AAF Week 2 takeaways: Orlando Apollos have the best offense, which might mean they have the best team
Points are at a premium in the AAF, which is to be expected, but that also means they have more value
In three hours on Sunday afternoon, we saw what the AAF could be. Orlando at San Antonio was easily the best game on paper in Week 2, but in a pleasantly surprising fashion, it didn't disappoint. Quite to the contrary, it exceeded expectations, which have had to be tempered as the new pro football league gets its proverbial sea legs.
But once things click, it's a whole lot of fun to watch. If Orlando-San Antonio taught us anything, it's that offense is going to reign supreme in this league. With so many teams still leaning on defense to win, having the advantage of explosive offense is what separates the playoff contenders from the rest. It's no surprise, then, that teams like Orlando, Arizona and San Antonio look like they could make the postseason.
What lessons did we learn from the AAF in Week 2? Here's a rundown from all that happened on Saturday and Sunday.
Orlando-San Antonio was the AAF at its best
When football fans jumped on the AAF bandwagon, Orlando's thrillingat San Antonio was the type of football they envisioned seeing. Through two weeks, that's rarely the football that's been delivered. Granted, patience is necessary. These teams came together a month ago. But it is with zero reservations that I say not only was this the best game of the season thus far, it'll be in contention with one of the best games of the year.
Putting Orlando, the best vertical passing team in the AAF by a country mile, indoors in an environment like the Alamodome practically guaranteed this one would be a hit. It delivered. Apollos quarterback Garrett Gilbert hit three passes of more than 50 yards as part of his 393-yard performance. In all, Orlando averaged 8.4 yards per play on just 51 plays, and while they weren't overly successful in running the ball, they were able to grind out the win thanks to some huge runs from D'Ernest Johnson.
Chunk yardage and efficiency matter, and this was the best example of why. And it wasn't just Orlando; San Antonio's offensive stats weren't as efficient -- for example: the Commanders averaged 5.1 yards per play -- but they were far better at running the ball (5.2 yards per rush) and still racked up nearly 400 yards of offense. Even in a loss, the Commanders looked like one of the top three teams in the Alliance. Could this game be a championship preview in April? After the way these two played, it wouldn't be that surprising.
Birmingham's receivers need to step up
It's Week 2 and the timing with many of these passing routes isn't there yet. I get that. But Birmingham's wideouts, after having dropped five passes in a 26-0 win over Memphis, had another case of the dropsies against Salt Lake on Saturday. The most egregious one came in the first quarter when quarterback Luis Perez evaded pressure, somehow got out of a would-be sack and hurled the ball to Tobias Palmer, who dropped a surefire touchdown. The Iron then missed a 53-yard field goal on the next play. Then, in the third quarter, tight end Weslye Saunders fumbled the ball when running for a first down.
Ball security isn't only an Iron problem at the moment, but what makes this particularly alarming is that possession passing is such a big part of their offensive game plan. (The Iron passed 60 percent of the time on Saturday and averaged 4.1 yards per attempt.) Outside of Quinton Patton, there's not a super reliable pass-catcher who can also stretch the field; in fact, running back Trent Richardson was the offense's leading receiver with six catches on seven targets for 50 yards -- and he was battling a hamstring injury.
Birmingham is 2-0 and that's what is most important, but this offense has work to do at every position. Between Trent Richardson getting more volume than production and pass catchers that have put the ball on the ground, this team is flirting with an "L." They're simply not explosive enough to keep coming back from 9-0. (Then again, how many offenses around the Alliance are?)
Surprise: quarterbacks matter
The AAF is a development league, so know that pretty much everyone playing needs some kind of development. But the two areas where that development is most noticeable are along the offensive line and at quarterback. Not surprisingly, those positions take the longest to come together. Offensive lines are built on chemistry. That takes time -- certainly more than a month. Quarterbacks have to command an offense and develop a rhythm with wide receivers. It's been an obvious struggle at times.
Not coincidentally, the four teams with more secure quarterback situations are probably the four best teams in the Alliance. Orlando (Garrett Gilbert), Arizona (John Wolford), Birmingham (Luis Perez) and San Antonio (Logan Woodside) have the four highest-scoring offenses through two weeks. Again, quarterback play isn't the only factor in this, but it's one of the clear separating indicators as this season progresses.
In the big picture, it'll be one of the factors for the overall success of the AAF. Each team "drafts" regionally through the allocation system when it puts its roster together, but quarterbacks are the only position that are actually drafted in the way with which we're familiar. That tells you how important it is. The AAF needs a higher ceiling of quarterback play beginning in Year Two. Whether that means getting more true NFL backups to come down and get reps, or tweak offensive schemes to better suit the skill set of the quarterbacks already in the alliance, this will need to be examined further.
Arizona's explosiveness is a difference maker
There are about-faces, and then there's Arizona scoring 38 points in Week 1 before turning the ball over five times -- two interceptions, two turnovers on downs and one fumble -- and failing to score for nearly three full quarters against Memphis on Saturday night. It was shocking, to say the least. The Hotshots wereand the Express were dead last, and Vegas had Arizona as a 13-point favorite in many books by the start of the game.
Chalk those up to snap judgments. However, the reality was Arizona played poorly for about two-and-a-half quarters, and desperately needed things to click. Then, suddenly, they did. The Hotshots mounted a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive towards the end of the third quarter, highlighted by Tim Cook's 28-yard run and Rashad Ross' 16-yard touchdown to make it 12-6. Though the Express were able to respond with a touchdown of their own on the ensuing drive, that would be their final points of the night. The Hotshots scored the final 14 points of the game on their next two drives to win 20-18. Arizona's possession on those two drives? A grand total of 11 plays, 162 yards (14.7 yards per play) and 4:22 of game time. Quarterback John Wolford hit six of his seven passes for 137 yards and two scores.
If you've watched enough AAF games through two weeks, you've seen how difficult it's been for offenses to get going. Call it Memphis playing not to lose if you must, but the fact that Arizona was able to turn on the jets when it absolutely needed to is impressive and part of the reason it'll likely be playoff-bound by April. When they're in sync, the trio of Wolford, Ross and Cook is as good as any in the league.
Player of the Week
Orlando Apollos wide receiver Charles Johnson: Not to give POTW honors to a member of the Apollos for the second-straight week, but Johnson was simply too good to ignore. The former Vikings receiver led everyone with seven receptions on 10 targets for 192 yards and a touchdown. Orlando has a few deep threats in the passing game, and as such the most efficient vertical offense in the Alliance, but Johnson was the star in the win at San Antonio. His route running was purposeful and effective. If he keeps this up, he'll get another look at the NFL.
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