The Five Most Fascinating Takeaways From the American Alliance of Football’s Debut

The Alliance of American Football made a bold gamble. It bet that Americans would sit on their couches this weekend, turn on their television sets, see that football games were on between teams they’d never heard of in a league they didn’t know existed, and think “Hey, it’s been too long since I watched a football game, let’s check this out!” The AAF hoped Americans would feel this way exactly five days after the Super Bowl.

That gamble appears to have paid off. Millions of Americans tuned in to watch teams like the Arizona Hotshots, Birmingham Iron, and San Diego Fleet kick off the new minor league’s first week of action. Actually, they didn’t kick anything off—there are no kickoffs in this league, for player-safety reasons. Still, we’re intrigued. What were the most notable things about a weekend of weird rules, weirder logos, and an alarming amount of Christian Hackenberg?

1. The Refs Explained Their Decisions on Camera

I consider myself a modest refereeing nerd, and maybe it’s just me, but it feels like something happened last month that’s caused people to become profoundly interested in the technicalities of replay review in NFL games. It’s been neat! Hopefully, everybody is just as enthusiastic as I am about the officiating system introduced by the newly formed Alliance of American Football.

The league has instituted a pair of replay-focused moves that I love. One is the addition of an extra official whose job is to review each play for any egregiously incorrect or missed calls—someone who could’ve hypothetically overturned the blatant missed pass interference penalty during the fourth quarter of the Saints-Rams NFC championship game. The AAF has decided to name this official the SkyJudge, which I believe is also the name of an omnipotent thunder deity from the Paleolithic era.

The second move is that the AAF has made our relationship with the SkyJudge surprisingly direct. We don’t just sacrifice our livestock to the SkyJudge and wait to see whether our prayers are answered; we can actually see and hear the SkyJudge come to decisions. In fact, the very first touchdown in league history came on a call overturned by SkyJudge the Almighty:

Did SkyJudge the All-Powerful make the correct call here? Hell, I don’t know. I don’t even know all of this league’s rules. Judging from what the official says, it seems less complicated for a play to be considered a catch in the AAF than in the NFL. But maybe that’s not true, and SkyJudge the Benevolent is just riffing. Who cares? This is February football, designed to counteract our annual diagnosis of Football Withdrawal Syndrome. I’m pretty sure SkyJudge the Occasionally Incorrect gets it wrong in this clip:

“Everybody down here thinks it’s an incomplete pass,” chirps some soul brave enough to challenge SkyJudge the Destroyer before he delivers his assessment that there aren’t enough camera angles to overturn the call on the field. It seems like there are totally enough angles, but who am I to question SkyJudge the Hasty?

Right or wrong, it’s fascinating to hear officials work through a call. The official in the first clip takes about 50 seconds to review the play before coming across the angle that convinces her an overturn is the correct decision—and it’s not even the angle I would have guessed would be the clincher. In the NFL, we would’ve gotten a few minutes of a camera-shy ex-official stumbling and bumbling through rules jargon before Joe Buck weighed in with something like, “It sure will be interesting to hear what the officials have to say.”

The NFL puts a veil between the viewing public and officials. It’s been almost a month since the no-call debacle in New Orleans, and the league’s officiating department still hasn’t issued a public statement about whether a wrong call was made, let alone identified what went wrong and who was responsible. Commissioner Roger Goodell said that a wrong call was made, and Saints head coach Sean Payton said that the league’s head of officiating admitted the call was blown in a private phone call with him. But there has not been so much as a tweet in which the league’s officials admitted fault. Fans know so little about what happened on that play that they tried to dox refs who weren’t even working the game. To a certain extent, I get the NFL’s inclination to stay mum here: Wouldn’t it be awful if one ref blew the Saints-Rams call on camera, with a live microphone, and everybody knew that it was Steve who ruined everything?

But the Saints situation has proved that the worst thing a league can do with regard to officiating is to remain silent. Instead of identifying the problem, the NFL has made fans doubt every call that every official makes for the rest of time. The best thing a league can do when it comes to officiating is to get every call right, but that’s unrealistic. At least when the AAF is wrong, we get to find out why.

2. A Player Nearly Got Decapitated

The defining moment of the AAF’s opening weekend was the massive hit that Shaan Washington of the San Antonio Commanders put on quarterback Mike Bercovici of the San Diego Fleet.

The ball goes flying in one direction, and Bercovici’s helmet goes flying in another. It looks like a movie explosion. I would’ve appreciated if a shoe, mouth guard, or speedboat also was cast into the air as a result of the collision, but this was memorable all the same.

I never would have expected this league’s biggest highlight to be a bone-crushing hit. In fact, the AAF has virtually made blitzing illegal. The last thing that a new developmental league needs is for its players to suffer year-ending injuries that could prevent them from pursuing their dream of reaching the NFL. The last thing this league wants is for its players to get obliterated on blindside hits.

But the league also needs fans to believe that it offers a legitimate football product, and to a lot of people, “legitimate football product” means big hits. What better way to sell that than by having an anonymous quarterback get blasted back to the Stone Age? (Back when people worshipped SkyJudge the Reckoner.) This hit may have crossed enough Twitter timelines and appeared on enough highlight reels to convince fans to tune in.

