NFL Europe still has value

NFL Europe will hold World Bowl XIII this Saturday in Dusseldorf, Germany, with the Amsterdam Admirals facing the Berlin Thunder.

It's hard to believe NFL Europe has been around for 13 years. The league has undergone many reconfigurations. Once, it tried playing in places such as London, Scotland (Glasgow) and Barcelona. Now, the six-team league has concentrated on five cities in Germany and one in the Netherlands. It has gone from a league that tried to develop street free agents to one that is primarily staffed by players allocated from the league's 32 teams.

By having teams so concentrated in these six cities, attendance has improved by 20 percent, setting an NFL Europe average attendance record of 18,965. Travel costs have also been reduced because teams take trains and buses to games instead of planes. Still, NFL Europe is probably never going to be a money maker.

But NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw is a supporter. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is a big supporter. For Upshaw, NFL Europe offers jobs and a forum for players learning their trade to better qualify themselves for NFL employment. Tagliabue understands the marketing aspect of the league. The longer it survives, the more it keeps the American version of football in front of foreign fans.

But NFL Europe, like the NFL, is at a crossroads. The two-year agreement to keep Europe alive ends after Saturday's game. NFL Europe supporters will have to return to the lobbies of owners' meetings, trying to keep the concept alive, and the timing couldn't be worse. The NFL has major labor problems that go beyond the league and the union.

Owners are fighting among themselves. High-revenue teams don't want to share their local riches with lower-revenue teams. Though most people anticipate some kind of settlement by the fall, the situation puts NFL Europe in a tough spot.

Each time NFL Europe goes for a vote of the owners, it's a tight squeeze. Just eight negative votes can kill any initiative, and NFL Europe usually passes by only a vote or two because it doesn't make money. And money is the key here, and this is where timing could prevent the league from having its 14th season, which would be a huge mistake that can't be reversed.

Timing is a problem because Tagliabue has scheduled a meeting every month for the next five months to resolve the labor issues. Obviously, labor peace is a priority, so NFL Europe will be on the back burner until the major issues are resolved. The longer NFL Europe is left hanging for the fall, the more the league will be in jeopardy of not having enough time to get ready for next season.

"I think we've been through this a lot since 1991," said former Broncos president John Beake, who has been the league's main leader in keeping NFL Europe alive and kicking. "I'm optimistic. NFL Europe remains a good story. We had 271 allocated players this year. I think the teams have shown the commitment to help. We have good coaches."

But times have changed, and it has affected NFL Europe's stature as a developmental league.

Right now, owners are more concerned about the money than about the intricacies of the game. For example, there is a quiet push among owners to cancel last year's increase of five practice squad players to eight and stay with just five. It's that kind of thinking that could jeopardize NFL Europe.

Recent success by teams drafting quarterbacks has taken a little luster out of NFL Europe. In the mid to late 1990s, the NFL was starved for quarterbacks. Colleges produced quarterbacks from running offenses who weren't ready to play in the NFL, so teams had to scramble for quarterbacks. NFL Europe proved a valuable place to develop quarterbacks. Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme, Jon Kitna, Brad Johnson and Jay Fiedler were just a few of the quarterbacks who turned NFL Europe experiences into the chance to be ready to take over starting jobs in the NFL.

But that trend has waned recently. Once Alex Smith takes over the 49ers' starting job, half of the NFL's 32 teams will have starting quarterbacks who were first-round choices between 1998 and now. Teams are sending their third or fourth quarterbacks to Europe, so at best, the next few years of NFL Europe will be about developing backup quarterbacks.

But that's not a bad thing. Look at Dave Ragone of the Houston Texans. He had only 40 pass attempts during his first two seasons, and the chance of him getting on the field with David Carr and Tony Banks ahead of him will be minimal this season. Ragone led Berlin to the World Bowl this year, completing 62.9 percent of his passes, with a 97.5 quarterback rating and 13 touchdown passes. At least he showed he can play, and that experience will be invaluable.

Under the current NFL structure, a lot of players potentially fall through the cracks without getting a chance to develop. To some degree, the NFL has become a league of elite draft choices. Scouting has improved. Drafts have become so public that is it harder for good players to slip into rounds four through seven.

Depth charts are becoming pretty predictable. Starting jobs are filled with choices from the first, second, third and fourth rounds. Lower-round choices get to start at fullback, safety and offensive guard. That leaves limited chances for second-day draft choices to play at the left tackle, defensive end, quarterback and receiver positions. NFL Europe offers them a chance to play and develop.

Should NFL Europe not continue, teams will have to rely on the Arena League and the CFL to give the pool of replacement players a chance to hone their skills. But those leagues don't play under the same rules as the NFL.

"We did a study that said the average age of the Arena League player who can come into the NFL is around 28 or 29 years old," Beake said. "We are getting players in NFL Europe at an early age. They get good coaching. Players have chances to make position switches. Linebackers can make the transition to defensive ends, and defensive ends can make the transition to linebackers. Teams like Denver, Kansas City and Dallas show a great commitment in sending players over here to develop."

Another problem could develop in 2006 if NFL Europe doesn't continue. As an incentive to find allocated players, the NFL offers roster credits for each player signed to send over to Europe. Those who send players from their 53-man roster get an extra credit. Those credits allow training camp rosters to swell. The Packers, for example, have 17 NFL Europe credits and will be able to bring almost 100 players to training camps.

The collective bargaining agreement allows for only 80 signed players at a camp, and 80 isn't enough because of the lengthy offseason programs and the nagging injuries that develop during camps. Figure that 12 to 15 players are on the sidelines nursing injuries during camp. If teams go into preseason games with only 65 players, they risk injuries to more starters. Teams need those NFL Europe credits so they can bring enough bodies to training camp.

NFL Europe has come a long way. A lot of NFL players have had positive experiences overseas. A total of 262 players from the 2004 regular-season rosters had NFL Europe experience. There have been 27 quarterbacks from NFL Europe who have started NFL games.

World Bowl XIII should be a celebration, but the bigger celebration should come if NFL Europe is back for another season.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.