Brian Woods began jotting down a business plan last summer, hoping it could one day fill football's need for a domestic developmental league. When NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent unexpectedly opened the bidding in April, Woods scrambled into action.
In a span of six months, Woods has mobilized the Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL) from thin air, signing hundreds of players and about 25 coaches to split among four teams for a six-week season that opens Wednesday night. Most coaches have NFL connections on their résumés and the player pool is comprised primarily of those players released during or after the NFL preseason this summer. Officials will be culled from a Division I pool that feeds the NFL officiating development program.
If all goes as (somewhat chaotically) planned, the FXFL will provide a viable platform for marginal players to receive "live" training, ultimately giving NFL teams better-prepared in-season roster replacements. Woods hopes that 25-30 percent of FXFL players return to the NFL this fall, boosted by schematic guidelines that will maximize their in-game reps. NFL teams will be able to monitor players in real time via a television schedule that will reach nearly 100 million homes by funneling 14 regional broadcasters onto ESPN3.
"I'm most proud of the fact that we've mobilized in such a short period of time," Woods said. "The gestation period of a pro sports league, I assure you, is normally more than six months. We're very pleased with our progress in such a short time in an abbreviated time period we had. Overall, we're in a good place."
What is this?
I've chronicled the FXFL's progress a few times this summer, but here are the basics for newcomers: Teams will be based in Brooklyn, Boston and Omaha, Nebraska. A fourth team, originally intended for Miami, is instead a roving "all-star" team that will play all its games on the road. There are 120 players under contract now, 40 per team, but Woods estimates that 250 will cycle onto the field at some point during the season.
They will earn about $1,000 per week playing in either minor league baseball stadiums (Omaha, Brooklyn) or college facilities (Boston). For context, consider that an NFL rookie earns $17,823 weekly to be on the 53-man roster and $6,300 weekly on the practice squad. Still, the FXFL has attracted a handful of 2014 NFL draft choices, most notably Boston quarterback Tajh Boyd, a sixth-round pick of the New York Jets.
The frenetic run-up to this season, however, has belied a simple and foreboding fact:
Every alternative football league -- from the United States Football League to the Xtreme Football League to the United Football League to NFL Europe -- has failed for economic reasons. Woods has said the league has enough financing to play out the 2014 season, although he won't comment on the source or extent of it.
The FXFL's television contracts are barter-only, generating no revenue but for a share of advertising, and game tickets went on sale just three weeks ago. By Woods' own admission, the league's future likely is tied to arranging a formal affiliation with the NFL.
Woods has been in regular contact with team executives who are monitoring the FXFL's progress and, in some cases, requesting roster spots for specific players who remain on their radar.
"My discussions have been really good in that regard," Woods said. "I have been in contact with several team front office people and gotten phone calls from coaching staffs in the NFL. Right now, I have a very good relationship with the member clubs, but our goal is still to achieve a formal partnership with the league itself."
What it will look like
Is it possible to pull together so many people so quickly and produce a meaningful product? I spoke this week with Terry Shea, a longtime NFL assistant and independent quarterback tutor who is head coach of the Boston franchise, to get his early impressions. Shea compared the exercise to preparing for a college all-star game.
"It's a similar approach where you're dealing with players for a few days before they play their game," he said. "In this case, we've had four or five more days than an all-star game. I'd say we probably have double the amount of volume for these players."
Teams have been practicing for about two weeks, in fact. Shea's players typically meet from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., have a 45-minute walk-through in the early afternoon and then practice for up to two-and-a-half hours in the late afternoon. "It's about teaching these players how to set up a routine that they can use if they get back to the NFL," Shea said.
Shea's team will run the "three-digit" offensive scheme popularized by Don Coryell and still run by about a half-dozen NFL teams. Woods has mandated some teams play a 3-4 defense while others use a 4-3 to ensure experience against both alignments, and he has also adopted a series of suggestions from retired special-teams guru Mike Westhoff to ensure a maximum challenge on special teams.
Extra points will be kicked from 35 yards out, and all kicks will come from a wide hashmark to increase difficulty. Kickoffs will be set at the 25-yard line to reduce touchbacks and increase coverage opportunities. However, the returning team will be required to line up eight of its 11 men between the 35- and 45-yard lines in an experiment aimed at reducing the possibility of high-impact collisions.
"I really sense there is a need for a league like this," Shea said. "We certainly don't have a lack of players that are jumping at the opportunity to play for us, nor is there a lack of skill. The skill level of many of these players is on an NFL level, not necessarily to go in and start, but to have a chance to earn their way onto a 53-man roster. They just need some help. I think from an interest category and skill level, we've got a good chance to be successful."
The NFL will be watching.