Plenty to learn and like about AFL

It started as a simple sketch on the back of an envelope. Jim Foster, a former NFL and USFL executive, was just emerging from an indoor soccer match at Madison Square Garden in 1981 when the idea struck him. Why not indoor football? He quickly grabbed the first piece of paper he could get his hands on and jotted down a rough draft of a field inside the configuration of a hockey rink. That little drawing resulted, six years later, into what is now the Arena Football League, one of the fastest-growing professional sports.

This marks the 21st anniversary of the AFL. With 19 teams and a new TV contract with ESPN, the AFL has evolved into a league that even Foster may have never envisioned. Here are 21 facts, stats, rule changes and storylines to watch for as the AFL embarks on its 21st season:

21. Fans Bill Of Rights: The AFL is truly a fan-friendly league. It's mandated in each AFL player contract that the home team must remain on the field after each game, win or lose, and sign autographs for fans.

Also, if a ball goes into the stands at an AFL game, fans are allowed to keep it.

20. Lord Of The Rings: Tampa Bay Storm head coach Tim Marcum is the AFL's Vince Lombardi, Don Shula and Bill Belichick all rolled into one. He has coached in 10 of the league's 20 ArenaBowl championships, winning seven (three with Tampa Bay and four with defunct teams -- three with the Detroit Drive and one with the Denver Dynamite).

19. Kingpins: Tampa Bay is the longest-tenured team in the league and the only remaining charter team. It started as the Pittsburgh Gladiators and was one of the four original teams in the AFL with the Denver Dynamite, Chicago Bruisers and Washington Commandos.

In fact, the 2006 season marked the first time in 20 years Tampa Bay missed the AFL playoffs (four years as the Pittsburgh Gladiators and 15 as the Storm). The Storm own five AFL championships, more than any other team in AFL history. The three closest active teams are the Orlando Predators, San Jose SaberCats and Arizona Rattlers, which each have won two ArenaBowl titles. The defunct Detroit Drive won four championships, winning three of the first four ArenaBowls.

18. The Streak: Colorado Crush receiver Damian Harrell has caught a TD pass in an AFL-record-tying 65 straight regular-season games, including all 62 games as a member of the Crush. His streak began with the Toronto Phantoms vs. Carolina on July 4, 2002. Harrell is tied with Eddie Brown for the AFL record and could break the record in Week 1 of the 2007 season.

17. The Salary System: The average AFL salary is $85,000 and contracts include 401K plans and housing. The salaries, not including bonuses, range from $28,000 to as high as $165,000. Most AFL starting quarterbacks' salaries are in the six figures. Philadelphia Soul quarterback Tony Graziani is presumably the highest-paid player in the AFL, with a salary of over $200,000, including bonuses.

16. Timing Is Everything: The clock stops for out-of-bounds plays, incomplete passes or sacks only in the last minute of each half. There is a one-minute warning in the AFL; the NFL has a two-minute warning. To prevent a team from kneeling to kill the final seconds of a game, the clock stops if the offensive team has the lead and fails to advance the ball past the line of scrimmage during the final minute of the fourth quarter. Overtime rules require each team to get one possession to score. If the teams are tied after each has had one possession, the next team to score wins.

15. Fun Rule: A standard AFL field is 50 yards long and 85 feet wide. That's about the dimensions of a hockey rink. The end zones are eight yards deep and goal posts are nine feet wide with a crossbar height of 15 feet (NFL goalposts are 18½ wide with the crossbar at 10 feet). The goalpost dimensions give AFL kickers the feeling that they're kicking down the slot of a toaster.

The netting behind the end zone, or rebound nets, is 30 feet wide by 32 feet high. The bottom of the nets are eight feet above the ground. A pass thrown off the netting is live ball and counts as a reception if it's caught before it touches the ground.

Passes off the boards are also considered live, and anything caught off a rebound from the boards counts as a catch.

14. Not-So-Fun Rule: Playing linebacker in the AFL comes with some restrictions. There are two linebackers. One is referred to as the "Mack," which is allowed to blitz the quarterback and go anywhere on the field. The other is the "Jack," or jack-in-the-box linebacker, who must play tackle-to-tackle, cannot blitz the quarterback or drop back five yards into a zone defense. The "Jack" linebacker is required to stay in his "box" until the release of the ball or if the quarterback breaks the pocket and decides to run.

13. Eight Is Enough: Eight players are allowed on the field, as opposed to 11 in the regular football. AFL teams are allowed to carry 24 players on a team, but only a 20-man roster on game days.

12. Famous Alums: The most famous alum from the Arena League is Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, the two-time NFL MVP and MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV when he played for the St. Louis Rams. Warner played two years for the defunct Iowa Barnstormers, from 1995-97. Other famous AFL alums include Chicago Bears defensive back Rashied Davis, Cincinnati Bengals kicker Shayne Graham, New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Lewis, New York Giants kicker Jay Feeley and Washington Redskins receiver David Patten.

