AFL free agency will be a great reality show

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Recently an anonymous AFL agent writing for The Age offered the opinion that the AFL was embracing free agency as a means of increasing news coverage.

”The fact is, moving players creates interest and excitement and allows the football fan never to be detached from the game,” the agent wrote.

”Ultimately, the concoction of high-profile players, cashed-up teams and media speculation will crush cricket and soccer in this country. Or at least, that’s the AFL’s aim.”

While the agent chooses to ignore that fact the players themselves were behind the push for free agency, there’s no doubt he is correct in stating that the off-season will see AFL remain in the headlines. You need look no further than the NFL to see the kind of media speculation sports administrators crave.

The NFL season may have officially ended on the first Monday of February with the New York Giants winning the Superbowl, but one of the most interesting and entertaining off seasons ever has ensured the NFL stays well and truly in the spotlight.

Even among the March madness of college basketball and the run-in toward playoffs in the NBA and NHL, the NFL has been able to remain prominent among the sports pages.

There has never been an off-season that has seen so many big moves and created as much controversy. And the draft is still over three weeks away!

No doubt the biggest story of the off season was Peyton Manning. The Indianapolis Colts’ champion quarterback missed all of the 2011 season due to neck surgery. The question everybody was asking was whether Manning could ever play again, let alone reach the high standard he had set in his 14 seasons.

The Colts faced a tough and delicate decision. Under Manning’s contract the Colts had until March 8 to decide whether to pay the $US28m option bonus Manning was due or let him go as a free agent.

The question was whether they would pay huge money to a nearly 36-year-old quarterback coming off a serious injury, or start again and rebuild under one of the most promising quarterbacks to come out of college in years, Andrew Luck. The Colts decided to hitch their future on Luck and the Manning sweepstakes began in earnest.

Manning of course decided on the Denver Broncos. And of course who happened to be the incumbent quarterback at Denver? Only the most talked-about U.S. sportsman of the last six months, Tim Tebow.

John Elway, the former Broncos great and current executive vice president of football operations, wasted no time trading Tebow to the New York Jets.

The same New York Jets that had only just re-negotiated a contract with quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was coming off a disappointing season. Sanchez was already under pressure from demanding Jets’ fans who were quickly losing patience with their quarterback.

Signing Tebow to the biggest market in the U.S will no doubt lead to a huge boost in merchandise sales, but the pressure on Sanchez will be enormous. You can imagine the cries for Tebow when Sanchez throws that (inevitable) first interception of the season.

The drama didn’t end there. Free agency has seen some big other names move teams. Probably the best defender to move was the Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams.

Williams was the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft that caused controversy when the Texans elected Williams over college phenoms Reggie Bush and Vince Young. Needless to say that six years later the Texans have been vindicated. Williams signed with Buffalo Bills.

Other big names have even announced comebacks. Future Hall of Famer wide receiver Randall Moss ended a 12-month retirement and signed a one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers. It gives Moss a chance to win a Super Bowl that eluded him at the Patriots and Vikings.

To add to the off season drama, the New Orleans Saints were embroiled in a bounty scandal, dubbed Bountygate. An NFL investigation found that several Saints defenders operated their own fund to reward performances in games, including offering bonuses for knocking opposition players out of the game.

Saints coaches and officials were implicated as well, and accused of lying to the NFL in order to cover up the allegations.

As a result of the investigation, Saints Superbowl-winning coach Sean Payton was sensationally suspended for the whole of the 2012 season. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely and General Manager Mickey Loomis suspended for the first eight weeks of the season. Payton and Loomis have appealed their suspensions.

The pending suspensions have led to another huge story, with speculation that retired two-time superbowl-winning coaching legend Bill Parcells may step out of retirement and coach the Saints for one season. Parcells seemed to be happy in retirement but the temporary role seems to be a good fit for him. He’s good friend of Payton’s and also a mentor.

Parcells also has an excellent record in his first year of coaching teams. The New England Patriots went from two wins to five wins in Parcells’ first season. The New York Jets went from one win to nine wins, and the Dallas Cowboys went from five to ten wins.

Parcells will probably play more of a figurehead role, and his excellent reputation in the league, together with his larger than life personality, would also help restore the Saints’ image to both fans and to the NFL. Parcells’ quotes would also help keep the NFL prominent in the news.

Overall it’s been a dream off-season for the NFL. AFL officials could only hope for similar drama (minus Bountygate) in their off-season. Free agency in the AFL commences on October 1 and runs until mid November (if you include delisted players).

The trading period has also been extended through most of October. While we may not see the same big-impact moves in the AFL, one thing the AFL can ensure is that football will be more prominent than ever in October and November.