Thursday, February 6, 2014
Inside Slant: Developmental league fodder
By Kevin Seifert
Two recent developments could bolster the argument of those who believe the NFL needs to affiliate itself with a, or create its own, developmental league -- a topic we discussed in depth last November as concerns emerged about the league's quality of play.
A record 102 underclassmen declared for the 2014 draft, all clamoring to join a league that has never had less time to develop them.
A movement to unionize college players, which if successful could place new limitations on the NFL's current feeder system.
Some background: The NFL's 2011 collective bargaining agreement pulled back the frequency, timing and in some cases content of offseason training. It also limited training camp practices, resulting in many teams eliminating the traditional two-a-day practice schedule.
NFL Europe served as a useful developmental league for players such as CB Brent Grimes, who played for the Hamburg Sea Devils in 2007.
Some prominent football people, most notably New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, have blamed the reduced training time for injuries. But former NFL general manager Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst, is among those who believe the true impact is not injured players but the minimal coaching for backup players who ultimately replace them.
That work traditionally has been done in the offseason, but there is now less time to accomplish it. Meanwhile, practice squads -- presumably a place where promising young players are stashed for developmental purposes -- are more typically used to ensure that coaches have a balanced roster to field scout teams during practice.
The issue manifested itself most notably at quarterback this season, when 10 preferred starters missed at least one game because of injury. Seven teams endured injuries to at least two quarterbacks during the season. But anecdotally, at least, there are shortages of properly trained depth at offensive line and cornerback, as well. Theoretically, the surge of underclassmen into the league -- motivated largely to start the clocks on their presumptive second contracts -- will add to the number of developmental players that NFL coaches already don't have enough time to train.
The connection between college unionization and an NFL developmental league is less clear, but it's one that Green Bay Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy made in a recent interview with the team's website. "If the college players unionize, there will be more pressure on the NFL to establish a developmental league," Murphy said.
The Packers declined my request to interview Murphy and flesh out that statement, so we can only make educated guesses about what he meant. In a worst-case scenario for the NFL, I suppose, unionized college players might achieve "benefits" such as shorter practice periods, stricter enforcement of unofficial workouts and perhaps even a legal victory that could force draft eligibility for players who are less than three years removed from high school. Any of those benefits could set back their development as NFL-ready players.
Regardless, Murphy has previously endorsed a domestic developmental league that would replace and enhance the work done in NFL Europe, which folded in 2007. Speaking in a June 2010 conference call, Murphy acknowledged the topic arose during conversations about an 18-game regular season, which would reduce the preseason to two games.
"A lot of people had a really positive experience with NFL Europe," Murphy said at the time. "It helped us develop younger players so one of the thoughts is the possibility of a developmental league to maybe have some games in the spring as well as some games in the fall with a real focus on developing younger players. I think that would be a positive for us as a league. You talk to coaches and they want to be able to develop young players. Also, it would be a way to develop coaches and officials. I think there would be some real positives with a developmental league.
"If you look across most professional sports, we're the only league without some type of minor league or developmental system to develop players."
On top of developing players, coaches and officials, I'll add this: A developmental league could also be a Petri dish for potential rule changes and other on-field adjustments. What better way to test out theories, and provide unique entertainment to fans, than in games that don't really count but are still competitive?
I doubt this topic is on the tip of many owners' tongues. No one wants to spend start-up money, despite Polian's suggestion that a Southern-based developmental league could be profitable within three years, as long as the NCAA fills that role. The question, however, is whether colleges are doing that (unintended) job adequately and if the NFL is positioned to compensate for any shortcomings. At the moment, the answer to both questions is heading toward "no."