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The NFL needs a minor league

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A step down would be a step up

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles-Training Camp James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly 1200 players are going to be cut this weekend. Some of them will join practice squads, a majority won’t. Some practice squad players will be called up, and some in-season free agents will be signed to a roster at some point. No matter where they are, many will never play a down. Those on practice squads will spend most of their time as scout team players rather than developing and preparing to play, those who never even make it to a practice squad, if they’re lucky enough to make it onto a 90 man roster in 2019, will have no real chance to improve their skills between now and then.

It shouldn’t be this way. In every other sport, there are paths for the development of young players, or opportunities for veterans to get another chance. In the NFL, there is no such system once a player’s college career is over.

It’s not like the NFL hasn’t tried. For 15 years, the league operated a European summer league that was one part developmental league and one part foray into the European market. The first attempt, the World League of American Football, with seven American teams and just three European teams, folded after two seasons. It came back in 1995 as a fully European league, was re-branded NFL Europe in 1998, and then re-branded again in 2007 as NFL Europa before folding after that season. Teams were able to allot players to NFL Europe rosters, and some had good relations with their staffs, but NFL teams didn’t have direct control over personnel or coaches. At its peak, it was churning out NFL players who just needed a chance.

Kurt Warner was just looking for a chance with an NFL team, and in 1998 the Rams signed him, assigned him to NFL Europe, and then he made the Rams roster as the third string QB. Dick Vermeil also sent guard Tom Nutten, who started 67 games in six seasons, to play with Warner, and then in 2001 with the Chiefs, Vermeil sent Dante Hall to Europe, where he was one of the most productive receivers and returners, and was teammates with three time Super Bowl winner Joe Andruzzi. Brad Johnson didn’t play a snap in the first two years of his NFL career in 1992 and 1993, in 1995 he led the WLAF in passing attempts. After spending a season on the Seahawks practice squad, Jon Kitna was World Bowl MVP in 1997. Jake Delhomme, Jay Fiedler and Shaun Hill all spent time in NFL Europe.

In 1999, Marcus Robinson caught 84 passes for 1400 yards and 9 touchdowns, the year before he was the MVP of NFL Europe. Brian Finneran was All-NFL Europe in 1999 before a 9 year career with the Falcons. 2000 NFL Europe MVP Aaron Stecker was signed by the Buccaneers and played in the NFL for a decade.

Michael Sinclair finished 2nd in sacks in the WLAF in 1992, in 1998 he led the NFL. Marques Douglas was 2nd in NFL Europe in sacks in 2000, he would be a starter in the NFL for six seasons. From 2002-2005 Stylez G. White spent time on seven different teams without appearing in a game. In 2005, he led NFL Europe in sacks (and did the same in the AFL in 2007). Finally in 2007 he made the Bucs roster, he would record 8 sacks that season and 16 more over the next three seasons.

The league also gave several kickers and punters chances, most notably Adam Vinatieri and David Akers.

The chances were there. And not just for the players.

Most coaches in NFL Europe were veteran college coaches, but the league was also where current and former head coaches Hue Jackson, Mike Riley, Steve Spagnuolo, and Jim Tomsula worked their way up the ladder, as did several other assistants such as current Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel. Oliver Luck and Andrew Brandt worked their way up the executive ladder as General Managers in NFL Europe.

And it created opportunities for broadcasters to get their start on national TV. Curt Menefee’s FOX career began by calling an NFL Europe game with Brian Baldinger.

People aren’t the only thing that develops. The NHL uses the AHL as a testing ground for rule changes. Successfully the 3 on 3 overtime was implemented in the AHL a year before coming to the NHL, while unsuccessfully the league allowed the Buffalo Sabres to experiment with painting the ice light blue to attempt to improve sight for fans and television. The NFL has done the same. Over the past decade, overtime in the NFL has evolved from 15 minutes of sudden death to 10 minutes where each team is guaranteed (an opportunity of) a possession. NFL Europe’s overtime was the same as the NFL’s today.

Then, NFL Europe vanished. The longer the league went, the more attendance dropped, and the league was losing $30 million a year on it. Trying to expand interest in Europe and having a developmental league are individually good ideas, but combining them by attempting to expand to a completely new market with a substandard product without star players was never going to take off. Now the NFL takes NFL teams to London, and over 80,000 attend.

Over the years, the minor league void has tried to be filled. The Canadian Football League has been a stepping stone for a few players, but in 2012 they ended players ability to sign with NFL teams prior to their final year under contract in the CFL, eliminating the only avenue for CFL players to join the NFL before their contract expired. In 2007 the All American Football League was created with the aim of launching in 2009, it never got off the ground. In 2009 the United Football League started, and the rosters and coaching staffs were filled with mostly former NFL players and coaches looking for one last chance, but there were some who were able to further their careers in it. Jay Gruden and Sean McVay coached together in it, and Graham Gano was the league’s leading scorer in its inaugural year, while other current NFLers Steven Hauschka, Andrew Sendejo, and James Develin played in the league. With no major financial backing and losing the gamble on the 2011 lockout making them the only game in town, it folded in 2012. However as a proof of concept for a modern NFL lifers playing in a lower tier, American based league, it worked. And say what you will about the XFL, but it had an impact on the NFL. Tommy Maddox’s career came back from the dead through it, and he was one of four XFL alumni to later play in a Super Bowl, and current NFL assistant coaches Joe Lombardi and Jim Skipper coached in it. The XFL also gave us the Sky Cam, and Matt Vasgersian made his national television debut calling XFL games.

All of these players, coaches and broadcasters got chances they may have never otherwise gotten. Today’s players don’t currently have these opportunities. They might in the future, as the XFL is planning to reboot in 2020, and in 2019 the Alliance of American Football is set to begin. The AAF has the backing of CBS, but then the XFL was co-created by NBC, and the tentative rosters and head coaches seems like a reboot of the UFL. Neither the AAF nor the XFL are either fully developmental leagues or have the backing of the NFL. The Spring League began in 2017 and is a developmental platform, it has seen several players get picked up by professional teams, but almost all in the Canadian Football League or were cut after NFL preseason.

These leagues might give some players and coaches some opportunities, but what the NFL needs is a full fledged minor league. A league where players, coaches, and executives can work their way up an organization. Rather than late round draft picks being stashed on injured reserve with phantom injuries or spending each week as little more than a scout team player, an in-season developmental league would give them valuable practice and playing time. 3rd string QBs could get months worth of practice and playing time they’d only get for a week or two in the preseason. For players who won’t even make a practice squad, a chance in a true minor league could be career altering. The NFL is transitioning to full time officials, a minor league would give them a development track as well. And perhaps the league could make a Thursday Night Football that players didn’t hate.

The components are there. NFL Europe showed that an NFL backed developmental league does create chances in and does play a role in developing players for the NFL. The UFL showed that if it’s based in America, there are plenty of legitimate players and coaches to draw from. All other major sport leagues in American have their own developmental leagues: the AHL, the G League, the USL, and baseball’s multi-level minor league system. It’s time the NFL had its own.