The Daily Briefing Wednesday, February 7, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
Daniel Jeremiah at NFL.com asks the opinion of some execs as to who is the most chaseable QB available:
Now that Super Bowl LII is in the rearview mirror, we have officially reached the NFL’s offseason.
As much as I love the regular season and the postseason, I’m one of the weird ones that actually prefers this time of year. This is where the team building takes place, and this year is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing offseasons in recent memory. Why? It’s pretty simple — the quarterbacks.
We’ve already seen a blockbuster trade involving a QB, with the Chiefs agreeing to trade Alex Smith to the Redskins, and there’s a marquee free-agent-to-be in Kirk Cousins, who is entering his prime. Jimmy Garoppolo and Drew Brees are due to hit free agency, although no one expects them to leave their current teams. All three of the Vikings’ top QBs (Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, Case Keenum) have expiring contracts, which will make that a fascinating situation to watch. We also have a handful of highly touted draft prospects at the position.
With that in mind, I reached out to five NFL executives and asked them the following question: Which quarterback would be the best option to pursue in the offseason? Here are their answers.
Executive 1: Kirk Cousins
“Kirk Cousins is ready made. He will help you win games immediately. He’s the safest bet at the position, in free agency or the draft.”
Executive 2: Cousins
“I like (Sam) Darnold the best among the college guys, but Cousins is a quick fix at the position. It does kind of depend on what phase of the process you’re in. If you’re Jacksonville or Minnesota, you have to go for Cousins. If you’re a team like Cleveland, you should probably lean more toward Darnold.”
Executive 3: Sam Darnold
“I’d say Darnold. He’s far from a finished product, but he has a lot of upside and he has solid character. He’s a guy that you can be comfortable with building a franchise around.”
Executive 4: Cousins
“That’s easy for me. It’s Kirk Cousins. He is proven and consistent. Love the way he’s wired.”
Executive 5: Cousins
“I’d lean toward the free-agent market. I really like Cousins.”
Summary: That’s four votes for Cousins and one for Darnold.
Conclusion: I agree with the opinion of Executive 2. It does depend on where you are in the team-building process when choosing between quarterbacks. Cousins would win you the most games next season, but I like the long-term upside of Darnold. I love the fact that both of those guys are tough and intelligent. They are also very highly regarded off the field. Those are good building-block attributes for a football team.
Matt Patricia claims to have dreamed of living in Detroit. Tanya Wildt in the Detroit Free Press:
The Detroit Lions introduced new head coach Matt Patricia during a news conference Wednesday at the team’s practice facility in Allen Park.
“This is a dream come true for me,” Patricia said. “I believe that having the opportunity to be the head coach of an NFL team is a very rare and special gift and I’m honored and grateful to be named the head coach of the Detroit Lions.”
The former New England Patriots defensive coordinator arrived in Detroit on Wednesday following the Pats’ Super Bowl LII loss on Sunday.
“I’m very excited to be a part of this historic and passionate city,” Patricia said.
He addressed the Lions organization, players and fans directly:
“I believe that I am a leader. I believe that I am a problem solver. I want to represent the toughness of this city. We will be organized. We will be detailed. We will teach and develop our players and our coaches. We will be passionate. We will love and respect the game and we will be committed to winning. We will be competitive in all that we do. We will have a smart, tough, fundamentally sound football team that will play, perform and can execute under pressure. We will be hard working. We will be competitive in all aspects of our planning, preparation and our performance. We will have a high-character culture. In our organization, our players will be positive role models and contributing members of the community. We will have a blue collar mentality. We will work hard as a team to make this city proud.”
LOS ANGELES RAMS
It comes as no surprise that the Rams are going to move on from WR TAVON AUSTIN. Alden Gonzalez of ESPN.com looks at Austin and some other possible cap cuts:
This week, with the Super Bowl in the rearview mirror, the Los Angeles Rams’ front office reconvened at the team’s headquarters to map out the 2018 offseason. And that process begins by focusing inward. The Rams have as many as 14 potential unrestricted free agents, including the center, a primary receiver and possibly four defensive starters.
