We’ve all heard over and over again about the need for a Developmental League to supplement the talent pool within the NFL. The drumbeat mantra bangs “Draft & Develop, Draft & Develop”. In fact the numbers speak for themselves (in support of a D-League) with the average NFL career lasting all of about 3 years. The League has argued that’s just not the case, with the length of players on opening day rosters usually making it to about 6 years. They surmise the overall average is skewed by the number of players that don’t end up making an NFL roster at all. The NFL’s argument is further bolstered by the indication of most 1st round draft picks making it closer to 9 years after their initial selection. Studies have shown that a majority of two-deep rosters come predominantly from the top two rounds, and thereafter the overall percentage of long term talent steeply declines. So it’s surprising to me that NFL Executives are suddenly interested in the concept – AGAIN.
Same old song and dance
The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin recently expounded on this very topic;
The Canadian and Arena football leagues serve as refuges for players to make one last-ditch effort to keep their careers alive, but otherwise the opportunities to develop skills in the NFL are few. NFL teams can keep 90 players on their offseason rosters, but only 53 during the regular season plus eight on the practice squad, putting at least 928 players on the street each September with no real options to play.
The NFL’s need for a developmental league is now seven years old, but Troy Vincent, the former cornerback and now league’s new head of football operations, has made it a front-burner issue this offseason. He casually mentioned in April about the league’s interest in developing some sort of D-League, and in a month he was flooded with more than 100 proposals.
“I think that shows it is worth a look,” Vincent said last week via the Associated Press. “If it is something sustainable and it is good for the sport, and we can make it work, it’s worth pursuing.”
Been there, done that
My question to Troy would be “What’s the difference going to be this time around?” NFL ownership had a built in D-League through NFL Europe that provided growth and second chances for a number of familiar players; Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme, and J.T. O’Sullivan to a name a few. A respectable, if not solid marketing campaign and television coverage was also bolstered by a consistent attendance of around 19,000 per game for over 15 years. Roster exemptions were provided to those NFL clubs that took maximum advantage of allocation, and having sat on the Executive Committee for NFL Europe, I saw the results from those teams that chose to participate.
But like anything in the NFL, you have to convince a majority of the owners it’s worth their while to participate. Or in the case of an alternative D-League, to “pony up” the money. Eventually some of the owners didn’t see the necessity of it all and certainly couldn’t justify any “bang for their buck”. The financial burden of a League that played in the NFL’s offseason and in countries that predominantly saw “football” as an entirely different sport just became too much for the “collective” to swallow.
What’s the point?
So seriously, why is it going to be different this time? Professional football already frowns upon the 24 or 25 year old rookie. You hear it every season from those not willing to take a chance on a “mission” player or someone pushed to a hardship 5th or 6th medical redshirt year. What kind of competition might we expect from a yearly glut of Preseason castoffs that will only grow with each season’s cut down to Week 1? Time and turnover won’t allow for any continuity at the D-League level, and 2nd tier professional games will easily be overmatched by College Football and its new playoff system format. Playing parallel to the NFL and NCAA will only provide a passing glance from a fan base immersed in the weekly drama of REAL football. And just how long will a D-League player be allowed to develop as another “928 players” get pumped on to the street?
Playing in the spring isn’t the answer either, NFL clubs are pressed by need during the Fall’s grind. Street Free Agents sit on the side waiting to get a call for a Tuesday tryout and have about an hour to shake off the rust that has built up since the cuts to 70 and 53. And don’t get in the way of the annual NFL Draft either. Too much emphasis and marketing has already been pounded upon NFL fans to keep their year round attention. Spring football won’t be allowed (even if sponsored by the NFL itself) to compete with the draft.
Part of the struggle with allocation to NFL Europe was the agents’ perspective of the RISK FACTOR of a debilitating injury heading into NFL Training Camps. Would a couple of months overseas really enhance a client’s opportunity of making a roster in the fall, or just jeopardize any chance he might have to grab one of the last 90 remaining positions? Everyone loves the underdog story, the guy shut out for whatever reason that through sheer guts and determination defies the odds and makes good on the field. Those stories are fewer and farther between than most like to admit, or actually understand.
