Could this pro football league help fix a nagging NFL draft problem?

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

Mike Shanahan coached college or pro football for 37 seasons, including head stints in Oakland, Washington and Denver, where he won two Super Bowls.

Ed McCaffrey played 13 seasons in the NFL, winning three Super Bowls, before becoming a prominent football father – one son, Christian, is turning pro out of Stanford as another, Dylan, is headed to Michigan.

Donald Yee is in his 29th year as a sports agent, a job where he has represented NFL coaches and players ranging from future Hall of Famer Tom Brady to guys looking to stick with a practice squad.

Mike Shanahan’s coaching resume includes three head coaching gigs and two Super Bowl titles. (Getty Images)

From three different backgrounds came one unifying realization – there is a gap in the current system both for certain players to reach the NFL as well as how the NFL can identify talent.

Now they are about to do something about it.

The three are spearheading Pacific Pro Football, which is set to begin play in the summer of 2018. This is a new professional league, yet it isn’t looking to compete with the NFL – a la the now-deceased USFL or XFL.

It is instead, a right-sized developmental option for young players. It has the potential to change the route to the NFL for many who neither want, nor find worth, in the current NCAA system. And it will give the NFL, which is often frustrated at the style of play and the secrecy of the college ranks, a place with a preferable set-up for training and identifying potential draft picks.

“The need is there from both the players and the NFL,” Yee told Yahoo Sports. “This is neither the NFL nor the NCAA. It’s a supplement to the other products and we are convinced there is a market for this.”

Here are the basics:

• A four-team league based in Southern California. Each 50-player team will be owned/employed by the league, not individuals.

• Players can participate only in their first four years out of high school. This is an alternative to college. While the NFL still requires a draft-eligible prospect to be three years removed from his final year of high school, Pac Pro will allow players to join right out of high school, or after a year or two at a major college, junior college or whatever.

• Total compensation is about $50,000 per season. There is also full worker’s comp and, among other things, a tuition reimbursement at a community college should a player choose to use it in the offseason.

• Six regular-season games and two rounds of playoffs, so teams will play seven to eight games.

• The season runs each Sunday in July and August, finishing before the start of the opening of the NFL and college campaigns.

• Each team will have eight full-time coaches with pro and college experience, plus about eight part-time assistant coaches.

• Play will be pro-style, and based on development and evaluation. For instance, there will be no spread offenses. Quarterbacks will take snaps under center, need to call plays in the huddle and identify defenses at the line of scrimmage. There will be a premium put on one-on-one plays to get viable tape. For example, perhaps rules that prohibit crossing routes for receivers.

• Every player will play. While games will be competitive, with small rosters and brief seasons there will be snaps and opportunities for everyone, particularly in practice. No one is getting buried on a depth chart or losing a season of teaching while residing in a coach’s doghouse.

“Pro football is a specialized game,” Shanahan said. “It demands precise techniques and a certain mental approach.”

Former NFL wideout Ed McCaffrey is pushing to get the Pacific Pro Football league off the ground. (AP)

NFL personnel have complained for years that too much of the college game isn’t designed to help players reach the league. That’s understandable since college coaches are paid to win, not operate an NFL minor league. However, especially at quarterback, it is a challenge to identify a player who might be successful because the game is so different.

Scouts often bristle at closed practices (which won’t be an issue in Pac Pro), or schools that limit game tape for prospects or lean on student-privacy laws to hide injury or disciplinary issues. It’s part of why the draft is such a crapshoot.

The league’s advisory board is diverse, including not just Shanahan, McCaffrey and Yee, but former NFL executive Jim Steeg, who for years ran the Super Bowl, ESPN reporter Adam Schefter, political strategist Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and officiating expert Mike Pereira.

There are no grandiose plans of filling the Rose Bowl or L.A. Coliseum with 100,000 team-merchandise-clad fans. That’s not what this is about. Games will take place in smaller stadiums, perhaps at a community college or a Division III college campus. There will be a neighborhood feel to everything. If a player starred at a Southern California high school, he’ll be put on the team closest to campus. It’s possible the initial season will be played wholly at just two venues.

