AAF 2019: Will Johnny Manziel sign? Will Steve Spurrier's Apollos lose? Five burning questions for the second half
Now that the kinks have been ironed out, the best football in the AAF should still be ahead
Since Week 1, I've been a firm believer that the best football is yet to come in the AAF. I don't believe it's any coincidence that Week 5, the midway point, produced the most exciting results to date. As such, the final five regular-season weeks should have far more in store.
With that anticipation comes questions. Will the offenses continue to improve? Will quarterback changes pay off? Will anyone sign Johnny Manziel? From these storylines and more, I dove into five topics that I'd like to see answered between now and mid-April. With five more weeks until the playoffs begin, here are five burning questions I look forward to seeing answered.
Will red zone offenses finally catch up?
AAF teams are scoring more points on average now than they were at the start of the season. That much is indisputable. And it makes sense, too. These teams formed in January, so it's only natural that the defenses would generally be ahead of the offenses. Offensive lines needed time to develop and not every quarterback situation was figured out until three or four (and in some cases, five) weeks in. But as you can see from the table below, overall points have gone up through the first half of the year. This is especially true for losing teams, indicating that games are more competitive now. Indeed, the average margin of victory in Week 1 was about 21 points as opposed to about 6 points in Week 5.
|Week||Average Score (Losing Team)||Average Score (Winning Team)||Average Point Total|
Finally, more points are being scored and games have been more competitive. However, the one area in which offenses still lag is the red zone. Bill Polian, the AAF's Head of Football, said in a recent conference call that red zone offenses (and wide receiver drops, but that's another issue) were the final piece of the puzzle to the higher-scoring games fans thought they'd get when the league began, and he's not wrong.
Take Orlando, for example. The Apollos have the best offense in the Alliance to the point where it noticeably skews some of the numbers in the table above. And yet, since Week 2, they have never had more than 50 percent efficiency in the red zone. In fact, in their last game, a 31-14 win at Birmingham, the Apollos were 1-of-4 in the red zone and 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations. This is Orlando we're talking about here.
But it's not just the Apollos. The San Antonio Commanders are third in total points, but were 2-of-5 in the red zone against the Hotshots in Week 5 and posted similar numbers against the Iron and Apollos. Granted, those are the top two defenses in the AAF. Nobody's scoring on them. But that's kind of the point: Moving the ball hasn't been an issue. Five of the eight teams are averaging more than 300 yards per game. However, only three (Orlando, Arizona and San Diego) average more than 20 points per game -- and that includes non-offensive scores. Look at the numbers for kickers, too: of the four who have made at least 10 field goals so far, 75 percent have been 39 yards or shorter.
The games have been more entertaining lately, but to fully realize what the AAF could be, red zone offenses have to be better.
Will someone sign Johnny Manziel?
The last I (or anyone else) heard on this, at least publicly, Head of Football Bill Polian explained that the vetting process for Manziel was about 50 percent complete. If the AAF were to acquire him, and he were to join, he'd be allocated to the San Antonio Commanders. That doesn't mean he would necessarily end up there, though.
Here's my read on the situation: it's far from a sure thing. We still don't know publicly why Manziel was booted from the CFL, but seeing as it's a talent source for the AAF, that detail is kind of important. Keep in mind, too, that AAF coaches, GMs, and front office personnel frequently boast about a labor pool that works hard and stays out of trouble because they know this might be their last chance to either re-enter the NFL -- or play professional football at all. Since leaving Texas A&M, Manziel hasn't been able to keep his nose clean. That's not to say he couldn't find the right situation and turn things around; that would be quite a success story if he did, but history says otherwise. This wouldn't be like trying to sign Colin Kaepernick.
Consider, too, that the AAF is still in its inaugural season. If Manziel hasn't turned a corner -- to be clear, that's an important element in this, both on a personal and professional level -- what kind of message does that send to the other AAF players if he joins a team? There are projects and then there's going off-brand.
In a way, yes, Manziel adds a household name to a league that doesn't have much star power. Someone could sign him and cut him loose at the first sign of trouble. But think of it this way: the biggest names in the AAF from Week 1 were the biggest names to begin with because they didn't work out in the NFL. Not only does Manziel fit that description, he was told never to come back to the CFL. Is that what the AAF wants?
