In his first and only NFL season, rugby league convert Jarryd Hayne didn’t get much action. He had 17 carries, six receptions, and eight punt returns in just eight games of action in a season that saw him get waived, re-signed to the practice squad, and added to the roster again at the tail end of the season. That’s not a lot of game experience, especially for a guy who’d never played American football before. To hear Hayne tell it, that was kind of the problem.
Hayne, 28, retired from the 49ers in May, and he would have been a long shot to make the team in camp. In an interview with The New Zealand Herald, he says he gave up on the sport because there’s just no way for a mid-career convert to earn sufficient reps.
“I need to be getting game time and you just can’t get that over there [in the NFL] because of the way it works,” Hayne said.
“The offence is only on for a certain amount of time and then there’s five other running backs.
“If there was a second division team where I could get those mental reps of being on the field, 100 per cent I’d go back to the NFL.”
There’s the CFL, and Arena League, and European leagues of varying qualities, but for a borderline NFL talent like Hayne, there would be nothing quite like a franchise-affiliated minor league team to get snaps and learn a playbook and remain within an organization’s purview. Once you wash out of the NFL, it’s very rare to find your way back.
Hayne’s a unique case, but I don’t think you’d find much debate that the NFL would benefit from a true minor league. Even for the best college prospects, it takes a couple of years to get up to speed in the pros. And for those not elite enough to start, practice reps alone aren’t the ideal way to improve. We’ve written before that young quarterbacks would benefit from a few years on a farm somewhere; a second division would be even better.
A minor league would cost money, though. And the NFL has college football to handle all that pesky development free of charge, even if those programs are more focused on immediate success rather than player development. (Hayne was 23 when he first declared he’d like to play in the NFL, but having not finished high school he was ineligible for college ball.) The NFL roster-battle calculus is brutal, and players age out of their peaks quickly, and in the NFL’s mind there just aren’t enough borderline players with high enough upside to justify the cost of developing them in-house—if you can’t make a team immediately, the thinking goes, the odds are low that you ever will.
I’m not wholly convinced that an NFL minor league wouldn’t be profitable. People can’t get enough damn football in this country. But it’s not about to happen anytime soon, and given the free alternatives, the cost of salvaging those few talents who currently slip through the cracks just isn’t worth it.