Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Potential of A11FL showcase game on Memorial Day weekend brings back past holiday memories

Happy New Year’s Eve! And while we are in the midst of one set of holidays, it’s never a bad idea to look ahead with anticipation to another holiday – especially when football may be involved.

There is the potential that one of the two 2014 A11 Football League showcase games will be played on Memorial Day weekend.

If that does in fact happen, it has the chance to join some of the best spring professional football games of decades past during that holiday weekend.

-          On May 29, 1983, the United States Football League’s Boston Breakers’ prayers were answered on the final play of the game when quarterback Johnnie Walton’s pass into the end zone was deflected, then caught by wide receiver Frank Lockett for a 21-17 home win over the Philadelphia Stars.

Also that day, New Jersey Generals rallied for 10 straight fourth-quarter points, capped by a 50-yard field goal by Dave Betz at the gun, to top the hapless Washington Federals, 32-29, at RFK Memorial Stadium. The Generals were ahead 17-6 in the second quarter, including an 83-yard touchdown run by rookie Herschel Walker, but the Federals rallied for 17 straight points. Walker ran 23 times for 194 yards and a score.

-          On Memorial Day weekend 1984, the Los Angeles Express (24-17 home win over the Arizona Wranglers), Denver Gold (27-20 road win vs. the San Antonio Gunslingers) and the Generals (21-17 road win vs. the Chicago Blitz) all won games by seven points or less – and all did so in the fourth quarter.

The Express needed a 2-yard touchdown run by rookie running back Kevin Nelson with 32 seconds left to get past the Wranglers. Denver got a 32-yard TD pass from quarterback Fred Mortensen to running back Dave Preston with 1:52 to go to top the ’Slingers. And New Jersey scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns – the last a 25-yard scoring pass from veteran QB Brian Sipe to tight end Jeff Spek with 6:11 to play – to beat Chicago.

-          Perhaps the wildest professional football game ever played on Memorial Day weekend came in 1985, when New Jersey punter/holder Rick Partridge picked up a dropped field goal snap and ran 9 yards for the winning touchdown in overtime at the Tampa Bay Bandits, 30-24. Walker ran 30 times for 166 yards and three touchdowns in that game.

      Also on that holiday weekend in the USFL, Portland Breakers veteran kicker Tim Mazzetti hit a 44-yard field goal at the final gun for a 17-14 home win over the Memphis Showboats – a game which featured six Breakers interceptions of Memphis quarterback Mike Kelley.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Throwback Thursday – Guido Merkens

Nine-year National Football League veteran Guido Merkens saw the highs and the lows of professional football in the late 1970s and 1980s.

And he saw a lot from many different vantage points on the football field.

Merkens played all or part of three seasons (1978-80) with the “Luv Ya Blue” Houston Oilers teams, joined the moribund New Orleans Saints for the end of the 1980 season and played there through 1985 and then ended his career with a three-game replacement stint with the 1987 Philadelphia Eagles.

He displayed A11 Football League-style versatility early, playing quarterback and defensive back in college at Sam Houston State before making the Oilers as an undrafted free agent. With the Oilers, Merkens played 31 games and caught four passes, returned 15 punts, returned two kickoffs and recovered a fumble – all while playing wide receiver, punt returner, defensive back and emergency quarterback.

Then in New Orleans, Merkens’ roles increased. In 1982, he started a game at quarterback, and threw 52 passes overall in 74 games with the Saints. Merkens also caught 32 passes, ran 13 times, returned a punt, returned three kickoffs, punted four times and recovered four fumbles in New Orleans as a safety/quarterback/wide receiver/special teamer.

Merkens’ final three games came during the NFL’s strangest period in its near 100-year history. He went from serving as the Eagles’ No. 2 quarterback and also as a part-time punter in their first 1987 replacement game to ending up with a special teams tackle in their final strike game as a gunner on the kickoff team.

A11FL teams would be wise to stock up on Guido Merkens-type players – NFL-quality players who can fill in at a number of spots. And if they do, they will look to be as good as the “Luv Ya Blue” Oilers, and not as bad as the old-school “Aints.”

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A11FL announces completed TV negotiations, 12 finalist cities for first season

The A11 Football League continues to show steady progress in building toward its inaugural season, and two key developments have emerged from that progress.

Today, the A11FL is announcing that it has completed television negotiations, and will have a national TV deal. Details of that deal will be announced in the near future. The league also is announcing today the 12 finalists for the eight charter markets to begin play in March of 2015.

“We said that when we would make our next announcement to our fan base, we wanted to do it with something of substance,” said A11FL Chief Executive Officer/Commissioner Scott McKibben. “Thanks to the completion of national television negotiations, and the narrowing of the choices of our target charter markets, we are that much closer to that announcement and the official kickoff of the league.”

The finalists are, in alphabetical order:

-          Chicago, Illinois
-          Dallas, Texas
-          Denver, Colorado
-          Detroit, Michigan
-          Los Angeles, California
-          New York, New York
-          Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
-          Phoenix, Arizona
-          San Antonio, Texas
-          San Francisco, California
-          Seattle, Washington
-          Tampa, Florida

Of those 12 finalists, five or six are termed as “solid,” and the other two or three markets will come from the other finalists. Final market selections will be determined by stadium/venue availability, television market size and time zone, history of fan support and investor/community interest.

Chicago has had two previous spring outdoor football league teams – the Blitz in the United States Football League (1983-84) and the Enforcers in the XFL (2001). A team in the third-ranked television market in the country most likely would play at Soldier Field, where both the Blitz and the Enforcers called home.