Who topples the Apollos (if anyone)?
have become an exercise in the hysterical. The formula is as follows: No. 1: Apollos, No. 2: who didn't completely screw up this week, Nos. 3-8: a game of 52 pickup. In some ways, the parity around the league is a good thing. It makes the playoff race in the second half of the season more interesting, particularly in the West division, where all four teams still have a legitimate shot of making the top two.
Still, Orlando feels like a sure thing to make the playoffs and, probably, win the whole thing. While it's fun to watch a team execute at high levels, there's no drama if. San Antonio came the closest and the only other scenario in which they'd meet again is in the championship game in Las Vegas (which is certainly possible).
Orlando's remaining schedule is interesting, but keep in mind this team is winning by a league-best 14.4 points per game. Week 6 at home vs. Arizona could be fun in the sense that the Hotshots are capable of stretching the field with receiver Rashad Ross. Arizona may have lost three in a row, but when they turn it on, they're potent. That game is followed by back-to-back road matchups against divisional opponents Atlanta and Memphis. The Legends are more dangerous with quarterback Aaron Murray, who did not face the Apollos in Week 1, and the Express gave Orlando a test with Zach Mettenberger coming off the bench.
The final two games -- at home against San Diego and Birmingham -- pits the Apollos against the other two best defenses, though Orlando just hung 31 on the Iron in Week 5. Still, Keith Price gave Orlando problems with his legs. And would Philip Nelson be back from his clavicle injury for the Fleet in Week 9? The potential to cut the Apollos just to confirm they have human blood is there, but this team has answered every challenge with exceptional football.
Does Trent Richardson show there's more to his game?
I mentioned star power above -- or, the lack thereof -- and Richardson is as close to a name brand as there is in this league. Through five games, he leads the Alliance with eight rushing touchdowns. That's good. However, he still averages 2.41 yards per carry, 36.2 yards per game, has a season-long rush of just 10 yards and has eight carries each in the past two games (both losses). That's bad. In fact, those numbers are the worst among running backs with at least three touchdowns. None of them help the narrative of Richardson's career arc.
Richardson's game is enigmatic. He's the best short-yardage/goal-line back in the Alliance, capable of getting two or three hard-earned yards, all after contact, for a much-needed first down or a touchdown. That still makes him a viable fantasy football option. He's also been an option out of the backfield, leading the Iron with 19 catches. And he's actually shown more wiggle in the open field as a receiver than as a running back.
In Richardson's defense, he hasn't had a lot of help from his offensive line and the lack of a deep passing attack -- at least until quarterback Keith Price came off the bench in Week 5 vs. Orlando -- allowed defenses to stack the box. If Price opens up the top of the defense, that may at least give Richardson a little more room to operate, though he's still at the mercy of his offensive line. Richardson's vision and decision-making have been weaknesses at times, but there's no denying he's putting up numbers in situations where most offenses around the Alliance have struggled. If the rest of his game opens up, he'll easily get another look from the NFL.
Does the new crop of starting QBs shake up the East standings?
Barring an injury to, say, Garrett Gilbert, Orlando seems like a lock to make the playoffs. But now that Atlanta, Birmingham and Memphis have changed quarterbacks, the East race is a little more open for that second spot. At 0-3 in the division and 1-4 overall, the Express have the most work to do, but at least Zach Mettenberger has made them more competitive. Seven points and a game-winning field goal is all that separates this team from being 3-0 since Mettenberger came off the bench in Week 3. His 8.8 yards per attempt, 5.6 touchdown percentage and 105.1 passer rating all rank second in the Alliance.
Since switching to Aaron Murray, the Legends are 2-0. Murray is averaging 313.5 yards per game in that span, with his first passing touchdown coming in Week 5. For context, Atlanta was averaging 264.3 yards per game through the first three weeks. Coming off the bench for Luis Perez in Week 5, Keith Price gave the Iron's offense life with 248 yards of total offense and the first passing touchdown for that team all season.
Three games in the next five weeks feature the aforementioned three teams playing against one another. Orlando may have a firm grip on the East crown, but that second playoff spot is still anyone's to grab if these three quarterbacks keep elevating the offenses.
San Antonio finally gets to go home after four-straight road games
There were huge upsets and walk-off field goals in Week 6, so let's break it all down
Check back throughout the season to see where each AAF team stands heading to the playoffs
Here's what happened in Week 6 of the AAF
Check out the entire 2019 AAF regular-season schedule right here
Manziel was originally allocated to San Antonio, but the Commanders released his rights