The reality is the MARKET determines who stays and who goes, who plays and who doesn’t. Some say expand the Practice Squads, but what do you do when emergency and or need falls outside of the players in this category? Too often you see clubs reaching beyond their own rosters for solutions to regular season personnel problems. Check the percentage of players called up from Practice Squads League wide, that’s not where most GM’s go on a regular basis to fill their talent voids. Practice Squad call ups or raids from other teams are predominantly a late season occurrence.
What’s the answer? How do we give the Kurt Warner’s of the world a second chance? Where do the “One and Done” go to sharpen their skills and stay ready for a call? How do veterans show that they still have a season or two left in the tank?
Thinking “Outside the box”
I proposed the following idea to the NFL back in January when I interviewed for the League’s Executive VP of Football Operations; Bi-coastal Football Academies.
Open up two centers exclusively for the development and or maintenance of professional football talent. Put one in Orlando, Florida and one in Los Angeles, California. Have open access for NFL scouts to all players on and off the field. Implement a Senior Bowl style format; individual drills, 1 on 1, 7 on 7, 9 on 7, controlled type scrimmages. Get everything on tape, from every imaginable angle; NFL coaches and scouts want to see repetitions. Time and test the Indy Combine drills off the field; 40-yard dash, vertical jump, long jump, short shuttle, long shuttle, 3-Cone, and bench press.
Allow coaches currently out of work and former NFL players looking to get into coaching a chance to emphasize and communicate position fundamentals over playbook execution. Give them an opportunity to teach versus game plan. Have each and every drill overseen by NFL Officials in training. Use this format to test and evaluate new rules, procedural changes, and enhanced equipment technology. Introduce the concept of “crossover athletes” to learn and prepare in the fundamentals of the game through this type of environment. Provide players access to various opportunities within the League’s Player Development Program. Create “professional” football players.
Open up an NFL Fan Experience. Give behind the scenes access to classroom instruction, strength and conditioning training, and 100% on the field practice viewing. Make the Orlando and L.A. academies a vacation destination, as well as affordable to families.
Smoke and mirrors
Participation should be limited to an allocation process or by invitation upon petition from the player. I already feel the NFL’s Regional Combine Camps are a waste of time and the player’s money. There’s an assumption that NFL clubs are somehow missing available talent in the current evaluation process. Sure, there’s going to be the occasional prospect uncovered by a single organization that most of the others didn’t have on their radar. But these “needles in a haystack” don’t warrant an entire cottage industry of taking the height, weight, and speed of every NFL wannabe that was passed over by a meticulous selection process known as the National Invitational Camp. The Regional Combines are nothing more than a political ploy to ensure the appearance that each and every eligible player has an opportunity to be evaluated, but only if that player is willing to pay a registration fee and not necessarily based upon his ability. Anyone remember the reason for College Pro Days?
Likewise the NFL is likely to use the creation of a Developmental League to give the media and its fan base a sense that young talent is truly being nurtured and that an NFL career can commence two or three years after college eligibility is exhausted. Perhaps. But the League Office doesn’t make personnel decisions, the 32 Clubs do. Ownership isn’t going to sustain the cost of a D-League to punch out a handful of players to round out the final 90 on the way to 53. What they will “pony up” for is a process that keeps the available talent pool “football ready” and gives their Personnel Departments easy access to quickly and reliably evaluate them when the need calls. That need comes during the regular season as rosters are decimated by injuries and as GM’s begin signing Reserve Futures for the following season. There are a lot of questions that still need to be addressed; who pays, how long can you stay, what is the eligibility, is two or maybe three sites? Those details can be sorted out later.
We don’t need a D-League to develop NFL players, we need a process and a program for real player & football development – NFL Football Academies.