Pac Pro hopes to have the games televised nationally, although no media rights agreement is in place. There is confidence because Pac Pro leadership includes former ESPN executive Bradley Edwards and former Fox Sports Digital vice president Jeffrey Husvar.

The broadcasts, however, are likely to be non-traditional. There are only going to be so many fans of the teams, so the final score may not matter to most.

There is a belief fans will tune in to see young talent on display. Broadcasts that are more in line with a high school All-American Game, where there is a focus on backstory and potential, or the film room option for the college football championship game, may be employed.

If the league is successful, there are plans to expand to another four-team pod in Northern California, or one concentrated in the Midwest. That’s the future, though. At this point, the PPFL is just trying to get launched. A round of angel funding recently closed and additional funding efforts are possible.

While there are still details to be worked out, Yee and the others are convinced they won’t lack for talent. On a daily basis they see young players who for myriad reasons either don’t want or aren’t being served by the college process. There are some obvious candidates such as non-qualifiers out of high school who believe they can handle the physical demands and would rather turn pro rather than head to a community college somewhere. Then there are players who run into legal issues or have trouble on campus and need to transfer to a smaller school anyway. Some just want to be paid in cash, not tuition, room and board.

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There are far more, the league believes, guys who aren’t interested in the academics of college – as decades of poor graduation rates prove. Many find themselves huddled into majors where the main goal is simply maintaining eligibility, usually through intense “tutoring.” The NCAA likes to sell the public on the concept of the true student-athlete, but Yee and Shanahan and others have dealt in reality for years. For many players, that is just public-relations spin.

Some seek a different type of education, perhaps vocational or with more hands-on training than internships and job placement with the league can offer. Yee says he has had plenty of clients who are interested in entrepreneurship, small-business ownership or careers such as becoming a stunt man, for instance. What they received via a college “education” didn’t serve their interests.

“Nobody ever asks these kids when they enter college, ‘What are you really interested in?’ ” Yee said. “The concept of education is more extensive than just the traditional four-year track, especially being pushed into certain majors.”

Other players may grow disillusioned in the college game after a year or two and are seeking a different route to a potential professional career. Pac Pro believes it will be strong at quarterback, even among players from upper-middle-class backgrounds who can handle, and seek, a traditional college degree. QBs transfer at a high rate in college as playing time is limited, coordinators constantly move and style of play becomes a major issue.

There is a huge market for high school quarterbacks receiving private training to develop only to then find themselves in a spread offense, running plays via silly billboards held aloft from the sideline. Little of that helps them achieve the ultimate goal of making the NFL.

There are other benefits. The eight-game season is far from the grind of the college season – which includes extensive full-contact practices both in the spring and during game weeks that not even NFL players face. Game tape and day-in, day-out instruction will be precisely what NFL scouts are seeking.

By ending in August, players “graduating” to NFL draft eligibility would have the full fall to train individually for the scouting combine and enter the process healthier and fresher than their college peers.

On and on it goes. It certainly won’t be the preferred option for every player. The majority of the best college-age players seek the glamor and excitement of the collegiate game. Playing major college football is still awesome. For the others, though, here’s a different path.

Can it work? Why not? As long as the funding is there and the goals remain modest, then this is a market-driven need.

If you get enough talent under enough excellent coaching then the football is pretty good. And if the football is pretty good then some people will tune in or even come out and watch. At least that’s the plan. More football is a good thing. A more honest and reality-based path for some players is a positive. You want to play pro, go play pro.

No one thinks it will topple, or even adversely impact major college football. Certainly, there will be a few less players, but Alabama or Clemson isn’t under any threat of needing to shutter its program.

Just as no one thinks it’s a competitor with the NFL, but rather an asset to the league that is always seeking better incoming players.

“We love football,” said Yee, 56. “Football has been our lives and our careers. That’s why we are trying to start this. We’re expanding the football industry by creating more jobs for players and coaches. We’re providing a choice.”

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