For MLB, NBA and NHL teams, finding a way to let young players confined to the bench get some experience in meaningful, competitive situations is relatively simple: Send them to the minors. NFL teams have not had that option for many years, but that could change with the arrival of the Alliance of American Football.
The co-founder of the AAF, Bill Polian, said Wednesday that informal discussions have taken place about the eventual possibility of the NFL loaning players to his league. Although plenty of “procedural hurdles” would need to be cleared before that could happen, he added, the subject has been “bandied about” between officials representing the two leagues.
“The talk is ramping up — I’ll say that,” Polian, a longtime NFL personnel executive and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, told USA Today.
If the arrangement does come about, it likely won’t involve anyone already established in the NFL but rather players on the fringes of their rosters, at whom teams would like to get a longer look. Third-string quarterbacks, who could use all the development at the professional level that they can get, would make for near-ideal candidates, particularly given the AAF rule book’s limitations on blitzing.
“Since NFL Europe expired [in 2007], there’s been a real desire and frustration by NFL personnel people that there’s a missing link, as far as a developmental-type league, for prospects that weren’t quite ready,” Phil Savage, a general manager in the AAF who was a personnel executive for the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens, told ESPN last year.
Any formal agreement would have to be accepted by the NFL Players Association, which could raise concerns about issues such as compensation, injury settlements and service-time accrual. The current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the union reduced the obligations players have to their teams during the offseason, which overlaps, by the AAF’s design, with that league’s February-April schedule.
However, competing in the AAF presumably would mean extra paychecks for NFL players, which could appeal to the NFLPA. Daryl Johnston, general manager for the AAF’s San Antonio Commanders, offered a view from the NFL’s management side in telling USA Today, “As a broadcaster for almost 20 years, and talking to [NFL] coaches, one of the things they have been frustrated with on this latest CBA is the reduction of meeting time and practice time. They just don’t think the guys are getting enough repetition.”
From its inception, the AAF has viewed and presented itself as a complement to the NFL, not a rival, unlike previous spring football leagues such as the USFL and XFL. TV ratings for the fledgling league have been encouraging, and the NFL might see the benefit in letting some of its lesser-known players get some individual exposure and a measure of star power, in addition to the repetitions under game conditions.
“Those discussions will continue, but whether they bear fruit remains to be seen,” Polian said. As to whether an agreement with the NFL might be reached before the AAF’s sophomore season in 2020, he said, “There are lots of procedural hurdles that have to be crossed before you could make that happen.”
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