The Salt Lake Screaming Eagles will make history on Thursday night when they take the field to face the Nebraska Danger.
The IFL's Eagles are the first professional football team to give control over every major franchise decision, including calling plays live through their app, to its fans.
But how will these fans actually behave once the Maverik Center lights turn on? What plays will they choose when they realize this isn’t just a video game and that the plays they call will affect a real team? Will they keep their cool and make smart selections? Or cave under the pressure and pick a play at random?
Most importantly: Do they really know enough about football to help this team succeed?
Just hours before the Screaming Eagles’ inaugural game, the answers to these questions remain a mystery, making anticipating the fans’ behavior a challenge for Hurtis Chinn, the head coach of the Danger. He’s faced with the unenviable task of trying to scout a team that promises to be extremely unpredictable.
He acknowledges that preparing for what he calls a “new realm of football” hasn’t been easy, but his methodology for tackling it has been simple: Have fun with it.
“I don’t think [our preparations] will change that much,” Chinn said. “It will just become more unpredictable because you never know what a fan is going to give you, and you’ve got to roll with it and have fun with it.”
In order to give his team the best chance to succeed given the unpredictability factor the fans present, Hurtis dove into years of film to try to learn Eagles coach William McCarthy’s coaching tendencies.
“It’s kind of difficult on us as far as scouting goes and preparing for the game,” Chinn said. “That’s been the hard part. What I had to do is turn on some tape from some of the teams McCarthy used to coach and try to see their philosophies and things like that. So I had to turn on tape from three, four, five years ago, just to see the things he used to do.”
Still, little information exists about McCarthy, the Screaming Eagles’ roster (which was just finalized on Tuesday) and, of course, the play-calling fans. So Chinn honed his focus to his own team’s performance. “We know if we do what we have to do, we can kind of dictate what the other team does and keep them on their heels.”
Danger owner Charlie Bosselman is optimistic about the future of the fan’s role in the IFL, which is seeking to increase fan involvement among all 10 of its teams, despite the logistical problems their involvement may initially present.
“Salt Lake is kind of the big time guinea pig for us,” Bosselman said. “They’re kind of testing everything out for us. By the end of the season they’ll be able to say, these things worked and this didn’t really work as much as we thought it was going to, and that will really help all of us all the way around.”
The Danger are tasked with being the guinea pig’s guinea pig. As the first opponent to face the Screaming Eagles, Nebraska is going into the game with considerably less information than the Eagles’ late-season opponents will. But Chinn doesn’t see the timing of the matchup as a disadvantage for his team; he thinks the newness of the system could actually end up benefiting them.
“Another thing that we don't know [is the] timing,” Chinn said. “I don't know if [the plays the fans call are] going to take a while to get to the huddle. So it might give us a chance to sit back on the defensive end and see what they're doing….versus being rushed and being caught off guard.”
The Screaming Eagles app is open to everyone, so in theory nothing is stopping the Danger from logging on and voting for unadvisable plays or telling Chinn which play won the vote. But the IFL’s 25-second play clock makes using that information virtually impossible—there’s just not enough time for an opposing team to communicate—but even if it were feasible, Chinn says that’s a line the Danger wouldn't even consider crossing.
“That’s just something we wouldn't do. When the game starts and the lights are on we won't be tuned into the app to see things like that, we’ll be tuned into the game. And preparing for what we have to do on our end. I know me myself and none of our staff wouldn't do anything like that.”
Watch the Screaming Eagles take on the Danger at 9 p.m. ET streamed live on SI.com.