- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

HOUSTON — Spring in Europe. Sounds like a nice way to relax. Backpack the countryside. Bunk in a youth hostel. Knock back a few in a beer garden. Learn to yodel.

But for an NFL player, it’s a blunt statement about your place on the team. Forget not being ready for prime time. If you play in NFL Europe, the spring developmental league run, bankrolled and recently nearly axed by the NFL, you’re barely getting the time of day.

Prospects with even a remote chance of playing in the fall aren’t sent to Europe. Yes, careers can be revived there, and no-name players can get reps or generate some publicity. But the vast majority of NFL Europe participants don’t last on NFL rosters past final cuts, when their exemptions expire.

So it’s of no small significance that two of the past four Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks played in NFL Europe, or that a third could join the list Sunday when the Carolina Panthers’ Jake Delhomme faces the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium.

Agent Rick Smith, who represents Delhomme, doesn’t buy a connection in the overseas to uberalles tales of Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson and his client. He called it “pure coincidence.” A player’s ultimate success, Smith said, is based purely on what he does on American soil on autumn Sundays.

But NFL Europe’s John Beake, the managing director of football operations, noted that “the experience with us really keeps their dream alive.” In essence, Beake argued, playing in NFL Europe gives guys a better shot to stay in the league, which in turn might allow them to achieve the success Smith described.

Either way, Delhomme believes he has at least a bit in common with Warner, who won Super Bowl XXXIV with the 1999 St. Louis Rams, and Johnson, who won Super Bowl XXXVII with the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

A guy might not get an H2 or an eight-figure signing bonus for playing in NFL Europe, but he could return with humility and patience.

“The biggest thing if you look at us three, some guys look at it as a blow to their ego to go over there, but I looked at it as a chance to get better,” Delhomme said.

Lightly recruited out of Breaux Bridge, La., (America’s most famous small town in recent days) and undrafted out of Louisiana-Lafayette in 1997, Delhomme long has battled for his football accomplishments.

He spent the last month of the 1997 season on the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad, and in the spring the club allocated him to NFL Europe’s Amsterdam Admirals, where he was Warner’s backup. The following spring he helped the Rhein Fire to the World Bowl title, ranking second in the developmental league with a 96.8 rating.

Delhomme’s name remained obscure until 2002, when NFL personnel types started buzzing about his potential as the Saints’ backup to Aaron Brooks. After generating a fair bit of interest as an unrestricted free agent, he chose the Panthers because they won four of their last five in 2002, beating the Saints in the finale when Carolina had nothing to play for.

“Two things kept going through my mind: Coach [John] Fox must keep them together, and they must have some pretty good character guys in that locker room,” Delhomme recalled.

The NFL Europe experience was “great,” he said, because it gave him the snaps he needed so badly. Fox agreed that quarterbacks, in particular, can benefit from extra playing time, but the coach didn’t gloss over the negatives of sending players to Europe.

“You have to evaluate on an individual basis,” Fox said. “I think it can be a real plus. At the quarterback position, it’s hard to get a lot of reps in offseason work, as a backup or even third-team. It’s a good learning experience to get some playing time under fire. [Delhomme, Warner and Johnson are] a good indication of that.

“The downside is that at another position, a guy might get nicked, come back injured and miss offseason work.”

In addition to risking injury, a player in Europe returns too tired to contribute throughout the entire NFL season. And he falls behind in learning his NFL team’s system, because he misses offseason practices.

Throw in the money NFL Europe has lost each spring since 1991, and it’s no wonder NFL owners have raised serious questions about whether to continue it. Last spring the developmental league survived a formal challenge to its solvency. Owners awarded it two more years, but beyond that the future is murky.

“Last year it got a little bit dicey,” Beake admitted. “I don’t know if I could take that every year. We have a two-year plan. After the 2005 [NFLE] season, we have to go back to ownership and tell them how we’re doing.”

Beake points to NFL Europe’s reevaluation of its football and business models, the move of one team from Barcelona to Cologne, Germany, and a series of stadium constructions in Germany as reasons that the NFL might continue pumping lifeblood into his league. And he believes it’s no coincidence high-profile success stories like Warner, Johnson and Delhomme are only starting to emerge.

“It’s just beginning to sink in: by God, this thing does work,” Beake said. “It just takes time.”

That’s exactly the phrase Delhomme used, too, to describe his own career.

“Some guys come out and play right away,” Delhomme said. “Some guys have to wait. That happens sometimes.”

Delhomme’s wait has paid off with a growing reputation as a clutch passer in both the late going of games and the postseason. Seven years in, he has validated the two springs he spent getting reps overseas. With more such tales, NFL Europe someday could achieve similar peace of mind.

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