New league daz­zles on open­ing week­end

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Kevin Allen

Mav­er­icks. Rebels. Cu­rios­ity seek­ers. Old school foot­ball junkies. Older fans who re­call the USFL with nos­tal­gic fond­ness. The Al­liance of Amer­i­can Foot­ball (AAF) is for you.

It was a me­morable first week­end for the AAF. Early re­views, par­tic­u­larly on so­cial me­dia, were fa­vor­able as fans were in­trigued by the mys­tery of the new league. CBS drew 2.9 mil­lion fans be­tween 9-11 p.m. ET for the game on Satur­day.

“Where did that quar­ter­back come from?”

“So that’s where Rick Neuheisel ended up.”

“I didn’t know he was still play­ing.”

Those are the kinds of com­ments and ques­tions that were made when the first four games were played in this eight­team league where play­ers re­ceive three-year, non-guar­an­teed con­tracts for $250,000.

Here are win­ners and losers from the open­ing week­end:

Win­ner: AAF founders Char­lie Eber­sol (film­maker) and Bill Po­lian (for­mer NFL ex­ec­u­tive). Their game plan was to put out a prod­uct fans would en­joy. In their first week­end, that strat­egy paid off. The AAF out­per­formed the NBA (Rock­ets-Thun­der on ABC) in tele­vi­sion rat­ings, ac­cord­ing to Dar­ren Rovell of the Ac­tion Net­work. It’s way too early to draw any con­clu­sions, but the AAF has en­joyed an ex­cep­tional start. Loser: For­mer New York Jets quar­ter­back Chris­tian Hack­en­berg. Play­ing for the Mem­phis Ex­press, Hack­en­berg com­manded the only AAF offense to be shut out. He com­pleted 10 of 23 passes for 87 yards in the 26-0 loss to the Birm­ing­ham Iron. The New York Post said in its head­line that Hack­en­berg’s AAF de­but “couldn’t have gone worse.” Jets fans have a right to snicker. Win­ner: Or­lando Coach Steve Spurrier. The col­or­ful coach is an im­por­tant sales­man for this fledgling league, and he de­liv­ered the goods in the first week­end. His Or­lando Apol­los posted a 40-6 tri­umph against the At­lanta Le­gends, and Spurrier, 73, called for a trick play that re­sulted in a touch­down pass to the quar­ter­back. Plus, he made a nice jab af­ter win­ning his sixth con­sec­u­tive opener, say­ing he “even won with the Red­skins. That’s not easy

to do.” This league needs en­ter­tain­ing peo­ple like him.

Loser: Road teams. Road teams went 0-4. Birm­ing­ham, the Ari­zona Hot­shots, San An­to­nio Com­man­ders and Or­lando all won at home, with Mem­phis, the Salt Lake City Stal­lions, At­lanta Le­gends and San Diego Fleet the re­spec­tive road losers. Win­ner: For­mer NFLers Trent Richard­son and Ter­ence Garvin. Richard­son, a for­mer NFL No. 3 over­all pick, started slowly, but the run­ning back finished with 56 yards and two touch­down runs for Birm­ing­ham. Garvin, a line­backer, had two in­ter­cep­tions for Or­lando, re­turn­ing one for a touch­down. It can’t hurt that NFL scouts will pay at­ten­tion to this league.

Loser: Skep­tics. The pre­vail­ing wis­dom was this league wouldn’t at­tract many fans, and they may or may not be cor­rect in the long run. But this first week was a ma­jor suc­cess for the AAF. Win­ner: Peo­ple who love foot­ball. This was qual­ity foot­ball — the right blend of offen­sive so­phis­ti­ca­tion and hard-nosed hit­ting. So­cial me­dia took no­tice when San An­to­nio line­backer sacked San Diego quar­ter­back Mike Ber­covici with such force that the quar­ter­back’s hel­met popped off. No flag was called on the play.

PHE­LAN M. EBENHACK/AP

Apol­los quar­ter­back Gar­rett Gil­bert, left, is con­grat­u­lated by his Or­lando team­mates af­ter catch­ing a pass from re­ceiver Jalin Mar­shall for a 5-yard touch­down dur­ing the Al­liance of Amer­i­can Foot­ball game against the At­lanta Le­gends.

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