able to change it. I wouldn’t be surprised in the NFL implemented some rule changes in the next couple years in the frame of the AAF’s rules. Fans have not had a taste of streamlined, transparent football; the NFL would be wise to implement some transparency of their own into their games.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the AAF will quietly fade away, another gimmick trying to ride on the NFL’s coattails. Or maybe it’ll thrive and serve as a form of “diet-NFL” whose big hits and clunky play quenches America’s thirst for football until the snow thaws and Roger Goodell announces the first pick in the NFL draft.

Regardless of how things play out, i’m going to be along for the ride. Fire up the Reddit streams.

Henry Palattella is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].