2017 NFL in London – Be Cheerful And Grumpy

On Tuesday, the four(!) games to be played in London in 2017 were announced, to the usual array of responses between complete adoration and cynical sneers. I take my NFC-ONLY blinkers off and take a look at the games, and how we should feel about what the NFL are doing in London in general.

Year 11 of the NFL’s continued expansion into London, and we’ve got half a home season for the first time ever. This, no matter how you feel about the games, is a huge deal. Four games is a massive asset test for the NFL – it’s hard to imagine them committing to more games in London beyond this without a definitive if and when on a London franchise. At least unless they’re fine with messing fans around a bit more.

And sure enough, another slate of games free of the monolithic franchises (New England, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Dallas, Denver) has got as many people rolling their eyes in dissatisfaction as it has prostrating themselves in front of Alistair Kirkwood. Looking at the 2015 Harris Poll, only two of the 16 most popular teams (New Orleans, Arizona) will be in London. We shouldn’t be surprised by this – why would popular teams want to play away from their well-supported base? – but we can still be dissatisfied.

More of that anon though, because for now it’s worth looking at the game.

New Orleans Saints @ Miami Dolphins

Why is this good? The Harris Poll is always fun, but doesn’t necessarily line up with how popular teams are in the UK. Case in point: Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins gained much of their popularity off the back of NFL broadcasts in the 80s, where Dan Marino tore up opposing defences with aplomb, and into fans hearts from Congleton to Canvey Island. Miami are the only one of the “80s” teams to be playing in London, and this will be the most popular game partly because of that. And then you’ve got “Britain’s Jay Ajayi” (or is he “London’s Jay Ajayi” this week?), who’ll be starting unless his knee finally explodes.

Partly also because of the fact it’s the best game on the slate. You have two teams of similar – reasonable – quality.

Miami are a team on the up, with a fantastic head coach and a roster getting to a point where it doesn’t need to live and die by its decent quarterback. I don’t think they play the most interesting or inventive football, but there’s plenty of inherent quality in here to watch. And quality is always watchable. Despite the tedious references to Ajayi’s nationality, against a middling-or-worse run D, he can rip off some thrilling runs. Watching Cam Wake leap on opposing quarterbacks is even more fun that watching Ndamukong Suh open his mouth and swallow some poor unsuspecting running back. Adam Gase will gameplan well, and provided his team turn up that’ll be enough to create intrigue and excitement.

New Orleans, meanwhile, have become a curate’s egg. In the second half of this season, as their defense has taken some very positive steps, so Drew Brees has just gone two games throwing no touchdowns for six interceptions. Nonetheless, Saints games are really anything short of thrilling. Assuming Brees hasn’t entered terminal decline, he’ll likely have three exciting receivers to watch in Thomas, Snead and Cooks. This defense could be much-improved next year, as Delvin Breaux and Sheldon Rankins get a year more NFL experience, Hauoli Kikaha and PJ Campbell come back from injury, Cam Jordan carries on being Cam Jordan.

Add to that, you get the feeling with both these teams that, even if they get out to a 17, 18 point lead, they’re eminently capable of letting the opposition back in, in the blink of an eye, creating a thrilling finish.

Why might it be rubbish? I don’t want to rag too much on Miami, incase The Inside Zone patrician Tom bogwashes me, but you can never say with any certainty how they’re going to be in any given season, til it starts. It’s just as possible Miami could kick on, play efficient and flowing football to an 11-5 record next year as it is that Tannehill forgets how to pass, Ajayi breaks, the defensive line goes out for lunch and never comes back, and they bumble to an unwatchable 3-13.

Well…? I still think that if you’re a neutral and you’re going to one game next year, go to this one. Just that we can’t guarantee that it’ll be a balanced game.

Baltimore Ravens @ Jacksonville Jaguars

Allen Hurns versus Vontae Davis at Wembley last year (via NFLUK on twitter)

Why is this good? Really, you’re selling this on the “If” factor. If Joe Flacco has one of his games where he just hits all his deep balls. If the new regime in Jacksonville puts together coaching staff and an O-Line that helps this team play to its potential. If Blake Bortles’ Year 3 mechanical regression can be reversed. All those things are possible! Jacksonville does have a lot of talent on the roster, and it does just need the right staff to put everything together. Baltimore do play some footloose-and-fancy-free kind of games. You know, Bortles could bounce back, and be a shocking Comeback Player of the Year candidate!

Why might it be rubbish? There’s no point pretending I didn’t write this section first as it’ll be easier. Okay, okay, we know Baltimore have the ability to play out a fantastic, dynamic, thrilling game, but they just do it so seldom, we can’t count on it. If they’re playing this “let’s throw three yard passes regularly instead of having a run game” strategy next year, this isn’t going to be much fun to watch. Baltimore have stifled opponents or ground their way to a lot of wins this year, which is good if you’re a Baltimore fan! But perhaps would not be the neutral’s first choice.

And as for the Jags, well. Like you, I too have been suckered in by “the Jags could be good” once too often, and I will never trust them again. Look, it’s possible that whoever takes over from Gus Bradley will get this team playing stylish, competitive football. But we’ve been one year away from stylish, competitive Jags football for years. And look where we are now! I know you should be rational with these things, but I’m firmly in the believe it when I see it camp.

