Steve O'Rourke: "London calling for the NFL once more but is it really the way to grow the game internationally?"

17 min

Before a previous London game, I had a conversation with a man whose job it is to convince teams — from high school right up to the NFL — that traveling to Europe is good for growing the sport of American football. He was convinced of the viability of not just a London NFL franchise, but one that represented all of Europe.

In his mind, the perfect scenario was a team that played four games in London, two more in the rest of the UK and their remaining two in alternating cities around Europe. He told me he had the support of at least one owner and that the league was keen to see it happen.

One argument against a London franchise has been that the quality of football on show in the early stages of the so-called international series was below average. Between 2007 and 2014, six of the games finished with lopsided scorelines. It has improved a lot in recent years, with four of the last six finishing within one score (including a tie).

The Jaguars have been regular visitors to Wembley in recent times.

But what else could the NFL do to continue to grow the sport among international fans? Moving Thursday Night Football to Friday night might annoy high schools across America — and bring a whole new meaning to Friday Night Lights — but it would make the idea of staying up until all hours to watch the sport that little bit more appealing.

And, on the subject of late nights, perhaps playing the night games 90 minutes earlier could also work, a midnight kickoff being much more agreeable with the body clock than the current 1.30am starts.

A final way and one that might also help improve the overall quality of the NFL is to bring back NFL Europe as a developmental league. Playing games in the spring, it would help college players build up their pro experience and free agents show teams they’ve still got something to offer while also filling the seven-month football drought we experience every year.

For now though, fans on this side of the Atlantic will have to make do with a handful of London games every season, the first of which takes place this weekend.

Sky Game 1 – Baltimore Ravens @ Jacksonville Jaguars (Wembley) – 2.30pm

These two teams have uncanny similarities. Both possess top-five overall defences in terms of Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA, with the Ravens ranking number one against the pass while the Jags — this week’s designated ‘home’ team — sit fourth.

However, both have struggled against the run, with Baltimore giving up 85 yards per game on the ground through two weeks (12th in the NFL) while only three teams have given up more than the 136 ypg Jacksonville’s defence is surrendering.

There’s also another similarity between the two, quarterback play. Of course, Joe Flacco has won a Super Bowl and Blake Bortles has not. But this season, there’s very little to separate the two. Flacco ranks 20th among quarterbacks with 6.63 yards per attempt, while Bortles is 24th is 6.33 ypa. Both have thrown a pair interceptions with the Ravens QB finding the endzone three times compared to Bortles’ two passing touchdowns.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (left) has been sluggish of late.

While the Jags were able to hide their much-maligned former first-round draft pick in week one’s win over Houston — having 10 sacks on defence will do that — his continued struggles while playing from behind were painfully evident in last week’s loss to Tennessee.

The fact that Jacksonville surrendered as many second-half leads last season (five) as Bortles has fourth-quarter comebacks in his entire career is pretty damning.

For his part, Flacco has 19 such comebacks, but only seven in the last three seasons. And, while I don’t have any stats to back to this up, the way he’s looked this season, if the Ravens fall behind by 10 points or more against any team, it’s very difficult to see Flacco helping them claw their way back into a game.

The Jaguars have won their last two games at Wembley, but the concerns around Bortles, coupled with the manner of last week’s defeat to the Titans, means the Ravens are justifiably 3.5 point favourites going into this 2.30pm kick-off.

Given that the teams have gone under in three of their four combined outings so far, and the quarterback issues outlined above, it might be very tempting to take the under in this game. However, both have interesting backfields and rank among the top-10 in rushing attacks. This, combined with the ability of both defences to force turnovers and score, makes 39 seem like a low total.

Steve’s Pick: Pittsburgh Steelers @ Chicago Bears – 6pm

Most observers with even in passing interest in the NFL would have predicted that the Steelers would travel to Chicago with a perfect 2-0 record while their hosts would still be in search of their first win.

But though the Steelers have taken care of business, they’re 1-1 against the spread and have failed to hit the overs in both their games so far. While we’ve seen glimpses of what their offense can offer, it’s failed to fully click so far.

