From Cowboys Castoff to UFL MVP
The NBA has a D league as well as Europe where they can stash talent not ready for the NBA. The MLB has countless farm leagues and minor leagues used for this purpose. Even Hockey has other leagues like the CHL and IHL. So why doesn’t the biggest sport in the United States have one?
There have been several attempts in the past, but nothing has been very direct. From 1991 – 2007 the NFL had NFL Europe, a subsidiary where NFL teams would send a certain number of players overseas to play and gather starting experience. They were joined by various other international players from other countries trying to find a route to the NFL. NFL Europe had mixed results; it turned out to be a launching point for some future NFL stars like Jake Delhomme and Kurt Warner, but attendance never peaked and NFL fans didn’t seem to enjoy it (correction: they were completely bored by it). Not only that, since players and teams were with each other for only a month or two, there was never any chemistry and teams ran mundane plays. Countries were completely committed and several teams folded before various seasons. Soccer was and still is king in Europe so NFL Europe was more of a side act to them.
The NFL also came up with the idea of the practice squad which is basically an 8 player scout team. These 8 players get to practice with the team and can be signed to the active roster at any time (as well as any other teams without penalty) during the season. In essence, it’s similar to a scout team but with much fewer players; its main intent is for college players to get experience at the NFL level who could use the time to develop into solid players. This system has had some success, most notably 2008 Super Bowl MVP James Harrison. At worst, it makes it easier for NFL teams to accommodate for injuries by having players readily available who are familiar with the team’s playbook. However, the main problem is all they get to do is practice. The only time they get game experience is during the pre-season if they make it that far along in the process and even then it’s against backups fighting for roster spots like themselves.
Outside of the NFL, there are currently 3 alternate football leagues: Arena Football, the UFL, and Canadian football. Arena Football has been around for some time and hasn’t yielded any results in players transitioning to the NFL. It’s too different from the NFL and the shorter field doesn’t help at all. As far as the UFL, it’s hard to see what the future holds. So far the theme of the UFL seems to be “the stars of yesterday” as older players who still feel like playing have been dominating the league as well as has beens. They just had their initial season this following year, but didn’t seem to attract too many viewers or fans. They claim it’s because last year was a “test run”, but it’s hard to see if this is a legitimate reason or not. It’s not sanctioned or under the NFL so it’s trying to stand alone. It’s yet to be seen if the league can grow and be sustainable over the long run. They’re entering their second season and have added another team and are up to 5. After those 2 leagues, there’s really nothing out there other than some random semi-pro leagues scattered throughout the country. As for the CFL, the differences in their rules and style of play are just as great as the AFLs. A longer field, 12 players on the field at a time, and only 3 downs highlight some of the major differences. Rarely do CFL players come to fame in the NFL, but a few have like Doug Flutie and Warren Moon. Not too many players have successfully made the transition recently.
I <3 the practice squad!
So why isn’t there a developmental league like in the other sports? I’ve got a few theories. For one, an NFL season is short. It spans 4 months and is only 16 games while the MLB and NBA are at least 1 month longer and have a ton more games played. For the NFL, there just isn’t enough time. If any gains are to be made, it’s most likely in the off season workouts. The other issue at hand is how would they create teams? Each team could have 8-10 players to contribute to making a team, but how would teams be decided? For that matter, would the teams work together and try not to gain the upper hand (I’m looking at you Belichick). Quite possibly the biggest question is would this put players at a disadvantage? While practice squad players don’t get game experience, they get to learn the play book and see what it takes to be successful. If they had a D League, they would get game experience but not know the plays or what was required by the NFL. Lastly, would the NFL-D be a sustainable asset from a business standpoint? In other words, would it make money and draw fans? They could use it to test markets like San Antonio and Los Angeles to see if they were ready for an NFL team, but would fans really care during the regular season?
I hate to admit it, but the UFL is possibly the best alternate right now outside of NFL expansion. They operate as a separate entity which gives them more freedom to make their league more distinguishable instead of having to identify themselves as a developmental league. They also have their games at the right times as they range from Wednesday to Saturday. It’s too early to tell, but it could be a viable option in the future. With the UFL starting to have league drafts, it has the opportunity to grow. However, the ultimate answer to the overflux of NFL talent would be to add a team to each conference. There are several deserving markets (San Antonio and Los Angeles) and with how much talent is laying around, they could easily add 2 teams. What’s everyone else think is the answer to the current issue with no developmental league?