Are you ready for some more football?
The weekend that traditionally is the absolute bleakest, darkest for football fans is the one immediately after Super Bowl Sunday, those poor souls now facing a long and dreary offseason without so much as a jet-sweep, a blitz or a cover-2 in sight.
Enter something called the Alliance of American Football, in the general sense, and the Salt Lake Stallions, in the specific.
It is a new professional league, the Stallions a team in it, that may or may not grab your attention, and if it accomplishes the former, may also eventually grab your heart. Somewhere in between will be the dowsing of a thirst for more of the game that is most popular in this country.
As former Utah Ute, former New York Jet, and current Stallion linebacker Trevor Reilly put it, “A lot of us played in the NFL. So, you’ll see a game played at a high college, low NFL level. It’s pro football, with a national audience, something to be proud of for the state and the city.”
Spring leagues have been tried before, and off in the not-to-distant future, the revamped XFL will give it another go. In the meantime, the AAF will have a running and spiraling head start. The league begins play on Saturday, with four of its eight teams facing off, and on Sunday, when the other four, including the Stallions, will commence play.
In the AAF’s construction, the founders of the league — Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian — have gone about their business with many swing thoughts, a few of which are basic.
One is to stress the quality of football, in talent and in conception, to make it good and steady and maybe even, in some ways, improved, without the ridiculous bells and whistles and contrived so-called innovations tried by previous alternative leagues.
Games will have no TV timeouts. There will be no halftime. Games are meant to be played in a two-and-a-half hour window. There will be no kickoffs — teams automatically start at their own 25-yard line. Instead of onside kicks, a team can take possession of the ball at its own 35-yard line and face what amounts to a fourth-and-10 scenario for a chance to retain possession. After every touchdown, teams must go for a two-point conversion.
As far as quality of talent, the league developed a system for allocation of players meant to level the teams out. The last thing the centralized AAF wants is for some of its teams — there are no individual owners — to suck. It prefers a parity model that makes as many teams and games competitive as possible.
Across the league, as Reilly said it, the talent should be slightly higher than college teams, and a couple of notches below the NFL. In that margin is where the AAF will exist, giving players, coaches, executives a place to expand their games, their abilities, and perhaps get another or an eventual shot at the NFL.
“This is going to be the G-League of the NFL,” said Reilly. “Over 70 percent of the guys have been in the NFL, in games or in camps. We’re not trying to compete with the NFL. We want the NFL to take our players. We’re just trying to be a spring football league that can be a complement to the NFL.”
The AAF is loaded with pro football executives and coaches who, regardless of the aforementioned adaptations, are eager to make the contests more like NFL games than dissimilar from them. CBS and other networks will televise some league games, so the games will not be played in the dark, allowing potential fans to familiarize themselves with the teams. Players can gain bonuses by reaching out to the communities in which they play.
Some of those players are already known, especially regionally.
The eight teams — the Atlanta Legends, the Birmingham Iron, the Memphis Express, the Orlando Apollos, the Arizona Hotshots, the San Antonio Commanders, the San Diego Fleet, and the Salt Lake Stallions — are sprinkled with recognizable talent from players’ college days.
The Stallions have on their roster former Utes Matt Asiata, Reilly, Kaelin Clay, Dres Anderson and Gionni Paul. Former BYU Cougars include Micah Hannemann, Handsome Tanielu, Tanner Balderree, Tuni Kanuch and Jordan Leslie. And former USU Aggies are Will Davis and Anthony Williams.
All told, there are 17 former Utes, Cougars and Aggies on the team.
Former Utah assistant Dennis Erickson, who also coached the Miami Hurricanes, San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks, is the Stallions head coach. The team will play its games at Rice-Eccles Stadium. On Sunday, the Stallions first game is at Arizona.
The slippery part around here and for every other franchise will be whether local fans connect to the team. It’s one thing for them to appreciate the quality of play. One thing for them to know some of the names. It’s another for those people to buy tickets, again and again, to attach their interest and identity to the outfit, to grab ahold of the brand and make it their own.
It will take time for that to happen, if it happens at all. But if the Stallions in Salt Lake win, that process will be greatly enhanced. It may not matter that the team plays at a reduced level. Fans, after all, connect to college football despite it being well south of the NFL game.
Fans celebrated Real Salt Lake when it won the MLS Cup, even though its brand of soccer is nowhere near as good as the brand played in the EPL or the Bundesliga.
If you missed football, then, you didn’t miss it for long. If you were mildly depressed, cheer up. The AAF season runs through the end of April. After that, NFL training camps start just a couple of months later.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.