Inside the NFL  

 

NFL team in London? League entering new phase of UK project

In his robust Inside The NFL Notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):

» Four things he's looking forward to in Week 8.
» An extraordinary recovery from serious injury.
» Two winners from one blockbuster trade.
» And much more, beginning with the NFL's plan to spread interest across the pond ...

There's still plenty of skepticism out there over the NFL's ability to put a franchise in London anytime in the foreseeable future.

The first 10 months of 2012 have shown that the league is serious about trying.

The initial step was taken in January with the St. Louis Rams reaching a three-year agreement to play home games in London. Of course, the Rams had to back out, to focus on their ongoing stadium battle back home, but the NFL reaffirmed its desire by adjusting and getting a commitment from the Jacksonville Jaguars to enter into a similar deal, starting in 2013. And then, earlier this month, the league locked in a second game at Wembley Stadium for 2013, with the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers set to meet next September.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the NFL's first regular season game in London. And as the Rams and New England Patriots prepare for Sunday's game, it's clear that the league is moving into a new phase with its project.

"If we have a goal to accelerate the growth of our fan base in the UK, we have that ambition to create new opportunities in the future, it was going to be through that two-pronged approach," NFL Vice President of International Business Chris Parsons said. "One was to have a returning team, and we went through that process, and got Jacksonville. And by going down that path, with a returning home team, they'll see a team year after year. It's a good hook to increase the fan base.

"And then, after that, we've talked about the second game for a while. For the viewers, having one game is great. But for our fans over here, being able to impact the sporting calendar, adding a second game, and having the two games four weeks apart is a critical next step."

Parsons won't say it directly -- "It's not something I would be involved with" -- but these pieces of progress show where the league is going. The reasoning behind each move -- to test the market -- explains that.

Putting a team over there annually is a way to remove the novelty from the game, and see if fans will return to see the same club each year, and maybe even build loyalty toward that group. Adding an extra game, of course, would be an indicator to see if, someday, fans could be counted on to show up eight times every fall.

"I think theirs is an aspect of what we're doing where we look at it and say, 'Would the UK be able to sustain a team?' " Parsons says. "For now, it's, 'Let's build the fan base, so we can put ourselves in the top five in this country, so we'll be able to have that conversation.' For us, it's building that fan base, getting it to that size and scale, so if there's a future opportunity, we're ready for it. We're not looking at that as a short-term goal, though."

The Chicago Bears beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24-18 in Wembley Stadium last October.
The Chicago Bears beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24-18 in Wembley Stadium last October. (Kirby Lee/US Presswire)

The "top five" ranking Parsons referenced has become a magic phrase for those involved in the league's international pursuit. It means the NFL getting into the top five spectator sports in the UK. When that happens, the push to put a team in London full-time will get stronger.

"If we continue to see the growth in the fan base we've seen the last three to four years, and continue to move up the rankings, and become more popular. ... As long as that continues, I believe we can be in the top five within the next five years," Parsons said.

Right now, American football ranks seventh or eighth on the list. Soccer (obviously) tops the charts over there. The next cluster includes cricket, rugby and tennis. After that, golf and motorsports. And then, American football and, believe it or not, darts. So based on that, the NFL would have to pass golf and motorsports in UK popularity for the league to seriously consider what some of football's biggest power brokers have high on their agenda, breaking into the London market full-time.

Taking that next step won't be easy, but Parsons was able to cite plenty of progress over the first six years of the Wembley incarnation of the International Series. Over that period, the league has gone from having two sponsor partners across the pond to 12, while regular-season ratings in the UK are up over 150 percent. Also on the rise: traffic to NFL.com, "NFL Game Pass" (Europe's "NFL Sunday Ticket" equivalent) subscriptions and "Madden NFL" sales.

With this growth, it's easy to see why the league has focused so intently on London and the UK, rather than branching out to places like Germany -- where football has been more popular than it is in England, but issues like television distribution exist.

"My view is that you build a sport up, and you get to a level of scale, you want to keep growing," Parsons said. "There's no point in being 15th in 20 different countries. So if we can demonstrate the steps we're taking get us to where we want to go, our goal would then become to replicate what we're doing here in other countries. We want to get it right here before we go elsewhere."