But some of their most fascinating decisions could come with players they already have under contract, and we’re not even talking about potentially making Aaron Donald the game’s highest-paid defensive player. The Rams prefer to pay most of the guaranteed money on their extensions up front, which maximizes their flexibility on the back end. Because of that, they stand to save a significant amount toward the 2018 salary cap — they now have roughly $40 million of space — by cutting ties with three big-name players.
A look at each case below.
WR Tavon Austin
Cap savings: The Rams can save $3 million in 2018 by parting with Austin, who comes with an $8 million cap hit and a $5 million dead cap, according to Spotrac. If he’s still on the team by March 16, Austin is paid a $5 million roster bonus. The sixth-year gadget receiver is under team control through 2021, but the Rams can get out from under his contract without paying him a dime after this season.
Why they might cut him: Austin no longer has a role on this team. He went into 2017 looking to establish himself as a vertical threat, but the Rams traded for Sammy Watkins. Austin remained the team’s punt returner, but Pharoh Cooper replaced him after a handful of early-season muffs, and Cooper went on to the Pro Bowl. Austin salvaged his place on the roster — though it didn’t justify his $15 million cap hit — by serving as something of a decoy, coming in motion to provide the threat of a jet sweep to open holes for Todd Gurley. But that role steadily diminished as the season went on. In the playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Austin played two offensive snaps. Telling.
Why they might keep him: The only reason might be that the team gets only a 37.5 percent savings this year (it’s 100 percent thereafter). There might be some ego involved, too, since it was only 17 months ago that Austin signed a four-year, $42 million extension that perplexed the industry. It might be hard to admit a mistake so quickly. But that is not a sensible reason to keep a player who no longer appears to serve much of a purpose. The Rams praised Austin’s unselfishness throughout the season, but they’re very deep at receiver. Cooper can do a lot of what Austin does at a much cheaper price.
ILB Mark Barron
Cap savings: By cutting Barron, the Rams save $7 million in 2018, $7 million in 2019 and $8 million in 2020. He carries a $28 million cap hit during that three-year stretch, but only $6 million in dead cap. Like Austin, Barron is owed a roster bonus by March 16 — of $2 million.
Why they might cut him: The Rams might have signaled which inside linebacker they prefer long-term when they signed Alec Ogletree, a two-time captain, to a four-year, $42.75 million extension in October. Ogletree and Barron now combine to make nearly $20 million annually. It’s hard to envision the Rams continuing to commit that much to inside linebacker, not when Ogletree and Barron are relatively undersized for the position — a reason the Rams allowed 4.76 yards per carry between the tackles in 2017, second highest in the NFL. Barron also dealt with a series of injuries last season.
Why they might keep him: Barron is still a very solid player and a major contributor, his athleticism an important weapon when dropping into coverage. If the Rams get an elite, run-stuffing nose tackle — or simply move Michael Brockers back to that position and find someone else to play the 5-technique — then perhaps they would be just fine with Ogletree and Barron inside. But those cap savings might prove too difficult to ignore.
OLB Robert Quinn
Cap savings: The Rams can save more than 96 percent of Quinn’s salary over these next two years. He is set to cost $25.3 million toward the cap in 2018 and 2019, but will cost only $955,354 if he is cut — all of it this season. The Rams save nearly $11 million by cutting Quinn this year alone. His roster bonuses these next two years — both, like Austin and Barron, to be paid on the third day of the new league year — total $2.23 million.
Why they might cut him: Because those are some major savings, and Quinn has a checkered injury history, most notably back surgery in 2015. Quinn racked up 40 sacks while playing in all 48 games from 2012 to 2014, establishing himself among the game’s elite edge rushers. But he played in only 17 of 32 games in 2015 and 2016, compiling nine sacks. He managed to stay healthy for most of 2017, thanks to a very conservative maintenance program. But can the Rams really count on that again?
Why they might keep him: Because when Quinn is right, he’s still a force, one who can take full advantage of all the attention Donald draws right next to him. The Rams’ new coaching staff got a sense of that toward the latter half of the 2017 season, with Quinn totaling seven sacks over his last six games (including the playoffs). Quinn might no longer be the type to consistently generate double-digit-sack seasons. But when healthy and right, he can still take the Rams’ pass rush to another level.
