The NFL is the only North American sports league without its own minor league system, and Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports has taken an exhaustive look at the need for a developmental system and what it would take to create one.
As La Canfora writes, the NFL would like to push more women and minorities into executive roles, and nothing would give members of those demographics reps like the chance to do it in a valuable yet low-stakes way like a minor league. The NFL would also like to bolster its officiating ranks and test on-field developments (microchiped footballs, anyone?) without messing with the Sunday product. But the most pressing issue is the state of the game on the field -- specifically in regards to the development, or lack thereof, of NFL quarterbacks and offensive linemen. Thanks to the proliferation of the spread offense and its variances, the state of Saturday and Sunday football haven't been further apart since the halcyon days of the Wishbone, and the number of players leaving college early for the NFL only to go undrafted only rises by the year.
"This is the future of football," NFL vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, a champion of the project, told CBS. "These are defining issues for the league. This is the future of football. We're talking about human capital development. How do we cultivate these assets -- on the field and off the field?"
There are two schools of thought as to how a developmental system would look. One is the academy model, where teams would stash players at football incubators, perhaps partnering with IMG Academy, and replicate the baseball call-up/send-down model during the season as needed. The league has previously resisted this idea, opting instead to bolster practice squads -- thereby keeping players under their direct control and, more important, keeping costs down.
The other option would be a spring football league. The NFL tried this previously with the World League and NFL Europe, and the on-field product benefitted, as the career trajectories of Jason Garrett, Brad Johnson, Jake Delhomme and Adam Vinatieri can attest. La Canfora floated the idea of an eight-team league contained to one Florida city -- hello, Orlando -- played in the spring. An actual minor league would have to exist within the NFL's offseason schedule and would cost money -- less than NFL Europe, sure, but costs would still be there. But, still, nothing would bolster the NFL's executive, player and officiating talent like actual game reps.
"I don't know why it hasn't happened to this point. I think the league wants to do it," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "There must be something blocking it. There must be some factors that are keeping it from going in that direction, because I've never heard anybody say they don't want to do it. So I think you'd have to ask the higher-ups in the league really what's holding it up."
That something is the power structure that runs the NFL -- ownership and the players' association. Every coach, league official and team executive reached by La Canfora expressed praise for the idea, but those aren't the men with the actual power to make it happen. The league's spring meetings recently came and went without the topic coming up among the owners' gatherings. Even the Pro Bowl was a bigger issue.
"It's not something we've really talked much about as a group," Giants owners Steve Tisch said in march. "I agree it sounds like a good idea, and something worth exploring. But it just isn't a priority at this point."
The NFLPA would also have its say, and a fight over minute yet critical details like service time and salary cap expansion would require collective bargaining. And good luck getting those issues through without a fight. "We're not really involved in that kind developmental stuff. But if they stayed under contract, what are the health and safety ramifications? I'm not sure we'd go for it," NFLPA assistant executive director George Atallah said. "Are they going to get accrued seasons? We haven't seen any sort of proposals or details on a spring league and what that might look like. I've heard that's something they may want to explore, but are the players NFL employees? How are they compensated? All sorts of issues come into play."
A developmental system would increase jobs for coaches, executives, players and officials and undoubtedly improve the product on the field. But it would require owners to give up to give up millions in an age where the public's approval of the product -- read: television ratings -- has never been higher. Good luck with that.