From the Sidelines

Developmental league important step for maligned NFL

04.10.2015. Wembley Stadium. London, England. NFL International Series. Miami Dolphins versus New York Jets. The NFL logo on display in front of the Wembley Stadium. (Photo by Roland Harrison/Actionplus/Icon Sportswire) ****NO AGENTS----NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA SALES ONLY----NO AGENTS----NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA SALES ONLY****
Roland Harrison/Actionplus/Icon Sportswire

As the NFL finally sees the scrutiny surrounding its product translate into a concrete figure in the form of the ratings drop, and a significant one at that, it is important to look at one key culprit.

While the quality of play is one of the reasons for the ratings dip, it’s not the sole factor. The MLB playoffs, national anthem protests, streaming mediums, and negative PR crises are also potentially key disruptions to what’s been an otherwise steady run for the country’s most successful sports league.

However, it’s the one the league can step in affect.

The NFL is in no imminent danger of losing its status as the nation’s most popular sport. While World Series ratings have edged its primetime games thus far, NFL playoff games and Super Bowls are far more observed than MLB or NBA postseason contests. However, if the NFL was serious about widening the gap in popularity again, because if this decline continues there could be a battle for No. 1 status down the road, a discussion on re-implementing a developmental league is important.

Because the 2011 CBA delivered a blow to teams’ game readiness. Coaches are being asked to do more with less, a lot less, compared to previous eras in terms of preparing players. The constraints on practice time show up on a weekly basis, with tackling and blocking consistency severely lacking.

Offensive line play, in particular, faces a crisis. Run games have stagnated considerably, with quarterback injuries a direct threat to these beloved ratings as well.

Warren Moon is the latest to call for a developmental project, only the eternally underrated Hall of Famer focused on how it could help quarterbacks, on whom he’s pinpointing much of the ratings decline. An actual commitment to an NFLDL would be important to aiding the roster fringes that are constantly being promoted and demoted from practice squads; it would also create jobs for coaches and players who would have to fill out rosters.

The league pulled the plug on NFL Europe in 2007, but that did help sow seeds for the London series by giving European viewers some background on the game.

This could not be like the NBADL, which has 30 affiliates a la Triple-A baseball, since roster sizes are too big. That would be the ultimate goal, but owners aren’t going to shell out that kind of money for 32 startups. It would require massive roster expansions to house enough players. But the league could well reopen a spring operation in Europe due to the interest in growing the game there.

A more fun way would be following the NBA’s model and placing teams in markets that don’t have an NFL footprint. Places like Boise, Des Moines, Omaha, Albuquerque, or the Saturday football-crazed Southeast. The league would probably prefer a European approach due to its steadfast efforts at flooding that continent with football, but regardless of where it’s done, this should be a serious discussion.

An interesting ancillary consequence of a minor league experiment in the era of radically limited practices could be lesser-regarded players pushing higher draft picks and lower-tier veterans for jobs because they benefited from the additional reps the regulars didn’t. That actually could be a major issue that didn’t surface as much during 1990s-2000s NFL Europe era because teams’ bigger investments were seeing regular full-contact practice reps.

Roger Goodell intimated last month such talks are in the grass-roots stages, and if these ratings don’t rise after the MLB campaign’s conclusion, the effort needs to be taken seriously.

The NFLPA was right to demand practice limitations if they weren’t going to see owners open their books or devote a greater share toward their labor force. That’s no doubt helped injury risks during non-game settings, which is a pretty big deal given what is now known about head trauma.

But the result of slashing preparation time has hurt the game, one that could use a DL setup more than it could have when NFL Europe existed.

Some of these problems can’t be solved in the narrow windows teams now have to prepare talent, but a developmental effort would be an important — and potentially creative — step.

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