Time is right for minor league football

For seven years, pro football executives have fumed, fretted and lobbied. They've watched the elimination of their developmental league intersect with new restrictions on offseason training and the changing landscape of their feeder system. They've seen some drop-off in game readiness for young players and are concerned about the day when the industry is fundamentally impacted by these coinciding factors.

Relief may soon be upon them. Interviews with a cross section of executives, analysts and observers suggest the landscape is ripe for an NFL-sanctioned developmental league to replace NFL Europe, which was shuttered in 2007. Interested parties envision a domestic incarnation modeled roughly after the NBA's D-League -- perhaps complemented by a training "academy" -- that capitalizes on the thirst for live programming from a growing number of all-sports cable channels.

The promise of competitive television revenue will assuage some concerns about cost containment. NFL Europe's reported losses of $30 million left a deep imprint on owners, after all, and the United Football League -- which operated independently from the NFL -- folded in 2012 amid more than $10 million in unpaid bills.

Indeed, longtime NFL general manager Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst, projected last fall that an NFL-endorsed developmental league would turn a profit by its third year. Some executives are more optimistic, encouraged in part by the league office, and at least one attempt to form an unaffiliated league for the 2014 season is underway.

There have been times when NFL business executives considered this idea a financially unfeasible siren call from personnel types who wanted to create more jobs for themselves. But the buzz gained some formidable weight recently from NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent, who was hired into the league's top football operations job this spring. During an interview with newspaper editors last month, Vincent mentioned the possibility of both a developmental league and an academy. "For all this football talent around," he said, "we have to create another platform for developing it."

The league hasn't taken any formal action beyond those words, and a spokesman said Vincent wouldn't give additional interviews on the matter until there is more to discuss. But his tacit endorsement has been enough to raise hopes, generate ideas and renew a substantive conversation about the intermediate steps between high school fields and NFL stadiums.

"When you have the No. 2 or No. 3 guy in the NFL putting these things out, you know there is a lot of interest," said Andrew Brandt, former general manager of the Barcelona Dragons in the World League of American Football (which later became NFL Europe) and now an ESPN NFL business analyst.

"It's one of the best things that could happen to make players better sooner," said NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt, who spent 29 years working in personnel for the Dallas Cowboys and remains closely connected to player development. "You would look at it like a training program that so many large companies have today. These large, successful companies feel like they need to train their new employees. That's how we should look at it."

The need exists

Phil Savage, a former personnel executive with the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns who now runs the Senior Bowl and serves as an ESPN NFL Insider, got fired up a few weeks ago and did some research. On the fifth anniversary of the 2009 draft, he found that nearly half of the 256 players selected were not on an NFL roster. Only 38 remained with their original team.

While not fully conclusive, those figures suggest a disconnect between college evaluations and pro performance. There is no reason to suspect a talent shortage, given the continual improvements in combine test scores, but it's reasonable to believe that college practice limitations in conjunction with new NFL offseason requirements have stifled valuable training time for young players.

"You've got colleges with the 20-hour rule and allowing only 15 spring practices," Savage said. "Then you have record numbers of underclassmen declaring, and when you compare the résumé for a guy entering the draft now compared to 20 years ago, he just doesn't have as much experience.

"From a football purist standpoint, there is some concern about the level of play, not talentwise but in terms of technique, understanding the game and feel for the game. And then you also wonder if you're losing out on a handful of players that have the ability to play professional football but don't have the time to develop the way the league is currently set up."

As a result, quality of play has slipped not across the board but in instances where reserve players are thrust into major roles. Many personnel executives believe depth is a bigger issue than injuries at the moment. In 2013, several teams took major dives when they were unable to find adequate injury replacements -- especially when injuries occurred at the quarterback position.

"You can see a drop-off if you look at the difference in teams," Gil Brandt said. "Take Tampa Bay last year as an example. I keep track of injuries and had them with the fifth most in the league in terms of games lost by their starters. I don't think we're at a point where we have enough replacement players ready to go when you lose that many. The guy on the practice squad might be pretty close to being on the regular team, but he needs development. That takes time we don't always have."

In fact, NFL players couldn't return this offseason to their team facilities for training until April 21 at the earliest. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) limits most teams to one veteran minicamp and 10 organized team activities (lasting no more than 90 minutes apiece) and has all but abolished two-a-day practices.

Meanwhile, NFL executives are keeping a wary eye on recent events around college football, where a push to pay players -- possibly via a union -- might further limit its capacity to serve as a de facto feeder league. In a recent op-ed piece for The Washington Post, agent Donald Yee mapped out a future where perhaps 50 or 60 colleges are still playing Division I football. High school players would choose between taking a college stipend or signing with one or more developmental leagues for training until they are eligible for the NFL draft.

Savage and others believe the NFL must consider both its short-term issues and a longer-term future where it might well need to cultivate its own talent.

"What we need," Savage said, "is to get to a point where these guys can hit the ground running [in the NFL] at a more advanced level, now and in the future."

Why it failed before

The idea, of course, is not new. Previous incarnations have failed largely for financial reasons, even when affiliated with the league's powerful brand.

The WLAF/NFL Europe experienced some developmental success -- especially for quarterbacks, including Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme, Jon Kitna and Brad Johnson -- but was crippled by two major problems. First, operating overseas was expensive and diluted its goals, according to Andrew Brandt.

"I never really understood whether the primary mission was to develop talent or to introduce football around the globe," Andrew Brandt said. "Was it to produce players or to create new frontiers for marketing expansion and a whole new audience, to get a footprint into the continent? Those didn't necessarily work hand in hand."

Second, the late-spring timing and NFL offseason rules at the time served as a disincentive for teams to send their most promising players overseas. Andrew Brandt witnessed the obstacles firsthand after moving to a front-office role with the Green Bay Packers in 1999.

