For the last year-plus, Alliance of American Football co-founders Bill Polian and Charlie Ebersol told anyone who would listen that the AAF would become the true minor league the NFL always needed.
It would be a breeding ground for developing new rules and finding long-shot players such as Kurt Warner and Malcolm Butler. With football done in early February, the AAF would satisfy our craving for football in the spring, they said.
Turns out that generating publicity was the only thing the AAF was good at.
The start-up league folded abruptly on Wednesday, when commissioner Tom Dundon pulled the plug on his investment and ended the experiment before the AAF could even finish one season.
And it threw everyone involved into a state of chaos. Coaches and management were fired via form e-mail. Players were suddenly caught footing the bill for team-issued housing (which the AAF later claimed it fixed). Linebacker Gionni Paul of the Salt Lake Reserve broke his arm in a game last Saturday, and found himself having to foot the medical bills.
Dundon, the owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, reportedly lost $70 million with the venture. And Polian and Ebersol have a giant egg on their faces.
“We had lots of hiccups,” Polian told SiriusXM NFL Radio last week. “It came so quickly — some of it was a little bit expected but a lot of it was unacceptable. But we’ve rectified that and I’m glad to see that’s been done. Myself and many of the GMs, even though we’re not on the payroll, we’ve been working all day to try and rectify those problems.”
What makes the AAF’s failures even sadder was that it was all so predictable. Though the AAF generated a ton of publicity the past year — most of it through NFL-owned and partnered outlets such as NFL Network, CBS and ESPN — I’m glad I didn’t waste much ink on the AAF, because developmental football just doesn’t work.
Whether it’s the USFL, or NFL Europe, or the Arena League, or the United Football League, or The Spring League, or the XFL, any United States-based football league not named the NFL is doomed to fail, assuming the investors want to turn a profit. The XFL claims it will reboot in 2020, but let’s see it actually start and, more importantly, finish an actual season before giving it too much credit. Vince McMahon has been known to exaggerate a claim or two.
The AAF, and pretty much all developmental football leagues, are doomed because the economics don’t add up. Football is the costliest of all the sports — it has the largest rosters, the most equipment, the most injuries, the costliest insurance, and the most “stuff” to travel with.
To make money, you need a compelling product. Americans don’t love football — they love good football. They won’t just blindly turn on any old game and watch it for three hours. Division 2 college games don’t draw 50,000 fans. Even NFL games can be boring — just ask the 98.2 million people who watched Super Bowl LIII.
And there simply aren’t enough good quarterbacks on the planet to deliver entertaining football to a league other than the NFL.
The top 96 or so quarterbacks are signed with NFL teams. Of those, only about 20 can really play. Have you seen the sorry state of backup quarterbacking in the NFL? Now consider that every one of those players is better than the quarterbacks in the AAF.
The Canadian Football League works because it is distinctly Canadian and operates on a much smaller scale than most pro sports leagues (and I’ve been to a CFL game. There’s no downfield passing. It’s boring). The XFL has a tiny chance because it may sign kids out of high school, allowing players to sidestep the NFL’s eligibility rules.
The AAF was able to cut a TV deal with CBS and generated the kind of publicity that helped give the league an air of legitimacy. But trouble was obvious when reports emerged in February that the league needed an infusion of cash from an angel investor (Dundon) just to meet payroll obligations in the second week of the season.
“When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all,” Polian said in a statement. “The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity.”
The AAF wasn’t a dud for everyone. The players did get eight games to showcase their talents in front of NFL scouts. About a dozen AAF players signed contracts with NFL teams in the days following the league closure, including Orlando Apollos quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who signed with the Browns. More players will surely sign with teams after the NFL Draft.
But developmental football just doesn’t work. There aren’t enough good quarterbacks to field a league, which means the play isn’t entertaining, which means there’s no money to be had, which means investors such as Dundon are going to pull the plug.
Retiring referees are taking to TV
Rob Gronkowski wasn’t the only person to retire on top after Super Bowl LIII.
Referee John Parry, an NFL official for 19 years and a referee for the last 10, surprisingly retired last week to take a job as ESPN’s rules analyst. Parry worked two Super Bowls as a referee, both involving the Patriots — February’s win over the Rams, and the loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.
Parry’s absence is the latest in two troubling trends for the NFL — it is losing its best officials to the TV networks, and it is having an unusual amount of turnover among its referees.
The NFL has now lost its Super Bowl referee to retirement for two straight years, with Parry joining Gene Steratore, who was hired by CBS in 2018 after working the Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl.
The networks now have poached four top officials in the last two years — Parry, Steratore, Terry McAulay (NBC) and former head of officiating Dean Blandino (Fox).
And the NFL now has lost seven referees in the last calendar year — Ed Hochuli, Jeff Triplette, Steratore and McAulay in 2018, and Pete Morelli, Walt Coleman and Parry this offseason. Tony Corrente and Walt Anderson are both 67 years old and likely to move on soon as well.
Change isn’t necessarily bad, and the NFL could benefit from some fresh blood in its officiating ranks. But this isn’t just a case of the NFL cycling out old referees in favor of new ones. The league also is losing some of its best and brightest officials, including its Super Bowl referee for two years in a row. Apparently the scrutiny and the paycheck (about $10,000-$12,000 per game) from officiating can’t compete with the cushy TV gigs.
PAY TO PLAY
Patriots lead league in bonuses
With free agency mostly complete for this offseason, I went back last week and looked at league-wide contract data for two specific terms that are common in NFL contracts — per-game roster bonuses and workout bonuses.
Why these two stats? The Patriots have included roster bonuses and workout bonuses in most of their contracts this offseason, so I wanted to see how they compared with the rest of the league in these areas.
