No matter what happens with those Raiders-to-San Antonio rumors, it looks like a new pro football team will be in Texas, at the very least. Team Ford, known largely in football circles as Texas Independence, is the Lone Star State-heavy roster in the possibly-soon-to-launch Major League Football confederation, is still on the horizon.
We qualify that statement with “possibly” because MLFB is already in financial trouble. Late last month, an investment group from Houston suburb Missouri City pulled its $20 million investment from the Lakewood Ranch, Florida-based league, sending officials scrambling for money for overhead and stadium leases, hence the confusion and uncertainty over the future home of the Texas-based team (though reports from this past October said the MLFB had its eyes on the Alamo City). The league has since found another investor, but the inaugural season’s launch has been delayed, with training camp starting March 30.
The landscape of American sports history is littered with the wreckage of failed pro football leagues. Wikipedia lists no fewer than fifteen, most of which lasted no longer than a year or two, including three different American Football Leagues that came and went faster than you can say Gale Sayers, before that fourth one managed to merge with the NFL.
So why, then, does league president Wes Chandler, a former star in the San Diego Charger’s acrobatic Air Coryell heyday and a very bright man to boot, think this league can do what the World Football League, the USFL, and the XFL could not?
First off, MLFB officials won’t try to compete head-to-head with the NFL, the fatal mistake that doomed so many of their forerunners. Instead, MLFB hopes to complement the NFL and serve as a developmental league for former college standouts not yet ready for primetime. Games will take place in the spring, scratching an itch for gridiron junkies who live for September’s arrival. Franchises will be strategically based in enthusiastic but pro football-starved cities and states: the other seven teams will be based in Utah (home of the “Zion Curtain” defense), Arkansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Portland, Orlando, and some of that part of Ohio that is not Cleveland or Cincinnati.
While it won’t take liberties with the rulebook on the level of the XFL, MLFB will be offering a few little tweaks: four points for a field goal of 50 yards or more, a 30-second game clock, and in this league, the ground can cause a fumble. The league’s overtime rules are similar to those used in some high school competitions: one 10-minute period followed, if the score is still tied, by alternate possessions at the 10-yard line. No kicking is allowed in that second OT session: touchdowns and two-point conversions or bust.
The compensation package is interesting: Eight league-owned teams composed of 53 players each will play their games in the spring. Each player, regardless of talent or backstory, will earn $3,000 per win and $2,000 per loss. The bulk of each team’s roster will be composed of former standouts from that area, bringing the potential of regional pride to the league. For example, the Texas Independence roster includes about ten players from the University of Houston, former Baylor star running back Lache Seastrunk, and a host of others hailing from everywhere from Lamar to UTEP, Texas Tech to A&M-Kingsville. The team’s “franchise” player is former TCU quarterback Casey Pachall, a talented signal-caller looking to redeem his checkered collegiate career. (Another of the league’s franchise players is once-troubled former South Carolina star Stephen Garcia, another gifted QB hoping to put a Manziel-ish past behind him.)
Which is not to say MLFB is all about the redemption of troubled players. “Some of them might be late-bloomers, and some of them might need five tools and they only have two or three,” says Chandler, the league president. “This gives them that opportunity to grow and develop.” As Chandler points out, so many of them have nowhere to go once they’ve given up their amateur status and washed out of NFL camp. “Major League Football would serve as a home for them, a safety net…[Once you get cut from an NFL team], working out every day is not the answer. The only way you can truly develop is to get into live reps.” Chandler says his league’s coaches would drill fundamentals: offensive linemen learning how to punch out of their stances, taming quarterbacks with “happy feet” and teaching them to read NFL coverages, weaning wide receivers from catching with their bodies instead of their hands.
Says former Cleveland Brown and Atlanta Falcon and current MLFB receiver Carlton Mitchell: “This league has to do with guys who had an injury here, or were overlooked there, or for whatever reason, we missed the mark. Having another opportunity to come in and be looked at and also competing with guys just as hungry as us, I feel like the competition level is going to raise that much more.”
One of the oft-stated goals of the league’s coaches is to rewire football brains attuned to either playing in or defending spread offenses, the pass-heavy, shotgun-formation, open-field attacks largely developed in the Texas high school ranks and now widespread in NCAA football, if not the still relatively smashmouth NFL.
Though placing stars in the NFL is an aid to recruiting, college coaches care more about winning games than they do about developing pro talent, and the spread can and has won it all for Oklahoma, Auburn, Texas, and Florida, with Clemson falling just short of knocking off uber-traditional Alabama this year. If the techniques guys like Johnny Manziel, Vince Young, Brandon Weeden, Bryce Petty, Blaine Gabbert, Chase Daniel, Tim Tebow and every one of those unstoppable Texas Tech quarterbacks over the last fifteen years don’t translate on the next level, that is more of a concern for the players and the NFL than to the college coaches.
The philosophy gap was among the talking points of this year’s NFL combine, focusing mainly on college football’s use of spread offense that, in the NFL’s eyes, hurt the philosophy of the game. MLFB is well aware of these concerns, as former Cowboys (and current MLFB) head coach Dave Campo recently told ABC news:
“College football is basically seven-on-seven on turf,” Campo said. “The basis of those spread offenses is to get the ball to a guy in space. The quarterbacks aren’t learning anything. They’re really not reading anything. The fundamentals aren’t there. … Defensive linemen aren’t learning how to get off the ball. They’re just trying to survive [the pace].”
Which brings up a point. MLFB is no threat to the NFL. They have stated as much. But might it not pose some problems for the college game? And would that be such a bad thing if it did? Let’s face it: the way we develop football players in this country is hardly ideal, something the rest of the world has seemed to figure out. English soccer players don’t sign letters of intent with colleges in order to eventually play for Liverpool or Man United, nor do their French counterparts arrive at Paris-St. Germain via the Sorbonne. And our own golfers, hockey, baseball, soccer, and tennis players are allowed to go pro by 18, while basketball players only have to put in one year on campus. Why should our football players have to sweat out three or four years at the college level when all they want to do is sack Aaron Rodgers on Sundays?
And then there is the whole loathsome tangle of hypocritical and downright immoral NCAA amateurism regulations. Yes, these guys get expensive scholarships and access to great facilities and training table food. Yes, they are adored and adulated, big men on campus, so long as the team is winning, at least. But don’t forget— they are risking concussion, permanent knee damage, and worse on every play, but are barred from accepting any sort of free-market compensation, all while the schools they play for rake in millions on ticket sales and merchandising, and their coaches rake in as much as $5 million a year. (And the NFL gets to enjoy what amounts to a free farm system. What a deal.)
Which, finally, brings us back to MLFB. This is not explicitly in the cards just yet, but what if the league were to start going after high school players with a pitch like this:
Why bust your butt trying to raise your SAT scores, sweat through three or four years of classes while broke, and play a form of football the NFL does not favor for a coach making millions who mostly cares about his own career, when you can sign with us, get paid, play for experienced NFL coaches who want to develop you for the next level, and learn techniques that will be better for your future career prospects?
What’s more, to do so in a league more comparable on a talent/speed/physicality to the NCAA than the NFL, a league precious few 18-year-olds are ready to compete in. Should that scenario unfold, college football would certainly take a hit. It would not cease to exist, of course, but the level of play would necessarily drop. Interest might flag a bit, as more and more blue-chips chose to play for teams that paid them and coaches who had their future careers in mind rather than short-term success and their own bottom-lines.
Among the losers: college coaches, college football fans, colleges in general, the NCAA.
Among the winners: the NFL, and the players themselves. And justice.