Dallas didn’t have a team in the USFL or XFL, and only had the 11th practice “Team Dallas” for two years (1991-92) in the World League of American Football. A team in the fifth-ranked TV market in the United States has some options as to where home might be, including AT&T Stadium in nearby Arlington and the Cotton Bowl.

Denver’s spring outdoor football history consists of the USFL’s Gold from 1983-85, which boasted strong attendance figures until that league announced its move to a fall schedule, which would have resulted in a direct fight with the National Football League’s Broncos. The stadium for a team in the 17th-ranked TV market in the country would have to be Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Detroit had a highly-successful spring outdoor football team in the USFL’s Michigan Panthers, which won the initial USFL title in 1983 and made the playoffs again in 1984. The 11th-ranked TV market in the country also was rumored to be an XFL expansion site, had the league continued after just one season. A Detroit squad could play at either Ford Field or The Silverdome in nearby Pontiac.

Los Angeles has seen some high-profile spring outdoor football action over the years – from a rookie quarterback named Steve Young playing for the USFL’s Express (1984-85) to the Xtreme winning the XFL’s only championship. The second-highest-ranked TV market in the USA could have a team either at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum or the cozier StubHub Center.

The New York City metro area has had a team in all three previous spring outdoor pro leagues – the New Jersey Generals (USFL, 1983-85), the New York/New Jersey Knights (1991-92) and the New York/New Jersey Hitmen (XFL, 2001). All three teams in the largest media market in the country played at Giants Stadium, and a possible A11FL New York metro team most likely would play at MetLife Stadium in nearby East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Philadelphia was home to the quintessential spring pro football franchise, the USFL’s Stars (1983-84), which played in the first USFL championship game in 1983 and won the league title in 1984. The country’s fourth-largest TV market has both Lincoln Financial Field and Franklin Field as potential landing spots for a Philadelphia A11FL team.

Phoenix’s last foray into the spring pro football genre was three decades ago, when it had the Arizona Wranglers (1983-84) and Arizona Outlaws (1985). The 12th-ranked TV market in the country has both University of Phoenix Stadium, and Sun Devil Stadium in nearby Tempe.

San Antonio has had two previous spring pro football franchises – the USFL’s Gunslingers (1984-85) and WLAF’s Riders (1991-92). The best option for a potential A11FL team in the country’s 36th-ranked television market is the Alamodome, which last saw extensive pro football use in 2005 when the NFL’s New Orleans Saints were displaced due to Hurricane Katrina.

San Francisco has had just one previous spring pro football team, the XFL’s Demons in 2001. The Demons easily outpaced the rest of the XFL in average home attendance at 35,005 per home game at then-Pacific Bell Park. A San Fran A11FL team could play at now-AT&T Park, but also could find a home at Levi’s Stadium in nearby Santa Clara, which will be the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers’ home field starting next year.

If Seattle is chosen for an A11FL charter franchise, it will be the first time the city has played host to a spring outdoor pro football team. The 13th-ranked television market in the country, Seattle has one venue which makes sense for a possible new team – CenturyLink Field, home of the NFL’s Seahawks and Major League Soccer’s Sounders.

Tampa was home to one of the more highly-recognizable spring outdoor pro football franchises – the Steve Spurrier-led Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL (1983-85). The Tampa-St. Petersburg market has two potential viable venues – Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Ahead of big news, an end-of-year thanks to fans of the A11FL

I wasn’t yet into football when the United States Football League was blazing the spring professional football trail from 1983-85.

I was but a teenager when the World League of American Football first kicked off in 1991, becoming the first professional football league to operate on two continents simultaneously. It started with me clipping out the draft lists from the back of the USA Today sports section, and it ended with me sitting and watching my home-state team, the Ohio Glory.

And I was a young adult in 2001 when the XFL brought its unabashedly in-your-face brand of football to televisions and stadiums across the country during the time usually reserved for the start of baseball season, March Madness and the end of baseball and hockey seasons. For some, it was about the bombast, the cheerleaders and waiting for someone to get injured in the pregame scramble for the ball. For me, it was another chance to watch football in the spring.

It’s exciting to think of the start of the A11 Football League – those two showcase games in May of 2014 and then the start of the first full season in March of 2015. It will be the culmination of a LOT of work – work which continues now and will continue in full-force at the turn of the calendar next week.

There is so much to look forward to in 2014, but first, there is tomorrow – when the league will announce news about television and markets here at www.a11flmagazine.com. Then, next year, there is hiring of key league and team personnel, and other key components.

And then, at the end of 2014, there is the fun stuff – the beginning of the first A11FL player allocations/drafts: A territorial allocation of players who were eligible for the National Football League Draft from 2009-14, a common draft of non-territorial players who were eligible for the NFL Draft from 2009-14, a territorial allocation of players eligible for the NFL Draft in 2015 and a common draft of non-territorial players eligible for the NFL Draft in 2015.

Before we get to 2014, however, there’s still time left in 2013 to thank you – those who have read stories like this on www.a11flmagazine.com since its launch in May. In the seven months since, there have been more than 90 stories and more than 14,000 page views.

That means there are thousands and thousands of people to which the A11FL might be their childhood league. Or their young adult league. Or a league which rekindles those memories of a spring football pioneer some three decades ago.

Those involved in the launch of the A11FL understand the fans’ want for concrete information. It doesn’t, however, exceed our want to give the fans the concrete information they seek. Putting together a spring football league worthy of the fans who want to enjoy it takes time. Sometimes, it takes more time than executives and fans alike want it to take.

