Pop quiz hot shot: which of the four major professional sports leagues in North America does not have a minor/developmental league? That would be our favoriteist: the NFL. Major League Baseball has had a minor league/farm system for ages. The National Hockey League uses the American Hockey League as a developmental system. The National Basketball Association has the D-League. The National Football League… sorry.
Folks, I don’t know about you, but I believe that this gross oversight needs to change and change yesterday. There are a number of reasons that an NFL Developmental League would be good for both the sport and its fans. Let’s look at some of these reasons.
WE WILL WATCH IT
NFL fans are fiercely loyal to their teams. This very blog is proof. It’s almost summertime and the NFL is grinding to a halt for the dreaded summer doldrums. Baseball is in full swing and the NBA Finals are fast approaching. Yet most of us show up here to get any minor tidbit of Dolphins news despite everything else. If the Dolphins signed another tight end from South Central Louisiana State University right now, there would be 2 fanshots, a fanpost, a front page article, and a lengthy debate on whether Tannehill is good enough to get him the ball or not. This is because we love the Dolphins. We bleed aqua and orange.
How does this translate to a developmental league? Fans will most definitely watch anything with their team’s logo on it. We should know… most of us watched the lean years from 2000 up until now. If we will watch that, we will watch a Dolphins minor league team. You could say the same for any other NFL team. I live here in Panthers Country and I know those fans would watch their minor league team.
The NFL made $13 billion in 2016. The NBA, MLB, and NHL made $18 billion… combined. Only major league baseball came close ($9.5B) to touching the NFL in terms of revenue on its own. Despite a commissioner that no one likes, concussion issues, and various other off-field messes, the NFL still rakes in the ducats. Fans watch regardless. And as mentioned above, if fans will watch it, the NFL can make money off of it. TV contracts would become even fatter and owners could sell more tickets.
REPLACING A BAD PRODUCT
If there is one major gripe about NFL games, it would be the Thursday Night game. Many fans do not like this game because the product isn’t generally as good as the Sunday product. Football is a very physical sport and the amount of rest and recovery from a Sunday game to a game just a few days later just isn’t enough to provide quality football. The NFL doesn’t want to lose their revenue from these games however. This could be solved by replacing the awful Color Rush uniforms and sloppy play on Thursday with developmental league games. Fans would still watch and get their NFL fix until the much better Sunday games. The NFL would get its TV revenue. And the product, while not necessarily at top NFL level, would be better due to rested players at fuller strength. And it’s arguable that these games would be better than most Thursday night college games.
The current method of player development is flawed to say the least. Every draft season, we will constantly hear the term "developmental quarterback", as if that is something that actually happens. I saw a recent tweet that asked to name the best player that "developed" behind superstars like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Aaron Rodgers. The tweet offered its own response of Brian Hoyer. Looking back, that’s about it. The reason is that most NFL coaching staffs do not have the time to put molding players into what they ultimately want. Practice snaps are limited during the season to the starters and primary reserves. The lion’s share of training camp snaps end up going to the 1st or 2nd team players. Most coaches don’t have the leash to develop players because they have to either win now or start winning soon.
A developmental league would take care of some of these issues. Teams could stash players on their minor league affiliate and develop them more in depth. Take Miami’s own Brandon Doughty for example. He will have limited snaps to show any kind of development from this season to last season. He will get a few training camp reps, and then some game time in preseason. That’s it for him. If he cannot "develop" with those snaps, he’ll end up on the practice squad or on another team or out of the league altogether. In a developmental league, Doughty would be able to spend a lot more time developing areas that would give the Dolphins a better evaluation of Doughty without using precious and scarce practice reps.
There would be questions of playbooks and schemes and things. But there are plenty of areas that players could develop that are independent of those issues, such as pocket presence, timing, route running, or developing pass rushing counter moves.
I have offered my 37 cents on the Joe Philbin era. The most positive thing I can say about it is that it’s in the rear view mirror. But Philbin was just another in a long line of failed coaching mistakes the Dolphins have made since the great Don Shula left. We HOPE that Adam Gase is the REAL deal after a long drought of coaching talent. But wouldn’t it have been nice if Miami could have watched coaches in action in a developmental league before hiring a coach? Wouldn’t any team that needs a coach like that?
