We all see the farm league teams in the MLB and the NHL. We see the draw, how the teams don’t get stacked (with the exception of the Hershey Bears), and how they games are always entertaining and competitive for a cheaper price than professional games. Is it time that the NFL joins this group? With the closing of NFL Europa, the NFL does not have an official minor league system, and the organizations suffer. With a minor league system, the rookie salary restrictions that the owners are trying to negotiate as we face a possible lockout, would be a necessity, and the players would get far more playing time. With so many advantages, I see no driving reason to keep this from happening. The introduction of minor league football directly affiliated with each NFL team would be beneficial to all phases of the league: the managemers, the players, and, the most important, the fans.
I propose a system closely similar to the NHL’s. If we limit the professional roster to 32 players, we will see an increased competition for play time in the NFL, and create more of a competition for a spot on the roster. With 32 players, each team would have two full sides of the ball, kicker and punter, and 6 players on the bench. With the increased strategy involved in player management, the pressure to perform would increase greatly, limiting the spread air attack that we see in New England and New Orleans to a strategic few possible receivers, and the extensive linebacking corps we see in Boston and Pittsburgh to a select few dominant players. With an increased appeal to the fan base in the excitement of the game and the appeal of minor league games, the income will come in waves.
NFL Europa has been called a mistake by many people. Most fans believe that the NFL should never have attempted to move to Europe. In its essence however, most fans I have talked to believe that the system was good for young prospects and unkown players to exhibit their ability. The problem was, however, that with the huge 45 player rosters in the NFL, even the high risk, high reward players are signed to multi-million dollar salaries to sit on the bench. They rarely get any real playing time in game situations, and as such, their potential and ability cannot be truly evaluated. Even in its limited time to develop, NFL Europa and other semi-pro leagues have produced successful players in the past, including the NFL great Kurt Warner, who won two Super Bowls with two different teams. Warner would never have been given the chance without his time and exposure on the Iowa Barn Stormers in the AFL.
Why this concept hasn’t been discussed in greater detail among the NFL elite, I cannot say. With the possible lockout between the NFLPA and the owners of the NFL, neither side wants to give in. However, with my proposal, both sides can benefit. The owners would not have to increase the length of the season to increase their cash flow if they have more income from their minor league affiliates. They would also get their restrictions on rookie contracts with the introduction of the NHL’s “2 Way” contracts. This is a system that limits the draft picks’ salaries to $900K, and can be sent up and back down both ways without being put on the waiver wire. It would end up basing team play back to the original dynamic of player chemistry rather than free agent buy outs and stacked teams. Now, players might not necessarily like the changes right away (many of the stars would hate losing their big paychecks and their garunteed spots), but the benchwarmers and the players of the future will drive for the changes to get more playing time and greater chances to shine.