Starting tomorrow, however, the information comes. For the fans. About a league for the fans.

And to those fans – thank you!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A11FL Throwback Thursday – Jim ‘Crash’ Jensen

Those A11 Football League fans who are looking for a prototype A11FL player from “back in the day,” perhaps the best example is former Miami Dolphin Jim “Crash” Jensen.

Jensen, who played for the Dolphins from 1981-92 after being an 11th-round pick by Miami in ’81, was a Jack of all trades – and a master of all of them. He saw time at wide receiver, tight end, running back, wingback and quarterback, and was a holder for placement kicks and a kick-coverage ace (hence the nickname “Crash) – and was proficient no matter where he was placed.

During his dozen-year National Football League career, Jensen caught 229 passes for 2,171 yards and 19 touchdowns, ran 26 times for 142 yards, was 4-for-7 passing for 102 yards and two touchdowns and recovered five fumbles. In a two-year span in 1988-89, Jensen caught 119 passes for 1,209 yards and 11 scores, while running 18 times for 118 yards.

And he did all of that while starting just 10 of 164 games during his career.

Jensen’s playing career didn’t end with the Dolphins, however. He spent the next two years (1993-94) as the starting quarterback for the Arena Football League’s Miami Hooters, and he continued to display he high-level versatility there, as well – 51 touchdown passes, a touchdown catch, eight rushing touchdowns and two forced fumbles.

Versatility is going to be important for many A11FL players. A11FL fans can only hope their team ends up with one – or many – Crash Jensens on their team.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A11FL looking to create the definitive, lasting spring football blueprint

The higher-ups with the A11 Football League know there is no iron-clad, definitive blueprint of how to create a successful spring professional football league.

Since that is the case, those leading the effort to launch the A11FL will look to create that iron-clad, definitive blueprint.

The A11FL, which will take professional football back to its roots thanks to its signature rule change of not having a jersey-numbering system for offensive players, is looking to build off the successes of the United States Football League (1983-85), the World League of American Football (1991-92, 1995-97)/NFL Europe (1998-2007) and the XFL (2001) – and learn from their failures.

The USFL was the first professional football league to play its games in the “non-traditional” time of the year – spring and summer, as opposed to fall and winter. The plan was for the USFL to debut in the spring of 1983 with modest team payrolls and fiscal sanity. That quickly went out the window, and the money hemorrhaging was underway early.

Going away from the original fiscal plan was one problem. The next was expanding too quickly – as in growing by 50 percent from Year 1 to Year 2. Going from 12 teams in 1983 to 18 teams in 1984 turned out to be a mistake – one that was exacerbated by the final nail in the USFL’s coffin, trying to move its season to the fall/winter for 1986. Of the USFL’s seven expansion/relocation cities in 1984, only four were around for the 1985 campaign.

In the end, having future Pro Football Hall of Famers like Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Reggie White playing on their fields wasn’t enough to save the USFL from itself, and its run ended after three seasons.

The WLAF/NFL Europe was a two-fold exercise by the National Football League – a) to develop players at the lower end of NFL rosters, and b) attempt to build the game globally. The original incarnation of the WLAF was more popular overseas in Europe than it was in North America, so when it returned beginning in 1995, it became an all-European circuit. The problem during the restart was the fans who came out in 1991 and 1992 felt jilted by the two-year hiatus, and the popularity – despite the league’s second run being 13 seasons long – wasn’t at the same level.

While the WLAF/NFLE didn’t necessarily do its job of growing the game globally to the extent the NFL was looking for, the development part was a success at times. See players like Kurt Warner, Adam Vinatieri, Brad Johnson, Michael Sinclair and Mike Jones – who made the game-winning tackle for the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV – as proof of that.

Finally, there was the XFL. The biggest mistake the XFL made was evident immediately – the football wasn’t nearly as important as the professional wrestling-type bombast and swagger. While the XFL did pioneer a current football television staple like “sky cam,” its brand of football wasn’t nearly up to par of that of the USFL, and it probably was slightly better than the WLAF/NFLE.

Despite having players like league Player of the Year Tommy Maddox and future NFLers like Rod “He Hate Me” Smart and current Denver Broncos linebacker Paris Lenon, the quality of play in the first week – especially in primetime – simply couldn’t match the hype. The television ratings and attendances declined as the season went on, and the XFL was put out of its misery shortly after its only campaign.

So what are the lessons to be learned from these three past spring leagues?

-          Come up with a viable cost structure, and stick to it.
-          Don’t expand too fast – and too much.
-          Keep the league about the football first – and have any other entertainment value in the background.

Learning those three lessons will make the A11FL’s blueprint building go a lot smoother.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Spring football leagues have history of attracting NFL first-round QBs

When the A11 Football League brings up the possibility of having quarterbacks like Tim Tebow, Vince Young, JaMarcus Russell, Michael Vick or other past first-round National Football League pivots play in its league starting in the spring of 2015, the skepticism is understandable.

Understandable, that is, until one looks at the history of spring football leagues, and their ability to attract former NFL first-rounders to come play for them.

The last ex-NFL first-round quarterback to play in a spring football league was Jim Druckenmiller. A 1997 first-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers, Druckenmiller played just six games (one start) for the Niners, throwing just 52 passes and one touchdown pass, posting a passer rating of 29.2…and going 1-0 as a starter.

In 2001, Druckenmiller played in the XFL with the Memphis Maniax. After starting the season as a backup, he ended that season second in the league with 13 touchdown passes, third with 1,499 passing yards and fourth in completion percentage (54.8).

