Opinion: Football needs another successful league to survive, for the good of the game

Last weekend, Dennis Thurman was defensive coordinator for the Memphis Express, a team that shared the worst record in the Alliance of American Football (AAF) but nonetheless provided its young players with a sliver of hope that they might yet be on the verge of a big break.

    Now Thurman, who coached 17 years in the NFL after spending the bulk of his 9-year playing career with the Dallas Cowboys, is back in North Texas playing with his grandson.

 When the AAF, the latest wannabe pro football league, suspended operations on Tuesday, Thurman hit the highway for Texas feeling much more sorrow for the players he left behind than for himself. Thurman, he’ll tell you, has already had a full career in football. He knew when he took the job in the start-up league that it was a big risk.

 Yet many of the kids who busted their butts for him during the abbreviated inaugural season might have abruptly hit the end of the road.

When all was said and done, hoping the AAF would make it was a stretch. (Photo: Jason Getz, USA TODAY Sports)

 “There are some players in that league who can play in the NFL,” Thurman told USA TODAY, mindful that a handful have now struck deals with NFL teams. “They can be backups and special teamers, and carve out decent careers in the NFL. They just need to be coached. They need to be developed.”

 Thurman’s point comes from experience. He was a long-shot when the Cowboys drafted him in the 11th round in 1978 and he made it – during an era before the salary cap with minimal roster turnovers, when many teams would keep fewer than five rookies. If he didn’t make the NFL, it was Canada or bust.

That’s why the AAF’s collapse hits home.

    “I saw the improvement, saw guys get better over the course of the season,” Thurman said.

 It’s apparent the AAF’s business footing was shaky. There was the threat of not making payroll in Week 1 until NHL Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon pledged $250 million. Empty stadiums said something about the demand and buzz factor. The idea coming from the league suggesting that in order to survive it needed the NFL Players Association to sign off on allowing players on NFL practice squads to play in the AAF was essentially a Hail Mary. Really? It’s not like practice-squad players at the bottom of NFL rosters, many in the same talent range as the AAF players, are major gate attractions or TV draws.

  Yet the concept of developing players for the NFL – which has long had a farm system with college football – still has legs.

 Consider how NFL rosters are constructed these days. Players in the bottom third of the 53-man squad typically don’t last for more than two years. All that shuffling, with links to salary-cap management, has wiped out much of the middle class as we once knew it.

 That’s why NFL personnel types had a eye on the AAF as another potential pipeline. As one GM put it to me during the NFL’s combine recently, there wasn’t a need to send scouts – but somebody would surely watch the video tape.

  If one of these start-up leagues can survive it won’t threaten the behemoth that is the NFL. It would ultimately help the quality of the NFL product which has diminished before our very eyes in recent years. It would also buy some time and opportunity for players who for years have been sacrificing their bodies while playing for free to better prepare themselves for another chance to chase a dream.

 It is what football (uh, the NFL) needs beyond the college game, a place to groom quarterbacks, O-linemen and then some, just like the NBA, NHL and MLB have their developmental leagues.

    You’re up next, XFL.

 Like the AAF, the XFL revived by WWE power broker Vince McMahon will try to succeed in the calendar space that follows the Super Bowl as it launches in February 2020. History is not on the XFL’s side when considering the graveyard of failed football ventures.

  There was the World League (‘70s era), the USFL (Donald Trump’s attempt), the World League of American Football (Kurt Warner, alum-made-good), the XFL (original version, with Rod Smart better known by the tag on the back of his uniform, “He Hate Me”), NFL Europa and the UFL.

Promising a faster, “reimagined” brand of football, the XFL will try to survive in the spring, when March Madness rules and the Major League Baseball season tees up. Good luck with that.

  With the XFL reportedly looking to pay elite players more than $200,000 per season (the AAF’s pay was $75,000; the NFL minimum is $480,000), it will still have the form of a developmental league. As the NFL’s previous attempts at developmental leagues proved, it’s a bit much to expect players who played in the spring to be in peak condition to compete in NFL summer camps.

Don Yee thinks he has an answer for that. Yee, better known as Tom Brady’s agent, is founder of the Pacific Pro Football (PPF) league due to launch in the summer of 2020. The PPF, with four teams all based in Southern California, will build its player population with those who are not yet eligible for the NFL (which mandates that a player must be three years out of high school). That means 18 to 21-year- olds who or may not have played on the college level.

     “We’re designing a professional finishing school,” Yee told USA TODAY.

     The PPF’s concept is to train and acclimate players to a pro football culture. Yee, who has long advocated for pay for NCAA players, if not an alternative, insists that the players will be elite talents.

 “Think of the Senior Bowl for eight weeks,” said Yee.

 If his league existed at the time, Yee said it would have pursued Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen when they were top junior-college quarterbacks on the verge of transferring to D-I schools.

    Yee, whose league will schedule games in a window between the NBA Finals and Labor Day, called it “sad news” that the AAF couldn’t complete its first season. Yet like Thurman, Yee sees a need for the avenues of development.

    “We’re rooting for the XFL to succeed,” Yee said. “We will be very complementary to their efforts. (Like the NFL), they will also be a potential destination for our players.”

  The AAF players were kicked to the curb in a flash, with some of the worst reports from the week including players having their belongings removed from hotel rooms – within hours of the AAF’s grave announcement – that were supposed paid for by the league. They had to buy plane tickets home. One player who gave his personal credit card to a hotel to handle incidentals, was charged more than $2,000 for the actual lodging, too. Just shabby.

     “Hearing all of this stuff,” Thurman said, “it was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ “

Unfortunately, it was another reality check. Maybe next time, a developmental pipeline for football player won’t turn out as a huge joke.

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