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Cadillac Williams and Michael Vick are among those who’ll get a shot on the sideline in the new Alliance of American Football in 2019. While NFL alternatives typically meet with skepticism, they can be a hothouse for coaching talent and the testing of new concepts. Just ask Jay Gruden and Sean McCoy.

By Conor Orr
October 10, 2018

While there’s a good chance each of the two new professional football leagues popping up in 2019 and 2020 have ulterior motives either in the business world or the wider political realm, here’s hoping that the Alliance of American Football and the XFL can accomplish at least one thing during their inaugural (only?) season: develop fresh faces in the coaching world.

The insular nature of the NFL can sometimes be beneficial. Kyle Shanahan, for example, has gifted the league with some refreshing offensive concepts thanks to a lifetime in the business. Same goes for Wade Phillips and, for a time, Rex and Rob RyanBut there are also a lot of brilliant minds who get passed by for gigs or sandwiched into supporting roles based on broad, decades-old assumptions.

The Alliance of American Football’s Birmingham franchise, the Iron, announced Tuesday that Carnell Williams, better known during his NFL playing days as “Cadillac,” will be on staff. Michael Vick is going to be the offensive coordinator for Andy Reid disciple Brad Childress and the Atlanta Legends. Ty Knott, who was largely boxed into quality control gigs during his time in the NFL, will get to coordinate special teams and coach receivers. While some AAF teams are loading up on retreads, it’s refreshing to see players with a connection to the NFL’s recent past getting a chance to get their hands on a game plan.

At its best, these two leagues can do something the Arena Football League and the World League were able to do for a time. In 2016, when news of the AFL’s demise spread throughout the football world, I talked to Washington head coach Jay Gruden and current Cowboys personnel chief Will McClay about what the league meant to them at the time. McClay played four seasons of Arena ball as a defensive back then cut his teeth as a defensive coordinator with a number of teams in the league; Gruden, a World League and Arena quarterback, ran some experimental offenses in his time as an Arena assistant and head coach, occasionally alongside young assistants like Sean McVay. Gruden said he was going to write a book about the experience some day.

Beneath all the machinations that go into attempting to make a new football league viable and functioning, there is still football. There are coaches placed in unusual and challenging personnel situations that force them to expand ideas and reach for the unconventional. The tendency is to scoff at these new leagues, or question their purprose. But they can be an important proving ground for new faces and new ways of thinking about the game. And that’s worth something.  

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