The Alliance of American Football (AAF) begins its maiden season next weekend, a week after the Super Bowl. Designed as a league to work in tandem with the NFL it will feature many players that were either un-drafted going through the college ranks or that did not make the cut in the NFL or CFL.
Today’s NFL produces a product that is exciting (and sometimes infuriating) to watch. Players are expected to progress at a much faster rate than they were in the past. This is particularly true of the quarterback position. I cannot help but think that the Green Bay Packers would not have drafted Aaron Rodgers in the first round only to have him sit on the bench for his first three years. Yes, they had Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre in place but they also had other needs. Three years without prediction from a first round pick is crazy in today’s game!
With this in mind the newly formed AAF is the ideal to place to develop young talent. The league’s season, which starts the week after the Super Bowl, will allow players to get meaningful reps in games that matter without clashing with the NFL. Furtherthe fact that the Alliance’s season is well out of the way before NFL training camps take place will allow players that have success to improve their chances of finding their way onto an NFL roster.
We Are Penn State
One of the more intriguing players in the AAF is no stranger to college football and NFL fans. Christian Hackenberg excelled as a true freshman under Bill O’Brien. However, following Hackenberg’s freshman year, O’Brien moved on to become head coach of the Houston Texans. Under replacement James Franklin, Hackenberg floundered for two years and was repeatedly pounded by opposing defences including one game that saw him sacked 10 times!
Despite his less than stellar play, Hackenberg entered the 2016 NFL draft. Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, then still a TV analyst, wrote that he would be “shocked if Hackenberg is not a first-round pick.” And went on to say “This man can run a 4.7-second 40, he is tough as hell and he works relentlessly. He just has to get in the right system with the right people and refocus on the small details.”
Pro Football Focus were less enthusiastic. Sam Monson wrote “There isn’t a more inaccurate quarterback prospect in this draft. … Hackenberg is inaccurate at every level of the field, on all throws and against all coverages,”
Despite questions about his ability, and in part due to their desperation to find the team’s ‘franchise quarterback’ the New York Jets reached for Hackenberg, still only 21, and picked him with the twentieth pick in the second round. Hackenberg rewarded the Jets with two years of terrible pre-season play and never saw the field in the regular season.
Remember how high Gruden was on ‘Hack’? Well, in 2018 Gruden, now head coach of the Raiders, sent the Jets a conditional seventh-round pick from the Raiders in exchange for the quarterback. Although in need of a backup behind starter Derek Carr the Raiders were unimpressed and looked elsewhere. When Hackenberg was cut by the Raiders, the Jets compensation went up in flames. After one (painful!) pre-season game with the Philadelphia Eagles, Hackenberg was again cut before spending two weeks on the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad before finally being cut on November 5th, 2018.
Still just 23, Hackenberg, no doubt aware that he is drinking at pro football’s last chance saloon, signed with the AAF’s Memphis Express. If he is to complete his football redemption story then the former Nittany Lion must rediscover his fundamentals and get rid of the ball quicker. In a league with a lower skill level Hackenberg has a change to develop without the pressures (both from defences and media) of the NFL. Especially with quarterback, where only one is on the field in game situations, more repetitions will allow fringe NFL players to develop and that can only be a positive for the AAF, NFL and the fans.
His first step in the public eye was positive at least as he out performed his quarterback teammate, another NFL exile, Zach Mettenberger. In the team’s scrimmage against the Salt Lake Stallions. Hackenberg completed 9 of 15 passes for 128 yards passing and a touchdown and looked like he knew the offence well. Could this be the beginning of a redemption story for Hackenberg?
Will Lewis, the Memphis Express General Manager doesn’t have the name recognition that other General Managers in the league do (Hall of Fame fullback and Former Dallas Cowboy Daryl Johnston is GM of the). However he’s pleased with the team’s roster, commenting that “It was a competitive camp and there were a lot of tough decisions that had to be made,” said. “We certainly would have liked to keep more people if we could, but the roster limit dictates what we can do. We narrowed it down to the best group that could help us win games moving forward. I’m satisfied with the quality of the players and coaches that we have. We’re looking forward to opening up the season against Birmingham on February 10.”
Here’s to February football!