KENNESAW, Ga. – It’s an ideal Southern twilight, the skies pink and the breeze warm. Out on the field at Fifth Third Bank Stadium, home of the Kennesaw State Owls, a couple dozen 20- and 30-something men are playing some quick, loping flag football, their shouts and taunts audible to the loosely packed fans in the stands.
The quarterback for the Road Runners of the American Flag Football League, wearing a long-sleeve athletic T, warmups, and a visor, takes the snap, surveys the field, then begins running to his left. A hole the size of a mailbox opens up, and the quarterback, throwing across his body, fires a steel pole of a pass right through it into his receiver’s arms. It is not a pass that humans ought to be able to make. The crowd erupts, remembering days when this same quarterback used to make the same kinds of passes in a slightly larger stadium 25 miles down the road.
It’s strange, seeing this quarterback — once the most famous player in the NFL — slinging passes to former college lacrosse players. And yet, somehow, it makes a whole lot of sense that Michael Vick would be here in suburban Atlanta, trying to help kickstart a nascent flag football league.
No, flag football won’t replace the NFL. It won’t even compete with the NFL. But there’s a halfway decent chance it could serve as a summertime complement to the NFL, a way for former stars, perpetually hopeful wannabes, and all-out athletes from other sports to get one last run, one last shot of competition before joining the real world.
And if nothing else, it looks like the greatest Thanksgiving football game ever played.
Why’s Michael Vick playing flag football?
Your first thought upon seeing Michael Vick scrambling in the backfield at a flag football game might be, “Hey, Vick looks like he’s lost a step. I think I could take him.” (You couldn’t.) But your second thought would most surely be, “What the hell is Michael Vick doing playing flag football?”
“Aside from contact football, I think flag football will be the next great thing,” Vick told Yahoo Sports. “Not only am I doing it for this football league, I’m doing it to inspire my daughter. She plays quarterback for her high school flag football team, and she wanted to watch me work, so I’m going to let her watch me work.”
Vick formally retired from the NFL last season, although he hadn’t played a game since 2015. His legal unpleasantness notwithstanding, he still commands a solid, vocal fanbase in Atlanta thanks to his six electric years running a cheat-code offense at the Georgia Dome.
But the Dome’s gone now, and so are Vick’s legs. At one point in the evening’s proceedings, he breaks loose, cutting into the open field, and a jolt runs through the crowd. They saw him do this against Florida State, they saw him do this against Minnesota and Green Bay and St. Louis and Carolina, and in their mind’s eye, he’s going to carve right through an entire field of hapless defenders. It’s like watching Michael Jordan take off from the free-throw line …
… and lay it up. Over and over again, every time he tries to cut one loose, Vick gets run out of bounds, tracked down, sacked. He’s 38 years old now, and even The Greatest Running Quarterback In History can’t elude time.
That’s where flag football comes in. Vick’s still got an arm capable of firing a spiral through a brick wall, and on a flag football field, he has the room and the time to dissect a defense without having to worry about getting obliterated by charging linemen. He can play Crafty Old Man football, the kind that your dad used to roast you and your friends. It doesn’t make for a good logo, but it gets the job done.
“It’s all about pride,” Vick said. “Not proving to people that I can still throw the ball around — because that’s about all I’ll be doing — but it’s still showing that I can shoot the cannon.”
Sure, Vick’s facing off against players who were in elementary school when he started slinging passes for the Falcons. But he’s also on the field with contemporaries like Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, whose mouth still runs at a pro level even if his legs don’t keep up anymore. They’re the big names on a field that also includes former Super Bowl winners and college stars, and by the looks of their expressions, they’re all enjoying themselves immensely.
“It’s not a lot of pressure, but what we’re playing for creates pressure,” Vick says. “At the same time, throwing the ball around with the guys – there’s no substitute.”
It’s a player-favoring tradeoff — the joy of competition without the threat of severe bodily harm — that makes the American Flag Football League so enticing to former players. Dozens of them have joined the league, exulting in one more chance to compete, to hang with their fellow ballplayers, before beginning the next phase of their life as high school coaches or insurance salesmen or, really, anything outside the glow of the pro athlete’s world.