Not all of the signs are positive. The league had to tarp around 2,000 seats at Wembley last year, something Parsons chalks up to the lockout pushing planning back and delaying ticket sales. And the way the NFL sees it, 2013 was always the best time to move on the annual team and second game because the Olympics were in London this year, sucking up the entertainment dollar of the public. (Something that further illustrates American football's current place on the periphery.)

But overall, entering its sixth year, the London game definitely has been a success in Parsons' mind. Typically, he says, the crowd at Wembley is 4 to 5 percent American/transplanted American, and 5 to 10 percent comes from other parts of Europe, leaving the vast majority as native to the UK.

For Parsons, too, there's a personal level of satisfaction in that. He grew up in Manchester and remembers how it used to be.

"The only way to get live content was through the Armed Forces Network, and the signal was very weak," he said. "I remember trying to get the signal in my bedroom as a kid. So to me, this is about bringing the NFL, which has so many layers, to a great country and whole new generation of fans, and those grown-ups who had the same experience I did. I go to games at Wembley and see the young guys saying, 'This is great, thanks for bringing the game here.' That's such a rewarding element for me."

And if the league has its way, the best is yet to come.

Four things to look for in Week 8

Breer: Jet fuel
Despite dropping to 3-4, the Jets continue to exceed expectations heading into a crucial stretch. Albert Breer reports. More ...

1) A truer gauge of where the New York Jets are. So, since the losses of Santonio Holmes and Darrelle Revis, the Jets have played the Texans and Patriots tough, and bludgeoned the rebuilding Colts. We learned, along the way, that they aren't exactly going to crumble at the first sign of trouble. This week, with the Miami Dolphins coming to MetLife Stadium, we might get a better idea of where the recreated Jets stand. On Sunday, the Jets max-protected to give Mark Sanchez time, committed to the run game again and found a way to effect the opposing quarterback -- illustrating how they've used October to get back to their foundation. But trouble could remain. "They still have good front-of-the-line talent," said one AFC personnel executive. "It's the middle class of the team, when those guys are called on, that's where the issues are. They've found a way to protect (Sanchez), and 31 (Antonio Cromartie) has risen to the occasion playing man-to-man. But they're still not good on third down, they're still not good against the run. Problems there still exist." The next three weeks, the Jets play solid but unspectacular clubs, and need wins. So this is where it gets interesting.

2) Whether the Kansas City Chiefs can pull themselves off the canvas. Generally, quarterback benchings reverberate through an organization. And though Matt Cassel is just the 18th-highest paid quarterback in football and only cost the Chiefs a second-round pick, it's fair to say K.C.'s commitment to him as a franchise quarterback was a sizable failure. The hope now is that the move is felt elsewhere in the building. Maybe Kansas City's most glaring problem comes in the turnover category. The Chiefs are minus-15 in turnover margin, six clear of the next-worst club, and on pace to go minus-40, which would be 10 clear of a record worst that has stood for 47 years. That raises questions of accountability. Kansas City entered the season as the only team in the NFL without a player over 30, and I've been told there is a leadership void as a result. It can't be on Brady Quinn to fill it. But the hope is that the midseason shakeup will lead to young stars like Eric Berry, Derrick Johnson and Brandon Flowers taking ownership of the situation. This Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders seemingly provides the perfect opportunity to get started on that.

3) A test for the Atlanta Falcons. And the Philadelphia Eagles. The topic of turnover differential might not be the hottest one out there, but it's important in this game, too. The Falcons are plus-10 on the season; the Eagles are minus-9. And that means Mike Vick's turnover problems will be tested in a very real way. He carried a football around the facility before the team's game against the Lions in Week 6, and that didn't work. This time around, with a ball-hawking, multiple defense on the other side, it'll take more than a gimmick to fix the problem. That said, Atlanta's defense encounters a test of its own. The Falcons had trouble dealing with more mobile quarterbacks in Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, an element that Vick certainly brings to the table. And from a more global standpoint, the Eagle figure to test Atlanta's team speed on that side of the ball. For these reasons -- plus one team being unbeaten and the other being on the ropes and having undergone major changes in the time since it last played -- this game is a tantalizing one.

