Bill Polian is no stranger to being on the ground floor of startup pro football leagues and teams.
His Hall-of-Fame resume – highlighted by his seven seasons as general manager of the Buffalo Bills from 1986 to '92 – includes one year as personnel director of the United States Football League’s Chicago Blitz in 1984. It also includes three seasons as GM of the expansion Carolina Panthers from 1995 to '97.
Now, Polian, the chief architect of the Bills’ Super Bowl run of the early '90s and GM and president of the Indianapolis Colts when they won a Super Bowl and reached a second, is part of a new football venture.
Polian is co-founder and head of football for the Alliance of American Football, an eight-team league scheduled to have its first two games Saturday with two more set for Sunday. The AAF’s primary mission is to help develop players, coaches and executives for the NFL while serving as a testing ground for new rules such as the elimination of kickoffs and extra points. Co-founder and filmmaker Charlie Ebersol was driven to start the AAF after making a documentary for ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series about the XFL. Retired NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol, Charlie’s father, founded the XFL, which lasted only one year in 2001 and plans a return in 2020.
At 76, Polian keeps as busy as he has been since 2011, his final year with the Colts. He continues to work as an NFL analyst for ESPN and SiriusXM NFL Radio, but much of his time is consumed with the many details involved with setting up the AAF. Its games can be seen on CBS, CBS Sports Network, TNT and NFL Network.
Besides Polian, other familiar names involved with the AAF are head coaches Steve Spurrier (Orlando Apollos), Mike Singletary (Memphis Express) and Rick Neuheisel (Arizona Hotshots); league executives Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, Jared Allen and Justin Tuck, and players, including former NFL running back Trent Richardson and former NFL quarterback Zach Mettinberger.
In the latest edition of “One-on-One Coverage,” Polian spent time on the phone with The Buffalo News to discuss the new league, how it might impact the future of the NFL, the work of Bills coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane, and the rookie season of quarterback Josh Allen.
Buffalo News: How does the launch of the AAF compare to the many other football seasons for which you’ve prepared?
Bill Polian: Well, this is a different role. The only other time I had this role was in 1993, when I was vice president of football development for the NFL. My focus there was entirely on the processes of the clubs cutting players, adding players, enforcement of the rules, interaction with the referees, particularly on rules matters, and various and other issues, discipline, which I was in charge of – all of those kinds of things. So, in that sense and because I was fortunate enough to work directly for (then-NFL commissioner) Paul Tagliabue, I came to this job with a wealth of experience and I've had to use all of it.
The one thing that I feel good about is thus far, all the way through training camp and through last weekend's final preseason game, I’m thrilled with the quality of football. It was good.
BN: Besides everything that’s on the line from a business standpoint, a feeder-system concept for which you have been a strong proponent is also in play.
BP: That's part of this grand experiment, if you will. But we won't know the answer to that for a couple of years because we've got to go through a full season and make sure that it's a successful season on the field, at the gate and most importantly for development of the players. We've got to go ahead and make sure that we give every player the opportunity to be as good as he can be.
I'm sure many of those will get shots in the NFL. We had over 28 NFL teams, with scouts and some with multiple scouts, represented at our preseason games. So they're going to get plenty of looks. And those that sign (with NFL teams) at the end of the season have the opportunity to go and make teams and we'll see how well they fare. I'm going to be very anxious and I'm going to visit some NFL camps this summer to see how those guys are doing and talk with folks at NFL clubs, particularly general managers and coaches and personnel directors, to see how they perceive what we're doing and how maybe we could do things better.
BN: What has been the greatest challenge so far?
BP: I think just the logistics and the infrastructure, getting it set up. In 1993, we were really in the dark ages of electronics and now we're in the middle of electronic revolution in the game. So if you were staging a normal football game, the ability to do that, just get the teams on the field and play the game and officiate it, is infinitesimally greater, both from the cost standpoint and the logistics standpoint, because of all the electronics involved, all the communication.