“The league’s got a lot of potential, and I’m glad I’m a part of it,” said Jerrod Johnson, a former Texas A&M quarterback who never got off an NFL practice squad. “You can’t find this camaraderie anywhere else. We seek competition anywhere we can, so to be a part of this, I’m thankful.”
Are we really talking about professional flag football?
American Flag Football League founder and CEO Jeff Lewis has told the league’s origin story so many times it has the feel of a creation myth: he was watching his son’s flag football league, and he wondered, what if you could get the greatest players in the world playing this game?
Lewis and the AFFL staged a proof-of-concept game last year with Vick and Terrell Owens, and that was enough to win the league a broadcast partnership with the NFL Network. The network will broadcast a total of 11 games this summer, giving football diehards that sweet, sweet hit of new content. It’s not quite football, but it’s a lot closer than, say, dog-days baseball or World Cup soccer.
The AFFL actually has two separate, concurrent elements: the collection of four pro teams, led by guys like Vick, Ocho, Nate Robinson and Olympian Michael Johnson, and an array of amateur teams that played their way into, and through, a 128-team traveling tournament. At the moment, the “league” is, in effect, a barnstorming competition, bouncing from city to city, round to round.
The Atlanta stop winnowed the amateur teams – billed as “America’s Bracket” – from four to two, and next weekend in Indianapolis, one amateur team will emerge to face off against the winning pro team in Houston two weeks down the line. At stake? A million dollars to the winning team.
The AFFL will try to pitch the idea that the amateurs could win against the pros, and indeed they could, but watching the pros take the field after the amateurs is like watching, say, high schoolers take the field after Little Leaguers. The amateurs are all astonishing athletes, each one better than anybody you know, but against the pros, they still look like scrawny little brothers.
No joke: flag football might be the closest we’ll ever get to answering that old “could Alabama beat the Cleveland Browns?” question.
The players aren’t salaried yet – this is a contest, Lewis notes – but there’s money to be had out there. (Vick confirmed to Yahoo Sports that he gets an appearance fee and holds a small equity stake in the league.) If the league expands as Lewis envisions, there could one day be flag football franchises throughout the country, populated by names you had on your fantasy team just a couple years ago.
The rules of flag football
The AFFL operates under a rules system familiar to anyone who’s ever squared off in the backyard or street. It’s worlds away from the hyper-regulated realm of the NFL, and that’s definitely a good thing:
• Teams are seven-on-seven, with 12-man rosters, which means some players are going to be playing both ways.
• Defenders have to wait two seconds to rush. (No, they don’t have to count “two Mississippi.”) Defenses get five blitzes a half; if they go over that count, the other team gets an extra blitz.
• The quarterback has to get rid of the ball within four seconds, and can’t take off and run unless rushed.
• Games are a full 60 minutes, with two 30-minute halves. Clocks run until the final minutes of each half.
• The field is divided into four 25-yard boxes; you get a first down by reaching the next box’s line, no matter where you start.
• No blocking or kicking. Fumbles are dead balls. Penalties are spot-of-the-foul or loss of down.
The lack of first-down chains is a notable factor; the AFFL uses tech to spot and measure the ball, not chains, which keeps the game humming right along. Plus, the moving clock is a remarkable benefit – even with mandatory media timeouts, games are over in less than two hours. The AFFL knocks out two games in just a little more time than the NFL can manage one. Score another point for the underdog.
Can a flag football league survive?
The bones of would-be football leagues litter the sports landscape. And you don’t even need to look to the past to see contenders for the NFL’s throne; both the newly reconstituted XFL and the Alliance of American Football (for which Vick will coach) are taking their best shot at a king they see as weak and vulnerable.
Lewis isn’t coming for the king’s crown; he wants to work alongside the king. “If you’re doing tackle football, how are you going to do anything other than a second-rate product? Consumers don’t want a second-rate product,” Lewis said. “Flag football combines the best of a lot of different sports. There’s a simplicity to it that’s like soccer – you get a ball, you find an open space, and you go … We have the guts of the sport that demands your attention more than any other sport, and we’ve added other elements of other sports that are great.”
