When owners shuttered NFL Europe in 2007, it was losing a reported $30 million annually and had made meager inroads toward international growth. The league produced some rich tales of introducing American football overseas, and its legacy is a surprising success as a developmental training ground for quarterbacks -- one that general managers still crave 10 years later.
A handful of independent leagues have attempted to fill in, including the Fall Experimental Football League and The Spring League. None, however, have spurred the kind of quarterback growth that NFL Europe/World League of American Football achieved in the 1990s. Dozens of future NFL quarterbacks participated, and you might be surprised at the number of eventual starters who can trace a jump-start to their career to extended playing time in Europe or the league's early domestic locales. We'll examine eight of them, ranked in terms of NFL Europe's impact on their career, below.
As the league fizzled to its conclusion, NFL coaches grew more reluctant to send their best prospects. But as NFL officials consider their current developmental options, they would be wise to recall NFL Europe's affect on quarterback depth. Statistics are courtesy the NFL and The Football Database.
Kurt Warner, Amsterdam Admirals
Year in NFL Europe: 1998
Impact: Warner was a star in the Arena League, but at 26, he was having trouble attracting interest from the NFL. He had previously turned down an at-large invite from NFL Europe in 1996 but accepted in 1998 when the St. Louis Rams agreed to sign and allocate him. Warner blew up the league, leading it in passing yards (2,101) and touchdown throws (15) before earning a backup job with the Rams. His Hall of Fame-caliber career began a year later, when he replaced injured starter Trent Green and led the Rams to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV against the Tennessee Titans. Had it not been for NFL Europe, Warner might never have signed with an NFL team in 1998.
Brad Johnson, London Monarchs
Year in NFL Europe: 1995
Impact: A ninth-round draft pick in 1992, Johnson did not appear in a game during his first two NFL seasons. Seemingly destined as a career backup, Johnson convinced the Minnesota Vikings to allocate him prior to his fourth season. In London, he threw 328 passes in one season, finishing second in the league with 2,227 yards and 13 touchdowns. His NFL fortunes soon picked up. When Vikings starter Warren Moon was injured in 1996, Johnson stepped in and started eight games. He led the Vikings to a 5-3 record, throwing 17 touchdown passes in a total of 12 games. That stint launched a decade as a primary starter in Minnesota, Washington and Tampa Bay. The timing of Johnson's transition from backup to starter makes it difficult to ignore the value of his extended playing time in Europe.
Jon Kitna, Barcelona Dragons
Year in NFL Europe: 1997
Impact: Kitna was a little-known NAIA player at Central Washington University and spent the 1996 season on the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad. Given a chance to play the following spring in Barcelona, Kitna led the league with 2,448 yards and 22 touchdowns. That performance gave him the momentum to earn the backup job behind Moon in 1997-98, and by 1999 he was the Seahawks' starter. Kitna went on to be the primary starter for three NFL teams over the next decade. It's difficult to know if he would have made the Seahawks as a backup in 1997 had he not played in Europe first.
Jake Delhomme, Amsterdam Admirals/Frankfurt Galaxy
Years in NFL Europe: 1998-1999
Impact: Undrafted and later signed by the New Orleans Saints, Delhomme spent his first season in Europe as Warner's backup in Amsterdam before taking the starting job in Frankfurt in 1999. He shared time with teammate Pat Barnes but finished with 1,410 yards and a 96.8 passer rating in 202 attempts. It helped him develop a reputation as an accurate passer (67.3 completion percentage) and fiery competitor. Delhomme started only two games as a Saints backup between 1999 and 2002, but the profile he built in Europe helped drive the Carolina Panthers to sign him in 2003 and quickly install him as their starter.
Kelly Holcomb, Barcelona Dragons
Year in NFL Europe: 1996
Impact: Holcomb had spent 1995 on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice squad before signing in 1996 with the Indianapolis Colts, who allocated him to Barcelona. He finished second in the league with 2,382 yards and 14 touchdown passes, enough to give him credibility when he reported to Colts training camp later that summer. He spent the next five seasons as a backup but followed assistant coach Bruce Arians to the Cleveland Browns in 2001 and earned a starting job there in 2002. Holcomb also started eight games for the Buffalo Bills in 2005 and three more for the Vikings in 2007. Although he was never a team's permanent starter, he might have been out of football altogether in 1996 were it not for his stint in Europe.
Jay Fiedler, Amsterdam Admirals
Year in NFL Europe: 1997
Impact: Fiedler was a wayward undrafted quarterback who had spent part of two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, and then was out of football for a year, when he arrived in Europe. Although he shared time with two teammates, one of whom was former San Diego Chargers and current Denver Broncos offensive coordinator coach Mike McCoy, Fiedler saw enough action to throw 109 passes. No one can argue that his performance -- 42.2 completion percentage, eight interceptions -- stood out, but it was enough to get him back on the NFL radar. He signed with the Vikings in 1998, four years after he initially left college, and got his first NFL start for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1999. The Miami Dolphins signed him in 2000, and he spent most of the next five seasons as the team's primary starter.
Scott Mitchell, Orlando Thunder
Year in NFL Europe: 1992
Impact: The Miami Dolphins' fourth-round draft pick in 1990, Mitchell wasn't going to get much playing time behind future Hall of Fame starter Dan Marino. So he was allocated to the Orlando franchise, at a time when the World League had domestic outposts. Mitchell threw a league-high 361 passes, finishing second with 2,213 yards and 12 touchdowns. That experience surely paid off in 1993, when Mitchell replaced an injured Marino and produced an 84.2 passer rating in seven starts. His career peaked the following year, when the Detroit Lions made him a marquee free-agent signing to be their starter, before careening sideways. If nothing else, however, the Orlando experience helped earn Mitchell a load of money.
Shaun Hill, Amsterdam Admirals
Year in NFL Europe: 2003
Impact: By 2003, most NFL coaches preferred to work with young quarterbacks in their own offseason programs rather than send them to Europe. But Hill was buried on the Vikings' third team behind Daunte Culpepper and a series of veterans. An option specialist at Maryland, no one knew if Hill could throw at an NFL level. So his time in Amsterdam was invaluable; he attempted a league-high 356 passes and also led with 2,256 yards. That performance earned him a spot in the NFL's veteran backup carousel, one that led to a 15-year career that included 35 starts for four different franchises.
Todd Bouman (Barcelona/1999), Damon Huard (Frankfurt/1998), Jim Miller (1995/Frankfurt), Doug Pederson (1992/New York-New Jersey and 1995/Rhein Fire)