Then, you add to that all the special stuff that we're doing through the Alliance app – the tracking, the chip in the ball, the chips in the players’ pads – all of that stuff adds layer upon layer of difficulty that you that you have to sort through. And each of those initiatives comes with a cost, it comes with education, it comes with labor necessary to make it work. So it's much, much more complicated than just simply staging a football game. It’s sometimes mind-blowing.
When you look at the timelines, the USFL took 24 months to get going. All of the NFL expansion teams – Jacksonville and Carolina came in at the same time and Cleveland came later on, and were stand-alones – were 22 to 19 months. We did this with eight teams in eight different cities in nine months.
BN: How much do you think about that uphill climb of convincing people who are accustomed to watching football in the fall and see the Super Bowl as the end of the sport’s season to keep watching after that?
BP: That's really the genesis of the idea and that's the challenge. But we put a lot of thought into it. And it starts with the idea that we're in markets that are either not served by the NFL or are underserved, such as San Diego. The only NFL market that I believe we're in is Atlanta and the fact that that's in the heart of SEC country swayed us a little bit there. So we're going to markets where they're not used to seeing pro football live. Number two, we think through the app, we can present the game in a different way, so that the younger generation, specifically, can get involved on that part of it. That's where fantasy (football) ties in and the bonuses tie in for the players. So that's different and attractive and interesting.
And then we've created a set of rules that we believe will make the game a more interesting and more streamlined game, and that's what I think fans are going to be interested in and I hope are going to like. We start with the fact that there's no kickoff. I spent 20 years on the NFL Competition Committee and I'm privy to all of the statistics and still see the statistics, and the kickoff results in more injuries than any other play in football. We said, “If we were reinventing football today, we wouldn't have the kickoff, so let's take it out.” So we're going to put the ball on the 25-yard line and we're going to go. We think that, first of all, it's good from a safety standpoint and, secondly, we think people will get used to it.
We replaced the kickoff with what we're calling an onside conversion, which requires converting a fourth-and-12 from your own 28-yard line in order to retain possession. A team can go to that at any time in the game when it’s down 17 points or more and inside five minutes of the fourth quarter, regardless of what the score is. And it is exciting. We had two games last weekend where one team converted two and missed a third by a yard, which would have gotten the game within three points after having been down. Fourth-and-12 is not easy to make, but it's not impossible, so it really creates interest in the game.
The other rule that we have is no extra point. So we're going to put it on the three-yard line and go for two after every touchdown. That, by the way, also enhances when you figure the 17-point-down, onside conversion, that makes strategy really important because at some point in time, somebody's going to realize, “I've just scored a touchdown and I'm 18 or 19 down and now I've got a two-point conversion. But maybe I don't want to make the two-point conversion and lose the chance to use the onside conversion.” So it's going to be strategic for the coaches as well as interesting for the fans.
We have only two challenges per team per game and no other replays. We're going to get this game in as close to two-and-a-half hours as we can. And we don't have any TV timeouts. The commercials are handled a different way so this game’s going to be streamlined. We do have some rules which hamstring blitzing, because offensive line play is the hardest thing to perfect. You have to work together as a group; these guys have had, on balance, 30 practices and one preseason game. So we put in some blitz rules, which basically boil down to that you can only rush five, you can only rush four off the side, you cannot rush adjacent linebackers and you cannot rush anybody out of the secondary.
We're adding a ninth official, which we call a SkyJudge, whose job it is to spot and enforce instantly, meaning without a replay review, any safety-related plays. For example, if an interception has taken place and (the officials) lose sight of the quarterback and the quarterback gets blindsided behind the play, which often occurs, the SkyJudge is going to buzz down and say, “I got a personal foul on 91 behind the play, defenseless hit on the quarterback.” And he has the ability, without replay and in real time, to get things like facemasks and stuff like that that maybe the crew might miss on the field. Then, in the last five minutes of the game, he can buzz down and have them review defensive pass interference.
