The Fall Experimental Football League, the latest in the long line of alphabet soup alternative football leagues, kicks off its first season on Wednesday night when the Omaha Mammoths face the Boston Brawlers at a baseball park in the “major city” of Omaha.
The FXFL, the brainchild of someone named Brian Woods, claims it’s a pure developmental league, with no intent of competing with the established NFL. Woods has also claimed the majority of FXFL players will have come from NFL training camps into his league, with the intent of getting them back to the big league as quickly as possible.
Well, if you look at the roster the Brawlers just released, you will see that just over a third of those players were in NFL camps this summer, but some of them do have rap sheets and checkered pasts that would make the NFL proud.
Of the 40 men on the Brawlers’ roster, only 15 were in NFL training camps this summer (all were released, obviously, and none were then signed to any team or its practice squad): C Matt Armstrong (New Orleans), QB Tahj Boyd (NY Jets), WR Jasper Collins (Cincinnati), DB Avery Cunningham and LB Phillip Steward (St. Louis), OL Jon Halapio and WR Wilson Van Hooser (New England), WR Julian Horton, DB Hakeem Smith and LB Jonathan Willard (Tennessee), OL RJ Mattes (New England and Tampa Bay), DL Chris McAllister (Houston), OL David Mims (Baltimore), TE/FB Cam White (Indianapolis) and DB Ryan White (Green Bay).
Only two (Boyd and Jon Halapio) were even drafted by NFL teams this spring, while two others (LB Ronnell Lewis and LB Greg Romeus) were prior draftees, having been selected in 2012 and 2011, respectively.
Four others (LB Quandon Christian, DL Johnnie Farms, OL Will Latu and LB Garrett Waggoner) had post-draft undrafted free agent mini-camp looks in the spring, but were not brought back for summer camp.
There are some fringe guys who have been in NFL camps before (DL Junior Aumavae, TE Brandon Ford, WR Vidal Hazelton, P/K Morgan Lineberry, OL Tori Mobley, RB Emmanuel Moody, OL Randy Richards and WR Isaiah Voegeli, which the FXFL will try to tell you is “NFL experience,” but it’s really not), some guys who have been in and out of Arena Football (DL Darryl Cato-Bishop, QB Carson Coffman, WR Corbin Louks), a veteran of the UFL (RB Wynel Seldon), a guy who played in Sweden this summer (QB Joe Clancy), a guy who played with the San Angelo Bandits of something called the Lone Star Football League (LS Avery Rigg), one who spent two months in the CFL this summer (the aforementioned Greg Romeus) and a guy who doesn’t appear to have ever been in anyone’s camp (RB Hyppollite Martin).
And then we have the players with….a few issues, shall we say. There’s DB Ashton Cobb, who hasn’t played at a high level since leaving Kentucky in 2009 (where he was charged with stalking his girlfriend), DL John Drew (who was kicked out of Duke for firing a gun on campus in 2010), the aforementioned Ronnell Lewis (who was arrested and tased – twice – in April of 2013 after a bar brawl in Norman, Oklahoma), CB (and former quarterback and FedEx scion) Cannon Smith, who was arrested and charged with public intoxication and disorderly conduct after an incident early one morning in 2010) and DB Trey Wolfe, whose life story has been a mess, with stops at three different schools, at least two kids by two different women, an arrest record and academic woes.
It’s not really a surprise that not all is as it seems with the FXFL. This was supposed to be a league with “at least six teams” (with a team in Austin, Texas to be owned by a pair of former NFL players), playing eight games, then a six team league playing six games, then a four team league playing six games. It’s now a three-and-a-half team league after its Florida Blacktips franchise became a
traveling circus “floating franchise” utilizing “an all-star format,” which has yet to be explained. Omaha, Boston and Brooklyn will play five games, while the Blacktips will play three. There are apparently no playoffs planned. There was supposed to be a draft (there wasn’t, players were just assigned to teams) and it was supposed to be for players no more than two years removed from college (you can see that didn’t happen).
They will be on television, though. Regional sports networks like NESN and SNY will carry games, as will ESPN3. You’ll be watching glorified scrimmages with guys who have been together for two weeks, some of whom haven’t played competitively in a couple of years, whose goal isn’t to help their team win but to succeed individually. How can it miss?
Look, I’m all over alternative leagues in most sports, if they’re done well, or at least interestingly. Most have been done poorly in the last 30 years. The USFL spent itself into oblivion, but was a ton of fun. The XFL was a train wreck, but their in-stadium presentation was actually quite good. The UFL was a joke. Other nascent efforts like the new USFL and NAFL are less than 50/50 shots. (The NAFL does get bonus points for hubris, though.)
