The AAF: What’s Right, What’s Wrong

In 1983, a group of visionaries founded the United States Football League. The new league offered what appeared to be a set of plausible innovations, including playing its games in the spring, and playing an 18-game regular season, which the CFL adopted three years later. One of the USFL's prized rookie acquisitions, the explosive Herschel Walker, even made the cover of Sports Illustrated, with Walker wearing the jersey of the team that signed him, the New Jersey Generals, captioned "The USFL's Commanding General."

The following year, today's sitting President, Donald Trump, purchased the Generals, establishing them as the league's flagship franchise even though they never earned that distinction in the league's standings, the way their NFL counterparts, the Dallas Cowboys, had; indeed, when Walker was asked why he chose the USFL, he stated that he had no desire to play in the NFL unless it was for, in his own words, "(either of) the two New York teams or the Dallas Cowboys."

But it all came crashing down after just three years, with the USFL going out of business following its 1985 season and a Pyrrhic victory over the NFL in an antitrust suit in which the jury awarded the USFL the princely sum of $3.

Thirty-four years later, springtime professional football is back (Arena Football not really being football, with only eight men on each team, who play on a field barely more than half the size of an NFL field) in the form of the Alliance of American Football. It, too, is changing a few things up, which on the surface at least makes it intriguing.

First off, the play clock is 35 seconds, five seconds shorter than in the NFL, which could have the semi-intended consequence of deterring the deep passing game, since this is sure to increase the number of delay-of-game penalties following such completions.

Second, there are no "television timeouts," that is, commercial breaks when neither team has called a timeout, during games.

Third, all kickoffs have been abolished. Instead, each team begins every possession at their own 25-yard line. Onside kicks are replaced by one play, run from the "kicking team's" own 28-yard line, in which they have to gain at least 12 yards to "convert." But isn't this making the "onside kick" way too easy?

Finally, the point after touchdown is also abolished, with any team scoring a touchdown required to go for two instead (many high school football teams don't have regular kickers, so it works the same way there).

Conspicuous by their absence is a 15-yard penalty for pass interference, or making pass interference reviewable on instant replay — two significant missed opportunities.

As for overtime, both teams get only one possession therein, and not only it is ridiculously easy for both teams to score in overtime, with all possessions commencing from the other team's 10-yard line, even though field goals are not allowed in overtime, but the game ends in a tie if both teams score the same number of points (none, six or eight being the only possibilities) in their possession, meaning that overtime in the AAF figures to be just like Old MacDonald's Farm, except that their version goes like this: "Here a tie, there a tie, everywhere a tie, tie."

But wouldn't placing the ball at the 35-yard line instead make far more sense? Also allow field goals in OT (making it less likely for games to end in a tie), plus declare that if the offense is thrown for a loss, sacked etc. to back inside their own territory, it is a safety and the game ends right there (as it would be in the event of any turnover returned across the 50-yard line, in which case it is reckoned as 6 points for the defense). In addition, the half-the-distance rule on offensive penalties would be in effect, except that it would be half the distance to the 50-yard line instead of half the distance to the goal.

And if the teams are still tied after the first possession for each team of overtime, hold a second, then a third, and so on, until either a winner has been determined or a 10-minute (or 15-minute) clock expires, at which point the team that is ahead wins — or the game ends in a tie if the game is still tied at that juncture.

How long the AAF survives remains to be seen. But even if it doesn't last very long, its characteristic rules may outlive it — some of them even permanently, as the AFL's two-point conversion ultimately did.

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