BN: What made you want to be a part of the AAF?
BP: First of all, I've been pretty vocal about the fact that we needed a developmental league and so when Charlie came along and showed me the concept, I decided to put my effort where my mouth was. I’d like to see us develop the next Kurt Warner and Adam Vinatieri (both of whom played for the Amsterdam Admirals in NFL Europe). I'd like to see us develop executives and coaches. We absolutely, positively without a moment's hesitation need to develop minority assistant coaches on the offensive side of the ball. If people want to hire young, attractive offensive play-callers, then we need to be developing those minority coaches at an early age.
We’ve got to do more to develop quality head coaches. Now, our head coaches this year are, with one exception, guys with previous head-coaching experience. And that's obvious because when you get into a startup, you know you need a guy who's been there/done that. But we’ve got Tim Lewis in Birmingham and nothing would make me feel better than to see Tim Lewis go get a head-coaching job in the NFL based on the strength of what he's done in our league because he's already been a successful defensive coordinator.
I have two guys in in our front office that I know are going to be stars in the National Football League. But they're young guys and so we're going to mentor them and we're going to bring them along and we're going to give them a wide range of experience just like we did with (Western New York natives) Dave Caldwell and Tom Telesco (GMs of the Jaguars and Chargers, respectively) and give them the kind of grounding that I was fortunate enough to get during my career. Then they'll be ready to go. When they go to the NFL, the sky will be the limit.
BN: Do you ever envision the day where a quarterback from an NFL team is sent to one of your teams for much-needed seasoning before returning to his NFL team?
BP: Oh, absolutely, sure. That's just a matter of an agreement between the Players Association and the NFL to allow that to happen. It's not going to happen overnight, but it's a very simple solution. There are third quarterbacks on practice squads all over the NFL who can get four months’ worth and 10 games’ worth of experience in our league that would be invaluable for them. And they would never miss a beat in the NFL, because our championship game is one week after OTAs begin and our regular-season ends a week before OTAs begin, and that's by design.
BN: Speaking of young quarterbacks, how do you think Josh Allen did in his first season with the Bills?
BP: I thought about as expected and I thought that the arrow was up toward the end of the year, which is a real plus. I heard Hubie Brown on a college basketball broadcast the other night and it reminded me what a sage he is. He was asked about a player that was a one-and-done guy and came into the NBA and he said, “Well, he's got a world of talent. He’s still learning the game.” That could be applied to Josh as well. He's got a world of talent. He’s got a lot to learn.
There’s no question that this executive and coaching team have a plan, it’s sound, they know what they're doing. Sean McDermott is unbelievable. I mean, to get six wins out of the personnel group that they were effectively forced to inherit is amazing. And there's still a lot of work to be done. I saw Brandon Beane say that the other day; he's clearly cognizant of that. But it's the right plan with the right people executing it. It's just a matter of time before they put it all together. The fact that they made the playoffs a year ago and the fact that they got six wins out of a team that probably shouldn't have been counted on for any more than three is witness to the fact that the coach coaches the living daylights out of them. He's tremendous. So stay with it. Good days are ahead.
BN: When a team has the massive amount of salary-cap room the Bills have to play with this offseason, there’s a fine line between being able to address the many needs they have and the perception they’ll fix everything all at once?
BP: Well, room is nothing more than that. The thing you don't want to do is play with it. You want to apply it to get the best return on investment. And one thing I know about Sean and Brandon is that they're going to bring in their kind of guys. So all of the names that are bandied about, they are going to get divided probably by four when it's all said and done because there's going to be only so many guys that they want on this football team from among that huge group of names that everybody will be talking about.
If that sounds familiar, it ought to because that's exactly the way Marv (Levy) and I worked. And we took a lot of heat from (the media) for it, but it worked out OK. I'm pretty sure that that's the same way they're going about it.