SAN ANTONIO -- Competitive football could have been done until July, when college football media days and NFL training camps once again popped into the public eye. But the eight-team Alliance of American Football, which opens with two games on Saturday night (San Diego at San Antonio and Atlanta at Orlando), marks the debut of the upstart league on CBS.
It's not quite the NFL, and it's not quite college football, either. It's being billed as a developmental league that is trying to be an augmentation to the NFL season, according to league co-founder Bill Polian, with a bunch of things that will look the same and some that will look markedly different from the football to which you are accustomed.
With a 10-game regular-season schedule, the inaugural campaign will culminate in an April 27 championship game. You probably have a lot of questions about the AAF -- its teams, players, rules and more -- so here's our primer on all the big topics:
Where can I watch?
A combination of places: online, on broadcast networks, on cable and potentially on your phone. CBS will broadcast the two opening-night games (most of the country will see San Diego at San Antonio while some will get Atlanta at Orlando) and CBS Sports Network will televise one game a week. NFL Network will show 19 games -- starting with Salt Lake at Arizona in Week 1 and then two games per week following. TNT will have Salt Lake at Birmingham in Week 2 and then B-R Live will stream one game per week over the final eight weeks of the season.
What's the overall talent level?
The thought is that this could be comparable to what would happen if backups on NFL teams played against each other. Multiple players, coaches and Polian himself said they believe their starters could be competitive with the "twos" in the league.
"What I want the fans to say is that it's real professional football," Polian said.
So, will I know any of these guys?
There will be familiar faces, primarily at quarterback, with Christian Hackenberg, Matt Simms and Aaron Murray. Trent Richardson, Matt Asiata, Bishop Sankey and Denard Robinson are running backs with NFL experience, and Scooby Wright and Sterling Moore are defensive players who have name recognition.
The majority of "names" are the coaches: Dennis Erickson (Salt Lake), Steve Spurrier (Orlando), Mike Martz (San Diego), Mike Singletary (Memphis) and Mike Riley (San Antonio).
Are there any rules differences from the NFL?
There are several significant ones:
The most notable one is no kickoffs, which is something Polian insisted on if he was going to be involved. They did this because data they collected said the kickoff was largely a non-dynamic play where the largest number of injuries occurred. Also, fans and players dislike the kickoff on the whole, and it affects overall game time. Instead, the ball starts on the 25-yard line after each score or at the start of the game.
Instead of an onside kick, if a team is trailing by 17 points or there's five minutes or less left in the fourth quarter, a team can attempt an onside conversion. They get the ball on their own 28-yard line and have to convert a fourth-and-12. If they do, they keep the ball and keep going. Don't convert, and the opponent takes over from the point at which they stop them.
There are no extra point kicks, so a team is going for two after every touchdown.
Overtime rules have the ball starting on the 10-yard line with four downs and a two-point extra point if a team scores (field goals are not allowed).
There's also a significant change in pass-rushing rules for defenses. Teams can rush only five players and can't blitz players from the secondary. If you have five men on the line of scrimmage on defense, those are the only players who can rush. "With less than a month to get our teams ready to play, the hardest part to get cohesiveness in is the offensive line," Polian said. "So if we came with all the exotic blitzes that we see, which is basically coming out of the secondary, they couldn't pick it up and we're going to get quarterbacks hurt, and it's not much of a game, honestly. Nobody wants to see the quarterback sacked repeatedly."
With replays, officials won't have to go under the hood or watch a tablet. Instead, the official will have an earpiece to communicate directly on the field with the replay official in real time. All of this is designed to help shorten game times. The hope is for games to be two and a half hours or less.
So, I hear this will be more interactive.
There will be fantasy games to play through the app. You can't gamble through the app, but MGM is the "gaming partner" of the AAF -- and the thought is there will be a plethora of options both on the app and through the gaming partner to make the game more interactive. Charlie Ebersol, the other co-founder, explained the league has been building technology to give real-time data from hardware they've developed that will allow for actual real-time updates and gaming possibilities.
"In regular fantasy, you're the team owner. In daily fantasy, you are the general manager. We believe in the game we have, you're the coach," Ebersol said. "So think of it like, instead of a fantasy manager, you're a fantasy coach. So you're going play to play, and you're looking at the predictability of what play is going to happen and which players are going to be involved and what the odds of those plays happening are. That's more of what our game is."
That data, Ebersol hopes, also will give more of an objective view of how players are performing. Every player and every ball used in a game will have microchips embedded to accumulate and transmit data.
How do I watch games in person?
The league exists in eight cities in the South, Southwest and West Coast -- mostly with cities that could make sense for NFL franchises (Birmingham, San Antonio, Salt Lake City, Orlando, Memphis, San Diego) as well as two existing NFL locales (Atlanta and Arizona). Ticket packages are $75 for five home games. For the most part, games are being played in college stadiums.
I only heard of a draft for quarterbacks. How were other players assigned?
Three ways. First, the league figured out the top 30 NFL-producing colleges over the past 10 seasons (USC is No. 1), and gave each team three high-producing schools. Then they gave teams up to 30 other area schools in a certain range to pull allocations from.
If a player doesn't fit that grouping, they also assigned four NFL teams to each AAF team; if a player played for a team or was in training camp with a team, then his rights were given to the respective AAF team. This was done with both geographic and population data (for instance, San Antonio has the Cowboys, Texans, Chiefs and Eagles).
There is also at least one CFL team assigned to each team. If a player hits none of these lists, then there was a first-come, first-served rights list of 25 players. If multiple teams put in a request for the same player, they went by their waiver list.
"We may tweak it depending on what we see, but the concept is good," Polian said. "We know the concept is good, because it's working."
That placed Richardson on Birmingham, Murray on Atlanta and Asiata on Salt Lake City, for example.
What about player salaries and benefits?
The league didn't give out much in terms of financial deals, but the players all signed three-year, $250,000 contracts. Every player is on the same deal. If they finish a year in the league, they'll also get a stipend for secondary education. There's also an internship program. Contracts also have bonuses tied into them depending on hitting both on- and off-field incentives.
What's the long-term hope for the league?
Polian and Ebersol want to work to be a complement to the NFL, and Polian said he's open to suggestions from the league. As for what they are hoping for by the end of this season?
"I want folks who know football to say, 'Hey, this is pretty good football and it'll get better and it got better during the year,'" Polian said. "We're going to be a lot better on the 27th of April than we'll be on the 9th of February. Teams get better as they practice and play together. That's No. 1.
"No. 2, I want people to say that it's an interesting and exciting game."