I always laughed when Americans used to talk about Kurt Warner’s rise to NFL playing power having been down to his success in the Arena Football League.
Year after year, show after show, column after column, we had to listen to so-called informed experts telling us that it was thanks to three seasons at the Iowa Barnstormers that the man who went on to win a Super Bowl with the Rams in a season where he began as an unknown back-up had any chance at all in football.
Oh, and there was also that year he spent in NFL Europe. That helped to keep him in shape.
The worst line that used to get trotted out every time the Warner issue was debated was that it was because of his time in the Arena League that Warner had learned a quick release which helped him to get out of trouble while in the pocket in NFL games. Somehow or other, this was perceived to be the great advantage that had made the difference and it could only have been learned in the Arena League.
Strange then that all NFL coaches don’t send their new quarterback recruits to the Arena League to master that art.
I don’t dispute that the Barnstormers were good for Warner, good for his football career and good for keeping him in football at a time in his life where he was on the verge of quitting the game altogether in search of gainful employment elsewhere for the mundane task of doing the simple things in life like putting food on the table.
But for all that Arena football helped Warner in his quest to make it in the NFL, he learned far more in his less heralded season with the Amsterdam Admirals. He got to play 10 games as a starter on a full-sized field – much better preparation for the NFL than having to run basketball-styled football on a half-sized field. He got to contribute – as quarterbacks had to do in that league – on a wide scale because of how small the coaching staffs were. He got to throw 326 passes, completed 165 of them for 2,101 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions. His team went 7-3, just missing out on the World Bowl but having had a decent season.
By this time, he had stopped playing Arena football and even though he was only third string at St Louis in 1998, when the club ditched their No1 and No2 a few months later and brought in Trent Green as the starter for 1999, it was Warner to whom they handed the No2 job. Does anyone in their right mind really believe they would have risked the No2 slot to someone who had gone undrafted by the NFL in 1994 and who had no recent game film to show them on a 100-yard field?
The value of the Arena League to Warner was that it kept him in the game, making some money and keeping him and his arm in shape. The value of NFL Europe to Warner was that it handed his coaches in St Louis a reason to see that maybe he was worth keeping around.
And although it is not so widely known, there is a story behind the reason Warner was on an NFL roster at all. Al Luginbill, the head coach at the Amsterdam Admirals desperately wanted Warner to come to the Netherlands in 1998 and asked him to do it. Warner was a free agent at the time and NFL Europe was stocked with what were called allocated players – those who were second or third string on an NFL team and became part of a quota of players NFL teams were obliged to make available to European teams.
Warner told Luginbill he would join the Admirals if Luginbill could get an NFL team to allocate him. Luginbill begged and cajoled, and called in any favour he could for the Rams to be that team and finally they agreed. Warner ended up at the Rams almost by accident. Necessity had been the mother of Luginbill’s invention and in the end it paid off for him, for the Rams and for Warner. The rest is a fairytale.
The subject was on my mind again this week when I noticed that ESPN.com writer John Clayton had an email in his postbag from a fan in Seattle who asked about NFL Europe and the fact he felt the NFL had been far too hasty in ditching the league, especially as so many potentially good prospects are now left with no place in which to develop if they are not yet quite good enough to play in the NFL.
Clayton was pretty much in agreement, although he appeared to think NFL Europe had been something of a busted flush when it went under. However, he did raise the possibility that the NFL owners – at a time when they are making huge profits – should consider putting aside money to start a homegrown developmental league. It is not a new idea, in fact it was one that was being talked almost every year we had the World League/NFL Europe in operation on this side of the Atlantic.
It is still an idea with merit. In fact it has nothing but upside and the comparative cost would be small when you consider the possible reward of unearthing a diamond in the rough.
The Arena League kicks off its 2013 season at the end of this week and it will provide an awful lot of highlight moments over the next five months. It will keep some decent audiences entertained and offer a living to some decent players, who for one reason or another just didn’t make it in the NFL.
What it won’t do however, is serve up 100 players who will be ready to challenge at camp this summer for a place on an NFL roster. To liken Arena football to the NFL is akin to saying five-a-side soccer gives you the requisite skill set to play at a Champions League level. Arena football and five-a-side soccer help you to hone certain small parts of the game but it is only by playing the full-size version of either sport that you blossom into the finished article.
Players with any intelligence back in the days of NFL Europe came here because they or their agents understood that. Kurt Warner understood that. Perhaps it is time the NFL re-discovered that belief and went down to Florida, Arizona, Texas or California and started that developmental league that has been talked about for years without ever coming to fruition.
As a footnote to that NFL Europe story about Kurt Warner, we should always remember the guy who was his backup in Amsterdam if, for no better reason, because it dispels the myth that Warner was the only guy that Europe ever did any good for.
Jake Delhomme, like Warner, had gone undrafted by the NFL in 1997 but the Saints picked him up as a free agent and sent him to Amsterdam in 1998, where he watched Warner from the sideline. Disappointed as he was with that, Delhomme had the gumption to come back in 1999 to Frankfurt. Once again, he could have been crushed when he realised that all the pre-training camp talk was about Pat Barnes.
The Galaxy coaching staff liked what they saw in camp from both men and decided to split the season, employing Barnes and Delhomme as a two-headed monster, playing them each for two quarters in each game. It seemed a far from ideal state of affairs and many players would have insisted the coaches chose one or the other but they both stuck with it and the Galaxy went on to win the World Bowl.
Delhomme returned with a ring, some great memories and, crucially, 22 quarters of good game film to show any team that was interested. The Saints eventually let him go, Carolina took a shot, and Delhomme led them to their only Super Bowl, a game in which he performed heroics only to be beaten at the death by a Patriots field goal.
Delhomme played seven seasons with the Panthers, played in 91 regular season games and started eight playoff games for them. None of that would have happened had he not gone back to Europe. Not every player in a developmental league will have that story to tell. You are in a developmental league for a reason. But if you don’t have one, you will never discover anyone’s hidden depths.
Okay, okay, if Philly is in, then I want my idea of many years past to be resurrected.
Eagles owner Jeff Lurie has decided to take a long, hard look at the Super Bowl in New York next year to see how an open air stadium in a cold weather city hosts the big game, the first time it will have been done.
Previous cold-weather Super Bowls in Pontiac, Minneapolis, Atlanta (not a cold-weather city but it sure was that week), Detroit and Indianapolis have all been played under a roof and in 70-degree controlled-temperature buildings but when New York plays host, we will be on virgin territory.
Lurie is convinced that if the Big Apple can make a success of it, then the City of Brotherly Love can follow suit although I do get the feeling that New York has slightly more tourist attractions than its rival down the New Jersey Turnpike.
Don’t get me wrong – as a colonial and constitutional history buff, I would love to go back to Philadelphia, a city I have not visited in 22 years but they chose New York for a reason and that is that the very name makes everyone forget that it might just be bitterly cold all week, even at the game.
But if the gloves are off on cold-weather, open-air stadia, then never mind the obvious choices of Philly, Boston and Chicago, let’s hear it for a Super Bowl in Green Bay. So what if there is nothing to do in Green Bay and if there are barely enough hotel rooms to house the teams and media never mind fans. Surely there could be no place more appropriate to host the title game than a place called Titletown. I rest Green Bay’s case.