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The NFL Needs a Love Day

Without more freedom for player movement, football’s offseason will never be as good as the NBA’s. But since when is the NFL willing to cede the spotlight to someone else?

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

If you’re a Simpsons fan, you know about "Love Day." A greeting card company executive tells his board to expect a "summer lull" since there aren’t any card-worthy holidays. But he tells them not to worry because, "Hey, we’re making enough money, right?" The executive is promptly dragged out of the room and the company makes up "Love Day" to end the lull.

A similar conversation should be happening at NFL headquarters right now. The league is obsessed with making money; it has so carefully curated its early offseason that the release of the schedule in April dominates the news cycle, even though we already know all the matchups. But in the summer, the league basically goes dark. Save for any news that floats out from a stray interview, the league falls out of the public conversation during late June and most of July.

There are plenty of reasons the NFL will never match the NBA in terms of offseason excitement, but there’s no reason it has to lag so far behind.

The divide is not for lack of interest. The Jaguars could play the Browns in Macau in the middle of the night and it would get 12 million viewers. Instead, it’s a lack of events staged by the league, combined with the now-annual fireworks that come from the NBA offseason, that put the NFL on the backburner. There’s no direct comparison between offseasons, since the NFL’s transactions mostly occur in the spring and the NBA’s occur right now, but look at this chart of Google interest in NFL news (red) vs. NBA news (blue):

The NFL’s offseason never comes close to the interest of the NBA offseason. There are two separate issues for the NFL: The first is that it is irrelevant in July while the NBA is king and the second is that nothing the NFL does in its seven-month offseason compares to the heights of NBA free agency, which is now one of the greatest spectacles in sport. In fact, in the past two years, NBA offseason interest on Google is at all-time highs while the NFL remains relatively stagnant. The NFL still trumps the NBA during football season, but the basketball offseason spikes way above football free agency. This makes some sense, of course. Last year, Kevin Durant switched teams; this year, stars like Chris Paul have joined new teams, and others like Paul George might do the same.

Based solely on the interest in the actual games, the NFL should have much higher engagement in the offseason than hoops. But that’s not the case: Sunday Night Football is the most watched show on television in the fall; the Cowboys-Packers January playoff game more than doubled the NBA Finals’ average viewing numbers. Except there’s barely any offseason football drama. Derek Carr was locked up this month, about three years before hitting free agency. Aaron Rodgers, one of the biggest superstars in the league, is already thinking about a well-deserved extension, even though the absolute earliest he could be a free agent is 2020.

If you’re ever wondering why there’s no LeBron-style speculation about NFL quarterbacks, it’s because no star quarterback has ever hit the free-agency market in the modern era. The draconian contract system that protects teams from losing their stars — a franchise tag allows teams to keep players up to three years after their contract expires — also hurts the league’s ability to generate interest in the offseason. This is an owner-driven league, and the owners would likely do everything in their power to prevent the kind of team-jumping that excites sports fans but causes teams headaches. Beyond the top players rarely hitting free agency, NFL GMs are so risk-averse that they rarely swing big trades. The best player traded in the NFL over the past couple of years is either Brandin Cooks or Sam Bradford — both quality players but not on the level of someone like Paul.

The DNA of the league suggests there’s no real path to generating an offseason like the NBA. But it is not like the NFL to let another league have the spotlight uncontested like this, either. During March Madness, the NFL has its annual meetings, where new rules are passed. During the World Series last year, they scheduled the Dallas Cowboys in prime time. For a league that’s looking to make $25 billion in revenue by 2027, it’s somewhat stunning that they have not tried to steal even some of the NBA’s summer shine. This current stretch — after minicamps in mid-June and before training camp in late July — is by far the worst on the NFL calendar. There’s nothing on the schedule; even the post–Super Bowl stretch in February is met by the NFL combine three weeks later. This is the time the league goes on vacation — but it’s not like it to cede so much ground to another sport for so many weeks.

What could be done now? There are small, easily executed fixes that could create a small bump in interest (though nothing approaching a top player reaching free agency): Have a true minor league from June and July that plays just a handful of games in non-NFL cities. You could use only guys who are currently out of the NFL — and from Johnny Manziel to Vince Young, there are plenty of famous guys on the fringes of the league. Wouldn’t you watch that? Not only do you get young players on the margins trying to shine, but you get washed-up stars going for one last ride; it could even include coaches looking to get another shot.

All of this would happen five or six weeks before training camp, when teams could still add guys to their training camp roster, and it would give everything a sense of urgency. Is there a reason I can’t see Cam Cameron coaching Brady Quinn for the Orlando team right now? Why is this not on NBC Sports Network as we speak? Now I’m angry.

The other form this could take is as an abbreviated season — two or three games — using guys who are primarily backups in the NFL at the moment but squarely on rosters, similar to the now-defunct NFL Europe. This would probably be higher rated than the first idea. Yes, Vince Young rules, but fans would rather see two or three quarters of Jimmy Garoppolo or A.J. McCarron, guys with a clearer path to becoming a real difference-maker in the league. You’d get extra reps for young players looking to take the next step. The new collective bargaining agreement limits practice time, and current players, most recently Drew Stanton, often lament a broken developmental system for young players, so this could help.

The problems with any minor league, as always, come from the owners. As CBS Sports identified last summer: The league would be expensive, and the owners would be responsible for health insurance and benefits, too. (This would cause a lot of in-fighting.) The owners would hate it, but the league office might be able to sell them on the long-term benefits of having some football in the summer.

If a minor league isn’t possible (or cheap enough), then the league could move the underutilized veterans combine from spring to right around now. When it comes to "creating a vaguely meaningless event to draw some attention in the dead months," this was one of the league’s best ideas. It just needs a few tweaks to be a great watch.

Now dubbed the "Pro Player Combine," the event takes place in March because rosters are not yet set, and teams can still add players. But it’s currently too close to the annual meeting and the real combine and the draft, so no one really cares about the veterans combine, even though the whole point of its existence is to entertain people. It is also not nearly enough of a circus. Like the hypothetical minor league, every famous person on the fringes of the sport should be invited, and it should be live on the NFL Network.

There are other ideas that could at least help in July. Move the Pro Bowl skills challenge, which no one cares about in February because of, uh, the Super Bowl, to July. Hell, just find ways for NFL stars to compete against each other. Nearly every important NFL player in the world is within an hour’s drive of one another in Los Angeles during this period, so you might as well have them meet in Manhattan Beach and play roller hockey on camera.

Overall, the NFL will struggle forever to match the NBA in grabbing summer headlines and producing a feverish offseason that is more exciting than the regular season. That may be OK, since the league will take the ratings when the games start, but, please: Someone let me watch a former Heisman Trophy winner play right now.