The DB’s favorite stat about Austin?
In the history of the NFL, 682 receivers have 100+ receptions in their career. Out of all of them, the worst yards per receptions figure, just 8.7 yards per catch, belongs to Austin who is still touted as a “big play threat.”
The Ravens have signed WR DeVIER POSEY who resuscitated his career north of the border. Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com:
The Baltimore Ravens went across the border to start filling out their wide receiver group.
DeVier Posey was signed by the Ravens on Tuesday, a little over two months after he was the Grey Cup MVP in the Canadian Football League.
Posey led the Toronto Argonauts to the championship by catching seven passes for 175 yards. The highlight of the game was Posey’s 100-yard touchdown, the longest passing play in the Grey Cup’s 105-year history.
In his second season with the Argonauts, Posey finished with 52 receptions for 744 yards and 7 touchdowns. He was coached by Marc Trestman, the Ravens’ offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016.
Posey’s time in the NFL has been forgettable. A third-round pick by the Houston Texans in 2012, he tore his Achilles in a playoff game as a rookie. Posey was traded to the New York Jets in 2015 and was cut at the end of the preseason. In 2016, he spent time with the Denver Broncos before getting released at the end of the preseason.
Art Rooney II is unswayed by those who wish to see someone other than Mike Tomlin coach the Steelers.
There was a lot of finger pointing in the wake of the Steelers’ playoff loss to the Jaguars last month and some of it was directed at head coach Mike Tomlin for not having his team ready to play against Jacksonville.
The Steelers fell behind 21-0 in the loss, but Steelers president Art Rooney II didn’t pin that on Tomlin. Rooney said that was “part Mike’s problem, but mostly it’s the guys on the field who have to make sure it doesn’t happen” and went on to say that Tomlin’s 116-60 record “speaks for itself.”
“You look at Mike’s record overall and you start to look around,” Rooney said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It’s always easy for people to say you should get rid of your coach. OK, well, who are you hiring next. There’s another part to that equation that people don’t want to get into. I’m very comfortable Mike is our coach and happy that he’s our coach, and I think he’s one of the best coaches in the NFL.”
Tomlin’s detractors would point to his 3-5 record in the postseason since winning Super Bowl XLV as a sign that the team hasn’t gotten enough out of its talent, but there’s been little sign that the organization feels that way even after a disappointing end to the 2017 season.
Five playoff losses means five trips to the postseason in that span.
At 7:34 p.m. last night we published yesterday’s edition of the DB with the Colts announcement of Josh McDaniels as their head coach. At that very minute, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com was the first with the scoop of his abdication.
After two days of reflection and conversations with the Patriots, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has decided not to accept the Indianapolis Colts’ head-coaching job, the team confirmed Tuesday night.
“After agreeing to contract terms to become the Indianapolis Colts’ new head coach, New England Patriots assistant coach Josh McDaniels this evening informed us that he would not be joining our team,” the team said in a statement. “Although we are surprised and disappointed, we will resume our head-coaching search immediately and find the right fit to lead our team and organization on and off the field.”
In the past 48 hours, Patriots owner Robert Kraft began talking with McDaniels and ultimately wound up sweetening his contract, helping to entice McDaniels, who had yet to sign a contract with the Colts, to remain in New England, a source said.
But this wasn’t a decision about money. The truth is, McDaniels, 41, has been vacillating on this decision throughout the interview process, ever since meeting with the Colts on wild-card weekend. It is the reason a second meeting with Colts officials and team owner Jim Irsay was held. McDaniels was trying to get comfortable with the idea of taking his family out of New England and moving to Indianapolis, sources said.
Throughout the process, McDaniels had emphasized to the Colts that he would need time to mull the decision and discuss it with his family. The more McDaniels reflected on potentially having the opportunity to coach the Colts, the more it did not feel right to him and the better it felt to remain in New England. McDaniels still would like to become a head coach again, but this time, in this instance, he was not comfortable.
