Troy Vincent, the NFL's head of football operations, said his department is prepared to make recommendations for a developmental league or in-season academy after years studying the matter. The league will begin the formal process of meeting with the Competition Committee, coaches and NFLPA after the season. Vincent has long been among those staunchly supporting the need for additional practice and/or games for young NFL players, and also as a means to further develop coaches and referees.
"We are ready to socialize our findings to the respective committees at the Pro Bowl, Senior Bowl and combine," Vincent said.
It has been more than a decade since any sort of discussion regarding a developmental league was held at the Competition Committee level, committee co-chair Rich McKay told me at the last spring meeting. But with the support of numerous owners and prominent coaches the issue has gained significant momentum this year. It was a focal point of Vincent's work -- with him working closely with general managers like John Schneider (Seattle) and Ryan Grigson (Indianapolis) on designing plans -- and it also has been a special project for former longtime coach Tom Coughlin, who joined the league office this year. This project is deeply supported by Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who continues to consult for the league on such matters.
In the past, the issue was not viewed as being on the front burner and was more of a long-term objective than a short-term goal. Vincent's charge has been to put forth proposals he believes owners ultimately would be willing to support financially and otherwise, as a considerable per-team investment may be necessary. This particularly holds true for a spring league that would consist of players likely with three years' or less experience. A venture of that magnitude would also require substantial negotiations with the NFLPA, which has told me it has not met formally with the league about any developmental projects and which has seemed lukewarm, at best, to a spring league.
Vincent also has done exhaustive studies of creating an in-season academy that would train a valuable talent base -- players not under contract who get workouts and jobs through the season -- that would run from final cuts until November. He has consulted with existing academies like IMG and is considering options of having more than one official NFL in-season academy around the country. Vincent declined to comment on specific options he will present to the Competition Committee and coaches, but sources indicated they are both in-season and out-of-season in nature.
"We have some viable potential options that are ready to share with the Competition Committee, the Coaches Subcommittee and with some of our active and former players," Vincent said. "Our goal is to create a platform that addresses the entire football community -- coaches, officials, front office personnel and players -- is essential to the long-term sustainability of our game."
The ongoing thrust to establish a developmental model comes now at a time when NFL ratings are down increasingly in prime time and with fans and media bemoaning the quality of play. The state of quarterback and offensive-line play has been under considerable fire -- those are position groups that benefitted greatly from NFL Europe, it's worth noting -- and NFL officials have long been under scrutiny, with renewed calls for the league to adopt a full-time staff.
Given the overtly positive remarks I've received from owners on down when asking about the need for a developmental league, and the current climate and the amount of time Vincent and his charges have spent on the topic, I would expect some action to be taken on it in 2017, perhaps as soon as the spring meeting.
Here's a sampling of what I was told at the last spring meeting about a developmental league/academy:
Cowboys owner Stephen Jones: "It is a concept that could check all of those boxes we often talk about -- diversity, officiating, developing coaches, player development, experimenting with rules and technology. It's something we have to start to seriously look at within the Competition Committee and then discuss with the NFLPA. We've reached a point where we really should be looking more at a developmental league, and I really expect that to begin here in the next year or so. We lost a lot of money on the NFL Europe, but there were a lot of things the league did well and for all of those reasons -- coaches, officiating, players, quarterbacks in particular -- it's something we really do need to be looking at and studying. The time might be right to do it."
Steelers owner Art Rooney II: "It's something we have to really look at and address, whether it's a spring league or in some other way. We definitely need to work on developing players, we definitely need to work on developing officials, and it's something we really need to spend some time on, even if it's not necessarily a spring league, but some way to provide more time to develop players."
Saints coach Sean Payton: "I think you're going to see that at some point now. It may be an international spring league, but one in which the club can call on it at any time to infuse a player into their roster midstream, and just as importantly, clubs can call on employees other than players, too. I think the officiating could benefit from it. There are number of things it gives you. Even if it's six or eight (teams) that 32 (NFL teams) are drawing on. With the World League, I don't remember how many teams there were, but a lot of people who were involved in that league -- a lot -- ended up in our league at some point."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh: "John Madden has got me convinced that it would be great for football, young players and coaches, and the officials. It would be great for the game of football. And I kind of think the league wants to do it, it's just a matter of working out the details and we'll see where it goes ... I don't know why it hasn't happened to this point. I think the league wants to do it. There must be something blocking it. There must be some factors that are keeping it from going in that direction, because I've never heard anybody say they don't want to do it