I saw a lot of people tweeting about how refreshing it was to watch a game in which QB hits went unpenalized, after the NFL changed its roughing-the-passer guidelines. That’s a serendipitous twist for a league that has put significant clamps on what a defense is allowed to do, in the name of player safety. The AAF has somehow convinced the world that it’s a live-action version of NFL Blitz. I’m just hoping the league snuck Bercovici a few hundred-dollar bills and said, “Hey, do you mind keeping your helmet unstrapped until the first time you get sacked?”

3. Steve Spurrier Was Mic’d Up

It almost feels as if the AAF’s guiding philosophy was centered on one question: Which viewing experience do networks wish they were able to provide, but can’t because of the NFL’s restrictive rules? As such, CBS showed some truly wild insights when airing AAF games this weekend. It felt like everybody was mic’d up, so we got to hear San Diego coach Mike Martz debating a quarterback change:

(The quarterback Martz benched, of course, was Bercovici. Rough day for Bercovici—getting rocked and then benched on his birthday.)

You want to know what viewing experience I wish networks were able to provide? A live stream of Steve Spurrier’s thoughts. We are now closer than ever to making my dream a reality.

Spurrier is head coach of the Orlando Apollos. He must be doing a good job, because his team won its debut game 40-6:

The AAF prioritized bringing in coaches with decent name recognition to give the league an air of legitimacy. But let’s be honest: I’m not turning in to a game to see Martz. I’m absolutely tuning in to see Spurrier. I’d listen to Spurrier mic’d up on a Florida porch with a bucket of cold non-premium domestics. I’d listen to Spurrier mic’d up mowing his lawn and talking trash about his neighbors. In fact, both of those sound better than Spurrier mic’d up during a game. But this is what we’re getting, so I’ll take it.

4. A World of Secret Quarterback Play Was Unleashed

The AAF has a different selling point to NFL teams than it does to fans. To pro scouts, it offers an opportunity to evaluate players whom they haven’t necessarily seen. Take John Wolford and Luis Perez. Both quarterbacks were in NFL training camps last year, Wolford with the Jets and Perez with the Rams. But I’m guessing neither got any reps with a first-team offense, and neither played in a game until Week 4 of the preseason, by which point their respective coaches had probably already decided that they would be cut. Yet Perez made some great throws for the Birmingham Iron on Sunday, and Wolford threw four touchdowns for the Arizona Hotshots.

To fans, though, the AAF’s selling point is that it’s an opportunity to watch players we’ve heard of—guys who were stars in college, or were drafted by our favorite NFL teams. One problem, though: If the general public has heard of a player who has fallen so far that he’s playing in the AAF, that guy is probably demonstrably bad. The league’s most famous player is likely former Heisman Trophy winner and 2012 no. 3 overall draft pick Trent Richardson, who busted with the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts. He had just 58 rushing yards on 23 carries for Birmingham.

The league’s second-most-famous player is probably Christian Hackenberg, a Jets second-round draft pick who had the rare distinction of being cut before taking a snap in a regular-season game. As a Hackenberg enthusiast, I’ve wanted to see him play for years. Sure we got a few breathless, horrified practice updates about how the QB was Gatling gunning interceptions and breaking local shop windows with errant throws, but how bad could he have truly been to justify the Jets cutting bait on him without ever testing their investment? Sunday, we found out:

Hackenberg went 10-of-23 passing for 87 yards and an interception. His Memphis Express got shut out 26-0. Hack also showed why giving players live microphones isn’t always a great idea.

I really don’t know what was more interesting about the games—seeing no-names ball out, or seeing known names reveal why their NFL careers flopped. All I know is that seeing Hackenberg play in a pro game was just as breathtaking as I always hoped it would be.

5. People … Actually Cared?

I wasn’t surprised to see that some of the AAF’s players were OK at football. I was surprised to see that lots of people paid money to watch these football games. San Antonio, which has never had an NFL team, turned out to see the Commanders:

Other crowds were less impressive, and maybe the league should consider smaller stadiums for now. Still, look at the excited people!

Also turning some heads: the TV ratings.

Yes, more people wanted to watch startup minor league football than the damn NBA. We’re football addicts, and this is our drip right now. Of course, that number should come with some massive caveats. There was novelty to this, which will fade. The XFL’s opening ratings were also huge, and those quickly dried up. And a 2.1 isn’t a blockbuster; it ranks between the Cactus Bowl and the Pinstripe Bowl from a ratings perspective, and not even in the same category as historically bad ratings for Monday Night Football. Maybe those numbers will go up, because people enjoyed the games or saw Bercovici’s helmet enter low-earth orbit. It’s more likely that they’ll go down, because this will never be as new as it was Week 1. But it bears repeating: The AAF beat the NBA on Night 1.

This weekend proved that if football is on, people are willing to watch just because it’s football. Chances are this league will need much more than that to succeed, but it’s a hell of a start.

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