The FXFL seems to be like a tech startup whose entire business plan is predicated on creating an app and getting bought by Google. The constant hints about wanting a “relationship” with the NFL (they’ve either been asked or not been asked by the NFL to try out some rules changes, depending on who tells the story) smack of desperation.
It all seems based on this idea that a developmental league is mission critical for the NFL. To read what the blogosphere and certain ESPN Radio hosts who have a son playing in the FXFL have to say, it’s absolutely necessary for there to be an entire league dedicated to making sure guys who weren’t deemed good enough to keep around by executives whose livelihoods depend on finding the best 53 players they can can play three to five more games on Wednesday nights in baseball stadiums in front of family and friends. Because that’s going to turn them into the next Kurt Warner. (Note: the Kurt Warner thing was 15 years ago, boys and girls.)
I just can’t see how this works (unless “working” means getting yourself in a position where the NFL buys you out or brings you under their umbrella). You’re not going to get fans to come to football games played by guys who aren’t good enough on school nights in the fall in baseball stadiums and even though there’s no other football on Wednesday nights (yet), there’s an abundance of much better football available on TV almost every other night of the week.
My guess is Wednesday night in Omaha will be a pretty good tell. The UFL’s Nighthawks were drawing more than 20,000 in their inaugural season, but those numbers dwindled by 80% by the time the UFL finally gave it up in 2012. If the numbers for the opener are closer to the former than the latter (though apparently Woods would be happy with 4,000-5,000, a nice trick if you can do it without much time or marketing or ticket sales people), they might have a tiny chance.
But my gut tells me it can’t work. That New Yorkers aren’t going to schlep out to Coney Island to see the Brooklyn Bolts, that they’re not so starved for more football in Boston that they’ll head to Harvard to watch the Brawlers and that after a sample tune-in, that not many people will watch on TV. And if no one is showing up or tuning in, they’ll be hard pressed to make their $80,000 a week player wage budget.
Even though the NFL has taken a lot of hits lately, people aren’t tuning the league out. I can’t see them tuning in to see this new league.
UPDATE: Looking at the other two teams’ rosters, we see about the same, but with more players who had training camp shots this summer. Of the 40 players on Brooklyn’s roster, 15 were in NFL camps this summer, another eight had looks after the draft but wasn’t signed, one was released on the day rookies reported, six had previous tryouts or brief stints with NFL teams in camp or on the practice squad, a couple have been in Arena Football, and five others have apparently not had NFL shots to this point. The Bolts also have three players with actual NFL game experience: WR Kevin Elliott, who had 10 catches in 13 games with Jacksonville in 2012, RB Dennis Johnson, who played eight games for Houston in 2013 and DL Kiante Tripp, who played three games for Cleveland in 2011.
Nearly half of Omaha’s 41 rostered players (must be a mistake there somewhere), 19, were in NFL camps this summer. Eight others had looks after the draft but were not brought to camp in the summer. There are three with NFL game experience. (LB Mister Alexander, 14 games with Houston over 2011 and 2012, LB Adrian Hamilton, 2 games with Baltimore in 2012 and DB Tysyn Hartman, who has apparently been out of football since playing 11 games with Kansas City in 2012.) A few have had looks here and there but not stuck, some have had no looks at all and a couple of guys have been in Arenaball.
And, just like Boston, both Omaha and Brooklyn have their share of guys with checkered pasts. The most celebrated is probably QB Jordan Jefferson, who was starring for LSU but wound up with assault and (later) drug charges and has been out of the game since playing Arena Football in Pittsburgh in 2013. AC Leonard left Florida after a domestic violence incident in 2012. The aforementioned Kiante Tripp was arrested on burglary charges in 2012. DB Tevrin Brandon was charged with assault after an off-campus fight and left Syracuse despite the charges being dropped. A couple others had lesser issues that cost them time in college.
So apparently about 40% of the players on FXFL rosters actually spent time in NFL camps this summer, far short of the 90% Brian Woods was promising. There’s a collection of fringe guys, small college guys, arena guys, guys who were injured and guys who never got a shot. Still seems like a far cry from what we’ve been told will be an “exceptional on-field football product.”
FURTHER UPDATE: Now Woods is saying “95% of the league’s players are coming directly from NFL training camps, fresh from being cut before the season started,” which isn’t true at all. And don’t look for a big crowd in Omaha Wednesday night.