SB Nation ran an intriguing article earlier today about the prospect of having an NFL spring league that would serve as a way to evaluate unproven talent.
They pointed to a radio interview with Jim Fassel, who said there is a possibility that we could see “a very good spring league opening next year in the NFL”
My immediate thoughts on the subject basically come down to: why not?
Every other major sport in this country has some kind of minor league feeder system, and in the case of the NBA, a Summer League that attracts a lot of attention from hardcore fans of the sport, and serves as another event on the league’s calendar to promote and sell to advertisers.
There are obviously a lot of questions that need to be answered and logistical challenges to be overcome before something like this becomes a reality, but if there’s one thing Roger Goodell is good at, it’s finding a way to make money and create extra revenue for the league.
Without getting into too complex of a discussion on all the challenges that stand in the way of something like this, here are all the reasons I think it would be a great idea.
1. Allow veterans to showcase their talents
The league is always looking for new content to sell, and one of the ideas which has been floated recently was a Veteran Combine, similar to the one held every year in Indianapolis. It’s a win-win, with teams getting to evaluate experienced NFL players in a vacuum, and the league being able to sell several hours of fresh, extra content to advertisers.
After all, if people will tune into the combine, they’ll tune into just about anything football-related.
What if that idea was taken to the next level, where veterans and younger players were put on teams and evaluated based on their performance against players of similar talent? Think the Senior Bowl or other all-star games but with multiple games instead of one.
What you gave a receiver a chance to work with a different quarterback or scheme instead of the one he’s been playing with unsuccessfully the past few seasons? What about a similar situation on the defensive side of the ball? Such a league would be a great way to introduce some different variables into the equation, and experiment with what works best for each player.
The only real roadblock would seem to be the league schedule, since in order to create a period of evaluation where players in the spring league would be able to sign with any NFL team, there would have to be enough time for a reasonably-lengthy minor league schedule, say eight games for example, as well as presumably a championship game of some kind.
We’ve seen the league make adjustments to the calendar before, for example when they moved the draft back several weeks this year to a more favorable date, so this doesn’t necessarily seem like a huge hurdle, but there would definitely need to be a few dates moved around.
2. Allow young and undrafted prospects time to be evaluated in a professional setting
One of the toughest parts of evaluating a potential prospect is watching him play in a “college” system, at least that’s what they tell me. Picking up a receiver in the fifth-round draft and placing him in a developmental league where he’d be acclimated to the expectations and the schedule of a professional team would give teams a better idea of how he would respond to such an atmosphere, to say nothing of having to learn a professional playbook and how the game is played on the next level.
A large part of the evaluation process is spent trying to figure out if the player you’re interested in has the psychological fortitude and emotional intelligence to succeed at the professional level, as well as whether or not they would make a positive contribution to the kind of locker room culture you’re trying to create. Having professional coaches, whether they’re affiliated with a particular team or not, working up close and personal with the players would be a huge advantage for teams when it comes to determining whether they’re ready for the big stage on Sundays.
3. Find and develop coaching talent
A lot of this would depend on the team affiliations for the minor league squads, for example whether the Patriots would have a minor league affiliate that they could send players to, just like baseball, but either way, if you’ve got a whole league full of players, they’re going to need coaches, and I just don’t see Bill Belichick roaming the sidelines in March coaching a bunch of second-tier players.
Sure, you’d have the Jim Fassels and Dennis Greens of the football world getting hired in some spots, but a league like this would also create more opportunity for up and coming coaches who would like to break into the professional ranks, or would like experience anywhere. Who knows where the next great coaches will come from, but one thing is certain, the more opportunities you create for such people to succeed, the more talent you’ll find and cultivate.
Which brings me to my next point…
4. Allow for more innovation in the game
This might be the most underrated but consistent part of setting up a second professional football league in this country. It’s an almost ironclad rule that when you open up another major professional league, even if that league dies out, it will still have made an impact on the world of football that will live on for some time.
- In 1946 the “All American Football Conference” (AAFC) gave previously successful high school and college coach Paul Brown an opportunity to make an impact on the pro level. It goes without saying that a man like Brown was crucial to the development of many of the things we take for granted in today’s NFL.
- In 1960, another large-scale effort to offer an alternative to the NFL was put together by Lamar Hunt, the son of an oilman who, when he was unable to buy an existing professional team, decided that he’d call a few of his friends and put together a league of his own. The American Football League gave innovators like Sid Gillman, Al Davis, and Hank Stram a platform to work with, and between the three of them, and through the contributions of many more, they helped change the modern game forever.
- In the 1980’s, the USFL emerged as a spring league at first, before Donald Trump, owner of the New Jersey Generals, pushed for the league to move to a fall schedule to compete directly with the NFL. Besides giving us big names like Herschel Walker and Jim Kelly, the USFL gave teams like the Houston Gamblers a chance to develop their aggressive run-and-shoot passing attack at the professional level. (Noted Run and Shoot advocate June Jones got his first professional coaching job with the Gamblers, and his influence can be felt across the professional and college landscape as well)
Putting aside the schematic innovations that have come about from competing leagues, a minor league would also give the NFL a chance to test out different rule changes and study their effects, such as what to do about the point after touchdown, and how best to incentivize teams to go for two, which is where the league is heading anyway.
5. Break the stranglehold the NCAA has on Young Talent
This one is, I admit, a bit far fetched, but in a perfect world, there would be a real alternative to going to school for four years and being forbidden to make any real money off of your talents as an athlete. At the very least, the threat of losing major talent to a competing professional league would force the NCAA and their member institutions to bring about real reforms when it comes to the rights of college athletes, how they’re compensated, and what their time commitment would be.
The argument from the establishment of college football has always been, if you don’t like it, play football somewhere else. Providing young players with more options can only be a good thing.
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