Imagine: Maurice Jones-Drew sprains his ankle in a game. Deji Karim is still recovering from a knee injury he sustained in the preseason, and Rashad Jennings has been nursing influenza all week. What do you do as a coach for next week's game? Sign a free agent running back to start for you the next week when in all likelihood he doesn't know the playbook or blocking assignments? Believe me, an aged T.J. Duckett or Tiki Barber isn't going to help your team for a couple of games. But wait, you can call up one of your star running backs from your minor league affiliate Orlando Owls. He already knows the Jaguars system and is fresh off a productive spring season. You rely on him the following week, and he delivers in a great win.
Is this a possibility? A minor league system, to me, would be perfect for the NFL. I don't know the business aspect of this issue, but I think it would be a long-term revenue gainer for the NFL as well as be the help teams have been looking for. Similar to the minor leagues in baseball, players would have the ability to be sent down to the minors to rehab injuries and get back in game shape. Also, players could be called up by their parent team when they are needed. The NFL would appeal to smaller markets that can't support a professional team, but certainly can support a minor league team-all it would take is one city per team. Places like Baton Rouge, Portland, Providence, and various other small market cities would become synonymous with the teams they represent: Baton Rouge-Saints, Portland-Seahawks, Providence-Patriots.
An example that younger readers might not remember is the NFL Europe/Europa. Its existence brought about some key NFL players: Kurt Warner, Jaguars long-snapper Jeremy Cain, Atari Bigby, Jake Delhomme, Jon Kitna, David Akers, Fred Jackson, former Jaguars quarterback Quinn Gray, and even the loud-mouth-yet-all-pro James Harrison (he probably wouldn't admit he was ever there though). Most teams played in Germany, but some were scattered between the U.K., Spain, and Amsterdam. I used to watch these games as a means of receiving my football fix in the offseason, and it was far superior to the Canadian Football League (CFL). Though the NFL Europe ceased operations in 2007 by order of Roger Goodell, mostly because of reported $30 million in losses a year.
Though there are financial issues as well as venue issues (I think college stadiums would work) there still remains the question of the usefulness of a minor league for the simple case of player longevity. In baseball, players can spend years in the minors, move up to the majors, and reach their prime. In football, there truly is a 5 year window that is a player's prime years, from 26-30. That's a small window, so there isn't much time to develop these players in the minors and easing them into the NFL. This is a very risky proposition in some ways, namely financial but I think this step is necessary in the near future. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.