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The NFL's new developmental league? Alliance of American Football AAF has big plans

ESPN.com | Updated: 2018-08-14 10:10:02

A television/film producer and a Hall of Fame NFL exec punished pancakes in a diner outside of Cape Cod and discussed how to make the Monday after the Super Bowl less sad.

This is how a football league is born.

"If you can raise the money, it's viable," Bill Polian told Charlie Ebersol during a five-hour meeting last summer.

Ebersol, the league CEO and son of former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, started working the phones and developing the business plan. Tech companies and former NFL stars got behind the product. Polian, who is staying in his role as an NFL analyst for ESPN, helped assemble personnel and coaching staffs with nearly 500 years of combined NFL experience.

A year later, the Alliance of American Football has a Feb. 9, 2019 launch date, a CBS contract, a Starter apparel deal, an eight-city blueprint, scheduled combines, a set of double-take football rules and 73-year-old Steve Spurrier.

The vision is clear: Keep the good times flowing in the late winter and spring with a league run by serious football people while learning from the failed attempts that came before it.

"If it's good football, it will sell itself," Polian said.

The road to professional football alongside the NFL is littered with potholes.

The USFL failed because it tried to overtake the NFL more than 30 years ago, defined more by lawsuits and undercut potential than its once star-studded rosters.

The XFL failed because efforts to sell sex, excessive violence and wrestling-like personalities didn't resonate with viewers, though Vince McMahon is eyeing a 2020 XFL reboot.

Even the CFL isn't a true complement.

But the Alliance has NFL people who care about the NFL's well-being. It's not a farm system, but it might involve shades of the NBA G League.

"Our objective is to take some of those people who can't quite make it and make them into quality NFL players," Polian said.

And the NFL wants on-the-bubble players to get reps elsewhere, Polian said. The Chicago Bears recently gave Phoenix general manager Phil Savage a list of prospects for him to watch closely during a scouting trip to Bourbonnais, Illinois.

"Since NFL Europe expired 10 years ago, there's been a real desire and frustration by NFL personnel people that there's a missing link as far as a developmental type league for prospects that weren't quite ready," said Savage, former general manager of the Cleveland Browns and Senior Bowl director.

That development will be crucial. Players cut from NFL teams in late August and early September will compose much of the Alliance rosters. The NFL must trim training camp rosters from 90 to 53, and many of those guys can play.

The Alliance offers three-year, $250,000 player contracts that include an out clause if they get another crack at the NFL. There's bonus money for everything from marketing to public appearances, which is where bigger-name players -- perhaps accomplished NFL veterans muscled out of the game -- can make good side coin.

Consider New Orleans Saints backup Taysom Hill, who won't play behind Drew Brees but ostensibly could be the face of an Alliance franchise for a year or two.

Pittsburgh has three backups -- Landry Jones, Josh Dobbs and Mason Rudolph -- fighting for two spots behind Ben Roethlisberger. That's a positional battle the Alliance will likely follow.

Free agent Dez Bryant is out of reach, but receivers Harry Douglas and Louis Murphy might not be.

Here are some other things you need to know about the Alliance.

Names and locations

Polian realizes a little star power will help.

"I hope we can get Trent Richardson in Birmingham," Polian said. "If Tim [Tebow] decides to play football, I hope we get him. Those are great names."

And if the league opts for flashy, Texas-bred signal-callers with baggage, there's always Vince Young and Johnny Manziel.

The league will tailor rosters around regional appeal for its teams in Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Orlando, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego and Salt Lake City. Expect that Birmingham team to be well-stocked with former Crimson Tide stars, for example. Birmingham can go hard after Auburn talent -- unless Atlanta checks in with Twitter recruiting game.

The Alliance plans to use stout personnel talent to discover the next Kurt Warner, the former Arena League star quarterback who threw his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Or the next Adam Vinatieri, even though there's no kickoff (more on that later).

Personalities

Getting Spurrier out of retirement to coach the Orlando team is a beautiful thing. Spurrier resigned from South Carolina in 2015 for putting together what he called a "sorry" team, but the love for coaching didn't leave the Florida Gators legend.

The architect of the Fun 'n' Gun just watched a bunch of college spring games and filled his new playbook with concepts he liked.

"You're going to see some ball plays you've never seen before, I can promise you that," Spurrier said. "We're not going to be afraid to try new plays."

In classic Spurrier form, the "Head Ball Coach" calls the Alliance "a half-year job where I still get to compete." This leaves room for golf and gym sessions.

Familiar names help shape the league. Troy Polamalu will oversee all player matters. Hines Ward and Jared Allen are player relations execs. Mike Singletary will coach in Memphis and Mike Vick will call plays for head coach Brad Childress in Atlanta (40-yard QB runs, anyone?)

The path to becoming an NFL head coach is to call plays, anytime, anywhere. Perhaps the league will land some up-and-coming coordinators as a result.

"[Name recognition] might help originally, but eventually you have to play ball and put it out on the field," Spurrier said.

New rules/style of play

Games will be about 2½ hours, thanks to a 30-second play clock and no kickoffs.

Polian cringes with every onside kick, so he's taking it out. Instead, Alliance teams wanting the ball back will get it at their own 35-yard line with a fourth-and-long scenario (most likely fourth-and-10).

Convert and get a first down, or else the opposing team gets the ball where you got stopped. This means more offense, which is what Polian wants. He knows the football truism: When in doubt, go with touchdowns.

Assuming he gets enough linemen.

"We'll have good running backs. Always good wide receivers are available, or many corners and safeties who can play well who just don't quite make it in the NFL," Polian said. "The problem is the same problem the NFL faces -- big people."

What's next

The Alliance knows the business plan needs time, at least three to five years to truly stick. Everyone involved is taking a confident but measured approach to metrics such as ticket sales and ratings.

"The time of year the league will play their games means the true football fan now has a place to turn once the other league plays its championship game," said Tim Lewis, a former New York Giants defensive coordinator who's now Birmingham's new coach. "Those who enjoy fantasy football will be able to enjoy more action for a longer period. ... The financial impact to local communities who have teams will be meaningful. I see the league expanding into new, exciting and vibrant fun cities."

The league will be all-in on fantasy and gaming.

Ebersol, who handles everything from vision, technology and fan experience, is working toward landing a new gaming deal.

The operation is running the no-huddle all the way to kickoff, complete with nearly 50 staffers in less than a year.

"Next year when we talk, this will be a real thing and people will know how it works," Savage said.

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