The IFL Debut: Four Games, Four Feathers, Four Black Eyes

The Indoor Football League (IFL) got the 2019 inside football season underway this past weekend with eight teams in play across the frigid and snowy Midwest. For fans, it was a welcomed prelude to spring, nearly as iconic as Truck Day and tulips. For the IFL, it’s the start of a coming-out party as three of the four new franchises offered a glimpse of how well the league will rebound after its 2018 contraction.

The early returns suggest it’s so-far, so-good. In fact, if this was a status-quo league, the weekend was aced. But that’s not the case. The IFL is in ramp-up mode and even though the on-field product was generally what fans have come to expect over ten previous seasons, the league’s marketing machine that must support a 67% increase in teams still needs a few drops of oil. There was good and there was bad, so Fifty Yarder will sort it out with some Colonel Cathcart standards to determine which were feathers in the league’s cap, and which gave it a black eye across the arena universe.

First, the feathers:

  1. In-game excitement. True, only one game was decided by less than 22 points as Miles Bergner kicked a 33-yard field goal with time expiring in Cedar Rapids to give the Sioux Falls Storm a three-point win over the hosting River Kings. But games are more than final scores, and with Division I players packing rosters there were plenty of great plays. Among those that didn’t get as much attention, my favorites were Bismarck Bucks QB John Gibbs’ 11-yard completion to Jeff Mack II, a pass that covered 20 yards in the air while Gibbs was lying on his left hip throwing across his body and the field; and River Kings QB Marquel Wade’s 21-yard touchdown pass when right tackle Javan Christian pushed Storm defensive end Charles Williams further to the left than Bernie Sanders in clearing the pocket.
  2. An affirmation of a loyal fan base. Largely due to inclement weather and the fact that Phoenix was not among the four home sites, arena attendance was far behind last year. The true deficit is not even known since the league, which wasted no time posting strong attendance figures at last year’s Blizzard opener at the Resch Center, punted on producing tallies this year with Green Bay embroiled in a winter storm. Folks around the league stayed home, and 50,000 of us collectively watched the livestreams on YouTube. That’s 12,500 views per game on average in the first three days compared to 9,100 per game over a full year of viewing last year’s openers.
  3. A showcase of sensible rules. In-the-bank penalties are the greatest evolution in arena football since Jim Foster first brought this game inside, yet after ten years no other leagues have adopted this judicious way of exacting punishment for penalties that would otherwise have very little consequence to the extent the IFL does. Stiff fines for kicking the ball into the crowd are an ingenious way to force returns in a sport that is really struggling with this concept, both inside and outside. And if I don’t have to listen to cackling announcers anticipating some guy nicknamed “The Leg” to score an uno or deuce on each and every kickoff, that’s a good weekend for me. These games have a flow to then that the AFL and NAL lack.
  4. Quarterback play. These guys gave defensive lines and blitzing linebackers fits throughout the weekend, scrambling their way to a combined 347 yards and 12 touchdowns. The highlight was Gibbs’ 16-yard scamper down the right sideline in Nebraska, where he hurdled over Danger safety Clarence Counts at the three, landing on the goal line for a touchdown to end the first half.

And now, the black eyes:

  1. The “top secret” roster in Bismarck. Helmets without decals and jerseys without names may be okay for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but it won’t do for a team making an IFL debut it really didn’t seem prepared for. I may not have recognized the “comeback” that some fans are extolling after the Bucks’ 66-44 drubbing in Nebraska, but I definitely didn’t recognize Bucks players, and that shouldn’t happen at this level. Why a conventional number-and-name roster should be a secret guarded more closely than KFC’s original recipe of 11 herbs and spices is a mystery, as is the IFL’s tolerance for the malaise in Bismarck. Three days removed from their opener, the Bucks have yet to post anything more than a list of names on Facebook, accompanied by a teaser announcing that Coach Rod Miller’s “top secret” roster has been leaked. Understandably, locals have their hands full with those tough North Dakotan winters, but in the two weeks until their home opener the Bucks would do well to get some hands on a laminating machine and crank out those wallet-size rosters that are distributed at virtually every Pop Warner game in the country.
  2. That Quad City livestream! With Steamwheelers Media Director John Albracht on an out-of-town assignment, this production had an off-day. The livestream began two minutes into the game, and viewers were never introduced to starting lineups or key players on either side. That’s okay if the IFL wants to contain its marketing efforts inside a silo this season. On the other hand, new fans want to know what to look for or they’ll spend Saturday nights in front of Ransom until the CIF starts. The backup broadcast crew of Pete Ivanic and Russ Van Wetzinga did a credible job, but their limited knowledge of the IFL made this a choppy viewing experience. They showed confusion on fan interference rules, often identified San Diego Strike Force players by number or position only, and could not explain any of six illegal defense calls during the game. This unprepared team were the sentinels through which 12,000 viewers have passed to date, many getting their first impressions of the IFL.
  3. Defensive lethargy. Outside of the Arizona Rattlers at Green Bay game where even guys out of the play were getting popped further out of the play, the hardest hits of the weekend were in the commercials like the R.I.A. debit card one when  a player takes out the guy carrying popcorn that he bought without using their card, or the Schnuck’s one in which the gray-haired woman drills the guy who took the last box of Cheez-It. The IFL needs that kind of hitting on the field.
  4. Quarterback play. It wouldn’t be an authentic Colonel Cathcart list without a black eye somewhere to neutralize a feather, and the play of quarterbacks last weekend did exactly that. Collectively, the group completed less than 60% of their passes with 22 TDs and 9 INTs. Not too bad if you’re paying outdoors with eleven guys trying to stop you, but things are different inside. Across the league, balls were short-hopped, thrown late, and thrown early in a weekend where it seemed at times that fans caught more balls than players. The low-water mark came in Green Bay where  Blizzard starter Justin Billiot lasted only six snaps, which included two sacks – one for a safety – and an INT, while Jeff Ziemba and Vernon Reed, Jr. collectively took four sacks and threw two picks for the Arizona Rattlers. In Nebraska, Bismarck had frequent long-snap issues all night, and Gibbs completed less than half his attempts, took three sacks, and fumbled once to give the Danger their third touchdown. This will be a stronghold position for the IFL as the season develops: it just wasn’t last weekend.

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