PHOENIX — It’s called the Alliance of American Football, but Phil Savage, the general manager of the Arizona Hotshots, has another version of the acronym for America’s newest professional football league.
“Look, everything is not going to be perfect for this,” the former longtime NFL executive said. “This is not a league for entitled people. So our whole mantra has been AAF — adaptable, adjustable and flexible. We have taught that to our team and they understand that, hey, sometimes the bus is going to be a little tight, sometimes the door is not going to open and sometimes it’s going to rain and we may not have a place to go inside to practice.”
Arizona kicks off its season 6 p.m. Sunday night when the Hotshots host the Salt Lake Stallions at Sun Devil Stadium. The game will be broadcast live on the NFL Network.
The new eight-team league will play a 10-game schedule with two playoff games the weekend of April 20 with the season culminating in the inaugural championship game on April 27 at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. According to most Vegas oddsmakers, the Hotshots are favored to win the title.
That has to be blissful news to Hotshots head coach Rick Neuheisel, who still can’t believe how quickly his roster was put together and refined.
“It’s definitely been a crash course,” he said. “You always wonder if it’s even possible to get an inventory of what you think you need for a game and all that stuff. A month ago, we flew to San Antonio having one day on the field with them — one day. Many of those guys had already been let go, so to be here a month later and feel like we’re preparing for a game this weekend is amazing.”
The Hotshots began signing players in early August and worked out more than 100 players before recently cutting down their roster to the 52-man limit. Through the AAF’s college allocation program, the Hotshots were able to select players who came from 16 designated schools, including Arizona and Arizona State, as well as sign players who get released by four designated NFL teams – the Cardinals, 49ers, Bears and Ravens.
Each AAF franchise also has a 25-man exclusive rights list, which essentially amounts to a group of non-practicing, practice squad members. They can be recalled and signed in the event of injury to anyone on the 52-man roster.
All told, 49 of the 52 players under contract with the Hotshots have some sort of NFL experience.
“It could have been a week or a month or maybe several seasons, multiple teams,” Savage said. “But every single player here has a story because it hasn’t been, ‘Hey, I got drafted in the first round’ or ‘I was a bonus baby’ or ‘I spent seven years in the league.’ These guys have gone through some hard knocks.
“They’ve been released multiple times, they’ve been traded they’ve been cut. There’s a degree of humbleness and hunger that I think all of us have experienced. It’s definitely more humanized than any team I’ve been a part of in pro football, for sure.”
Hotshots kicker Nick Folk, a former Arizona Wildcats standout and an 11-year NFL veteran, likens the Alliance league to Triple-A baseball.
“You’re trying to make that step,” he said. “Some guys are trying to get their foot in the door or for myself, get back in the door. Your career is in your own hands here. I think you’ll see a pretty good product on the field because these guys want to succeed. They want to put their best foot forward to hopefully make the next jump and that’s what this league is about. It’s about getting that next opportunity.”
That’s the real heart of the AAF, according to Neuheisel, the former Colorado, Washington and UCLA coach. It’s a second-chance league and the playing field is even and fair for all.
“We talk about this all the time,” he said. “The league is an opportunity for everybody involved — coaches, players and front office people. We all get chances to prove we still have it. Some of us are doing it because we love it and missed it. Some of us are doing it so we get a chance to do it again at the highest level and I think for everybody, we’re being rewarded with a tremendous opportunity and can’t be thankful enough for it.”
Neuheisel, 58, has been coaching at the high school, college and pro levels since 1988, but this will be his first chance at coaching in his adopted hometown state.
“It’s a dream,” he said. “This is home. My biggest problem right now is getting enough tickets for all the people I know in town. It’s really fun to be back in Arizona. It’s fun to reacquaint with a bunch of old relationships and I think it’s fun for my mom and dad to be able to come to a game that matters again for them.”
For linebacker Scooby Wright, the former standout at Arizona and former player for the Browns and Cardinals, the game has never meant more.
“Honestly, this is the most fun I’ve had playing football in a really long time,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to focus on my craft and get better and get back out there.”
Why the Alliance league?
“Nobody was giving me a contract so it was kind of my only avenue,” Wright said. “Just keep getting better is my thought process. Be so good you can’t get denied.”