11. Hall Of Fame Recognition: The Pro Football Hall of Fame just unveiled the first exhibit dedicated to the Arena Football League. "I can't think of [a milestone] that is more meaningful for our league than an exhibit in the Pro Football Hall of Fame," said AFL commissioner David Baker.

10. The NFL Connection: The AFL has an ongoing relationship with the NFL. Five AFL teams are operated by NFL owners: K.S. "Bud" Adams, Nashville Kats (Tennessee Titans); Tom Benson, New Orleans VooDoo (New Orleans Saints); Arthur Blank, Georgia Force (Atlanta Falcons), Jerry Jones, Dallas Desperados (Dallas Cowboys); and Pat Bowlen (Denver Broncos). The NFL also oversees the AFL's officiating department.

In addition, former NFL greats John Elway (Colorado Crush), Mike Ditka (Chicago Rush), Deion Sanders (Austin Wranglers) and Ron Jaworski (Philadelphia Soul) all have part-ownership of teams.

9. Q-Rating: The AFL is a celebrity-owned league. Look up into the stands of any AFL game and you might see the faces of music stars Jon Bon Jovi, (Philadelphia Soul) and Tim McGraw, (Nashville Kats) or Elway, Ditka, Sanders and Jaworski peering down at the field. Bon Jovi probably has the highest Q-rating of the AFL owners, followed by McGraw.

8. Famous Alumni: New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, the NFL's 2006 coach of the year, got his professional football start in the AFL as a backup quarterback for the Chicago Bruisers. So did Eagles offensive coordinator (and former Detroit Lions head coach) Marty Morningweg, who was with the Denver Dynamite as a backup quarterback. Morningweg didn't fare too well. In is first series, he fell awkwardly and injured his knee.

7. Feeling At Home In Philly: Four years ago, the Soul was worth $450,000. Now the franchise may be worth close to $32 million, according to part-owner Jon Bon Jovi. Jaworski found out how the fans felt about the Soul during its second season. After a bad first half against Dallas, boos rained down on the home team as it left the field. "That told me these fans here cared," Jaworski said. "That told me we're being taken seriously, that we aren't a novelty act anymore. That said we arrived."

The Soul will appear on ESPN seven times this season, more than any other team.

6. Looking Ahead: In 2006, the Kansas City Brigade and Utah Blaze joined the AFL. The AFL is looking at the possibility of expanding to Boston, Cleveland, Miami, San Antonio and Washington. The ultimate goal is reaching 28 to 32 teams over the next five years.

5. Here's Looking At The AFL: The 2007 season will feature the most comprehensive television coverage in league history, thanks mainly to the new five-year agreement with ESPN, which will annually broadcast a minimum of 26 regular-season and playoff games, including the ArenaBowl. As part of the agreement, ESPN purchased a 10 percent share in the AFL. In 2006, the AFL reached 65 million viewers, the most in its history.

4. Finding Sippio: The Chicago Rush was a struggling team in 2006, sitting at 5-9, before the Rush won its final two games to barely make the playoffs. Chicago went on to become the first team in AFL history to win an ArenaBowl title without hosting a playoff game. The late-season acquisition of offensive specialist Bobby Sippio, picked up after being waived by Tampa Bay, proved to be the difference in Chicago's six-game winning streak. He played the last five games for the Rush. An omen was his first catch in a Rush uniform, which Sippio converted into a 45-yard TD reception against Arizona.

3. Free Substitution: The substitution rule in the past allowed coaches one substitute per position per quarter. This season, coaches will be permitted to substitute players freely -- just like the NFL. The move is designed to open the game up, giving coaches the opportunity to use situational substitution. The basis is to improve the overall play of the game, enabling the AFL to become more specialized. In the past, "Ironman Football" was the way of the AFL. It was actually a selling point.

"Open substitution will help the offenses create more mismatches," Soul coach Bret Munsey said. "In the past, our defenses were prepared to stop the offense in the red zone. Now that changes. We have to look more to make stops in the middle of the field."

2. Teams To Watch: Dallas could be the team to beat. The Desperados have size, speed and quarterback Clint Dolezel, the AFL's 2006 MVP who threw for a league-record 105 TDs last season. Figure on defending champion Chicago to be in the mix again, and Orlando and traditionally strong Tampa Bay bear watching.

Darkhorse teams: Utah, Philadelphia, Nashville.

1. AFL Returns To New Orleans: The VooDoo returns to the AFL after losing the 2006 season because of the effects of Hurricane Katrina. ArenaBowl XXI will be held at the New Orleans Arena on Sunday, July 29.

Joseph Santoliquito covers the Arena Football League for ESPN.com. He can be contacted at JSantoliquito@yahoo.com.