NFL might pull plug on NFL Europa

"The Sopranos" either captivated loyalists with its strange ending Sunday night or infuriated the masses by being so ambiguous that you were left wondering if the show is really over. While that ending left many people shaking their heads, an NFL series that actually has run longer than "The Sopranos" could be the on the verge of getting whacked.

NFL Europa -- formerly known as NFL Europe and the World League of American Football -- has been around since 1991 (with a two-year hiatus in 1993 and 1994), which is remarkable when you think of it. The league that once was a training ground for starting quarterbacks has had a pretty good run. But the end appears to be near.

World Bowl XV is scheduled for June 23, but does anyone know? Though the NFL does a great job of sending out releases and doing its best to promote the spring developmental league, it's hard to find any information unless you dig for it online. Newspapers barely print the scores in agate let alone post the standings. The NFL Network televises the games, but you wonder who's watching.

While the league is enjoying high attendance this season, the word going around in NFL circles these days is that World Bowl XV might be it. Consultants were brought in earlier this year to look at the whole value of the league. Created to promote America's top sport internationally, the league has shrunk to become almost just a German league, with five teams in Germany (Hamburg, Rhein, Frankfurt, Cologne and Berlin) and one in the Netherlands (Amsterdam). Gone are franchises in London, Barcelona and Scotland.

The NFL has a vested interest in promoting its brand overseas and is serious enough about it to consider adding a 17th regular season game in an effort to play games outside of the United States. While that debate is for a later discussion, the internal debate within the league is what to do with NFL Europa right now. My guess is the NFL is probably going to pull the plug, and Mark Cuban and any investors in the proposed UFL concept should take note.

The biggest reason NFL Europa is dying a silent death is it has lost its luster as a developmental league. For years, I have endorsed the need for a developmental league. The NFL cycle is fast and a lot of players slip through the cracks. First-round quarterbacks wash out after 50 starts if they aren't winning. What happens to them? If only six receivers make an NFL team, what happens to the rest of them? While the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League offer job opportunities for some of the failures, neither one of them can be considered a developmental league that is preparing players for the NFL. There needs to be some way to keep a talent pool fresh and available for NFL teams.

The World League of American Football and NFL Europe had the right idea at the beginning, but NFL Europa doesn't have a chance. The landscape has changed too much since 1991. First, and most importantly, there are 32 teams and eight-man practice squads in the NFL right now. Teams keep their draft choices around the facility year-round for at least two years, so only the rawest players are getting a chance to go overseas to get coaching. General managers are only going to allocate draft choices that are expendable to NFL Europa.

What you see now is a league that has roughly 40 drafted players and about 260 to 270 undrafted players. Folks, be serious, a legitimate league can't survive on undrafted free agents. Fewer and fewer undrafted players get starting jobs these days because teams are better at selecting. With all the information available to teams these days, it's hard for quality players to slip through the cracks.

Doing a quick search on my NFL database, I counted only 22 new starters league-wide from the undrafted ranks since 2002. That's less than one per team. That's not to knock undrafted players. Pro Bowlers such as Jake Delhomme, Antonio Gates, Rod Smith, Antonio Pierce and others went through a draft without being selected.

One positive of NFL Europa used to be developing quarterbacks. But the days of sending quarterbacks overseas to develop into eventual NFL starters are over. That phase ended around 2000. In the late 1990s, the NFL was in a bad cycle of quarterbacks. College teams ran the ball more and few coaches operated passing offenses out of spread formations. Things started changing around the time Peyton Manning turned pro in 1998. He led a wave of college quarterbacks groomed on passing offenses. Ninety percent of the starting quarterbacks come from the first three rounds of the draft.

A team might allocate a third-string quarterback to NFL Europa, but chances are he's just going to return a more experienced third-string quarterback. Teams aren't sending over quarterbacks that they think have a legitimate shot to develop into first-string signal callers. Gibran Hamdan, Casey Bramlet, J.T. O'Sullivan and others probably are better than No. 3 quarterbacks. Unfortunately, they aren't going to get many chances to advance much further than that. If a team has a question about the quarterback position, it is either going to draft one on the first day of the draft next year or sign or trade for a veteran in March or April.

NFL Europa had a safe haven when Paul Tagliabue was commissioner. He successfully fought for the league and kept it alive. Though Roger Goodell has scored As on all of his early tests as Tagliabue's replacement, he will take a bottom line approach this summer. The league is projected to lose about $1 million per NFL team this year. He'll push the owners to decide if that $1 million is worth it.

A developmental league is needed. Hey, if Cuban wants to partner up with the NFL figure out a better way to operate a developmental league in the states, great. Something is needed for 25- and 26-year-old players with two years of experience who don't make the 53-man roster or the eight-man practice squad. But how that is done is for a later column. What is clear is that NFL Europa isn't a developmental league anymore.

"The Sopranos" ending made you wonder if the cable went out Sunday night. The darkness on the screen for NFL Europa might be the plug being pulled after World Bowl XV. That's a shame.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.