The XFL’s only Player of the Year, Tommy Maddox of the Los Angeles Xtreme, also was a first-round choice once upon a time. Drafted in 1992 by the Denver Broncos to be John Elway’s heir apparent, Maddox was 0-4 as a rookie starter, then didn’t start another game until playing in the Arena Football League, then the XFL. Maddox led the Xtreme to the XFL’s only title, and was the circuit’s top player in terms of passing yards (2,186) and touchdown passes (18).

Maddox was able to parlay his only spring football season into five seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, in which he was 15-16-1 as a starter and earned NFL Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Before Maddox and Druckenmiller, the most famous NFL first-round QB to play in a spring football league was a young, sometimes-reckless lefthander by the name of Steve Young. Young was a different case, however – he already was playing for the United States Football League’s Los Angeles Express before being chosen as the No. 1 overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL’s 1984 Supplemental Draft of players in the USFL and Canadian Football League whose rights already weren’t owned by an NFL team.

Young, of course, went on to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career after two seasons with the Express. He played two seasons in Tampa before being traded to the 49ers, where he played for 13 seasons. Young also won three Super Bowl titles – one as a starter.

Joining Young in the USFL for two seasons was 1983 Buffalo Bills first-round pick Jim Kelly, also a future Pro Football Hall of Famer. Kelly joined the USFL’s Houston Gamblers for the 1984 and 1985 seasons, and would have played for the New Jersey Generals in 1986, but after the USFL folded, he played for the Bills for 11 seasons and took them to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

These are just some of the past examples of former NFL first-round quarterbacks who found success in past spring football leagues. The A11FL is going to find prime NFL-quality talent which fits the A11 game – and it’s very possible that talent will come in the form of past (and maybe future) NFL first-round quarterbacks.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Raiders’ Reece displays A11FL-type versatility on weekly basis

The A11 Football League has made no secret that its players are going to have to display some versatility.

Running backs certainly will be no different. A11FL backs will have to be able to run, catch, block and perhaps pass at a high level, and be able to do so lined up at several different positions.

One of the best examples of a National Football League running back who would be very productive in the A11FL is Oakland Raiders fullback Marcel Reece.

Reece, 28, has been an under-the-radar weapon in the Raiders’ offensive backfield for the past four seasons. At 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, Reece, a Pro Bowler in 2012, presents a very difficult player to bring down between the tackles and out in space.

Through Sunday, Reece has played in 59 NFL games, starting 42. He has run 147 times for 705 yards (a 4.8-yard average) and three touchdowns, and caught 131 passes for 1,392 yards (a 10.6-yard average) and eight scores. Throwing in five kickoff returns, and Reece has touched the ball 283 times – and fumbled four times.

Reece has started both at tailback and fullback in Oakland, and is coming off a 123-yard rushing game (and 161 total yards from scrimmage) in a 37-27 loss at the New York Jets on Sunday. In 2012, Reece had a four-game stretch in November where he caught eight passes for 95 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, caught seven passes and had 104 yards from scrimmage at the Baltimore Ravens, ran for 103 yards and caught passes for 90 more against the New Orleans Saints and had 103 yards from scrimmage at the Cincinnati Bengals.

Reece also has been the picture of perseverance. An undrafted free agent wide receiver in 2008, he was waived once by the Miami Dolphins and twice by the Raiders, and also spent nearly two full seasons on the Raiders’ practice squad.

If you get a chance to watch Reece in action for the remainder of the 2013 Raiders season, you will see the type of player who will be commonplace in the A11FL – talented, versatile and determined.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Not all past Heisman-winning QBs could have thrived in the A11FL in their prime

The 2013 Heisman Trophy winner will be announced on Saturday night.

Most likely, the winner will be a quarterback, and the favorite as Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston.

That got me to thinking – which of the most recent Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks would do well in the A11 Football League? Let’s go back about 30 years…

-          Doug Flutie (Boston College, 1984). Flutie might very well have been the poster child for the A11FL had it been around in the mid-to-late-1980s and 1990s. Playing in three professional football leagues (United States Football League, National Football League and Canadian Football League) from 1985-2005, Flutie posted ridiculous passing and rushing numbers – 58,179 yards and 369 touchdowns passing, and 6,759 yards and 82 touchdowns rushing.

-          Charlie Ward (Florida State, 1993). Ward chose to play in the National Basketball Association, ending with a 11-year career mostly with the New York Knicks, rather than in the NFL. His Heisman senior season of 1993 with the Seminoles was very A11FL-worthy – a 69.5 completion rate, 3,032 passing yards, 27 touchdown passes, only four interceptions and 339 yards and four touchdowns rushing.

-          Eric Crouch (Nebraska, 2001). Crouch played briefly in pro football, and was a pro quarterback for a brief time in the CFL and the United Football League. His skill set, and his numbers at Nebraska (4,481 yards and 29 touchdowns passing, 3,434 yards and 59 touchdowns rushing), would have made Crouch a very good option for an A11FL team.

-          Troy Smith (Ohio State, 2006). Smith has been in professional football since 2007 in the NFL, UFL and CFL, and he has shown flashes of his Heisman form – most recently in his first CFL season with the Montreal Alouettes. In 2005 with the Buckeyes, Smith ran for 611 yards and 11 touchdowns. His Heisman season saw Smith throw for 2,542 yards and 30 touchdowns, and run for 204 yards and another score.

-          Tim Tebow (Florida, 2007). The current prototype A11FL quarterback, Tebow has been a winner at both the Division I college and NFL levels. In 35 NFL games, Tebow has thrown for 2,422 yards and 17 touchdowns, and ran for 989 yards and 12 scores. In college, Tebow posted numbers which would make any A11FL offensive coordinator drool – 9,285 yards and 88 touchdowns passing, and 2,947 yards and 57 touchdowns rushing.

