The NFL is not lacking for entertainment.
With just one week of the 2018 season in the books, the most popular league in all of professional sports has already dished out a Pittsburgh Steelers-Cleveland Browns tie, a historic Aaron Rodgers comeback and a four-touchdown Ryan Fitzpatrick-led upset that no one saw coming. Even the preseason's biggest controversy, a heavily criticized tackling rule, has all but disappeared.
Well, for one, the Alliance of American Football (AAF).
The upstart eight-team league was announced in March by Charlie Ebersol and former NFL general manager Bill Polian. It's set to debut in February 2019 on CBS. And according to Hines Ward, former longtime Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and current AAF player relations executive, it will both feed off and point back to the NFL as it attempts to extend Sunday thrills to the spring.
"Our whole goal is just to be complementary," Ward said in a phone interview this week. "With our league, it's only going to put out a better product for the NFL. We're giving them extra eyes and extra film."
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It's a curious but enticing balance, Ward admits. The NFL influence on Ebersol and Polian's venture is undeniable. Most of the AAF's coaches once belonged to the NFL -- Brad Childress, Mike Martz, Mike Singletary and Michael Vick among them. Yet everything else about the AAF is different, from faster play (no kickoffs or extra points) to increased player leadership.
"We want to give our league back to the players," Ward said, "to really let them have a voice in their cities."
That starts with the way the AAF's eight franchises are building rosters -- with local communities in mind. ("How do we allocate players?" Ward said. "We take an Atlanta team and put players from the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech on there.") It includes post-career healthcare. (Troy Polamalu, another former Steeler and AAF's head of player relations, is "very hard-nosed about" safety, per Ward, and "wants to protect these players with a medical staff and teams working together to focus on when they're done playing.") And it's headlined by championing players' causes off the field, with the AAF "setting up job programs and post-secondary scholarships," according to Ward.
Even if those goals seem to distance the AAF from the NFL, it's the NFL that gives the AAF life. In an ideal world, Ward said, the AAF would be three things: 1.) a platform for players "to begin and extend or revitalize their career," 2.) a pro-level product for fans who "yearn for football all year long" and 3.) a developmental league with talent readily available for the NFL.
Unlike the Canadian Football League, it doesn't run into the NFL season. Unlike the Arena Football League, its rules aren't vastly different. It has more teams, players and NFL alumni than the 2017-founded Spring League. And unlike the XFL, which is set to return in 2020, it isn't directly challenging the NFL. Instead, it intends to help it.
"Training camp is really not enough time to evaluate players," Ward said. "And that last preseason game, we all know it comes down to two or three roster spots, and then for the players, what do you do from now 'til next year if you don't get another opportunity?"
Ward has seen unofficial developmental leagues work before.
"I think of a guy like Tommy Maddox (who played for the XFL in 2001 before joining the Steelers)," he said. "I caught a lot of passes from him. Cameron Wake, he had to go through the CFL. And for the fans' sake, if you put a bunch of hungry guys out there, you're still going to see some exciting football."
What happens next?
Ward said the AAF is exploring Super Bowl advertisements or some fall promotions in advance of the league's inaugural season kickoff on Feb. 9, 2019. All the while, AAF execs are keeping an eye on future expansions, "although spring football in Pittsburgh," Ward joked, "is still kind of snowy."
Until then, though, there might not be a bigger priority than securing premier talent.
Ward laughed off the possibility of making his own comeback at age 42, even though "some of the execs tease me about getting back out there." He was serious, however, when asked whether the AAF is pursuing any prominent former NFL players. He could not reveal any names outside of announced AAF signings like Trent Richardson and Stephen Hill, but he made it clear that players are on the way.
"We've talked to some big names," he said. "We want to make sure our marquee players are signed. There are a lot of guys on the fence right now. We talk with a bunch of guys, but a lot of them are waiting until practice squads are finalized to see if they won't get one more shot. But we've talked to some big names."