Now that Spokane has settled on the name “Empire,” the name of the game is preparing for their inaugural Indoor Football League season.
Training camp starts Feb. 5. Spokane opens Feb. 20 at Tri-Cities.
In many respects, it’s a whole new game. Style of play, rules, field setup, even the size of the football is different than the Arena Football League, Spokane’s home from 2010-2015.
“We resemble the outdoor game more, that’s the best way to put it,” said Empire coach Adam Shackleford, who coached Spokane’s arenafootball2 team from 2007-09. “We use true running backs, we do more shotgun (formation), our quarterback is a runner and thrower.”
The IFL allows two receivers in high or lateral motion (versus one in high motion in the AFL). Teams can use empty-backfield sets, though they’re susceptible to being outnumbered by four pass-rushers. The receiver(s) and/or a running back in motion have to be outside the tackle box at the time of the snap. Cross motion is permitted.
IFL offenses cannot throw to an offensive lineman. One of the AFL’s most popular plays was the screen pass to a 325-pound “tight end.”
There is a significant difference in run-pass ratios. In Spokane’s final season in the AFL, it passed 82.3 percent of the time. In Shackleford’s final year as coach of IFL Tri-Cities last season, his offense passed 62.1 percent of the time. In 2014, Shackleford called more runs (270) than passes (242). Five-time defending IFL champ Sioux Falls ran the ball on 54.5 percent of its plays in 2015.
“In the AFL, you better have a guy that throws it full time,” Shackleford said. “You can throw it every time in this league, but we’ve found more success in the past if you have the ability to run it.”
The reason for that is because defensive rules are different. Linemen can drop into coverage. The defense theoretically can have eight in coverage. The Jack linebacker isn’t confined to a 5-yard box, which was an AFL rule. The Mac linebacker is free to roam after the ball is snapped. One linebacker can blitz, either the Jack or Mac, but they have to line up in the box. An aggressive defensive coordinator calls blitzes perhaps 35 percent of the time.
Defensive backs have to be at least 5 yards off the line of scrimmage unless they’re lined up directly in front of a receiver. That prevents a DB from lining up between receivers or just outside the tackle box for run-stopping purposes.
“We see a lot more zone defenses,” Shackleford said. “Teams have the ability to take away the best receiver, so you better have other guys that can sit in zones and beat guys in press (coverage). We have the ability to cover every zone whereas in the AFL you could only cover three.”
IFL rules and nuances in style of play dictate a different roster composition. Spokane has signed quarterback Charles Dowdell, a 6-foot, 200-pounder who passed for 2,128 yards and 48 touchdowns last season with Sioux City. He was named MVP of the Champions Indoor Football League (CIFL). Dowdell has IFL experience at quarterback and wide receiver. The Empire expect to sign another quarterback for training camp.
“I tell people the kid we have reminds me of Vernon Adams. He’s a dual threat, but he can throw,” Shackleford said. “In af2, if my quarterback was having an off night, we had an off night. In the IFL, if the quarterback has an off night, you run the ball until you can get him right.”
Empire running back Andrew Pierce (5-11, 210) earned second-team All-IFL honors playing for Shackleford last year in Tri-Cities.
“Outside zone, toss sweep, jet sweep, inside zone, anything you see in an outdoor game,” Shackleford said of run options. “We know we have a really good back.”
Up front, the emphasis is on athleticism more than size.
“In the AFL you always try to find guys that are 325-330,” the coach said. “I’ll take a little smaller guy that can block a linebacker, can move better. The center has to shotgun snap. There are more 290-310 pound guys.”
Spokane has signed five receivers 6-3 to 6-5. Shackleford’s best receiver in Tri-Cities was 5-7, but Shackleford acknowledged “size helps, especially if your quarterback is 6-0.”
IFL defensive lines tend to have two nose guards and one speed rusher. Stopping the run is a bigger priority.
“In the AFL most go with two speed guys because the pass rush is so important,” Shackleford said. “Here, they play two gaps and usually you have one taller, leaner guy that has to be a good pass rusher.”
Jack linebackers are often ex-collegiate strong safeties. They have to be fast enough to cover a running back, run sideline to sideline and assist in zone coverage. Macs are typically former college linebackers. They cover running backs on occasion but they’re usually in the 235-245 pound range.
The secondary is asked to excel in coverage and run support.
“We do play some man,” Shackleford said. “You have to have two guys that can cover motion.”
Shackleford modified his playbook early in his IFL coaching career.
“My first year I had a lot of my arena stuff and I scratched almost all of it in camp and went back to my outdoor roots,” he said. “Even if you want to throw it 60 times, you have to force yourself to either run it or run more screens because of the zone (defenses). Second- and third-and-10 are very tough for an offense.”
Games are still high-scoring affairs. Shackleford recalls Tri-Cities scoring 90 points in one game. He also remembers scoring eight. Sioux Falls averaged 63.1 points last season. Nebraska was next at 52.8.
The timing rules and field dimensions are the same – 50-yard field, 8-yard end zones, sidewalls – but there are no nets in the end zones. The football is a tad smaller compared to an AFL ball.
IFL teams, like the Canadian Football League, can score a one-point rouge if a returner is tackled in the end zone, or if there’s a penalty while the returner is in the end zone. Shackleford recalls three or four singles in six seasons.
There is no such thing as a bar-ball kickoff, another popular play in the AFL. An IFL kickoff that leaves the field of play or hits an upright gives the opponent possession at its 20-yard line. The uprights are 10 feet apart, 1 foot wider than the AFL. The walls are live in the kicking game, unlike the AFL, which makes onside, squib kicks and squib kicks into the walls appealing options. It’s just the opposite in the passing game where an IFL play is dead if a pass touches the wall.
The Empire have signed 11 players with IFL experience, seven who have been All-IFL. Players make $225 per game with the possibility of $25 more each week.
“My first day I listed 20 IFL players on the board,” Shackleford said. “When free agency started, some of them signed with their teams. We were down to 11 guys and we got nine of them. Our intention was never to be all rookies and look like a true expansion team.
“We’re not looking to creep into this thing and figure it out. We want to compete from Day 1.”
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