Bottom line, after two years the NFL seems to know what it had now that it's gone.
Commissioner Roger Goodell said during the league meetings in March it may indeed be time to revisit the idea of a developmental league. Seems something like NFL Europe wasn't such a bad idea after all.
Spring has sprung, summer's closing in and by all rights there should be some NFL hopefuls — emphasis on the hopeful — playing somewhere, somehow. The league put the boards on the windows of its European venture in 2007 and while its developmental attempts never made the money it hoped or tugged at the world masses like it hoped to, it did serve a purpose.
It allowed players who needed a chance to play to do just that, especially at quarterback.
And you would think a league that has so many people working in it who are continually whining "Where, oh where are the quarterbacks?" would provide a place to train them.
Ask around and you get all kinds of theories, mostly about the money out the door with not enough T-shirts or whatever sold to stem the tide, cost effectiveness and all of that. Some team owners tired of the investment and Goodell has said there was little support from the players as well when the current collective bargaining agreement was extended in 2006.
In the end it's hard to avoid the idea the NFL simply pulled up a chair and picked running a TV network over developing players when it decided the NFL Network was in and NFL Europe was out.
Unfortunately the impression given is that any future marketing opportunities that may come with broadcasting some or all of its own games was a more prudent direction than improving the product itself.
When the NFL shut down the six remaining teams in NFL Europe, there were those in the league who estimated the endeavor, in all of its forms, lost $400 million or so since the start in 1991.
Not a lot for say, a sub-prime lender with both hands now extended, but still an attention-grabbing number. Still, peel away some layers in the 15 years the NFL operated some kind of developmental operation in its offseason — it did not play in 1994 and 1995 — to the 28, 31 or 32 teams that funded it in those years and it comes down to about a $1 million per team, per year.
Or about a third of what some backup quarterbacks will pull in this year alone.
And at no position on the field are players so not ready for primetime exiting college football than at quarterback. All the way from how they say the cadence, to how they call the play in the huddle, to finding a way get back from center to even be in a position to throw a ball.
"For me it kind of gave me a chance to work in 11-on-11 situations, on a 100-yard field and compete for a job, win a job and play to keep the job,'' said Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner.
This past January's NFC playoffs was a showcase for it all. Warner and Carolina's Jake Delhomme, who competed for the starting quarterback job with the Amsterdam Admirals in 1998, faced off with an NFC title game appearance on the line. Warner started 10 games for the Admirals that year and led the league in yards passing (2,101), attempts (362), completions (165) and passing touchdowns (15).
Delhomme, in limited work, completed 15-of-47 passes for 247 yards to go with no touchdowns and four interceptions. But he went back to Europe in '99 and led Frankfurt to a league championship. Delhomme has since had four 3,000-yard passing seasons and started a Super Bowl.
But it is Warner — an undrafted player with two league MVP trophies, a Super Bowl MVP, a championship ring and now three trips to the title game — who is likely NFL Europe's most-heralded graduate. He has often said his lone summer, as well as his extended stint in the Arena Football League which is idle this year as well, gave him a chance to prove he could play.
And quarterback will always be the position in the most need of some kind of developmental help — they often just take longer to ferment than others do. With the growing use of the spread offenses, or offshoots of it, in high schools and colleges around the country, the dilemma of what to do with all of the passers who are now in a professional football league that isn't really on board with that trend only becomes bigger.
But it's not just quarterbacks. Adam Vinatieri — Amsterdam, 1996 — has three game-winning kicks in the Super Bowl. The Broncos had three starters in their offensive line in 2007, a year they finished ninth in the league in rushing, who played in NFL Europe.
And there are a host of coaching candidates, especially those looking to jam their foot in the NFL door for the first time, who got the experience they needed to land the one interview they hoped for, in offseason football.
The United Football League — a four-team upstart that will begin play this fall — is trying to position itself as a lower-priced alternative to what it has called an "underserved'' football fan base. They hope to expand, they hope to grow, they hope to compete with the NFL for at least few eyes and ears on autumn Thursdays and Fridays.
The league says it hopes to add a few more teams in 2010 and beyond. That it wants to spend within its means, stick to the developmental plan. But many have tried this, after all, and all have had to eventually walk away from the table, turning their pockets inside out as they went looking to see if anything was left over.
But perhaps, if the new guys really do have enough cash to make a go of it over the long haul, there could be some kind of developmental arrangement with the NFL down the road. Because whether the folks on Park Avenue would ever admit it, they need one and always will.
Nothing sells football like better football, after all.
by Jeff Legwold, Special to FOXSports.com