The original version of this column appeared in September, 2018. Since the Alliance of American Football ceased operations earlier this week, I decided to tweak, update and repost it.
Goodbye, Alliance of American Football – I really liked you, but only had eight weeks to get to know you.
Hello, XFL – not the old, stinky XFL from 2001, but the (supposedly) better version set for a February 2020 launch.
Like the AAF, it’ll feature players hoping to work their way back to the National Football League.
The Alliance was angling to become an “official” developmental league for the NFL, and I’m guessing the XFL might have similar plans at some point.
While you can claim any minor league is a de facto farm system for the NFL, a traditional 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 Carolina Panthers can call up a lineman from the Clemson Tigers 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, say, Major League Baseball affiliates.
If I was tasked with putting together an NFL developmental league, 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 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 maybe 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 and how to get the NFL Players Association to agree to 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.