Well…? This is actually my least favourite of the games. I feel even when they’re good, as often as not Baltimore aren’t much fun to watch. I feel like the Jags are… well, bleurgh. But London’s stuck with them. This has the capacity to be a blowout and not a particularly dynamic one. It does have the bonus of being at Wembley rather than Twickenham, but that’s about it.

Minnesota Vikings @ Cleveland Browns

Why is this good? The last time Minnesota were in London, they were the hosts for a tight – and thrilling – win over the Steelers thanks to an Everson Griffen forced fumble and Minnesota recovery with 19 seconds on the clock. These days, the Vikings still have that big fun defense, a terror upfront and very solid in the secondary. You can expect it to be the same next year. While there’s still uncertainty for their O – will Bridgewater be back? Will Peterson be back? Will they have an O-Line? – Mike Zimmer coaches excellent teams and this team will be excellent to watch.

The Browns? Well, we can’t expect them to be that good before at least Year 3 of this particular rebuild, so Year 2 might not be amazing. But it’s the big unknown, that you never know that provides the intrigue here. Who will be quarterback? Who will they draft? Will the mass of 2016 draft picks kick on in this second year? I always feel like that’s a slightly tenuous argument, but there you go. That said, as bad as they’ve been this year, there’ve been sufficient gung-ho, trying-anything-to-win streams that could be pretty damn entertaining to watch, whether they succeed or fail horribly!

Why might it be rubbish? When Minnesota have been anaemic this season, by gum have they been anaemic. If they have no offense again next year, this isn’t going to instil confidence. But as far as which of the teams do you not want to watch, well it’s obviously Cleveland? The great unknown is a wonderful thing, but more often than not in the NFL they might be good soon turns into no they’re not good yet. Playing the odds, Cleveland will likely be uninspiring to watch next year.

And that, in itself, is the problem. If Minnesota are good, they’ll likely steamroll Cleveland. If not, you could get a tight, thrilling game, but one which might be lacking on quality, at least on offense. If you enjoy a good defense the most, then this’ll be good whatever happens, but as with all football fan groups, that’s a definite minority.

Well…? Third out of four for me. I want to like Cleveland and I want to root for them, and I think there’s a good chance a Wembley crowd gets behind the underdogs and makes this a bit of an enjoyable home game! I think although there’ll be quality players on show (for Minnesota, at least), as a game it won’t be entertainingly competitive, even if it is competitive.

Will Minnesota still have Adrian Peterson come Wembley 2017? (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Arizona Cardinals @ Los Angeles Rams

Why is this good? If 2016’s been a blip for Arizona. If they get back to being the dynamic, thrilling offense we saw in 2014 and especially 2015. If Larry Fitzgerald is still at the top of his game next year, as long as David Johnson doesn’t pick up an injury, and if the quarterbacking sorts itself out (be it Carson Palmer or a new quarterback), then they’re going to be wonderful to watch. We know the defense is going to be brilliant whatever – Bruce Arians’ lot have a variety of fantastic players at every position, and they’ve completed muted some very noisy offenses this year.

I also feel quite confident predicting a watchable Rams team next year. Ok, a Rams team that is at least trying to be watchable. Shawn of its superannuated former head coach Jeff Fisher, we can confidently predict they’re going to go down the “offensively-minded head coach” route, as they seek to rebuild an enthusiastic fanbase in Los Angeles. And on the other side of the ball, the defense can be as much of a terror as it wants to be. In Aaron Donald they have one of the best 3 players in football (assuming all positions are created equal), a line-wrecker. With the Cardinals’ weak O-line, if you enjoy watching quarterbacks get ragdolled, this could be the game for you!

Why might this be rubbish? Again, with the ifs for Arizona above, what if it all goes wrong? If their offense continues its decline in 2017, all you’re going to end up with here is two great defences going up against underwhelming offenses. That might be good if you enjoyed Virginia Tech – Wake Forest the other year, but not so much if you’re more a Giants-Saints fan.

As for the Rams, well if they’re going to be a more fun offense to watch, they need some players. Right now, Todd Gurley has no-one to block for him (and, let’s be fair, he’s played poorly this year too irrespective of blocking), and Jared Goff has no-one to throw to. Receivers like Kenny Britt, Brian Quick and Tavon Austin are useful guys to have on your roster, but there’s no-one reliable there. Britt’s strong year has been littered with drops, mental lapses and generally looking like a #2 option at best – Austin is a gadget player and Quick a #4 receiver.

Well…? This game is my #2 London game, because I genuinely do not have a Scooby-Do how it’s going to pan out. We genuinely don’t know who’s going to be the head coach for either team (what with Arians’ retirement rumours). We don’t really know who’ll be the quarterback, or what their skill position corps will look like. We know there’ll be some brutal defense, but that’s that. So this one’s about intrigue, which when you think about it, 30-40% of NFL games 12 months into the future are.

Should I Buy Tickets For London Games?

