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5 things the NFL and college football could learn from the first weekend of the AAF

The new league did some good things. Whether it works over the long haul or not, its ideas are worth considering.

Birmingham Iron QB Luis Perez.
Getty Images

The American Alliance of Football opened up shop on the first weekend after the Super Bowl. The eight-team AAF, which pitches itself as a developmental league adjacent to the NFL but not a direct competitor, will play into mid-April.

I watched a decent chunk of the AAF’s opening weekend. The football was much worse than you’ll find in the NFL, and I found it worse than most of major college football. But the league had a few smart ideas on display that the more popular levels should watch closely — no matter how the AAF does in the weeks ahead.

1. A whole grab bag of rules ideas

Let’s talk more specifically about a few things the AAF exemplified.

2. How to have more efficient, transparent replay

The AAF has a replay official called the “sky judge” who can stop the game on their own and correct particularly egregious officiating mistakes. That’s a great way to keep things moving when a call’s terrible and doesn’t require a whole trip to the sideline to figure out.

But the AAF also decided to let in the light on standard replays. Its TV broadcasts show a mic’d replay judge sorting through plays in real time, like so:

This does not mean the AAF’s going to get every call right. Exhibit A is the play above, where the replay official seems to not realize a ball bounced off the ground before being “caught” for a “touchdown.” But being correct is only part of the equation, because you won’t be correct all the time. Being transparent is important, too.

The NFL and college have both had problems with fans getting furious over not understanding why calls were made. The NFL’s tried to push back on that by putting out videos on Twitter explaining certain calls, but those often come late, and a lot of people don’t see them. Letting TV viewers in on the process won’t make all of them happy, but it’s a way of leveling with the consumer that football has never tried before.

3. That it’s possible to have fine football games without kickoffs and extra points

These are the most boring plays in football, and in the case of kickoffs, they’re also among the most dangerous. Kickoffs should die an immediate death:

The AAF requires a two-point attempt after a touchdown, and every possession that would start after a kickoff just starts at the offense’s 25, with no actual kickoff.

In both ways, it’s going all the way on things the other levels have done to lesser extents. The NFL moved back extra points a few years ago because they were so easy. Why not just get rid of them? They’re still pretty boring. College now lets teams call a fair catch on kickoffs and start at their own 25. Why not just get rid of a play you’ve already acknowledged you want less of? College makes teams go for two starting with the third overtime. Why not just make that the rule all game and expand the fun?

The AAF doesn’t get rid of or invalidate special teams as a whole. The league has some really solid punters and kickers, and they still get to do their thing. Longtime NFLer Nick Folk splashed a 53-yard field goal for Arizona. Salt Lake Punter Austin Rehkow hit a 59-yard punt. The NFL only has 32 jobs apiece for kickers and punters, and there’s a perpetual revolving door of guys trying to work their way in, many of whom are good.

As an added bonus, lots of games will have weird scores that aren’t just factors of 7 and 3. Coaches will have to make different math decisions than they do in the NFL and college, and they’ll have to draw up a bunch of good two-point plays. It wouldn’t be surprising if NFL teams closely scouted AAF two-pointers to see what they could steal. I liked this little bootleg conversion Birmingham ran, mostly because it went to Trent Richardson:

My guess is the offenses will get a little more exciting with more practice time.

Eliminating the boring special teams plays is great, because the game can be filled with more interesting plays, and also because it feeds into the next thing on this list.

4. How to maybe play a little bit faster

I recorded one of the games (Birmingham vs. Memphis) so I could check how long it took from the first snap to the moment the clock hit zeroes:

2 hours, 29 minutes.

I don’t know exactly what sped it up. From what I watched, TV timeouts seemed infrequent. This might just be the benefit of having a new league, because advertising on an AAF broadcast can’t be that expensive. If it gets more expensive, commercials will become longer and more frequent. But other factors are probably here to stay.

Not having as many kickoffs helps, as the kickoff requires both teams to put an entire new unit on the field, take it off, and then put another one on. There’s no college-style rule to stop the clock after every first down, which can make 30-yard drives drag forever. The play clock is 35 seconds and not 40, which could affect different games differently.

No matter the reason, the early returns seem encouraging. When was the last time you watched that short a college or NFL game?

5. Steve Spurrier

Spurrier is the head coach of the Orlando Appolos, who dropped a 40-6 pounding on the Atlanta Legends on Saturday. The king of the zinger was in fine form:

An NFL or SEC team needs to bring him back immediately, letting him play golf for five or six days and installing him on the sideline on game days. You don’t get this kind of high-level instruction at most programs.