NFL Europe 2001 gets under way on April 21st in what could be a pivotal year for the league. With expansion planned in 2002 and the impact of the XFL to be dealt with the coming months are very important for the future of the NFL's continuing attempts to globalise the game.

The priority during the off-season has been to combat the effect the XFL has had on the league. The first problem was replacing the coaches that, quite understandably, jumped ship. Jim Criner (Scottish Claymores), Galen Hall (Rhein Fire) and Al Luginbill (Amsterdam Admirals) had all been in Europe since the re-introduction of the league in 1995 but the lure of better pay and jobs closer to home in the new league was too strong. Also to be replaced was Frankfurt Galaxy head coach Dick Curl who accepted a position with the Kansas City Chiefs. Taking over in Amsterdam is Bart Andrus who was Rhein's offensive co-ordinator in 2000, before which he spent 3 years working with the Tennessee Titans. After 5 years as the Fire's defensive co-ordinator Pete Kuharchek has been promoted to replace Hall as the Dusseldorf outfit's head coach. The new head man in Frankfurt is Doug Graber, a former head coach at Rutgers. Moving to Scotland after serving as passing co-ordinator at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas is Gene Dahlquist.

The other hit the XFL has had on NFL Europe is diminishing the size of the free agent pool. In this writer's opinion this is less of a problem than it might appear. It is true that there are a large number of players in the XFL who have played in Europe, but these are all guys that returned to NFL clubs and failed to make the grade. I've no doubt a few would have come back to Europe if there had been no XFL but the likelihood is that the majority would have given up the game.

To combat this player loss the NFL decreed that each of their clubs must allocate at least 6 players to play in Europe this year and as a result there are over 200 allocates on rosters this season. Some clubs have taken the allocation process more seriously than others. Many, including the 49ers, have sent over guys from last year's active rosters and practice squads, but others have just signed 6 free agents and sent them to Europe with little hope of competing for roster spots when they return to the States in July. I find this difficult to fathom as the league has proved a useful breeding ground over the last few years with over 150 with European experience now having places on NFL rosters or practice squads. You just have to look at guys like Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson, Bill Schroeder, Marcus Robinson and Barry Sims, to name just a handful, to see how important a trip to Europe can be in a player's development. Developing young players is becoming more and more important as the salary cap continues to hit a lot of clubs, but it still seems that there are those not willing to commit to NFL Europe.

As I mentioned earlier the 49ers, thankfully, are one of the NFL teams who are taking NFL Europe seriously with 9 guys being sent over to get some playing time. The most recognisable name is last year's 3rd round pick, quarterback Giovanni Garmazzi who has been sent to Dusseldorf to play with the Rhein Fire. At present it looks like Carmazzi is likely to share time behind center with the Saints Phil Stambaugh. Also suiting up for the Fire will be wide receiver Dwight Carter, defensive tackle Daniel Greer and kicker James Tuthill. On their way to Amsterdam to play for the Admirals are cornerback Mikki Allen, safety Marcus Hill and linebacker Al Rice, while cornerback Dee Moronkola will be in Berlin and linebacker Brennen Swanson here in Scotland.

In last year's injury ravaged season the 49ers gave significant time to Artie Ulmer and Justin Swift who are both products of NFL Europe, so I'm sure they'll be looking for some of this year's crop to make an impact when they return home, although you should not expect to see the best of those that do make the roster until the 2002 NFL season. In the 6 years of NFL Europe something that has become very apparent is that it is exceptionally difficult for these guys to keep going physically when they return to the States. Their commitment to NFL Europe starts with training camp at the beginning of March before a 10 game regular season ending in June. To then go home and take part in an NFL training camp and 16 game season is tremendously demanding.

With a week to go until the start of the season it is impossible to predict who are going to be the challengers this year as all 6 squads are almost completely different from last season, and with so many new coaches it is difficult to know what sort of philosophy each team will have. All in all it should lead to a very interesting season and I, for one, can't wait for it to start.