We’ll emerge from our long, six-day freeze without professional football this weekend to find the Alliance of American Football kicking off on CBS. They’re the first of three leagues that are launching between now and 2020 with the hopes of being all at once a viable spring alternative to the NFL, a potential feeder league, and a testing ground for new rules and technologies.
We caught up with Steelers great Hines Ward, currently the AAF’s head of football development, to get his thoughts on whether there is an unheard of name that could emerge into the NFL orbit from this AAF season, or if he thinks any former NFL players in the league might get a second chance.
(Of particular note to football fans, the Memphis Express, who are choosing between Christian Hackenberg and Zach Mettenberger at quarterback, take on the Birmingham Iron, featuring 28-year-old running back and former No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson, on Sunday.)
Interview edited for length and clarity
MMQB: NFL fans are going to immediately recognize Christian Hackenberg and Trent Richardson. Do you think the AAF can propel them back into the NFL?
WARD: I had an opportunity to speak with Trent and he’s having fun now. Having an opportunity to just play the game and not have to worry about being the life saver of a franchise. You gotta remember, he went from a program like Alabama to Cleveland, and it’s almost like the whole world was on his back to try and be that guy for an organization. He’s back to just playing the game he loves. Watching him out there, he’s not only playing but he’s teaching guys what to expect.
And Christian Hackenberg, big arm, big talent coming out of college. It just never transpired, the light never came on for him. Maybe he just didn’t get the opportunity to get reps, whether it was the coaching staff, whatever reason, it just didn’t work well. Him having an opportunity to play over a 10-game season and get evaluated, we’ll see if he can play. All of these guys, that’s all they can ask for.
MMQB: It’s good to hear Trent Richardson has found a little peace…
WARD: Yeah, at the end of the day, especially at the running back position, your years are very limited based on the body, the pain you put your body through. Just hearing that, seeing the smile on his face, seeing he’s enjoying the game and all the aspects like that, that’s what it’s all about. Man, I’d never fathom that. He’s a running back, went very high in the draft, goes to a team and he’s asked to be the savior. Here’s a guy who was being cheered and adored at Alabama, and then he goes to the Browns and everyone in the media is pointing fingers at him like it’s his fault. Now he’s just out here playing the game he loves. He’s exceeded my expectations in terms of being a leader. I told him ‘Hey man, when your time is done I’d love to see you coaching.’”
MMQB: Give me one name. We’ll be sitting there watching an NFL game in October and the announcer is telling us about the guy who used the AAF to get here, who will that be?
WARD: I would probably go with [quarterback] Garrett Gilbert. Just watching him at practice, being with coach [Steve] Spurrier, knowing what Spurrier is all about with the quarterbacks, I think having Gilbert, him having an opportunity to play a complete season, his development, he’s going to get better.
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Jenny Vrentas, Senior Writer: “Wow. A lot of pressure here. Definitely something that originated from New York. Rapper’s Delight.”
Kalyn Kahler, Staff Writer: “Oh wow. Hmmm. So not necessarily my favorite song but a fun song to dig up to tell of the time?”
However you interpret it is fine.
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Jonathan Jones, Staff Writer: “’My Baby’ by Lil’ Romeo.”
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