"NFL Europe put guys into training camps, no doubt about that," Brandt said. "But then you tended to find that they had tired legs from playing an entire season, and the excitement about them ebbed, because by the time you got them, they were not fresh. That was an issue."

The NFL incentivized teams to assign players to Europe, giving them training camp exemptions for any players they signed out of the league, but some coaches resisted sending their top prospects. Under the previous CBA, teams held more extensive offseason programs -- including special quarterback schools -- and coaches preferred to develop their players in-house rather than shipping them overseas for game experience.

"There were some success stories," Andrew Brandt said. "Most teams can point to one or two guys, but really not a lot."

The UFL, meanwhile, made the mistake of taking a competitive position against the NFL as a fall league. It required transfer fees for players whom NFL teams wanted to sign and spent heavily to sign quarterbacks and coaches with name recognition. NFL veteran quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper and Jeff Garcia and coaches Dennis Green, Jim Fassel, Marty Schottenheimer and Ted Cottrell were among those who participated.

In the middle of its fourth season, however, the league folded under the weight of at least $10 million in unpaid bills. Scores of former employees are still owed salaries and expenses, but there was never any doubt about the supply of players available.

"We had some financial hardships," said Sid Pillai, who served as director of football operations for the UFL's Sacramento franchise. "But it was a great league for people who wanted to improve themselves to get to the next level. We always knew we had a line around the block of people who wanted to play football. There are still some guys loitering in the NFL who played in our league. There is a market for more football. There has always been one."

Fall, spring and other questions

If and when the NFL dives back into that market, it will have to navigate issues from timing to structure to cost containment. Savage, for one, suggested a total of eight teams placed in Florida and Arizona to play during the four-month window -- roughly between the Super Bowl and the draft -- when players are barred from training with their teams anyway.

"The coaches can't get access to these players anyway," he said. "Maybe you allocate half a dozen back-end guys from a team, get them some game action and get it done without interfering with their chances of working with an NFL team's offseason program. With NFL Europe, we wanted to keep our guys with our coaches in March and April, but you can't do that anymore."

In his public comments last month, Vincent suggested a concurrent "academy" that would provide classroom preparation and on-field technique work. That idea might work best in the fall, Savage said, giving teams a more reliable and conditioned pool of players to call on for in-season help.

"That would help," Savage said. "It wouldn't be as much running plays as it was working techniques, meeting in the classroom and just increasing the base of football knowledge. You can definitely find retired coaches or out-of-work coaches that would be willing to do it. You would prefer that over a player getting cut in training camp and going home to work out. When you get into the NFL, you're competing against players that have done this for a long time, and their techniques are at a certain level. Unless you're one of the very elite guys, it's really a tall task to build yourself up and sustain yourself in this league. That's why you see such turnover."

Other ideas abound. Last fall, Polian suggested a southern-based league mirroring the SEC where players could largely bus to games. Andrew Brandt envisions more of a pure minor league, like baseball's, that "mirrors the NFL season, has the same rhythms week to week and is a real 'call-up' league."

It would serve as not only a breeding ground for players but also for young coaches, referees and experimental rule changes. No matter the structure, however, there is widespread agreement that no league will succeed long term without a formal NFL affiliation.

"You've seen other attempts that have had promise but haven't had a stamp of approval from the NFL," Andrew Brandt said. "That means a lot, especially to the television subnetworks. They're going to be a lot more interested in broadcasting with that NFL stamp."

Said Savage: "I wouldn't worry about stadiums and crowds as much as I would television rights. The way the league is right now, if it's got the NFL shield on it, people will want to broadcast it."

Latest attempt

At least one group is already working to capitalize on Vincent's comments. Brian Woods, the executive director of the Medal of Honor Bowl college all-star game, has put together a business plan that would place franchises in six cities -- mostly in minor league baseball stadiums -- this fall.

Woods said he wants the FXFL -- Fall Experimental Football League -- to play a six- to eight-game schedule in New York; Boston; Omaha, Nebraska; Orlando, Florida; Portland, Oregon; and either San Antonio, Texas, or Memphis, Tennessee. Teams would form 40-man rosters after NFL cuts in September, limiting themselves to players who are no more than two years removed from college, and stage games on Wednesday nights beginning in October.

Woods declined to detail the financing of the league but said it would own two franchises outright and have licensing/franchise agreements with minor league baseball teams in the other four cities. Players would be paid between $1,000 and $1,250 per week, Woods said, and total expenses for the entire season would be between $8 million and $9 million.

"From a business standpoint," Woods said, "cost containment is a top priority. We have to be very transparent in our presentation. We're a developmental league. We're not a commercial league operating under the guise of a developmental league.

"We're very confident in the structure of it, and, more than anything, there's a need for it."

Woods wouldn't comment on any discussions he has had with the NFL. For now, the FXFL is operating independently while giving players the freedom to move up to NFL teams during the season.

The proposed scope of the FXFL provides an important illustration of what an NFL developmental league would look like. For context, consider that NFL practice squad players receive six times the weekly compensation ($6,300, according to the CBA) of those who would be in the FXFL.

The window here is decidedly inside football. Rather than producing elite front-line players, a developmental league ideally would prop up the back end of rosters -- at a reasonable price -- to better ensure quality of play when those stars aren't on the field.

"You're not talking about developing hundreds of players," Savage said. "You're giving several hundred players another opportunity, and you're ultimately going to develop maybe 12 or 16 or maybe one player for every team. If 32 guys could develop and make the team, then maybe you're shaving down the failures of guys who did not get drafted or didn't make a team.

"That's good for the game and it makes a lot of sense, too."