NFL Needs a D-League
At the same time that hope springs eternal across 32 NFL training camps, there are ubiquitous reminders of how cold a business the NFL is during these dog days of August. As one who has been an agent, team executive and now analyst, I have always found this time of year the most hopeful yet also the harshest.
In one sense, this part of the calendar represents the best part of sports, a time when dreams of becoming NFL players come true. The reality, though, is that about 1,000 of the NFL players now populating practice fields and second halves of preseason games will be ex-NFL players in two weeks. Labor Day weekend always means a drastic reduction in the NFL labor force.
Let’s look at this faceless group presently making up about a third of NFL team rosters and suggest an alternate route—with an NFL stamp of approval—that has promise.
Who are these guys?
The building of a team’s roster begins with the start of the calendar year. Once the regular season ends in late December or early January, teams immediately start filling next season’s roster spots with “Reserve/Futures” consisting of (1) free agents who may have bounced around a couple teams yet are unsigned at season’s end, and (2) players who finished the season on the team’s practice squad (although a handful will choose to sign with a different team, seeing a better opportunity). Later in the spring, teams sign between 12 and 20 undrafted free agents who will try to beat the odds and make the team. This group of 20 to 30 players per team, virtually all of whom sign for non-guaranteed minimum salaries with little to no signing bonus, join holdovers from the lower part of the previous season’s roster to compete for precious few open spots.
Perhaps it is the former agent in me, but I always felt for these guys. While the phrase “camp bodies” sounds harsh, it is a term used by scouts and coaches around the league. They do everything the team asks. They attend every lifting session, offseason workout, OTA, etc. They take every rep in practice and play in preseason games when asked, all to keep the “real players” as fresh as possible. Yet, in almost every case, they are called by a staff member during the week before Labor Day and told their services are no longer needed.
In most cases, I saw these groups of players move quietly around the team’s veterans, beaming when established stars talk to them. I once saw an undrafted offensive lineman on the phone in training camp saying: I don’t think he knows my name, but Brett Favre smiled in my direction today!
I know, there are success stories—Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, etc.—and every team sells the idea of open competition (I’ve made the pitch). However, these stories are the rare exceptions, often influenced by injuries above the players on the depth chart. For most, no matter what they do between Easter and Labor Day, they have no chance on God’s green earth of making the team. They are filling a role, cheap commodities rented during the long NFL offseason, with short-term leases expiring on cutdown day.
Once released, players typically follow the standard practice: (1) stay in shape; (2) check in with their agent, poring over injuries at their position, and if they can, (3) maintain flexible employment to allow them to walk away at a moment’s notice for a tryout or signing.
What if there were another alternative for these hundreds of players flushed out of the system, one even with the imprimatur of the NFL brand on it? In what were among Troy Vincent's first public comments after he was named NFL VP of Football Operations in March, he raised the possibility of a player developmental league. Vincent floated this idea for public consumption—a tried and true NFL tactic—and it was well received.
I was part of the NFL’s first attempt at a developmental league as general manager of the Barcelona Dragons in the NFL’s World League of American Football, where we had conflicting missions to: (1) introduce American Football in new global markets, and (2) develop players.
As for selling American football, it was quite the challenge in Spain. Fans cheered at the wrong times—the biggest ovations were for the extra point—and did “the wave” the entire game long. Despite more sophisticated audiences in London and Germany, NFL owners first shuttered the World League and later NFL Europe.
As for developing players, many ended up on training camp rosters; NFL teams were enticed to keep them around with training camp exemptions. Some players did perform well upon returning to NFL training camps, although we noticed “tired legs” were an issue for many.
D-League makes sense
With the NFL’s international efforts now concentrated on games (or a team) in London, an NFL-sanctioned developmental league can focus on the training of players and, as Vincent indicated, other personnel such as coaches, scouts, officials, etc. The league could also serve as a season-long experimental lab for new officiating rules and technological advancements.
As for a season time frame, the CBA now mandates that NFL players vacate their team facility for three months, enough time for an entire developmental league season, using first-class NFL team facilities. Alternatively, the league could be staged in a central location in Florida, Texas or Southern California. As for the issue of tired legs, this early time frame would allow for ample recovery by July training camps.
Conversely, a fall time frame would allow a concurrent feeder system similar to Major League Baseball, with potential call-ups throughout the season. And ultimately, I can envision alignments with NFL teams where NFL coaches handpick developmental league coaches to teach similar schemes, allowing for seamless transitions back and forth.
Build it, they will come
While the developmental league won’t happen this year and perhaps not next, it has all the elements needed to happen, the most important being the sanction of the NFL. As for the lifeblood of any sports league—television—there will be no shortage of potential programmers for the product. The sports sub-networks of NBC, CBS and Fox and ESPN’s many outlets—along, of course, with NFL Network—will all be natural outlets for the product.
And what about that product? The abundant supply of players described above certainly creates a ready, willing and able talent pool that deserves a chance to play. And when that time comes, perhaps we can feel less conflicted about the hundreds that will be in the wind in the next 10 days. My business of football mantra—So many players, so few jobs—rings the loudest this time of year.
A couple thoughts to throw into the ample mix of commentary on Johnny Manziel, from both the league and team perspective.
From the NFL’s point of view, what a godsend he has been for the short term. The league has been wrestling with the lack of interest in the preseason for years; it was a regular topic in owner meetings I attended. While the NFL can’t be pleased with some of his antics—there will be fines for the flipped bird—he has been the biggest savior of preseason interest in some time. Television ratings and social media traffic can attest to that.
From the Browns’ perspective, they cannot be surprised by anything they have seen thus far. They knew whom they were drafting in the first round: an exciting and somewhat undisciplined prospect, both on and off the field, for better or worse. It’s not like anyone in the organization can be thinking, Wow, Manziel’s crazy! There are lots of chapters left in the story, both good and bad, but this cannot be a mystery to the Browns.