Granted, the economics aren’t in the AFFL’s favor; it’s just tough to get people off their damn couches these days. Lewis points to the StubHub effect – putting off buying tickets until the last possible moment – as one of his greatest challenges, and the Saturday evening crowd bears him out. The fans take their time arriving at Fifth Third Bank Stadium. More than once, AFFL on-camera announcers refer to the “sold-out crowd” at the stadium with large stretches of open benches behind them. Fifth Third Stadium, a juiced-up soccer park, has a capacity of just over 8,000, and it’s only about two-thirds full, even with $10 general admission tickets.
(Plus, the league’s going to have to deal with the same crises as the NFL; just hours after the game, the Roadrunners’ Brandon Browner, a two-time Super Bowl champion cornerback, would be arrested in California on domestic violence charges.)
But in the end, the popularity of a league rests on its gameplay. And on that angle, flag football can light up the scoreboard.
Football can be … fun?
For all the logistical challenges facing flag football, the greatest difficulty might be one of image. Flag football lacks the gravitas and thunder-of-the-gods mythos that the NFL loves to project. Vick plays in a visor, which he turns from front to back midgame when things get serious, and other players sport everything from braids to backward baseball caps. No one’s hidden behind helmets, face shields, medieval armor. No one’s perched on a pedestal. These are just dudes out there running routes, snaring toe-tap catches, talking crap to each other, playing what — after all — is a kid’s game. That’s not the kind of joyful exuberance that sits well with the Football-Is-Life crowd.
We’re all guilty here. We’ve all raised football – as a sport, as a religion, as a way of life – to a level of absurd Olympian godliness, turning every game into a stentorian referendum on the indomitable human spirit, or whatever. Like a well-executed pick-six, flag football takes the game back in the opposite direction. In an era of protests, concussions, arrests, mobile franchises, arcane rules and relentless sponsorship, it qualifies as a revelation: strip all the ancillary elements out of it, and football’s a hell of a fun game.
Nowhere was that more evident Saturday than when former Green Bay Packer Aaron Rouse absolutely roasted Ochocinco for a touchdown. Ocho had spent most of the game talking, but Rouse caught him at a perfect moment. He walked through the play with a smile on his face:
“I see he was flatfooted,” he said.
“Rule No. 1: wrong. You gotta be staggered if you’re facing a receiver like me. Then I saw his eyes was wandering. If you’re going to face me you need to give me your full and undivided attention. Once he looked away he was gone, he was toast. I thought I smelled burnt rubber. And then I looked up and the ball was there like a loaf of bread, and I was gone.”
“I got greedy and I got hungry,” Ochocinco smiled after the game. “I bit and I got beat.”
The move drew praise from Owens, who shouted out Rouse on Twitter:
— Terrell Owens (@terrellowens) July 8, 2018
Alas, that was one of the few highlights for Vick’s team. (Let the record show that Vick’s final pass as a professional was a fourth-down interception, bobbled by former Packer Jarrett Boykin and snared by former Lion Duke Ihenacho.) The Ochos pulled away in the second half, winning 26-13 and advancing to Indianapolis.
If the AFFL’s going to survive, it’ll have to do so by running counter to the NFL’s League-Before-All ethos. The AFFL intends to take the NBA’s route, making players the brand and the centerpiece in a way the NFL won’t allow.
“You look at what’s going on in basketball, and a lot of the momentum they have is from the way they market individuals, your Lebrons, your Steph Currys,” Lewis said. “These guys are like movie stars. Fans love or hate or respect or fear them, but they have a well-developed opinion and connection with them.”
“When this takes off, guys are going to get exposure, get opportunity,” Ochocinco said. “Young dudes that can play ball will catch the eyes of scouts. Watch. It’s going to happen.”
With a pipeline of recognizable names and compelling newcomers, the AFFL could succeed by trading on a combination of nostalgia and summertime football deprivation. It’ll be a hell of a scramble for daylight, but that’s what guys like Vick do best.
“If this takes off how it’s supposed to take off, guys aren’t going to want to go play tackle football,” Ihenacho said. “If the business right, a lot of people are going to say, ‘sign me up for flag.’”
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