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A Fan’s Perspective: The NFL Needs A Developmental System

As shocking as it may seem, the NFL is an absolute juggernaut in more ways than just ratings when it comes to comparing it with other sports.

The league consists of 32 franchises, each with 53 players and 10 practice squad members. With these numbers, we can figure that a little more than 1,700 players will see game action in the NFL each season. This is a hefty amount of players who pass through NFL locker rooms annually.

With such a progressive environment and skill level in college football, the talent of football players is increasing.

However, there is still something lacking for players who get cut from training camps. The NFL is the only professional sports league, including soccer, in the United States, without a developmental system.

Since NFL Europa suspended operations in 2007, the league has lacked the feeder program it so desperately needed. Still, some people argue football can do without, as a large number of Canadian Football League and Arena Football League players come through the NFL each year. However, the difference in rules between the leagues makes a successful transition difficult.

There have also been a few botched attempts at establishing a new developmental program. The United Football League, in existence from 2009 to 2012, was a four-team league with rules similar to the NFL that served as a minor league program.

This feeble attempt was a major failure, as no more than four teams could ever exist fiscally at one time. Financially, the UFL was so bad that it had to cease operations in the middle of its 2012 season.

WWE tycoon Vince McMahon also tried to establish a league known as the XFL. The XFL lasted just one year and was unable to draw any type of audience. This league attempted to experiment, rather extremely (pun intended), on the NFL’s “lenience” by comparison. In a league where any hitting was allowed, no fair catches or touchbacks were allowed and PATs non-existent, player safety was a huge issue and led to the league being dismembered.

In 2014, the Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL) began its operations as the third attempt at an American developmental program for the NFL. With four teams, including one without any home facilities, the league has based its rules on possible changes to NFL legislation being proposed. Some of the rules include PATs from the 35-yard line, kickoffs originating from a far hash mark on the 25-yard line to decrease touchbacks and teams all wearing just one uniform for every game.

Out of the three American developmental systems, past and present, I believe the FXFL could be the most successful. Although there is no formal partnership, agreements are not far from being made. If the FXFL were to expand, there would need to be more specifics put in place.

Playing by experimental rules can be an amazing advantage for “minor leaguers” who get a shot to play in a revolutionized NFL, as they would already be accustomed to new rules. A farm system in the NFL could also help players dealing with a nagging injury to recover adequately, while still seeing game action. A developmental system would allow taxi squad players to also be able to see game action, rather than just weeks of first-team practice.

So how would this all work?

Each NFL team has a training camp with a 90-player roster. After first cuts, there are still 75 players on every roster, 22 more than necessary for a first team. The NFL has also implemented a healthy scratch rule, so now, game-day rosters are 45 players. If a 16-team development league is established, with two NFL teams each sharing one developmental program, these players cut from training camp would be able to fulfill contractual obligations while getting valuable experience.

The NFL is a league full of surprises. With this feeder system in place, players who just missed the cut out of training camp would be able to develop their skills and possibly get the call to join an NFL squad.

In the other major North American sports, minor leaguers are able to stay game ready with action in a farm system. The NFL practice squad players will not see any type of playing time unless there is an injury and they are implanted into the roster. This can make injury even more likely.

If the FXFL is to continue past its first season, I believe it would be beneficial for the NFL to partner up with the league and transform it into the feeder system the NFL needs. This might be a decade-long process, but if the FXFL succeeds, the NFL could greatly benefit from its services.

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One Comment

  1. I think the name for this new fall league is just plain dumb. I’d prefer to see the return of the USFL in the spring. I only watch the NFL and the CFL in the fall. There isn’t room for another professional league in the fall as the UFL has shown.