Imagine that you’ve grown up dreaming of becoming an accountant.
It’s not for everyone, but you love the work and you’re very good at it. In fact, you finished at the top of your class in both high school and college.
When the time comes to enter the workforce, however, you are only allowed to interview with a single designated accounting firm. You live in Atlanta and the firm is in San Diego, but you have no choice.
Imagine, then, that this company already has several people who do exactly what you do, and so you’re told: “Sorry — your resume looks great, but it turns out that we don’t need you.” Your only recourse is to hook on with one of 31 other companies that constitute all the accounting firms in the United States. Unfortunately, they’re also full.
So much for the accounting dream.
This may sound unfair, but it happens to be the situation facing hundreds of would-be professional football players every year.
I think of Ric Volley, who was a star running back at Ohio State before becoming the last cut made by the Pittsburgh Steelers. By a whisker, his football career was over, because every other National Football League team had a full roster.
I think of Eric Dungey, a dynamic quarterback who led his Syracuse University team to its best season in decades, only to be similarly turned away by the NFL.
The problem is, Volley and Dungey couldn’t go back to their college teams to improve a little more, because they had used up their eligibility. The only options were Arena Football (a different species entirely from the NFL), the Canadian Football League (which limits the number of American players on each roster), or perhaps a club team active in their area with competition far below their standards.
This arrangement is obviously bad for those who are spit out by it, but it’s also bad for the NFL itself. So why doesn’t pro football follow the example of the three only major professional sports leagues (major league baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association) and create a “farm system”?
The primary arguments invoked against it usually point to various NFL rules about player movement and status. No problem — just change the rules.
What if each NFL team created and developed a farm team with a full roster? These teams could play an abbreviated schedule — perhaps six games. They could compete in the spring, to avoid competing for attention with college football. And there are plenty of sizable American cities — Birmingham, AL, and Columbus, OH come to mind — that would probably welcome them.
Americans have an insatiable appetite for football, but we are also fixated on “brand.” A local football team with no connection to the NFL probably won’t draw many fans. A team featuring already recognizable college players with NFL dreams might.
There are 130 Division I college teams and another 169 on the Division II level. Even if you count just 50 players on each roster (most teams have a lot more), that works out to between 15,000 and 20,000 college football players at any given time. Under the current NFL draft rules, roughly 5,000 of them would be eligible to be drafted each year. Sorting out those who were not particularly good players in college, or have been injured, or simply aren’t interested in playing any more football, and you still have around 1,000 potential draftees for 32 teams.
At this point, NFL teams can place 16 players on a “practice squad” — the pro football equivalent of the junior varsity. All they do is practice, however, earning a weekly salary in the process. And as any athlete can tell you, practicing against your teammates is a lot different from actually playing in games.
- Here’s how a farm system could help both teams and prospective players:
It would give draftees who barely missed making the primary squad a chance to work on areas of improvement.
- It would allow the NFL team to better evaluate potential talent in game situations. Given that these players would still be among the best of the college crop, the competition — while perhaps not up to NFL levels — would remain strong.
- The NFL team could use the same offensive and defensive schemes on the farm team level, thus ensuring that any players who are called up would not have to learn the playbooks from ground zero.
- The other three major pro leagues have figured out how to dip into the bottomless supply of skilled athletes from around the world — baseball in Latin America, hockey in Canada and Europe, basketball in Europe and Africa. While it’s true that most other countries do not play football, individuals in those places who obviously have the necessary physical capabilities could be brought along gradually on the NFL farm level.
- Besides developing players, the farm team could provide hands-on experience for future coaches, administrative personnel, and trainers.
- One day soon, every NFL team will have its own national TV network. That network could broadcast the farm team’s games during the spring, thus highlighting some of those players and keeping the overall fan base engaged.
- Hosting an NFL farm team would obviously be good for that community’s economy, as well as enhancing its national visibility.
- Done right, such an arrangement could pay for itself through TV advertising, ticket sales, and the sale of team merchandise.
- The parent team could still have a practice squad during its season since the farm teams would play in the spring. Moreover, having a full roster of “stockpiled” players at the lower level would provide even more insurance in case of injuries.
What do you say, Roger Goodell?
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."