-          Two current NFL quarterbacks – Cam Newton (Auburn, 2010) and Robert Griffin III (Baylor, 2011) – would be dominant A11FL players, as would Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M, 2012), who may be joining Newton and Griffin III in the NFL soon.

-          The other Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in the last 30 years – some with a lot of professional success, some with very little – who wouldn’t fit in well in the A11FL include Vinny Testaverde (Miami, 1986), Andre Ware (Houston, 1989), Ty Detmer (BYU, 1990), Gino Torretta (Miami, 1992), Danny Wuerffel (Florida, 1996), Chris Weinke (Florida State, 2000), Carson Palmer (USC, 2002), Jason White (Oklahoma, 2003), Matt Leinart (USC, 2004) and Sam Bradford (Oklahoma, 2008).

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A11 Football League will make past spring football pioneers proud

When it comes to putting together a high-quality spring professional football league, those guiding the A11 Football League won’t cut any corners.

And that fact alone should be enough to pay a high tribute to those past spring pro football pioneers who no longer are with us.

I thought about this at the end of last week after the passing of Arena Football League icon Tim Marcum, that league’s all-time winningest head coach. Marcum was no stranger to the outdoor spring pro football genre, having spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the United States Football League’s San Antonio Gunslingers (1984-85) and one campaign as an assistant in the World League of American Football with the New York/New Jersey Knights (1991).

After mourning Marcum’s passing and thinking of how many times I saw him on television in various leagues over the years, I began to think about the spring pro football pioneers the A11FL will be paying tribute to by its high quality of play, beginning with two showcase games in May of 2014 and its first full season beginning in March of 2015.

The list begins where it should – with former Tampa Bay Bandits owner John F. Bassett. A fierce proponent of spring football while owning one of the cornerstone USFL franchises, Bassett was the leader of the charge against moving the USFL’s 1986 schedule to the fall, which ended up being the league’s ultimate undoing. Bassett, who sold his interest as managing general partner in 1985 as a result of certainly his anger at the USFL’s scheduling decisions and perhaps also because of his failing health, died in May of 1986 after battling cancer.

And there’s someone like Bob Ackles, who was a key figure in the development of the only season of the XFL in 2001. Ackles, who is better known as a Canadian Football League Hall of Famer for his work as both general manager (1975-86) and president (2002-08) of his beloved British Columbia Lions, was the vice president/general manager of the XFL’s Las Vegas Outlaws. Ackles died in July of 2008 from a heart attack.

Finally, Mike Lynn was the president of the WLAF when it launched in 1991. Lynn, who also was a longtime executive vice president/general manager of the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings, headed a spring pro football league which operated on two continents (North America and Europe) and in five countries (United States, Canada, Germany, Spain and England) at the same time. Lynn died in July of 2012.

The A11FL will be provide football fans with a great on-field product. It also will be a fitting tribute to men like Marcum, Bassett, Ackles and Lynn, who were key figures in building spring pro football leagues of the past.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Past spring football leagues had mostly strong followings in A11FL states

The A11 Football League will kick off its first full season in March of 2015.

It will be at that time that the A11FL will continue – and build upon – the strong tradition of spring outdoor professional football leagues past.

The A11FL already has announced that charter teams will be in the following states – California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York/New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas. And in those states, previous spring football leagues have had mostly strong home crowds:

The United States Football League, the grandfather of the spring outdoor professional football genre, saw nine instances over three seasons (1983-85) in which a team averaged more than 35,000 fans per home game. Of those nine instances, seven (1984 Jacksonville Bulls, 46,730; 1984 Tampa Bay Bandits, 46,158; 1985 Bandits, 45,220; 1985 Bulls, 44,325; 1985 New Jersey Generals, 41,268; 1983 Bandits, 39,896 and 1984 Generals, 37,716) came in states where the A11FL will have teams beginning in 2015.

In addition, the two neutral-site USFL Championship Games played in A11FL states were well-attended – in 1984 (52,662 in Tampa, Florida) and 1985 (49,263 in The Meadowlands, New Jersey).

The World League of American Football had a two-year run (1991-92) with teams in the United States, as well as Canada and Europe. It had four teams in states where the A11FL will have teams in 2015 – the New York/New Jersey Knights, Orlando Thunder, Sacramento Surge and San Antonio Riders. The Knights averaged 32,322 and 25,982 fans per game, respectively; the Thunder 19,018 and 16,523; the Surge 17,994 and 20,557 and the Riders 14,853 and 13,308.

The 1991 playoff game at The Meadowlands had 23,149 fans in attendance, and the two 1992 playoff games in A11FL states (23,640 in Sacramento, and 28,746 in Orlando) both had more fans on hand than that.

The XFL had just one season in 2001 – and it was just as much about bluster and bombast as it was about football. But while television ratings plummeted after its much-ballyhooed inaugural games, attendance league-wide was steady at 23,410 during the regular season. And the top four teams in terms of regular-season average home attendance – the San Francisco Demons (35,005), New York/New Jersey Hitmen (28,309), Orlando Rage (25,563) and Los Angeles Xtreme (22,679) – were based in three of the A11FL’s charter states.

And even as beat-down as the XFL was by the end of its only season – by pundits and fans alike – it drew 24,153 fans in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for “The Million Dollar Game,” the league’s only championship game.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Michael Vick in the A11FL in the spring of 2015? Well…

Longtime National Football League quarterback Michael Vick currently is a man without a starting job.

