BROOKLYN -- Maurice Jones-Drew was on the phone, asking for a chance to play in a fledgling football league founded by a former college player, New York Jets intern and sports agent named Brian Woods. Jones-Drew, a three-time Pro Bowl running back just a year removed from a season in which he carried the ball more than 200 times, would lend some star power to a league looking to launch in a crowded sports marketplace. Many have failed in their attempts to create such a thing, and so a little bit of hype surrounding the launch could go a long way.
But Woods told Jones-Drew that he couldn't play: "You could probably do very well in this league," Woods told him, "but I think your career as an NFL running back is probably over at this point."
That response, blunt as it may be, is right in line with the goals of Woods' Fall Experimental Football League. Says Woods, the league's founder and commissioner: "Guys whose shelf life has expired in the NFL -- we're really not interested in those players."
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Woods first had the idea for a developmental football league in the summer of 2013, but the wheels were really only put into motion earlier this year, about six months before the league kicked off on October 8. After some trouble settling on exactly which cities would have teams -- Austin, Portland, and Memphis were possibilities but didn't pan out -- the league's inaugural season started with four squads: the Brooklyn Bolts, the Boston Brawlers, the Omaha Mammoths and a roving squad without a permanent home called the Blacktips. The league plays a six-week schedule, and rosters are limited to players less than two years removed from college. Players will be allowed to play no more than three seasons in the league -- assuming, of course, the FXFL survives that long.
History is littered with the remains of leagues that have tried to compete with the NFL. The USFL collapsed before it could switch to a fall schedule to directly compete with the NFL. The much-hyped XFL attempted to provide an "extreme" version of pro football, but lasted just one season. The UFL folded during just its fourth campaign, despite a handful of familiar names.
But the FXFL doesn't see itself as a rival of the NFL. Instead, it wants to be a potential feeder league -- a place where the best players not currently on a roster can stay in shape with real game action, and try to earn another shot at the big-time. In other words, Woods envisions it as football's answer to the NBA's D-League.
The hope is that if an NFL team has a mid-season need because of an injury, it'll turn to someone playing in the FXFL. In the league's first week, Woods says that two FXFL players were signed to 53-man NFL rosters, but he says that he'd ultimately like to see 20 to 30 percent of the league's players catch on with an NFL team.
The FXFL is set up in such a way that there can be a fair amount of roster turnover. A player can be sitting at home on Saturday, get a call to join the league, and be in the lineup on Wednesday without having even practiced with his new squad. After his team's 27-20 win over Boston last Wednesday at Coney Island's MCU Park, Brooklyn coach John Bock said he'd be bringing in a couple players for workouts because he was "down on his numbers."
Players are reportedly paid $1,000 per week, with rosters capped at 40. To keep costs down, the league's ideal scenario is to partner with existing minor-league baseball organizations, depending on them not just for a venue but for local marketing efforts. (The Brookyn and Omaha teams play in stadiums meant for minor-league baseball, while the Boston team plays at Harvard Stadium.)
Indeed, the Brooklyn Bolts home opener last Wednesday at Coney Island's MCU Park was decidedly small-time. Attendance could have been measured by the hundreds, not the thousands, and there was little of the flash I encountered 13 years prior while watching the XFL at Giants Stadium. It all felt a little bit makeshift: Fans had to return balls kicked into the stands -- there were no nets behind the uprights -- and the lack of visible play clocks meant teams had to rely on a ref's signal to know when they were running out of time to snap the ball.
The rainy forecast didn't help the atmosphere in the stadium, nor did the timing: The FXFL plays its games on Wednesday and Friday nights to avoid conflict with the NFL or NCAA. On a few occasions, some fans banded together for a "Boston sucks" chant, and touchdowns were met with applause. But during one Boston series, it was so quiet that I could hear the ruffle of the cheerleaders' pom-poms from three stories up in the press box. Only a few dozen fans stayed in their seats until the very end, getting soaked as the Bolts closed out the win. If only the league had the budget for Croix de Coney Island pins.
The rosters are filled with players who attended major-college programs and spent some time with an NFL organization, though in many cases that association was limited to attending camp and getting cut. The quality of play was a mixed bag: some sloppiness early, a few big gains, and at least one bonehead decision. (With Boston up by a point in the third quarter, a punt returner called for a fair catch at his own three yard line rather than let the ball bounce into the end zone. Boston's quarterback went down for a safety on the next play.)
