- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2001

The American Football League was so suspect when it opened shop in 1960 that New York Titans coach Sammy Baugh demanded his first year's salary in advance. His bosses obliged him in cash.

A decade later, the World Football League wanted players to wear pants color-coded by position blue for defensive linemen, red for linebackers, yellow for defensive backs, etc. The players shot the idea down quicker than you can say Jim "King" Corcoran.

"I've spent 11 years trying to build a serious image," Paul Warfield said. "I'm too far along in my career to begin playing Emmett Kelly."

Every new football league is subject to guffaws and ridicule. And Vince McMahon's XFL, which kicked off this past weekend, is no exception. But, hey, at least his games got played. That's more than can be said for the Miami Seahawks' home opener in the All-America Conference in 1946. Because of a hurricane that swept through South Florida, the Seahawks had to postpone their local debut for two days. To pass the time, players on the visiting San Francisco 49ers helped fill sand bags.

Here's the thing, though: Alternative leagues, as laughable as they may be at the outset, almost always leave their mark on pro football. When I look at the NFL, I just don't see the NFL; I see bits and pieces of the AAC, the various AFLs, the World Football League and the United States Football League.

We tend to forget that 13 of the NFL's 31 teams nearly half came from other leagues. The Rams, winners of last year's Super Bowl, first played in the '30s AFL. (They were in Cleveland back then.) The 49ers and Browns originated in the All-America. The 1970 merger with the '60s AFL added 10 clubs to the NFL's ranks.

See those names on the backs of players' jerseys? That started in the '60s AFL. The two-point conversion? The AFL was the first pro league to have that, too. (It was eliminated when the NFL and AFL merged, but it was brought back in 1994 when the league was looking for a little more pizzazz.)

Instant replay? The USFL was using that in the early '80s, years before the NFL did. Even the WFL, which lasted less than two seasons (1974-75), had a big impact on the game. It introduced the 15-minute overtime period and such rule changes as moving the kickoff from the 40 to the 30, moving the goal posts from the goal line to the back of the end zone and returning missed field goals to the line of scrimmage (instead of the 20). The NFL soon adopted similar rules.

As much as anything, these rival leagues serve as laboratories of sorts, trying out all kinds of off-the-wall ideas. (And if one of them pans out, the NFL is sure to steal it.) In the XFL, for instance, teams have to run or pass for the point-after, players can go in motion toward the line before the snap, there are no fair catches and only one foot has to be in bounds for a legal reception (as in college). There's nothing groundbreaking about any of this, by the way. The WFL had the exact same rules in the '70s.

The WFL didn't, however, have the scramble for the ball at the start of the game to determine who receives the opening kickoff. The XFL gets points for creativity there. And allowing unfielded punts to be recovered by the offense (which retains possession) how wild is that? In a game Sunday, the Los Angeles Xtreme put Scott Milanovich, the old Marylander, in at quarterback and had him quick-kick on third down. One of his receivers came up with the ball about 40 yards downfield a potentially huge play but a penalty, alas, nullified it. Still, it was one of the most exciting moments in the game. (Which probably says more about the game than the rule.)

Finally, let's not forget: New football leagues always dig up new players and coaches, players and coaches we didn't know were there. What would NFL history be without Paul Brown? Well, he was an AAC man. Among the USFL's most famous discoveries was Sam Mills, a 5-foot-9 linebacker who had been cut by the NFL and the CFL. He went on to play in five Pro Bowls with New Orleans and Carolina.

There are always guys who are capable of playing even starring in the NFL; they just need a chance. And leagues like the XFL give them that chance. XFL rosters might not look very talent-laden right now, but consider this: If the league had come into being just a few years earlier, Kurt Warner might have played in it. Maybe another Warner will come along.

So go ahead and laugh at the XFL if you want. There's plenty to laugh about. Brian Bosworth might be the worst analyst in the annals of television (at one point Sunday he said Jim McMahon when he meant Vince McMahon), and Jimmy "The Jet" Cunningham of the San Francisco Demons (and before that, Howard University) doesn't seem nearly as fast as his nickname would suggest. Still, something about the XFL will endure, even if the league doesn't. Why? Because something about these leagues always endures a rule or two, some players, a few coaches, something.

Perhaps the XFL will influence the way pro football games are produced. Watching the Los Angeles Xtreme and the San Francisco Demons the other day was like watching "Any Given Sunday." The camera angles were different closer and the sounds of the game were much more audible. Who knows? Fans especially younger ones might decide they like the increased intimacy, and the NFL might feel compelled to bring its own telecasts "up to date." It wouldn't be the first time another league had changed the mighty NFL. It probably wouldn't be the last, either.

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