Last year’s American Arena League regular season played like an old Seinfeld episode with quirky characters providing enough comedic value to pull us through a thin plot line. Then came the postseason, and that all changed. June was filled with intrigue as four of its top five teams combined for three compelling games culminating in the Atlanta Havoc’s 17-point comeback in Richmond to claim the league’s first – and what I thought was sure to be its only – championship.
Eight and one-half months later, they’re back, and if Friday night’s opener at the Florence Center is any indication, they’ve picked up right where they left off. Viewers were treated to two lead changes in the final minute, including Carolina Havoc QB Darryl Clark’s buzzer-beater to Alex Coleman in the left corner of the end zone on the game’s final play, and we watched from front-row seats as Clark – whose fumble inside the five-yard line had been returned for a go-ahead touchdown only 17 seconds earlier – made the fastest goat-to-hero transformation most of us will ever see. For me, the viewing experience was less an epiphany and more a reminder of why fans are drawn to the AAL in the first place.
Even at its low-water mark, this league never suffered from a shortage of talent. The top third of its field – the Havoc, Roughriders, Heroes, Energy, and Doom, in reverse order of their elimination – could have held their own against most National Arena League peers, and their rosters were stacked with veterans who’d played in upper-echelon leagues – even the NFL – and could make jaw-dropping plays worth the price of admission.
On Friday, we saw what can happen when this league is able to match up comparable talent, but with 15 teams last year there wasn’t enough of that to go around. The league got too big for itself. It was big-box retail with a boutique-sized inventory and mom-and-pop management. In the process of stocking its considerable shelves it became a melting pot of pros and semipros, some in the sunset of their careers, others aspiring for that “next level.” The results proved that out. The average margin of victory in its 50 regular season games was almost 38 points. By and large, they were over after three possessions.
So, was Friday night’s one-point win by the Havoc on the final play evidence that a new day has dawned in the AAL? Not necessarily, but it’s a good start.
After all, we did see glimpses of this last year. The top five teams played each other 12 times, including three playoff games. The average margin of victory was just over 14 points. If you throw out the Roughriders’ 44-point drubbing of the Heroes last April as an outlier, that margin becomes 12 points. That’s less than two possessions. By contrast, all other games were decided by an average of 42 points, or roughly a full zip code.
This league was all about the Haves vs. Have-Nots last year, and I’m not sure much has changed. The addition of the West Michigan Ironmen adds to the legitimacy pool, but the Georgia Doom, who recruited locally and lost QB Luke Collis and his trio of electric receivers from last year, could be detractors.
Then there are the Roughriders. After this past recruiting season, they’ve sprinted away from the meager peloton of respectable teams and threaten to make this year a run-away. The rest of the AAL will look as out-of-place on the same field with them as Chris Farley looks on the same stage with Patrick Swayze. This may not be a comedy sketch where the dumpy Farley wins, but it is nevertheless going to be humorous watching the cadre of FBS players owner Gregg Fornario has assembled on their barnstorming tour of hockey rinks and sportsplexes that house the remainder of the AAL’s Northern Division.
The dilutive effect of throwing more teams in the mix continues to exacerbate the problem. This year, the league has opened its doors to three teams from Midwest Professional Indoor Football and two formerly of the Elite Indoor Football League. They’ve also added two expansion teams. They’re like the fat guy who keeps coming back to the buffet; they just can’t help themselves.
Fortunately, the East Carolina Torch and High Country Grizzlies did everyone a solid by self-cutting, given the league’s front office wasn’t up to the task. Still, they’re looking at 13 full-time teams even if the Jersey Flight don’t come back, and they had more than they could handle with 12 full-timers last year. Overstocking the field is as much a recipe for instability as it is for skills disparity, and with two – maybe three – teams already gone it seems unlikely that the remaining 13 are all going to finish out.
In some ways, the 2019 AAL looks like a case of message: not received. Yet, despite the too-expansive field and the considerable talent gap that surely awaits us as the season unfolds, I’m having a hard time accepting that things haven’t improved, especially after watching this year’s opener. No single game last year – and that includes the one overtime game played in Rochester last March – matched the pageantry, intensity, and excitement of the Havoc’s win over the Heroes on Friday night.
No, it’s not a mic-dropper for the AAL, but it is a good start.