Vick, one of the most dynamic pass-run threats in the history of the NFL, has lost his starting job with the Philadelphia Eagles to Nick Foles, who doesn’t seem content to let it go any time soon (19 touchdown passes and no interceptions so far in 2013).

So where might Vick, a veteran left-handed quarterback who will be 34 in June, end up next? Perhaps in the A11 Football League.

Had the A11FL been around 10 years sooner, it would have been tailor-made for Vick, who has posted 21,489 yards and 128 touchdowns passing and 5,859 yards and 36 touchdowns rushing in his 11-year NFL career (2001-06, 2009-13).

Still, Vick may have enough tread left on his tires (he was averaging 9.1 yards per carry this season before getting injured) to be a high-quality A11FL quarterback – perhaps for the Pennsylvania team, where he most surely would have a lot of fans already in place. And Vick would be a great mentor for, possibly, a quarterback like Ohio State’s Kenny Guiton, who is the best backup quarterback in college football this year.

With or without Vick, Pennsylvania’s A11FL team wouldn’t be in as good of shape at quarterback as perhaps the Illinois A11FL team would be with the likes of former Philadelphia Eagle Mike Kafka, Northern Illinois dynamo Jordan Lynch, Northwestern pivot/receiver Kain Colter and Illinois record-setter Nathan Scheelhaase. Illinois won’t lack for high-quality choices.

Florida’s A11FL team, of course, would be in prime offensive position right away with Tim Tebow at quarterback, and there would be some nice backup options in Ryan Perrilloux (ex-United Football League QB) and Jacory Harris, currently in the Canadian Football League. Texas could go after Vince Young, and have a strong stable with perhaps Graham Harrell, Stephen McGee and Jerrod Johnson.

This space has mentioned former NFL No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell as a big-name possibility for the New York/New Jersey squad, but players perhaps more suited for the offense would be ex-Miami Dolphin Pat White and former Kansas State standout Collin Klein.

California’s team could go with current Arena Football League quarterback Darron Thomas, formerly of Oregon, or Arizona lefty B.J. Denker. And Michigan has some young potentially-dynamic options in CFLers Dan LeFevour and Zach Collaros, and maybe even Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

More big-program college QBs showing A11FL prowess down the stretch

One of things I have enjoyed about watching college football this fall is visualizing which players would be good fits in the A11 Football League once the ball is kicked off, both in two showcase games in May of 2014 and the league’s first full season beginning in March of 2015.

And as soon as I see a quarterback who looks like a keeper, I have his name etched in my brain for future use – like right now.

Here are some of college QBs previously unmentioned here who have been showing off some impressive numbers and on-field feats in recent months:

James Franklin, Missouri – When you are the starting quarterback for one of the best teams in college football, you are going to be noticed by most everyone. Despite missing three games due to a shoulder injury, Franklin has posted numbers any coach would love – 16 touchdowns, 1,952 yards and a 66.9-percent completion rate as a passer, and 412 net yards and three touchdowns rushing.

Franklin (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) has been doing this for the Tigers for a while, posting big numbers as a sophomore in 2011 (21 touchdowns passing, 15 touchdowns rushing and 3,946 total yards of offense). His record as a starter for Missouri is 19-10.

B.J. Denker, Arizona – As soon as I saw first saw Denker, a 6-foot-3, 184-pound senior lefty, on a late-night PAC-12 telecast earlier this fall, I made sure to continue to follow the rest of his final collegiate season. He hasn’t disappointed Wildcat fans, either, as the former junior college all-star has led Arizona to two different three-game winning streaks, a 7-5 overall record and the program’s fifth winning season in the last six years.

Denker has started all 12 games for Arizona this season, and his numbers certainly warrant A11FL consideration – 2,241 yards, 14 touchdowns and a 60.5-percent completion rate as a passer, and 898 net yards and 12 touchdowns rushing. Either as a starter, or the lefty in a dual-QB formation in some package plays every game, Denker most likely would make an A11FL offensive coordinator pretty happy.

Kain Colter, Northwestern – Colter is exactly the type of versatile player who would give A11FL defensive coordinators fits, both at quarterback and as a wide receiver. In 11 games as a senior this season, Colter (6-foot, 195 pounds) completed 63-of-80 passes (78.8 percent) for 577 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions, was second on the team with 489 yards and five touchdowns rushing and caught three passes for 16 yards and a score. 

Colter has career collegiate highs with 872 yards and eight touchdowns passing as a junior in 2012, with 894 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing in that same season and with 43 catches for 466 yards and three scores receiving as a sophomore in 2011.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Broad television exposure key factor in spring outdoor pro football

There is no such thing as overstating the importance of a high-quality television contract when talking about a new spring outdoor professional football league.

“There isn’t any question that the single biggest component that we have to get done is television,” said Scott McKibben, A11 Football League Chief Executive Officer/Commissioner. “That’s the gas in the tank.”

The three previous spring outdoor pro football leagues – the United States Football League (1983-85), the World League of American Football (1991-92, 1995-97)/NFL Europe (1998-2007) and the XFL (2001) – all had a substantial television presence for most or all of their lives.

-          The USFL had the advantage when it was getting its ducks in a row in 1982 of having a fledgling sports cable network (ESPN) that needed more big-time live programming. It also didn’t hurt that USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons was an ESPN executive at one time. Having both a broadcast TV deal (ABC) and a cable deal gave the USFL the weekly exposure it desperately needed, given that it was the first league going into the uncharted territory of playing pro football in a non-traditional time of year. It also had the good fortune of having a lead play-by-play announcer like Keith Jackson during ABC telecasts.