Without hesitation: go to the Dolphins-Saints game. If you want to go to two, then pick based on what I’ve said above. If I only go to two my second choice would be Cardinals-Rams, even though it’s at the lesser stadium, Twickenham. I wouldn’t bother only buying tickets to three, purely because I’d be surprised if that’s much cheaper than buying a season ticket and trying to shift one game to a mate or something.

This Next Bit Is Important, Because I Want To Talk About Us, As Fans, And The Way We’re Interacting With The Announcements Of These International Games

I think we can all agree I’m the King of snappy sub-headings.

Look. Can we start taking a step back and a deeeeeeep breath when we’re reacting to things like this?

There are two types of reaction to this that I just can’t bring myself to have the time of day for. The first is completely unqualified moaning because, essentially, every game isn’t Seahawks-Pats. The second is the total opposite – the opinion that we should just shut up and be grateful for anything we can get from those glorious paragons in league office.

Both are really, really unhelpful. Both are kind of damaging and undermine the fan experience by shutting down discourse – the first says “everything is terrible, I will abuse you”, the second says “how dare you say anything negative, if we lose the NFL it’ll be all your fault”. Both invite you to shut up and keep your opinion to yourself.

Both are wrong. To me, anyway.

I can see the point of view that it’s an uninspiring slate of London games. The teams have a combined record of 38-65-1. A team with a record of .369 isn’t a good team, say. But I see some entertaining games here – Saints-Dolphins especially, some entertaining teams, and a pretty full variety of styles of play.

Very good teams? They’re harder to get over here because well, they’ve got a pretty mean dose of bargaining power, have loyal fanbases, and aren’t that little bit desperate in a way that teams cool with London games can occasionally be. The games aren’t amazing, but on paper they look better than this year’s did on paper last year, and all this year’s were one-score games (albeit the Rams game was one-score in the worst possible way.

But please for the love of all that is holy don’t tell people they should be grateful for whatever they can get. I’ve seen this opinion more, possibly because of who I follow (insofar as, people who’ll moan about anything are way too goddamn annoying, and I say that as a self-identifying cynic). I can’t quite parse it well enough to fully understand it, though I’m trying. I guess if you love NFL, and you’re scared that any criticism will chase it off (not true, they’re only going to go if sales drop, something which is a LONG way off), then you’re desperate for it to stay.

It’s a bit of a challenge not to get personal or dark about that attitude, but there’s more of a hint of being in a mildly abusive relationship with a corporation about that. In any case, dismissing all complaints is…not exactly an attitude that drives success and excellence, is it?

I want to take a step away from sports here and talk in a general sense about society. We’re at a point in history where we’ve kind of turned our backs on nuance, and on seeing things from both points of view. These are really valuable traits for a functioning society, that questions everything and accepts all decisions will have positives and negatives, and that we should be mature enough to realise this. These are really valuable in terms of our development as human beings too! I know how hard empathy can be – I’m not wired that way so I have to consciously make the effort, and sometimes I fall short. But I also know that it’s important where it leads to treating people with dignity and respect. Again, something I, like everyone, sometimes fall short in.

This issue, as utterly minor as it on a world scale, seems to show that in a microcosm. I know it’s the Internet, and I know you’ve only got 140 characters, but you don’t have to have an unequivocal opinion. You can say “I see your point of view. I don’t agree with it, but I understand how you got to it. I think you’ll be wrong, but I can forsee a situation you might be right. I just think it unlikely.” And if you’re better at brevity than I (as everyone is), you can say that succinctly.

Here are a number of opinions I have about this year’s NFL games:

  • On paper, the games taken as average look better at this point, than this year’s games did when they were announced last year.
  • There are plenty of top players, including some future hall of famers coming to play. That’s cause for celebration! But that’s also something that’s pretty much guaranteed no matter who comes to play.
  • The majority of the games, at this point, don’t look very competitive. Having said that, Jacksonville looked like they were going to get trounced in each of the following years’ games at this point, and they’ve won the last two.
  • I have no idea how the negotiation for which teams come to London goes, but the visiting team presumably much more negotiating power than you might think. Otherwise we’d surely have seen the Packers by now, at least.
  • Four games is half a home season. If we start having more games in London than that without a firm Yes/No on whether a London franchise will actually happen, we’re officially being messed around by the NFL. You see why that is, right?
  • These games will all sell out. The NFL isn’t going anywhere. So we, as fans, are now in a great position to start demanding (nicely!) a better product from the NFL. Might not work but hey.

Look, I get that most people think that these games are neither beyond criticism or beyond praise. They are probably saying that too! And I’m falling into the trap of only seeing the outlier opinions because they seem the most shrill to my sensibilities. This is an entirely personal reaction, I get it! And yes, this is partly just beef with the reductive nature of in particular Twitter. This is why I write long self-indulgent screeds, I guess.

Next year’s games will likely be fine. So will the subsequent years. But we’re not going to get the best deal we can from the NFL by just shutting up and accepting what we can get from our benevolent leader. Nor are we going to get the best deal by putting on our best pouty teenager face and declaring that everything is terrible. The strongest cases we make in life are where we understand both sides of the argument, weigh up the alternatives, show awareness of them, and then come down on one side or the other. Let’s do that!

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