The Krafts also stepped in this week to make McDaniels feel even more wanted, and the two sides were able to come to an agreement Tuesday night that will enable New England to retain its offensive coordinator at a time it is losing its defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, to Detroit as the Lions’ new head coach.
The about-face from McDaniels caught the Colts off guard. In a text to ESPN’s Mike Wells, one member of Indianapolis’ front office described the situation as “Unreal. I’m at a loss.”
McDaniels’ decision to stay could spark speculation that perhaps Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s tenure is about to end, but those close to McDaniels say that isn’t the case, a source told ESPN’s Mike Reiss. The bigger factor to McDaniels was that the Patriots, who hadn’t addressed his future until the past week or so, made an ultra-aggressive late push to try to entice him to stay. Had that happened a month or so ago, even if there was clarity that Belichick was definitely going to be the coach in 2018 (which he decisively is), McDaniels might not have pursued other head-coaching jobs as aggressively as he did.
This from Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com on the reaction from the jilted GM Chris Ballard:
Colts General Manager Chris Ballard was measured in his words throughout his Monday morning press conference as he attempted to pick up the pieces after Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels rejected the Colts’ head coaching job. And then at the very end, Ballard had something to say.
Ballard thanked reporters and then said, “The rivalry is back on” before walking away from the podium.
Obviously referring to the longtime Patriots-Colts rivalry that was the hottest in the NFL for many years of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady‘s primes, Ballard was indicating that the Colts are aiming to knock the Patriots off from the top perch in the AFC.
As for why McDaniels is staying in New England, Ballard said he doesn’t particularly care.
“I didn’t want the explanation. Either you’re in or you’re out,” Ballard said. “That’s his prerogative and that’s his choice. He chose not to be an Indianapolis Colt.”
There will be a regular season meeting in 2018 between the Colts and the Patriots – in Foxborough.
Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com ponders a list likely and unlikely of who might be next:
As PFT reported earlier tonight, the Colts were bracing for the possibility of Josh McDaniels not signing the paperwork that would have made him the next head coach of the team. Three candidates are expected to be interviewed in the next 24-48 hours.
For now, it’s not known who they are. Possibilities (in our view, with no inside information for now) include Chiefs special-teams coordinator Dave Toub, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, and former Falcons and Seahawks coach Jim Mora.
Toub worked with Colts G.M. Chris Ballard in Kansas City. Many believed Toub would be the first choice to replace Chuck Pagano; ultimately, Toub wasn’t even interviewed.
Schwartz, Reich, and DeFilippo currently have the shine of a Super Bowl championship, having beaten McDaniels and the Patriots. Schwartz and DeFilippo both interviewed for the Cardinals’ job last month.
Frazier once worked for the Colts as an assistant to Tony Dungy, and Frazier surely would get the endorsement of his former boss. Mora’s father coached the Colts before Dungy.
Then there’s Dungy. He joked on PFT Live recently that he’d come back to coaching for $20 million per year. And while he’s been officially done for nine years, this could be the kind of situation that makes him at least think for a minute or two about a return, even though it remains highly, highly unlikely that Dungy would emerge from retirement.
Mike Vrabel has lured veteran coach Dean Pees out of a short retirement for a significant hire in Tennessee. Charean Williams at ProFootballTalk.com:
Dean Pees began having second thoughts about retirement two weeks after turning down a contract extension in Baltimore.
“I really started second-guessing myself a little bit: Is this really what I wanted to do? . . . Did I really do the right thing?” Pees said Wednesday, via Jim Wyatt of the team website.
Then, Mike Vrabel called after taking the Titans’ head coaching job.
Before becoming the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, Pees spent six seasons with the Patriots. New England hired Pees initially as its linebackers coach before promoting him to defensive coordinator. He coached Vrabel with the Patriots.
“He wouldn’t have hired me if I didn’t have the same philosophy that he had,” Pees said.
Pees’ defenses have ranked in the top 10 in yards allowed in six of the 10 seasons he has served as a coordinator.
“We want to be on the attack, and that’s what I want our defense to be known for,” Pees said.
Pees, 68, no longer is considering retirement.
“I signed a multiple-year contract,” Pees said. “It’s as if I didn’t retire. . . . I am here. I am here until Mike doesn’t want me here anymore, or whatever. I am not planning on making this a [one]-year deal at all.”