-          The WLAF played its first two seasons on two continents and in five countries, and did so on American television with a combo package similar to that of the USFL – a set of games on broadcast (ABC) and a set on cable (USA Network). Easily the biggest name to broadcast early WLAF games was Brent Musburger, and USA Network games were where future broadcasters like Boomer Esiason and Dan Marino cut their teeth. Once the WLAF/NFLE returned after its two-year hiatus, it had a number of broadcast partners, including DirecTV, FX, FOX, FOX Sports Net and NFL Network.

-          The XFL was a joint venture partially owned by NBC, so of course it ended up being one of three networks to broadcast games – and the primary broadcast partner. NBC did Saturday-night telecasts (one national and one regional), and both TNN and UPN did Sunday telecasts. Perhaps the most memorable aspect of those telecasts was having Jesse Ventura as a color analyst for national NBC telecasts. Unlike the bigger USFL and the more spread-out WLAF/NFLE, the XFL saw all of its games televised either nationally or regionally.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Choice of head coach-quarterback combo could make, break an A11FL team

Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr.

Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw.

Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

These are just some of the famous highly-successful head coach-quarterback combos in the history of the National Football League. A team can win with a great quarterback or a great head coach, but it can win championships with both.

A11 Football League teams are going to have to make the right call in terms of all of their hires – from the very top of the organization to the very bottom. But the choices of head coach and starting quarterback for each team will be among the most crucial.

What would be some of the potential “dream” A11FL head coach-quarterback pairings?

CALIFORNIA – A Rick Neuheisel-Dennis Dixon combination would be quite a site. Neuheisel is a natural here for three reasons – 1) his offensive background as a professional quarterback, assistant coach and head coach, 2) his deep UCLA ties as a quarterback, assistant and head coach and 3) his background in a previous alternative outdoor spring professional football league (as quarterback of the United States Football League’s San Antonio Gunslingers, 1984-85). Dixon ran Oregon’s high-tempo offense as a collegian, and currently is on the Buffalo Bills’ practice squad. His run-pass dual threat and experience would make for a quality pairing with a teacher like Neuheisel.

FLORIDA – Herman Edwards and Tim Tebow. This might seem like an odd pairing at first, Edwards being a defensive-minded coach. But Edwards, who has Florida ties from his time as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prior to his two NFL head coaching stints, knows players play to win the game. And Tebow most certainly plays all-out to win the game. Edwards could use his vast pro coaching background to try to stop A11FL offenses, and Tebow was born to run an A11FL offense. Personality-wise, Edwards and Tebow would be a very good match.

ILLINOIS – Charlie Weis and Jordan Lynch. Weis is in his second stint as a college football coach at Kansas after spending many years as an offensive coordinator with the New York Jets, New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs and the University of Florida. His fertile offensive mind would go well with the dual-threat of Lynch, who is a senior at Northern Illinois and is racking up yards and touchdowns with his arm and his legs at a high rate. Weis could come up with high-octane offensive game plans with a player like Lynch who throws like a quarterback and runs like a tailback.

MICHIGAN – Steve Mariucci and Dan LeFevour. Mariucci has been out of coaching since 2005, and who knows whether or not he has an itch to go back to the sidelines? But someone like “Mooch” with his offensive background, his Michigan ties (born in Iron Mountain and played quarterback/coached at Northern Michigan) and a brief alternative outdoor spring pro football league (assistant with the USFL’s Orlando Renegades in 1985) would go well with a pivot like LeFevour. The dual-threat LeFevour has been a backup in the Canadian Football League after “touring” the NFL for a couple seasons, but has the ability to be a pro starting quarterback.

NEW YORK/NEW JERSEY – Mike Shanahan and JaMarcus Russell. Big markets deserve big names. And head coach Mike Shanahan, currently in his 20th season as an NFL head coach and fourth season leading the Washington Redskins, and quarterback JaMarcus Russell, once the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, both fit that bill. Shanahan has 170 wins at the NFL level, as well as back-to-back Super Bowl titles, and has adapted his team’s offense to fit the skills of dynamic quarterback Robert Griffin III. Russell, six years removed from being the top pick in the draft, also is four years removed from any pro game action. He is attempting a comeback, and could be the face of a team – or an entire league.

PENNSYLVANIA – Brad Childress and Pat White. Childress has a Pennsylvania background as a longtime assistant coach under Andy Reid with the Philadelphia Eagles, and has been an offensive assistant or head coach in the NFL since 1999. He currently serves as “spread game analyst” for the Kansas City Chiefs. Childress’ playbook would be even thicker thanks to the ability of White to both run and pass the ball down the field. White has had a checkered pro career after setting many records at West Virginia, and this would be White’s first true shot at a pro starting job.

TEXAS – Houston Nutt and Vince Young. Nutt never has been a pro head coach, but has plenty of coaching experience in the South, including his two most-recent head coaching jobs at Arkansas and Ole Miss. This would be a pairing of a head coach who flat-out wins (11 winning seasons, .584 overall winning percentage in 19 college seasons), and a quarterback who flat-out wins. Young is 31-19 as a starter in the NFL, and was 30-2 as a starter at Texas. Young would be a fan favorite in the state of Texas, and with Nutt running the show, the two could have the Texas A11FL team winning right away.

Monday, November 25, 2013

McKibben – A11FL fans will get TV, most market details before Christmas

A11 Football League Chief Executive Officer/Commissioner Scott McKibben knows fans of the new spring outdoor professional football league want more details about various aspects of the progress of the circuit.

