Mar. 10, 2019
AAF Week 4 Recap: Course Correction
The funny thing about new sports leagues is that with no established power structure or hierarchy within the member franchises, there is a certain freedom that teams can exercise to try different things and not cause alarm. In the NFL, for instance, it becomes a big deal when a quarterback is benched for inferior performance and the backup is promoted. In the AAF, however, given the nature of its player developmental mission, there's more opportunity for a more free-flowing approach to roster management. And we were witness to some of that this week.
Behind new starter Zach Mettenberger, the Memphis Express notched their first win in franchise history by besting the San Diego Fleet 26-23. After nearly rallying the Express to a win over Orlando last week, Mettenberger was handed the reins of the offense as its new starting signal caller. Starting out against the Fleet though, not much had changed. But an injury would alter the fate of both teams as Fleet QB Philip Nelson, who had led San Diego to two wins in his two previous starts, was injured in the second quarter. Alex Ross came in as his replacement, and the Fleet attack stalled. Running back Ja'Quan Gardner, the Fleet's feature back and league leader in rushing yards, was stymied by the Express defense. With that done, it gave Mettenberger, a former NFL starter, the opportunity to lead Memphis' offense from 11 points down to secure the team's first win. It's hard to say if they have turned a corner, but plugging in Mettenberger has seemingly become a net gain for the Express (1-3). And we may find out to what degree next week, as they head to Atlanta to face the similarly struggling Legends. A win by either team here could be a springboard for a second half season surge, and the Express are certainly trending the right way. On the other side, San Diego (2-2) could be in trouble, as Nelson has been diagnosed with a broken clavicle, which puts him out of action for 4 to 6 weeks. In their coming match against the visiting Salt Lake Stallions, Week 1 starter Mike Bercovici has been tapped to start. He looked overwhelmed against San Antonio on the road about a month ago, so Fleet fans are hoping that the practice over the last few weeks has sharpened his skills in head coach Mike Martz' system.
The Orlando Apollos persevered in a snowstorm in Salt Lake City, winning 20-11 over the Stallions to remain undefeated. There are many fans who enjoy football in the elements, especially some form of precipitation. If there is a lament over spring football, it's the lack of adverse weather for the teams to traverse and conquer in addition to their opposition. On this evening, the weather made an impact over a game that was moved from its original 4pm EST time slot. The snow did slow down the Apollos' Sun & Gun Offense, but the Stallions' offense was stunted as well. And quarterback Garrett Gilbert made just enough plays over an efficient performance by his Salt Lake counterpart Josh Woodrum (16 of 22 for 161 yards) to keep Orlando undefeated (4-0). This sets up a huge Eastern Conference game next week (more on that momentarily). The Salt Lake Stallions (1-3) just look better than their record suggests. They weren't left scrambling to set their offensive and defensive units like Atlanta, nor did they deal with glaring problems (such as under center) like Memphis. But here they are with a disappointing record thus far. The good news is that they sit only one game behind the pack in the Western Conference, and a game against a vulnerable San Diego Fleet could put the Stallions right back in the thick of the playoff chase.
The San Antonio Commanders hand the Birmingham Iron their first loss of the year in a 12-11 battle of attrition. Each of these teams in this contest have identities that don't necessarily square with their respective win-loss records. The Commanders have possessed a dynamic offense and a sound defense, but come in 1-2. The Iron, on the other hand, won all three of their games this season, but are getting those results in some ugly contests. Birmingham learned the hard way about playing that type of ball: if you are the losing end of the turnover battle, it's very difficult to overcome point deficits with an offense that lacks explosiveness. Three Iron turnovers (two of which were Luis Perez interceptions), plus a big game by Commanders RB Kenneth Farrow II (142 yards rushing) would get San Antonio a victory to get back on track, while handing the Iron their first loss. Each team has an important game coming up next week. Birmingham (3-1) faces the undefeated Orlando Apollos in a crucial Eastern Conference showdown. Both are front-runners in the East, with the victor solidifying their position at the top of the conference standings. And with two diametrically different identities on the field, this could be one of the most compelling match-ups in the AAF's young history. Meanwhile, the Western Conference has a three-way dead heat between San Antonio, Arizona, and San Diego, all at 2-2. This logjam will be broken in some form or fashion as the Commanders will head to the Copper State to face the Hotshots to gain at least a share of the conference lead, if not pick it up outright.
The Atlanta Legends won their first game with a replacement quarterback, as they defeat the Arizona Hotshots 14-11. Legends quarterback Matt Simms was injured early on Sunday night's game, with Aaron Murray coming in relief. Murray's performance might just keep him in the lineup, as he lit up the Hotshots defense individually (20 of 33 for 254 yards) and collectively for the Legends (454 total yards & 37:49 time of possession). The lack of time on the field crippled Arizona, as the offense barely saw the field, and the team's most glaring weakness, its defensive back end, was exploited time and again by Murray. As great as that win was for Atlanta (1-3), there should some cause for concern. With such a dominant performance, this should have been a blowout. But instead, it was a nail biter won by PK Younghoe Koo with a minute left for the Hotshots (2-2) to respond. I would tell the Legends faithful to exalt in the victory, but proceed with caution. If Murray stays in as starter and can get another win by upending the Memphis Express, they may be onto something. For Arizona, a tilt against the San Antonio Commanders is fraught with peril. If the Hotshots defense can keep Farrow in check, they still need to be sure that QB Logan Woodside doesn't torch the secondary for a big game. That game can go many ways, with a win opening doors to a postseason berth with five games to go.
Week 5 promises to be a huge weekend. Make sure you are watching! Here's the breakdown of the broadcast & streaming outlets:
Orlando @ Birmingham 2pm EST Sat Mar 9 (TNT) Livestream on AAF.com
Salt Lake @ San Diego 8pm EST Sat Mar 9 (NFL Network) Livestream on AAF.com
Memphis @ Atlanta 4pm EST (CBS Sports Network)
San Antonio @ Arizona 8pm EST (NFL Network) Livestream on AAF.com
Follow me, your humble scribe, on Twitter: @GridironEye