Not many 68-year-olds take a new job in which they are more than 12 years younger than the guy they are replacing, but that’s the case here with Dick LaBeau having been the DC in Tennessee last year.
So that would seem to be two pretty good cooridnators for the new Titans regime in rising star Matt LaFleur on offense and Pees on defense.
Josh McDaniels may be safely back in his New England comfort zone, but he has some influential folks livid at him. One is his agent, make that former agent. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:
The Colts wanted to hire him, and now his agent is firing him.
According to Dan Graziano of ESPN.com, agent Bob Lamonte is terminating his relationship with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Lamonte represented both McDaniels and Colts G.M. Chris Ballard throughout the process, and it’s was Lamonte’s responsibility to thread the needle and/or land the plane. He failed, either because he didn’t know his client well enough or he wasn’t paying enough attention to the warning signs before telling his other client, Ballard, that everything would be OK.
Regardless, it appears that Lamonte is breaking up with McDaniels before McDaniels can break up with Lamonte. Anyone else who is represented by Lamonte, or who is considering hiring him, should be paying close attention to Lamonte’s role in this mess — and his apparent effort to shirk any and all responsibility for it by trying to pin it all on his client through leaks to the media.
What Lamonte should be doing is defending McDaniels. The fact that Lamonte represents Ballard as well makes that impossible — a fact that should open the eyes of plenty of coaches and General Managers to the rampant conflicts of interest among the small handful of agents who represent the bulk of the people who run NFL teams.
And usually mild-mannered Tony Dungy probably speaks for quite a few in the coaching community. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
Former Colts head coach Tony Dungy is not a fan of Josh McDaniels.
McDaniels spurned the Colts having already told the team that he’d take their head-coaching job and already told assistant coaches they’d have a job on his staff, and Dungy took to Twitter today to denounce McDaniels’ actions.
“I can tell you there is NO excuse big enough to justify this,” Dungy wrote. “It’s one thing to go back on your word to an organization. But having assistant coaches leave jobs to go with you then leave them out to dry is indefensible.”
Dungy said the fact that McDaniels hadn’t signed a contract doesn’t change the fact that McDaniels gave his word.
“You make those decisions before you say I Do. Don’t get married start a family then say I changed my mind. He didn’t sign the contract but he said I Do,” Dungy wrote. “That is common decency and integrity. You don’t do that to the families of your peers.”
Dungy also said he doesn’t blame the Patriots for keeping McDaniels, but does blame McDaniels for violating a trust within the coaching community.
“Has nothing to do with a Bob Kraft. This is all on Josh McDaniels. He’s a grown man and has to take responsibility for his decisions,” Dungy wrote. “I can tell you in the football coaching community it’s not even close to being acceptable.”
Dungy is no doubt far from alone in feeling that way. And when or if McDaniels does become a head coach again, he may have a hard time convincing assistant coaches that he’s a boss they’d want to work for.
Note that Dungy volunteered this, it didn’t come out when he was asked the question in an interview.
– – –
Even as McDaniels elects to stay in Massachusetts, Greg Schiano is also staying put. Nick Bromberg of YahooSports.com:
It sure looks like Greg Schiano isn’t heading to the New England Patriots.
Wednesday, days after a report that Schiano was “expected” to become the New England Patriots defensive coordinator in place of Matt Patricia, Schiano said he’s staying at Ohio State.
Meyer on Schiano: Said he turned down college jobs this year and NFL jobs this year. At least a dozen opportunities. he has informed me he’s 100 percent staying.”
Contrary to prior reports, Greg Schiano tells me he is staying at #OhioState. Under Schiano, the Buckeyes led the nation in TFLs, ranked No. 3 in sacks and ranked No. 5 in defense: https://www.si.com/college-football/2018/02/07/greg-schiano-ohio-state-new-england-patriots-defensive-coordinator …
It apparently was too easy to connect the dots and assume Schiano departure because of the arrival of former Washington State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch on Ohio State’s staff and the departure of Patricia to the Detroit Lions. Grinch, whose official role at Ohio State wasn’t announced when he joined the staff, was a logical successor if Schiano left for another job.