Ben Roethlisberger is coming off a 243-yard, two-touchdown game against the Vikings, completing nearly 66% of his passes but his team is averaging just over three touchdowns per game (23.5 points).
The problem is not with the Steelers air attack/ Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant and, of course, Antonio Brown are averaging 244 yards in the air with four total touchdowns so far but Le’Veon Bell — who held out for a new contract in the preseason — and rest of the Pittsburgh backfield has not been getting it done on the ground to date; averaging just 68.5 yards per game, the fourth-worst average in the league, while failing to find the end zone.

Chicago Bears head coach John Fox is under immense pressure to start Rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky.

While the Bears looked feisty in running the Falcons close in their season opener, they played like the team we expected to contest for the number one overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft against the Buccaneers last weekend.

Mike Glennon had over 300 passing yards in that game, but gave up two killer picks in the 29-7 loss.

After a breakout week one on the ground for Tarik Cohen, he and last year’s fantasy football darling Jordan Howard combined for just 20 yards on the ground in Tampa Bay. With Pittsburgh ranking eighth against the run in DVOA, it’s difficult to see that being a way they can win this match-up.

Of course, one solution to their offensive struggles could be the introduction of Mitchell ‘don’t call me Mitch’ Trubisky in place of Glennon. Head Coach John Fox insists he wants to keep the rookie on the bench but, with just nine wins in his 34 games in charge, Fox might soon be unable to ignore the cacophony of calls for the former North Carolina quarterback to start.

It all points to betting the under (45) in this game while the Steelers can comfortably cover the seven-point spread. Even if you don’t believe this is the week everything clicks on offence, their defence is more than good enough to keep the Bears offence hibernating.

Sky Game 2 – Kansas City Chiefs @ LA Chargers – 9.25pm

There were two preseason thoughts I had that I already know were terrible mistakes. The first was that the New York Giants would win the NFC East and have a real say in the postseason; little did I know that you, yes you, could play any position along the offensive line better than the current crop of players charged with protecting Eli Manning and establishing a run game.

The second was that the LA Chargers would join the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs in the postseason.

Given that they find themselves in a 0-2 hole — including a loss to the Denver Broncos — while the rest of the division is 2-0, 2017/18 already looks like it could be a ‘what might have been’ season for the Bolts.

Chargers fans reading this will be mumbling to themselves ‘oh but we were desperately unlucky in both games and only lost because of missed field goals as time expired,’ but they’re in undoubtedly the best division in football and it’s worth remembering that only four teams had records of 12-4 or better last year and two of them — the Chiefs and Raiders — play in the AFC West and both look even better this year.

The strong play of Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has been a welcome bonus for Head Coach Andy Reid.

The Chiefs have shown through two games that they can beat teams in a variety of ways. While they schemed their offensive weapons open in a shock win over the Patriots to start the season, it was their defence — particularly outside linebacker Justin Houston and defensive tackle Chris Jones — that played the significant role in last weekend’s win over the Eagles.

Andy Reid’s men are also riding a six-game win streak over the Chargers, with an average margin of victory of 11.3 points. That’s not to say LA has no chance in this game, a team with Philip Rivers at the helm can never be written off. Getting the ball into Keenan Allen’s hands is a good start; the fit-again receiver appears to be his quarterback’s favourite weapon and he leads the team in catches (14) and yards (135).

The Chargers main problem — missed field goals aside — is their complete inability to establish the run with Melvin Gordon rushing for just 67 yards in 27 attempts, an average of 2.5 yards per carry. Compare that to Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs rookie sensation, who has 229 yards on 30 rushes (7.6 yards per carry) and three touchdowns and you begin to see where this game could be won and lost.

LA can’t afford to fall to 0-3, especially with two in-division losses and, playing at home, it is tempting to take the three points they’re getting from Kansas City. However, the Chiefs are legitimate Super Bowl contenders with a phenomenal regular season record over the past two seasons so it’s difficult to see them slipping up, even against a divisional foe.