Twenty-two things to know about the Arena Football League as it kicks off its 22nd season on Feb. 29.
1. You may have heard of: Everyone knows Kurt Warner got his start in the AFL. But Greg White (Bucs), David Patten (Saints), Mike Furrey (Lions), Andy McCollum (Rams), Cleo Lemon (Dolphins), Michael Lewis (49ers), Rashied Davis (Bears), Antonio Chatman (Bengals), Rob Bironas (Titans) and Bobby Sippio (Chiefs) are among current NFL players who started in the Arena League.
2. In case you forgot: A standard AFL field is 50 yards long and 85 feet wide. That's about the size of a hockey rink. The end zones are 8 yards deep and goalposts are 9 feet wide with a crossbar height of 15 feet (NFL goalposts are 18 feet wide with the crossbar at 10 feet). The netting behind the end zones, or the rebound nets, are 30 feet wide by 32 feet high. The bottoms of the nets are 8 feet above the ground. A pass thrown off the netting is a 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.
There are eight players on the field and teams have a 20-man active roster and four-man inactive roster. There is free substitution. Four offensive players must line up on the line of scrimmage and one receiver may go in forward motion before the snap. On defense, three players must be down linemen and one LB may blitz on either side of the center, but there is no stunting or twisting.
Finally, there is no punting. It's illegal. How cool is that? On fourth down, a team either goes for a first down, a field goal or a TD. There are four 15-minute quarters and the clock stops for out-of-bounds plays or incomplete passes only in the last minute of each half and when the referee deems it necessary for injuries, penalties or timeouts.
3. School ties: There are nearly 300 players in the AFL who earned all-conference honors in college. Sonny Cumbie (Texas Tech), Joe Germaine (Ohio State), Torrence Marshall (Oklahoma), Marcus Nash (Tennessee), Keyou Craver (Nebraska), Rasheed Marshall (West Virginia), Lonnie Ford (USC), Norman LeJeune (LSU), Derrick Strait (Oklahoma), Jeff Smoker (Michigan State), Dan Alexander (Nebraska) and Charles Frederick (Washington) are just some of the former Division I-A stars shining in the AFL along with FCS (formerly Division I-AA) players like Lang Campbell, who won the Walter Payton Award (outstanding player) in 2004 at William & Mary.
4. Have a ball: Literally. Any ball that goes into the stands is a souvenir and so far, more than 20,000 have. The ball, by the way, is the same size and weight as an NFL football.
5. New Jack City: In what has some AFL purists cringing, the league approved a change to allow the "jack" linebacker to roam freely from sideboard to sideboard within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage once the play begins. In the past, the jack linebacker was prohibited from leaving an imaginary box between the defensive tackles behind the line of scrimmage until after the ball was thrown.
This will likely reduce scoring -- three teams (Dallas, Georgia and San Jose scored over 1,000 points, the first time any team had broken that barrier -- and cut back on the PlayStation stats put up by QBs -- last season four QBs threw over 100 TDs, which doubled the number of times that happened in the previous 20 years of the league. It will cut down on some throwing lanes, but could open up some running lanes and opportunities for more mobile QBs. It will be interesting to see how teams handle this rule change on both sides of the ball.
6. Can you hear me now?: The league also approved a coach-to-player communication device for a defensive player this season. In the past, only the QB had worn a special helmet that allowed him to hear the coach. "With the pace of the game and configuration of the team bench in different arenas, the device affords the defense an equal opportunity to compete and communicate with regards to personnel changes, clock management and situational defense," said Kansas City head coach Kevin Porter.
7. Mo money: Are there million-dollar contracts? No, but they've come a long way since players made just $200 a game like they did in the first year of the league. The average AFL salary is $85,000 and tops out at $250,000. Not bad for six months of work.
8. Back to the Big Easy: The first time was such a big success last year, the AFL returns to New Orleans for ArenaBowl XXII on Sunday, July 27. ArenaBowl XXI had an estimated economic impact of $20 million and was the first team championship to be played in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. A sold-out crowd of 17,056 watched San Jose defeat Columbus 55-33 last year.
9. Cleveland Rocks: It's been 13 years, but Cleveland is once again back in the Arena Football League. Cleveland legend Bernie Kosar is part owner, team president and CEO of the Gladiators, who moved from Las Vegas. The new Cleveland team looks to have more success than the old Thunderbolts, who posted an 8-38 mark from 1992 to '94. The Gladiators made a quick splash in free agency by signing QB Raymond Philyaw, DL Silas Demary and DB Brandon Hefflin.
10. Fantastic Five: The top five teams over the past five years are:
1. San Jose SaberCats: 55-25 (.688)
2. Dallas Desperados: 52-27-1 (.656)
3. Orlando Predators: 50-30 (.625)
4. Georgia Force: 48-32 (.600)
T-5. Chicago Rush: 47-33 (.588)
T-5. Tampa Bay Storm: 47-33 (.588)
11. Old school: Tampa Bay is the longest-tenured team in the league and the only remaining charter team. The franchise 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. The Storm own five AFL championships, more than any other team in AFL history. The closest active team is San Jose, which has three ArenaBowl titles, including last year's crown, its third in the past six years.
12. Milestone moments: Several players are on the verge of making their mark in AFL history. Among them:
• Dallas QB Clint Dolezel needs 35 TD passes to become the first player in professional football history to throw for 900 in his career. He also needs 1,001 passing yards to pass Andy Kelly (42,528 yards) and become the all-time leading passer. And with six completions, he will become the second player in AFL history to complete 3,500 passes in his career, joining Kelly (3,885).
• Chicago QB Sherdrick Bonner needs 21 passing yards to become the third player in AFL history to throw for 41,000 yards and can pass Kelly with 1,549 passing yards.