THIS AND THAT
The DB thinks the NFL is serious about getting a franchise fulltime to London. Heck, we’re on record as thinking it will be the Chargers, under new ownership in about 10 years.
In talking to the neighsayers, they act like a place about an hour further from New York than Los Angeles is at the end of the world.
So, here’s Sean Cunningham of RealClearSports.com on the issue.
The NFL could be very different by 2022: Tom Brady may have finally retired and there might be a franchise in London. That’s the loose target date for the NFL to become the first American sports league to cross an entire ocean. London is five hours ahead of New York—there is a brief window each year when daylight savings reduces this to four—and nearly 3,500 miles away. (Think the trip from L.A. to N.Y.C. plus another thousand.) London in your division would mean flying across the Atlantic once a year, every year. The Rams and the Chargers would particularly live in dread of getting the London game with its road trip of nearly 5,500 miles.
Yet not planting its flag in England could be even more harmful to the Shield. Of the five major sports leagues in the U.S.—NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS—it’s the only one not consistently attracting significant numbers of players (particularly stars) from outside North America.
This wouldn’t matter so much if the NFL weren’t also faced with a potentially significant shrinkage of its talent pool. There is a fair debate to be had about whether safer approaches to youth football can result in a sport where benefits outweigh the risks. Whatever the ultimate answer to that question, the fact is many parents are preventing their kids from playing football. Certainly the athlete who excels at baseball, basketball and football might have Mom and Dad conclude the NFL is likely to offer the briefest, most dangerous career. This isn’t to say other sports are free from horrific injuries—ask Gordon Hayward—but anyone who saw what a clean hit from Malcolm Jenkins did to Brandin Cooks in the Super Bowl might elect to keep all kids off the gridiron.
The 1983 NFL Draft featured six Hall of Famers in the first round alone: John Elway, Eric Dickerson, Bruce Matthews, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Darrell Green. Jump ahead to 2033. What happens if a generation of American kids don’t play Pop Warner and in turn don’t play in high school and college? Either the NFL’s looking at draft classes with a steep decline in quality… or they’ll have to import talent from other places.
This is a quick look at why the NFL is at a long-term disadvantage to America’s other team sports and why Europe could be essential to changing that.
From Overseas to American Stardom
Picture the Bucks sans their “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo or the Knicks minus Latvia’s “Unicorn” Kristaps Porzingis. (Actually, New York is about to experience just that for a while.) Would the Houston Astros have won the World Series without batting champ and AL MVP Jose Altuve from Venezuela? One Russian currently leads the NHL in points (Nikita Kucherov) while two more lead it in goals (Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin). The last four Major League Soccer MVPs have come from Ireland, Italy, Spain and Argentina.
All played professionally before coming to the U.S. Even Altuve, who signed with the Astros at just 16, dominated the Venezuelan Summer League before heading stateside.
What’s the equivalent path for a foreign athlete who wants to play football’s American version?
Answer: There really isn’t one. There are players from other nations making an impact in the NFL. British-born Jay Ajayi rushed for 57 yards to help the Eagles beat the Pats. But Ajayi’s family moved to the U.S. when he was in the fourth grade and he immediately started playing football.
That’s why it seemed a big deal when the German Moritz Boehringer became the first European-born player without college football experience drafted by an NFL team after the Minnesota Vikings picked him in 2016’s sixth round. Boehringer reportedly hadn’t even witnessed American football until in his late teens. Unfortunately, while he had the size and freakish athleticism to play in the NFL, he couldn’t overcome an absurdly steep learning curve. (He had played for Swäbisch Hall Unicorns, where coaches showed receivers a picture of the play they were supposed to run right before the snap.)
Similarly, the Australian pro rugby star Jarryd Hayne managed to play eight games for the 49ers in 2015, having signed after going undrafted. He was unexpectedly cut when he struggled to adjust to football and returned to rugby, where he recently signed a $500,000 contract. (Hayne actually turned down a one-season deal for $1.2 million so he could be closer to his daughter, suggesting even if San Francisco kept him his NFL career might have been brief.)
