The AAF Shows That Change Can Happen Overnight

Meet the Alliance of American Football, the new test tube the NFL is monitoring for awesome rules changes.

Meet the Alliance of American Football (AAF), the new test tube the NFL is monitoring for awesome rules changes.

Football fans, rejoice!

We now live in a world in which football is always in season. And not just the drama of the NFL’s manufactured 12-month calendar—actual on-field play will now extend into the spring, all the way until the NFL draft in late April.

The AAF is heading into its second weekend, and the sports world is watching to see if they’ll continue their momentum from a successful Week 1. The league’s debut weekend on CBS drew better ratings, head-to-head, than a marquee NBA match-up on ABC. Fans expecting a circus-like, XFL-inspired atmosphere were sorely disappointed. Instead, what they got was real football, and while the quality wasn’t always top notch, it was clear that everyone involved with the league meant business.

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But the AAF is not identical to the NFL, nor is it trying to be. While the game is played and officiated in line with the NFL, the AAF has undertaken a series of rules experiments. Though not officially affiliated with the NFL, parts of the AAF almost feel like a test tube, similar to the way the NBA has used the G-League as a trial ground for rule changes.

The success of the AAF will be measured in television ratings and whether players can parlay their spring performance into an NFL job in the fall. But the most lasting impact it could have on the football landscape is to encourage the “No Fun League” to make some drastic rules changes.

Pay attention, Roger Goodell. You might learn something.

Fans Love…Transparency

The NFL hates transparency. I’ve taken them to task on the topic of assault investigations, but the lack of transparency extends on-field too, including admitting officiating mistakes and giving context to replay review decisions.

In a fascinating twist, the AAF allows viewers to watch and listen to the discussion between the replay official and the officials on the field. It doesn’t get any more transparent than that. They certainly have Saints fans’ attention. The NFL confirmed their egregious error privately to the New Orleans organization on the infamous no-call in the waning moments of the 2019 NFC Championship loss, but the league didn’t bother to publicly acknowledge the officiating malpractice until Goodell’s January 30 press conference leading up to the Super Bowl and February 6 letter response to the governor of Louisiana.

Officiating mistakes stink, but silence is even worse. “Just tell us something!” rings the common fan refrain. Silence is just confirmation of a sucks-to-be-you attitude from the league office and an abyss of indifference from which the NFL has yet to crawl its way out.

The AAF is the Windex on the smudged window of football officiating. In addition to the live audio replays, the league has a ninth official at the sky box level that will be allowed to “throw a flag” for player safety fouls in real time, with replay ability to call and overrule pass interference penalties in the game’s final five minutes— surely a direct response to the aforementioned Saints disaster. That’s how you do transparency.

Fans Love…Scoring

The NFL recently moved extra points back from 19 to 33 yards, leading to more missed extra points, but it hasn’t exactly forced teams to attempt two-point conversions much more often. For a play that saw a 51.2 percent success rate in 2018, it still didn’t happen nearly enough.

The AAF took it one step further, eliminating extra-point kicks altogether and forcing teams to attempt a two-point conversion, replacing the most boring play in football with one of the most exciting. But it also removes a key element of strategy. No more questions of will they or won’t they, as coaches will have their two-point plays dialed up and ready to go.

So why not take an even more radical step? Make the attempt from the two worth one point, a try from the five-yard line worth two, and conversion from the 20 worth three? It would bastardize tradition, sure, but it would add more excitement and strategy, plus a vast array of late-game possibilities.

One other change to aid offenses is the limit placed on blitzing. Defenses can’t send more than five players at once to rush the quarterback, and players can’t blitz from more than two yards outside the defensive line or five yards from the line of scrimmage. Football purists have every right to hate this rule, but it will undoubtedly lead to more scoring over the course of the season.

And as anyone who watched the Super Bowl knows, scoring is good.

Players Love…Safety

Extra points are the most boring play in the NFL, but kickoffs are a close second.

The NFL moved the kickoff to the 35-yard line in 2011, then changed the reward for a touchback to the 25-yard line in 2016. Most teams are more than happy to accept a touchback, and the majority of NFL kickers have no problem obliging. With only five kickoffs returned for touchdowns the entire 2018 season, the edge-of-your-seat factor is mostly gone.

The AAF has done away with kickoffs entirely, giving offenses the ball at the 25 to start the game. It makes for a bit of an awkward start but otherwise seems just fine. This also means the absence of onside kicks, however. Once one of the most exciting plays in football, but the NFL ruined that, too, changing the rules drastically in the name of safety, leaving just an eight-percent success rate on attempts in 2018. That makes converting a single onside kick about as likely as winning a game down seven on the 30 with one play remaining: aka virtually impossible.

The AAF is trying something else entirely. It allows an “onside” attempt at a fourth-and-12 conversion, but only if a team is trailing by 17 or more points with five minutes left to play. The parameters are a bit too narrow, but the task is doable, and more successful conversions mean more exciting finishes.

Fans Love…Gimmicks

If you’re here for more technology and fancy gadgets, you’ll love the AAF.

The footballs used in the AAF have tracking chips in them, and while it’s still unclear what exactly they’ll do with that information, there is a ton of potential. From ball speed or spin rate to ball placement—no more chain gang—the possibilities are endless. You know those endless replays deciding whether the football has crossed the goal line? Why not let technology do the trick, like it does in soccer or tennis?

These chips are so legit that Trent Richardson—yes, that Trent Richardson—was penalized for spiking the ball too hard. You know it’s good tech if Trent Richardson is finally scoring touchdowns again.

The AAF addresses the broken overtime rules too, seeing the NCAA’s overtime and raising it by giving teams the ball on the 10-yard line instead of the 25. Each team will get just one overtime possession, so ties are still possible, but the upside is a guaranteed ending instead of a prolonged game. Here’s where our multiple-option, extra-point conversion idea would fit nicely. Which coach has the balls to try the three-pointer and the brains to win instead of the two-pointer to try and tie?

The AAF Just Might Know What It’s Doing

The American Alliance of Football came out swinging, introducing itself to the football world with some brash, new rules changes. Quality of play questions should wait until the end of the season. How many Week 1 NFL games are watchable? But we can already begin to evaluate the rule tweaks and overhauls—so far, so good.

It would be a disappointment if the NFL didn’t immediately explore some of the minor rules tweaks, such as replay transparency. While the more drastic options completely changing special teams might take some time, the AAF is providing ample opportunity for Goodell and Co. to consider making some changes of their own.

And whether Goodell and his cronies like it or not, the AAF is going to do its part to bang down the door of the that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it attitude.

Get ready, football fans. In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changin’.”

Ben Beecken
Ben Beecken
Ben Beecken is a writer at Grandstand Central with a primary focus on the NBA, MLB, and NFL. He has spent nearly a decade working on the business side of sports including eight seasons in minor league baseball team front offices. Ben is also an editor and writer at Dunking With Wolves and a contributor across the FanSided network.



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