A new National Football League season begins tonight with Atlanta visiting defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia, and by Sunday the 2018 campaign will be in full swing.
Starting in February, fans who subscribe to the notion that there’s no such thing as too much gridiron action will get to watch the Alliance of American Football, which is set to start up as soon as this NFL season is finished.
Then in 2020, wrestling mogul Vince McMahon is investing $500 million to relaunch the XFL, which will also have a late winter/spring schedule.
We’ve covered both the AAF and XFL in detail on this site, so I’m not going into “greatest hits mode” other than to say they have a chance to be kinda/sorta feeder organizations for the NFL.
(Since I’m a Birmingham boy and the Magic City has an AAF team, I certainly hope that league makes it. As for the XFL revival, I couldn’t care less).
And while there will be no formal agreements between the big league and the new leagues – at least none that I know of – AAF and XFL officials will be more than happy to see someone use their circuits as steppingstones to the highest level of professional football because it provides an air of legitimacy.
While you can claim any minor league is a de facto farm system for the NFL, an official one has never truly existed.
College football fills the void relatively well, especially now that so many more elite players are physically and mentally ready to make a quick transition to the pro ranks.
Still, it’s not like the Atlanta Falcons can call up a lineman from the Georgia Bulldogs during the season.
That’s why I’m a little surprised that the NFL doesn’t have a legitimate minor league system.
As close as it came was the World League of American Football, which morphed into NFL Europe and finally NFL Europa.
Again, though, it was played in the spring, so it didn’t follow the model of a traditional minor league.
If I was tasked with putting together an NFL developmental league (and I’m available, by the way), all 32 franchises would have a “B Team” that would also incorporate the scout teams.
These squads would not only be a good proving ground for rookies, but give playing time to backups and paying jobs to a lot of guys who otherwise would be out of football work after training camp. I’d think it would be relatively easy to put together, say, a 40-man per club developmental league roster.
Every year there are roughly 3,000 draft-eligible players from the college ranks, and NFL teams each have 90 players when training camp starts. There are currently five pro indoor leagues and myriad semi-pro circuits, so there would be no shortage of men wanting another – and better – opportunity.*
*I deliberately left out the Canadian Football League because I love the CFL and don’t want it screwed with. But, obviously, an NFL developmental league would raid it for players.
In order to control expenses, my NFLDL would be divided into four, eight-team quadrants (North, South, East and West) that played regional slates.
For example, the South Quadrant might feature franchises in Birmingham, Charleston, Jackson (Miss.), Louisville, Memphis, Orlando, Raleigh and Shreveport. Teams would play each other twice over the course of a 14-game regular season, and then the four quadrant champions could meet in a four-team playoff.
And to be a real, working farm system, the season would need to run (mostly) concurrent with the NFL schedule, not in the spring or summer. It could start, say, two weeks after the NFL season begins.
If games were played on Tuesday or Wednesday nights, any given player would be ready to compete on any given Sunday after getting a “call-up.”
On the other hand, if a skill player is trying to work his way back from an injury (or a rookie QB needs some real game reps), the NFLDL would be the place to get them.
The farm system would also be a laboratory for rule changes and innovations.
Each year the NFL competition committee considers several tweaks, but only a handful make it to the field.
Why not give them a test drive in the NFLDL?
I think such a league would certainly be a benefit to the NFL in terms of player development. A key question, though, is how to fund it.
Would the farm teams be owned by the same person or groups who own the parent clubs?
Would the NFL teams pay the salaries of all of the NFLDL players, or just the ones on loan?
Would fans even support what amounts to a Triple A football league when they’re already being overloaded with NFL and college games?
There’s a good chance we’ll never know.
Still, it’s something to think about – even if I’m just thinking out loud.