There are athletes all around the planet with the physical tools potentially to make it to the NFL. The trick is to introduce them to the game while they’re young enough to have time to develop into actual football players. That’s where London enters the picture, as part of an NFL plan that has now been going on for roughly three decades.
Football in Europe: Take One
NFL Europe (originally the World League of American Football) lasted from 1991 to 2007. It’s notable for giving future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner a place to play—before he was the MVP and Super Bowl MVP with the St. Louis Rams, he was an Amsterdam Admiral. Franchises included the London Monarchs, Frankfurt Galaxy and Cologne Centurions. (Later in its existence it was heavily concentrated in Germany, largely to reduce travel costs.)
The league helped introduce football to a new audience and provided a place for the development of future NFL stars. (Four-time Super Bowl champ kicker Adam Vinatieri also played for Amsterdam, who apparently had a scouting department the Cleveland Browns would envy.) The financial numbers never quite made sense, however. Teams struggled to reach the 20,000 mark in attendance. NFL Europe lost a reported $30 million in 2007 when the NFL pulled the plug.
2007: Go Big
Now a new approach began with the NFL International Series. At least one regular season game would be staged in London each season. These have proven a massive draw as they consistently attract more than 80,000 fans. (This would make them second only to the Dallas Cowboys among NFL teams.)
Even if the English franchise didn’t prove an immediate winner, the NFL would have the option of letting them host a Super Bowl. (There is precedence in recent years for this less-than-sunny pick, as New York played host with an outdoor stadium in 2014.) Understandably, the NFL feels London could be the beachhead that converts more and more of the UK’s 65 million people into fans and even spreads to the continent.
Of course, to maximize the number of new fans watching, the NFL has to get them playing as well.
“There is no way you can grow the game internationally unless you have international players,” Osi Umenyiora has said. The former New York Giants All-Pro was born in London and spent part of his childhood in Nigeria before moving to Alabama at 14, enabling him to play some high school football before sticking with the game in college and the NFL. He has stated that the NFL needs Yao Mings: stars from other nations who excel in the NFL, getting their homelands excited about the Shield the way Yao did for the NBA in China.
Which is easier said than done.
Can Football Connect on a Grassroots Level?
The true breakthrough for the NFL internationally will come when players from around the world can enter the draft and be ready to get on the field from day one without having played a down at an American college. The NFL just needs to figure out what it will take to make that happen. Will it require setting up another feeder league? Or will American football attain enough popularity that nations will create their own teams? These would provide a place for players to develop before moving on to the NFL and its bigger paydays. (And it would happen without the NFL having to spend more money, which they’d like very much.)
MLB began the 2017 season with 29.8 percent of its players foreign-born. The NBA features players from 42 countries and territories and has remained over 20 percent foreign-born for more than a decade now. In the 2015-16 season, the NHL had a majority of non-Canadian players for the first time, with over 25 percent of players from Europe. (Yes, this was more than the number coming from the U.S.)
3.5 percent of NFL players were born outside the United States. If a franchise in London can significantly boost this number, the NFL will happily give its teams jetlag. (How current players will feel about experiencing that jetlag so they can expose the game to people who may theoretically come take their jobs one day is a matter for the Players Association to address.)
The Distance to the Dream
I happened to be in The Hague for Super Bowl LII. The Netherlands’ third largest city is roughly an hour away from Amsterdam, where Warner and Vinatieri once played. A movie theater 700 feet from my hotel was broadcasting the game live. And so at midnight I went over to the Pathé Spuimarkt and joined at least 100 fans for the screening, which omitted commercials for “Super Bowl Memories” clips during breaks in play.
I heard surprisingly little English and even that was mostly spoken with a British accent. Everyone stayed all the way to Brady’s game-ending Hail Mary attempt, meaning we didn’t leave until after 4am Monday morning. Were any NFL reps there, I’m sure they were delighted by the commitment of these fans. (And surprised by how overwhelmingly they supported the Eagles.)
That said, when I went to purchase my ticket 20 minutes before kickoff, the machine noted there were still 267 tickets remaining. The Shield has work to do.