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The FXFL's name is one letter off from one of the most famous flops in sports history, but in almost every way, Woods's league is the anti-XFL. Whereas that league was all about providing WWE-style entertainment for fans -- hard hits, unprecedented access, scantily-clad cheerleaders -- the FXFL is more about the players themselves.
Woods has made it clear he doesn't want FXFL coaches trying to out-scheme each other. Instead, he wants players to have the opportunity to show what they can do.
Bock explained that he rotates his players to make sure everyone has an opportunity to impress.
"The way that I'm coaching my team is, I want to play everybody, because that's what this league's about," said Bock. "That's the same problem guys run into in the NFL -- they're sitting third on the depth chart because this team's drafted a guy in the third round and they don't get the reps. That's why they're here. If you're not going to be a developmental league and give people an opportunity to develop, you're not going to get the players that you want, and you're not going to get the surprises that you might want."
Perhaps the only thing the league has in common with Vince McMahon's testosterone-fueled, made-for-TV football league is a willingness to experiment with rules. The XFL's tweaks, though, were based on the belief that the NFL style of play was too soft. Here, the rules are meant to showcase players in situations they might not otherwise get. In the NFL, kickoffs routinely go for touchbacks now that the ball is kicked from the 35-yard line. But that means players who'd otherwise get a chance to prove their value on special teams don't get the opportunity. And so kickoffs in the FXFL come from the 25-yard line, with eight players on the return team lined up between the 35- and 45-yard lines to decrease the chance of a dangerous collision. (The idea came from former NFL special teams coach Mike Westhoff.)
Watching in person, the most obvious change came on extra points: They're kicked from the 25-yard line, and two-point conversions must be attempted from the 17-yard line. During the Bolts' home opener, three of the six extra point attempts were no good, with a blocked kick responsible for one of those misses.
Otherwise, game play mostly follows the NFL rule book. But here, too, Woods wants to make nice with the NFL. He says that if the league came to him and requested that it test out a rule, he'd be happy to oblige. The word "experimental," after all, is right in the league's name.
And that -- more than the cost-containment measures, and more than the eligibility restrictions that keep a player like Jones-Drew out of the league -- is what truly sets the FXFL apart from the failed football leagues of recent memory. It's not competing with the NFL; rather, it's basically sucking up to it. For his part, Woods says that he's gotten positive feedback so far from NFL clubs.
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When talking about Jones-Drew to reporters after the home opener in Brooklyn, Woods stressed that the FXFL differed from previous attempts at pro football leagues because of the focus on giving players an opportunity to work their way into the NFL. "Ultimately, what are we?" he asked. "Are we a developmental league, or are we a developmental league operating under the guise of a commercial league? And I can assure you, we're a developmental league."
It's a noble sentiment, but righteousness alone won't play the bills. It'll be a tough sell to convince fans to buy tickets to watch second-rate players in chilly fall weather -- especially when half the games are on school nights. During his post-game press conference last Wednesday, Bock put the onus on the media to help bring people out to the games. Seemingly armed with talking points, he also suggested that the FXFL was basically a metaphor for the American dream.
Said Bock: "If we want more people at this game, it's going to come down to how you write about us, and what your experience was, and you get the people of New York and Brooklyn to realize we have a pretty good product right here. We have some pretty good young athletes. You get to be a part of seeing the next generation make it in the NFL who are long shots, and I know New Yorkers love long shots. That's why people come all round the world to live here in New York, is to get their opportunity in America, and that's kind of what this team represents."
Ultimately, it's hard to imagine the league succeeding as a standalone entity if too many of its games are as sparsely attended as the Bolts home opener. But if it can serve its intended purpose -- to provide a showcase for players still chasing their NFL dreams -- then it's not inconceivable that the NFL would show interest.
Earlier this year, NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent said that a developmental league could be good for the NFL. "For all this football talent around," he said, "we have to create another platform for developing it."
That league now exists. Whether it can succeed where other leagues have failed -- particularly without the NFL's formal assistance -- is another question entirely.