And those fans are about to get some of those details.

“We are getting very close to where we will do our national announcement,” said McKibben, adding that the announcement will include who the league’s television partner will be, as well as announcing six of the league’s eight initial markets as being “solid.” “There are still two (markets) that could change and could be in flux, and that’s because of interest from different ownership groups and interest in TV. Within the next 30 days, certainly before Christmas, we will make an announcement.”

McKibben said the conclusion of the television deal, of which the A11FL is in serious late-stage negotiations with three networks, is what has delayed the league’s national announcement. He added that the league’s equipment/merchandise/apparel sponsor will tie in with the television announcement.

“When we do our national announcement, we want to do it with something of substance,” said McKibben. “Television is probably the single-most important and critical element of a league, whether it is a professional league or a college conference. We’ve all seen what the value economically is. But equally as important is, with the various types of distribution, having your product in the hands of a high-quality network broadcaster. There isn’t any question that the single biggest component that we have to get done is television. That’s the gas in the tank.”

“The development of the league and the launch of the league continues to move forward. We’ve been very pleased. On the fundraising side, we’ve spent a lot of time on the road, and we’re getting a lot of interest on the team and league level.”

McKibben said the A11FL will go ahead with two “showcase games,” both nationally-televised, in May 2014. The coaching staffs for the two showcase games will be the eight head coaches for the full inaugural A11FL season, as well as a few more additional assistant coaches for each team.

“I’m not going to mention any of them by name,” McKibben said of potential A11FL head coaches. “We’re looking for coaches who want to coach at the professional level who are great at developing players, who understand this is a league that isn’t like Arena Football or any of the others – this is National Football League-kind of football. It’s not about names as it is about the quality of the coach.”

The inaugural A11FL season will begin the last weekend of March 2015, and end with the first A11FL championship game on or around Fourth of July weekend.

The A11FL has the advantage, or disadvantage, depending on your point of view, of coming into being in the “digital age” of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. – things previous spring outdoor pro football leagues didn’t have access to.

McKibben sees this as a positive, saying, “I think we have an advantage that the USFL, the XFL and the UFL didn’t have. While we haven’t made an official announcement, it has piqued the interest of our fan base. This continues to go on, and it feeds on itself. It feeds on the interest of our fans. While at times, it has consumed some of our time in having to respond, I think it’s better to have visibility than silence. I’ll take the chatter over silence any day.”

The A11FL will have four player drafts/allocations over 60 days through January of 2015 to stock the bulk of its eight teams’ rosters for training camp:

-       A territorial allocation of players who were eligible for the National Football League Draft from 2009-14.
-       A common draft of non-territorial players who were eligible for the NFL Draft from 2009-14.
-       A territorial allocation of players eligible for the NFL Draft in 2015.
-       A common draft of non-territorial players eligible for the NFL Draft in 2015.

“The regional component is quite attractive for a league starting up because of the familiarity of the fans in the region, of the media familiarity,” McKibben said, “and a lot of these players will want to stay reasonably close to home, if possible. We only protect a few schools for a few rounds, so we think we have just the right mix. I think we’ve struck the right balance.”

The behind-the-scenes developments with the A11FL in recent months have served to heighten McKibben’s excitement about what’s to come in 2014, 2015 and beyond.

“As you get closer and you become more of what I would call ‘real’ to people, the excitement picks up, no question about it,” he said. “The real threshold point for us is when we have completed a national television agreement. We haven’t done an official announcement, because it’s our view that one of the most important components is, what’s the media going to be, what’s the television going to be.

“It (the excitement) has continued to grow by the day. The closer you get to the reality of this thing really coming together, the more excited you get. When you get down to the deep points, it begins to feel more like it’s real. We’re set and ready to go.”

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A11FL’s high-quality players will come in many shapes, sizes

The A11 Football League has made this crystal clear – it will have National Football League-quality players who fit the A11 game.

That might mean that teams will have more running backs that look like Darren Sproles than Jerome Bettis, but there will be a role for both types of runners.

Sproles, perhaps the poster boy for NFL overachievers, is listed at 5-foot-6 and 190 pounds. There aren’t many players in the NFL his size, but that says more about the NFL’s continuing biases (scouting combine numbers over actual on-field college numbers) than Sproles’ productivity – 2,147 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing, 3,240 yards and 27 touchdowns receiving, 8,253 yards and two touchdowns on kickoff returns and 1,559 yards and three touchdowns on punt returns.

In almost nine full NFL seasons with the San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints, Sproles has racked up 15,199 all-purpose yards and 43 total touchdowns. Not bad for a player who SI.com said prior to the 2005 NFL Draft had as negatives, “Lacks the pure speed to run to daylight. Looks small to the point of being tiny on the football field,” and said, in conclusion, “Lacking the size to be anything other than a role player at the next level.”

Now imagine a player of Sproles’ stature – a player who is NFL-quality but might not get much/any chance because of the NFL’s aforementioned biases – thriving in the A11FL, running draws, screens, pitches, halfback options and out routes from the slot, and returning kickoffs and punts in Florida, Illinois, California, Texas and all the other league locales.

Think about all the players in the history of the NFL who haven’t “fit the mold,” and still went on to big-time careers – Sproles, Drew Brees, Sam Mills, Joe Morris, etc. Those players quickly become some of the favorite players on the team.

Now think of full teams of those players – players who are more than good enough to be in the NFL, and just want to keep playing football. That means instead of one or two favorite players per team, you will have an entire league of favorites.