It’s Showtime for The Alliance.
Less than one week after the Patriots and Rams put a bow on the 2018 NFL season in Super Bowl LIII, the fun continues with the inaugural season of the eight-team Alliance of American Football. There’s no need for football fans to go into hiding or sit around moping that the No. 1 sport is on hiatus.
Get your popcorn ready.
Football is back quicker than you can count the rings on Tom Brady’s fingers.
The Alliance has been years in the planning stage and the anticipation of opening night has created a buzz in San Antonio as this pro football-starved city hosts the first nationally television game. CBS is broadcasting the San Diego Fleet at the San Antonio Commanders at 8 p.m. ET from the Alamodome.
The network, which just broadcast Super Bowl LIII from Atlanta, also has a regional game with the Atlanta Legends playing at the Orlando Apollos, also at 8 p.m. ET.
Football is back, not that it ever went anywhere.
“Absent Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady, it looks like pro football,” said Bill Polian, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Alliance co-founder with Charlie Ebersol. “You wouldn’t know the difference.”
The Alliance plans to succeed at filling in the spring football void where previous leagues have failed. All players received a three-year $250,000 contract with an out clause that allows them to leave for an NFL job at any time. So it’s cost-controlled.
There are also five network partners: CBS, CBS Sports Network, NFL Network, Turner and B/R Live. Every game but the eight streamed by B/R Live will be available on national television. That is unprecedented exposure for a first-year league.
On Sunday, it’s the Memphis Express at Birmingham Iron (CBS Sports Network, 4 p.m. ET) and the Salt Lake Stallions at the Arizona Hotshots (NFL Network, 8 p.m. ET).
The Alliance is playing a 10-game regular season with two playoff games the weekend of April 20 with the season culminating in the inaugural championship game on April 27 at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas.
“I’m excited about the overall talent of the team,” Commanders coach Mike Riley said. “I think you will see good solid football.”
The Alliance is all about providing an opportunity for players and coaches to show their skill and value and get a shot in the NFL. It is not about competing for talent or attention with the NFL. That just doesn’t work.
The Alliance is a developmental league. NFL training camps will be loaded with Alliance players with perhaps as many as 100 players having a legitimate chance to stick on rosters. Many NFL scouts made it to San Antonio in January , where all the Alliance teams held training camp, and were given access to practice and the chance to watch practice tape if they desired.
“To start something from scratch, it’s been fun,” Fleet GM Dave Boller said. “It’s real football. Better than I even imagined. The NFL needs a developmental league where kids can go back and play instead of just sitting around.”
San Diego head coach Mike Martz lost his presumed starting quarterback in veteran Josh Johnson when he was signed late in the season by the quarterback-depleted Washington Redskins.
Early in Alliance training camp, the Dallas Cowboys had a shakeup on their offensive staff and hired Fleet offensive coordinator Jon Kitna as their quarterback coach.
Martz put in a call to old coaching buddy Mike DeBord and he was in training camp the next day taking over for Kitna.
Martz lost two of the most important pieces of his offense. But anybody who watched the “Greatest Show On Turf” when Martz was the offensive coordinator and later the head coach of the St. Louis Rams knows he can adapt.
After losing quarterback Trent Green to a torn ACL in the third preseason game in 1999, unknown journeyman Kurt Warner was elevated to the starting role and all he did was win the regular season MVP and Super Bowl MVP that season. He’s now in the Hall of Fame.
As a result, Martz knows it’s never worth getting upset when things don’t go according to plan. In fact, Johnson and Kitna getting NFL jobs is exactly the plan.
Dre Bly, who played cornerback for Martz in St. Louis and was playing for the Lions when Martz was brought in to be the offensive coordinator, was hired to be the Fleet’s defensive backs coach. But when his alma mater North Carolina called in November and offered him the opportunity to coach cornerbacks, he could not resist.
“That’s the whole point of this thing, so it doesn’t hurt at all,” Martz said. “Before we even played a game, we had guys move on. How cool is that? How much of them being with us effected their ability to move on?
“I couldn’t measure that. But that’s the whole purpose of what we are doing, moving coaches and players on. So I’m thrilled about that. We fill in and move on.”
Who knows? Maybe Martz will find the next Warner.
Of course, there is a curiosity about the quality and style of play.
Four of the Alliance head coaches have made their living on the offensive side of the ball: Martz (San Diego), Steve Spurrier (Orlando), Rick Neuheisel (Arizona), Dennis Erickson (Salt Lake City). Riley (San Antonio) has coached offense and defense during his career. Tim Lewis (Birmingham), Mike Singletary (Memphis) and Kevin Coyle (Atlanta) have defensive backgrounds.
Christian Hackenberg, the second-round pick of the New York Jets in 2016, emerged as the starting quarterback in Memphis. Matt Simms, who has been with the Jets, Bills and Falcons, beat out former University of Georgia star Aaron Murray in Atlanta.
The eight starting quarterbacks and their backups are hopeful to put enough good things on tape that will give them a chance to make it in the NFL.
Garrett Gilbert (Orlando), Luis Perez (Birmingham), Dustin Vaughn (San Antonio), Trevor Knight (Arizona) Josh Woodrum (Salt Lake), Mike Bercovici (San Diego) and Zach Mettenberger (Memphis) are some of the other quarterbacks to keep an eye on.
There are enough good skill position players on each team that The Alliance could turn into a high-scoring league — if the quarterbacks come out firing on target. But if the quarterbacks struggle, the defenses will dominate.
It will take a couple of weeks, but it will become clear which quarterbacks stand out, which running backs and receivers have a chance to get to the next level, which defenses have some playmakers. The NFL is always looking for big guys, so the offensive and defensive linemen will be heavily scouted.
Big names will emerge from the Alliance. Reputations will develop. Careers will be enhanced.
Martz has enjoyed the teaching aspect of the job.
“These guys have never been taught much about football,” he said. “The way college football is today, they don’t even go over films after practice. They don’t learn anything. It’s tragic. It’s hurt the game. You can’t measure the damage it’s done. You can’t train players in the offseason in the NFL.
“These guys go into the NFL with no training how to play football. I don’t understand how that can be acceptable to anybody. That’s what this league means. That is a primary reason for this league.”
Daryl Johnston, who won three Super Bowls with the Cowboys, is the Commanders general manager. It’s his first executive position in pro football.
“I think the fans are going to be impressed with the quality,” he said.
The curtain is about to go up. By the time they kick it off Saturday night, it will have been six days without football. That’s long enough.
Gary Myers is the former NFL columnist for the Dallas Morning News and New York Daily News. He is a voter for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the author of five books, including the NY Times bestseller “Brady vs. Manning,” and the recently released “How ‘Bout Them Cowboys?” Myers is a consultant to the Alliance.
SOURCE: Gary Myers / The Alliance