• New York QB Aaron Garcia needs 18 completions to become the fourth player in AFL history to record 3,000 in his career, joining Kelly, Dolezel and Bonner.
• Chicago WR Damien Harrell needs five receiving TDs to become the second player in AFL history to reach 300 in his career. He needs just 119 receiving yards to become the third player to get 12,000 career receiving yards and 1,483 to pass Barry Wagner (13,363) for most receiving yards in AFL history.
• Tampa Bay WR Lawrence Samuels needs one catch to become the third player to record 900 career receptions.
• Orlando DB Damon Mason needs 84 tackles to become the fourth player in professional football history to get 1,000 career tackles.
• Tampa Bay DL Tom Briggs needs one sack to become the second player to record 47 sacks and 13 to tie Sam Hernandez (59) for the all-time mark.
• San Jose coach Darren Arbet and Colorado coach Mike Dailey each need two wins to join three others who have notched 100 regular-season victories.
13. Bill of Rights: The AFL doesn't mess around when it says it's a fan-friendly league. It not only has the players sign the league's mission statement, but it also ensures a wholesome environment to watch games, requires community involvement by players and wants them to be role models, and opens the field after the game so fans can interact with the players, get autographs and even try field goals.
14. The Fabulous Baker Boys: It's impossible to miss commissioner David Baker. He's 6-foot-9, 400 pounds and takes over a room with his personality. But his son is a can't-miss NFL prospect. Sam Baker is a 6-5, 308-pound offensive tackle out of USC and projected first-round pick in April's NFL draft. And that's not all. Oldest son Ben, who is 6-7 and 315 pounds, played one season at Duke before focusing on the business side of football. He works in the league office in New York.
15. Change of address: This year you really can't tell who the players are without a program. Some of the biggest names in the game changed teams, including last year's offensive player of the year, a former defensive player of the year and one of league's all-time greats.
Arizona QB Sherdrick Bonner, named the eighth-greatest player in AFL history, and two-time offensive player of the year Colorado WR Damian Harrell signed with the Central Division champion Rush. WR Chris Jackson left Georgia to sign with Philadelphia and reunite with QB Tony Graziani. The two played together in Los Angeles and combined for 131 TDs in four years. Arizona signed the 2007 offensive player of the year WR Siaha Burley. Burley, who played for Utah last season, shattered AFL single-season records for receptions (166) and receiving yards (2,129).
Cleveland signed former defensive player of the year Silas Demary (L.A.) and eight-year veteran QB Raymond Philyaw (K.C.). Los Angeles then signed former Columbus DL Ken Jones, a 2007 All-Arena first-team selection, leading the Destroyers with 13 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. The National Conference champion Columbus Destroyers shored up their receiving corps, adding Derek Lee. Lee, who plays both wide receiver and defensive back, set career highs with 127 receptions for 1,427 yards and 26 TDs last season in Georgia. He is reunited with QB Matt Nagy. Lee and Nagy teamed up to take Georgia to its first ArenaBowl appearance in 2005.
16. HDTV: Starting March 1 and ending with ArenaBowl XXII, ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC will show a total of 29 games and every one of them will be in high definition. All games will also be available on ESPN360.
17. Owning up to it: Four AFL teams are operated by NFL owners: Tom Benson, New Orleans VooDoo (New Orleans Saints); Arthur Blank, Georgia Force (Atlanta Falcons); Jerry Jones, Dallas Desperados (Dallas Cowboys); and Pat Bowlen, Colorado Crush (Denver Broncos).
Plus, former NFL greats John Elway (Colorado Crush), Mike Ditka (Chicago Rush), Ron Jaworski (Philadelphia Soul), Neil Smith (Kansas City Brigade) and Bernie Kosar (Cleveland Gladiators) all have part-ownership of teams.
18. Safety First: Each player will wear an impact indicator on the back of his helmet this season that has a light that will change from green to red if the player has sustained an impact severe enough to warrant medical attention. Add a titanium face mask to the helmets that have shock absorbers to help diffuse impact, and you have one of the safest helmets in football. In addition to the players on the field, the head umpire on the field will be wearing a custom helmet that looks similar to a batter's helmet in baseball that will not obstruct his view, but will protect him from sustaining a potentially damaging blow to the head.
19. Did we mention Jon Bon Jovi?: He may be, arguably, the most famous owner in all of sports and he's definitely sold the most records of any owner in sports. But he's more than just the face of the franchise. Bon Jovi is involved in all aspects of the Philadelphia Soul, both on and off the field. AFL franchises were valued at $400,000 11 years ago and the Soul were recently valued at $32.5 million. Is that any good?
20. Wanna play?: The AFL lives the movie "Invincible" every year. With open tryouts throughout the offseason -- New Orleans held one before ArenaBowl XXI -- anyone can try to make it in the league and just about every team has someone who was signed to the roster after an open tryout. For example, Arizona's Trandon Harvey, who led the Rattlers with 1,412 yards and 34 TDs, was signed from a 2007 open tryout. It's not easy, though. The level of talent in the league keeps rising, especially with NFL Europe shutting down. But it's not impossible to become the next Kurt Warner. As commissioner David Baker says "You never know when one will catch that next dream and become the next star."
21. Run to glory: Yes, it's a passing league, but Chicago's Dan Alexander tried to change that perception just a little bit. Alexander set league records with 41 TDs (shattering the old mark of 26) and 165 carries. Speaking of running the ball, Arizona's Bo Kelly became the AFL's all-time leading rusher with 1,571 yards. Yes, just 1,571. Told you it was a passing league.
22. Back-to-back?: Can San Jose become the first team to repeat as ArenaBowl champion since Tampa Bay did it in 1995-96? Just one more reason to watch this season.