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The AAF highlights the need for a true NFL minor league

The AAF is already in trouble

AAF: Atlanta Legends at San Diego Fleet Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The AAF, the fledgling independent football league with former and hopeful NFL players, coaches, and executives, enters its third week of play this weekend. It almost didn’t. Enjoy it while it lasts, because the AAF is already on life support.

According to the sources, there was one enormous problem, one that became obvious even before the AAF’s second weekend (Feb. 16-17) of games: The league was running short on cash, and quickly. Without new investors, there was a good chance it was going to miss payroll last Friday.

“Without a new, nine-figure investor, nobody is sure what would have happened,” one source said. “You can always tell people their checks are going to be a little late, but how many are going to show up on the weekend for games when they don’t see anything hit their bank accounts on Friday?”

On Tuesday, multiple sources told The Athletic, the AAF will announce that Carolina Hurricanes majority owner Tom Dundon, a self-made billionaire from Dallas, has become that nine-figure investor. Dundon will be introduced as the league’s new chairman after last week’s commitment of $250 million enabled the AAF to meet its obligations.

This league is not going to survive, and the out of the gate financial woes further show that the NFL needs to have its own developmental league.

A development league has plenty of benefits, and the AAF is displaying many of them. The removal of kickoffs and the addition of another official, the “sky judge”, are the kind of rule and format changes that minor leagues serve as testing grounds for. They’ve also shortened the play clock, two point conversions are the only point after attempts, and overtime is a blend of college’s each team getting the ball and the NFL’s single period of OT. Some may be adopted by the NFL down the road after being seen in action. The only way to know how a change will work is to actually try it, so kudos to the AAF for trying.

The league has players who just needed an opportunity to get noticed by the NFL. Greg Ward Jr. was a quarterback in college and spent two training camps and a season on the practice squad with the Eagles converting to receiver, he is the leading pass catcher for the San Antonio Commanders. Fellow former Eagle Winston Craig is third in the league in sacks. Birmingham Iron QB Luis Perez spent two weeks on the Rams practice squad in 2018, he’ll likely be on someone’s training camp roster in July. Jamar Summers was in camp with the Steelers, he’ll be in camp somewhere this year. Sack leader Karter Schult will be too. Some people just need chances.

And not just on the field. With each team comes coaching opportunities. Lito Sheppard, OJ Atogwe, and Az-Zahir Hakim are young coaches in their first years coaching NFL caliber players. Mike Vick was to be Brad Childress’s offensive coordinator before Childress resigned. Nowhere else has Vick gotten a chance. The league also has three female coaches.

The AAF is giving chances. But those chances are limited, because it’s not going to last, just like the USFL, XFL, UFL and everything in between. NFL Europe failed because the league half assed it, but it also lasted for 15 seasons. The NFL needs a true minor league, one that doesn’t care about television ratings or is dependent on attendance revenue or a last minute $250 million dollar investment to survive. The only path is one run by the NFL.

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