In the 2017 offseason, 6 teams hired new coaches. Denver needed a new coach after Super Bowl winning head coach Gary Kubiak stepped down due to health concerns. The other 5 were due to coaches failing to meet expectations. The SOP for hiring NFL coaches is to look at promising coordinators from other teams. The drawback to that is they either have a history of being a good coordinator but not a head coach such as Wade Phillips, or they have no experience whatsoever and is a complete mystery. For every Mike Tomlin, there seems to be many more Sparanos and Philbins. A developmental league would give promising coaching prospects a venue to hone their chops in a proper setting. This could help weed out the talent. Take Dan Campbell for example. When he was announced as the Dolphins interim head coach last season, he said all the right things and looked the part of a head coach. He was, and still is, considered an up-and-coming coaching prospect. The problem was that he just wasn’t ready for that stage just yet. Today, he’s back to being a tight ends coach and an assistant head coach in New Orleans. But couldn’t he be better served as the head coach of a minor league team at this point? Instead of being a guy, he could be THE guy. He would develop his own style in a setting without the immediate pressure to win like current NFL head coaches are forced to endure. Would he succeed? Maybe, maybe not. But if I was an NFL owner, I’d like to see him in that setting and get a better idea rather than hire him for my team, then have to explain it away a few years later.
Of course, there would be issues with playbooks and schemes. A coach like Campbell may prefer a different type of offense than Sean Payton. He may want to run a different base defense. Plus, I’m sure coaches would be hesitant to just offer their playbooks to another coach that may learn it in depth, then use it against them later. But I’m sure the smarter heads in the NFL community could work out a solution.
CALLING UP PLAYERS
I have watched two training camp practices in my life. For the small amount of time I was out there, I would say it’s doubtful a developmental player could truly work on something at game speed. The reps are just so limited. Having a game setting would really help these players as well as more devoted practice time. Scout team work helps with the game plan, but there’s a reason most practice squad players rarely see time when they get called up: they don’t have the reps.
Having a minor league system would allow teams to call up players with game experience under their belts for that season. Perhaps there’s an injury in the secondary and a player that is normally a special teamer has to play more reps on defense now. If he still has duty on special teams as well as more snaps on defense, he will get tired quicker, which means his performance will suffer. Having the option to call up a game ready player could help in this area, even more so than what the practice squad offers.
Of course, there would have to be rules in place to prevent a player from playing on a Thursday night from playing a few days later on Sunday. A simple option could be having a call-up deadline of Tuesday prior to that week’s game. Or having a one week buffer so if a player has a monster minor league performance on Thursday night, he can be called up, but not eligible to play until the NEXT week’s game. Whatever the rules, it could be done simply and effectively.
Derek Wake was a guy that just wanted a chance. He finally got that chance in the Canadian Football League, after deciding to go by his middle name Cameron. Mr. Wake got his opportunity and is now destined for the Dolphins Ring of Honor. He’s a success story. There are plenty more stories where players never got that opportunity and fade into oblivion. Maybe there is another Cameron Wake out there waiting to find his niche and become a success story if he could ONLY get that chance. There are 1696 total roster spots available in the NFL, which is 53 per team. Of Miami’s 53 spots though, how many are actually available? 4? 6? Less? Isn’t it like that for any other team? What are the chances that one of Miami’s undrafted free agent receivers is going to usurp the starting slot role from Jarvis Landry?
Simply put, a developmental league opens a brand new world of opportunities for these fringe players that may not have a chance otherwise. If they kept the NFL rule of 53 roster spots, and every NFL team had a minor league affiliate, that’s 1696 new opportunities for players looking for a chance. Not a small handful of opportunities within that 1696, but a TOTAL of 1696 new chances. In all likelihood, a majority of these players will never progress to anything more than a minor league player. But all it takes is that one guy. All it takes is one player that fell through the cracks that emerges and becomes a game changer for a team.
I truly believe that an NFL developmental league is not only a great opportunity for fans to get more NFL action, but a necessity in a league that is constantly changing. I’m sure there are cons for every pro I’ve mentioned. But the way I see it, an NFL minor league is only a good thing to get more Miami Dolphins. What do you think?