Roster bonuses are interesting, because it’s a way for teams to reward players who are active on Sundays (and to save money on those who are injured). Typical language states that a player can make up to $500,000 per year in per-game roster bonuses — or, more appropriately, he makes $31,250 for every game he is active. This arrangement certainly encourages players to play through pain, and saves the team money (and cap space) when an injured player can’t suit up.
The prevalence of per-game roster bonuses is a fairly new phenomenon under the new collective bargaining agreement. And sure enough, the Patriots not only lead the way in this field, they are dominating the competition. Per the NFL Players Association, 33 of the 67 players on the Patriots’ roster have a per-game roster bonus in their contract. This includes all the top players, setting the precedent for the Patriots when they sign free agents. Michael Bennett has $1.5 million in per-game roster bonuses this fall. Tom Brady and Shaq Mason have $1 million. Dont’a Hightower has $875,000. Julian Edelman, Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, and Marcus Cannon have $500,000 bonuses.
Only two other teams have even 20 players with per-game roster bonuses, the 49ers (24) and Texans (20). The Ravens and Steelers have one player on their roster with such a bonus.
Basically, no team believes more in the “pay-to-play” mantra than the Patriots.
As for offseason workout bonuses, it shows which teams reward their players for participating in the voluntary offseason program — or, some might say, which teams need to bribe their players to show up. A workout bonus can be from an extra $10,000 up to $1 million for participating in the nine-week offseason program (90 percent attendance is usually required).
Per Spotrac, the Patriots are 12th in the NFL with $1.56 million in workout bonus money for 2019. Edelman has the highest on the team at $500,000, while Lawrence Guy is next $200,000. Rob Gronkowski skipped out on a $250,000 workout bonus last offseason protesting his contract.
The Packers ($5.705 million), Bengals ($5.07 million) and Panthers ($4.755 million) pay the most in workout bonuses, followed by the Bills ($3.9 million) and Raiders ($3.13 million). Five teams don’t pay any workout bonuses (Texans, Redskins, Rams, Falcons and Ravens), and the Cowboys and Colts basically don’t, either. NFL players who don’t have offseason workout bonuses receive $215 per day, per the CBA.
Turn on anything, you’ll get it
Mickey Mouse is going all in on the NFL Draft this year.
ESPN, owned by Disney, is televising the entire three-day draft with its usual army of hosts, draft analysts, and NFL insiders.
But the Disney-owned ABC network is also televising all seven rounds of the draft, marking the first time one TV network will broadcast the entire draft.
ABC is producing its own draft telecast separate from the ESPN broadcast for the first round on Thursday night (April 25) and second and third rounds on Friday night. ESPN college football personalities Rece Davis and Kirk Herbstreit will anchor the ABC broadcast, and will be joined by guests including Lee Corso, Jesse Palmer, Desmond Howard, and “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is also scheduled to be a guest on the ABC telecast.
ABC will then simulcast the ESPN broadcast on Saturday for Rounds 4-7.
Football fans will have no shortage of options to watch the draft, with NFL Network also televising all three days. ESPN Radio and ESPN Deportes also will have their own broadcasts.
Cowboys do Gregory a favor
Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory was suspended 30 of 32 games between 2016 and 2017 for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. And Gregory was suspended again in February, this time indefinitely. Gregory came into the league with a four-year, $2.257 million contract, but he has forfeited over $1.5 million of it because of suspensions.
So it was interesting to see the Cowboys do Gregory a favor last week. Even though he is suspended, and may never play again, they extended his contract by a year through 2020, and converted $310,000 of his base salary this year into a signing bonus. It’s not much in the grand scheme, but that’s $310,000 that would have been subject to forfeiture this fall, and instead goes into Gregory’s pocket.
Gregory, 26, was a productive player last year for the Cowboys, playing in 14 games and collecting six sacks. Here’s hoping he can get his life cleaned up and get back on the field.
One theory why the Cardinals haven’t traded Josh Rosen yet: The NFL doesn’t want the Cardinals to ruin the suspense of the draft, and the trade means the Cards are taking Kyler Murray. If Rosen is traded during draft week – possibly just before the draft – this theory will look pretty good . . . It’s finger-pointing season in Green Bay. Former coach Mike McCarthy ripped his old bosses in an ESPN interview for the way they fired him last December. And Bleacher Report nuked both McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers for the Packers’ underachievement over the last decade, detailing the dysfunction between the coach and quarterback by quoting unnamed sources and admittedly bitter ex-teammates. It is fairly remarkable the Packers only won one Super Bowl with Rodgers and McCarthy, and it seems that Rodgers, 35, may not be getting a free pass from Green Bay fans anymore . . . Speaking of the Packers, Jordy Nelson is working on a deal to officially retire as a Packer after spending last year with the Raiders. This fortunately spares us the three-month exercise of Nelson signing with the Patriots, reporters giving breathless daily updates of his progress in OTAs, then Nelson retiring two weeks into training camp when he realizes he doesn’t have enough left in the tank . . . Running back Mark Walton, a fourth-round pick of the Bengals last year who had just 14 carries as a rookie, has been arrested three times this offseason – for misdemeanor marijuana possession in January, misdemeanor battery in February after getting in a fight with a neighbor, and last week, felony charges of carrying a concealed weapon, marijuana possession and reckless driving, per the Miami Herald . . . Best of luck to Texans safety Andre Hal, a five-year veteran who announced his retirement Tuesday. Hal had a tough 2018, first being diagnosed with lymphoma last spring, then losing his father to a heart attack in October. Hal beat his cancer and played in eight games last fall (with three interceptions), but he didn’t have the stomach to keep playing this year. “When he passed, the love for football passed with him,” Hal said of his father to the Houston Chronicle. “I feel good about my decision. I didn’t want to play the game and not love it. I can’t just be collecting a check. I’m not that type of guy.”