4) The Denver Broncos coming out of the bye. Peyton Manning hasn't exactly been awful to this point. He's second in the NFL in yards per game (301.3), fourth in touchdown passes (14), second in quarterback rating (105.0) and third in yards per attempt (8.0). But the assumption has always been, he, and by extension the Broncos, will get better as the year goes on. Manning's dad, Archie, agreed that "if the players stay healthy, it makes sense that they'd be a better second-half-of-the-year team. It takes a while to build that." It did seem like the second half of the Chargers game might have been the light switch flipping on for Denver. The next seven games on the schedule are very manageable. And the bye gave offensive coordinator Mike McCoy an opportunity to go back and evaluate where his unit has gone from spring to now, with a melding of what the Broncos do and what Manning is most comfortable with. With that in mind, Manning and Co. could be in for a big showing against the New Orleans Saints in primetime Sunday night.

Three conclusions

1) Terrell Suggs' return is one of the most remarkable recoveries from an injury in NFL history. And I don't think that's overstating it. Suggs tore his Achilles tendon on April 28. He played 44 snaps on October 21. The Baltimore Ravens' plan was to hold Suggs out through the team's bye, which is this week, and reassess where he stood. Mid-November was considered a very optimistic target, with the team's Nov. 18 game against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers being a natural date to look at. And some within the organization didn't think even that would wind up being a good idea. In the end, Suggs' will won out over all of that. Suggs said in a text after the game in Houston that he felt "healthy, but disappointed" by the team's blowout loss to the Texans. Wherever he goes from here, he should be lauded for the hard work, which the Ravens took note of over the last few weeks. And going forward, the lift Suggs promises to bring the team should be significant. With Ray Lewis and Ed Reed getting up there in age, he was already in line to be the standard-bearer for the defense going forward. With so many moving pieces there now -- and Lewis seriously injured -- the process could be accelerated.

2) Signs of growth keep coming for the Houston Texans. I caught Texans DE J.J. Watt saying this to my colleague, Ian Rapoport: "Obviously, last week we came out and didn't look like us." While it's important the Texans recognized this after getting beaten to a pulp by Green Bay, it's even more telling they responded the way they did against Baltimore. This is a still a young team in some areas of the roster, and one that's unfamiliar with playing the role of favorite. Whenever it comes to this type of team, it bears watching how players deal with the first serious blow sustained. Last year, the Texans gave a pretty good indication that they could handle adversity in how they absorbed the losses of Matt Schaub, Mario Williams and, for a long stretch, Andre Johnson. But this is different. Expectations on this group of players had never been anywhere near as high as they were entering this season. The Texans responded with a 5-0 start. Then they took a big hit. And as it turns out, they did fine with that, too, answering with a 43-13 win over a quality team. All very good signs for a franchise that's on the fast track to home-field advantage in the AFC.

Brooks: Shakeup in Charlotte
The disappointing Panthers fired GM Marty Hurney. Bucky Brooks says this raises three big questions for Carolina. More ...

3) The Carolina Panthers should move quickly to replace Marty Hurney. The firing of a general manager in-season is very, very strange. Not only is it still October, but we're right in the middle of the college season, which is a vital period for any personnel department. There is, though, a good way to take advantage of this timing. History can explain. The Packers hired Ron Wolf in November of 1991. The Dolphins hired Bill Parcells in December of 2007, and the reason they did it then, as one person who's been around Parcells put it, was to "give him a chance to assess the damage." In both cases, the new exec was given a chance to evaluate the team as the season was ongoing, which allowed for more clear-headed decisions in January. The Cleveland Browns have set themselves up to allow Joe Banner to do that now. And the Panthers should do the same: Find someone soon and give him a chance to see what he's working with.

Two college players to watch on Saturday

Every Monday, NFL.com college football expert Bucky Brooks looks back on the weekend action and evaluates which prospects are rising and which are sliding.

Week 14: A potential draft-day steal
Week 13: The enigma of the 2013 NFL Draft
Week 12: Can Lotulelei be 2013's No. 1 pick?
Week 11: Johnny Manziel is QB of the future
Week 10: Ducks' Barner not just a system guy
Week 9: QB Glennon flying up draft boards
Week 8 photo gallery: Top 20 college prospects
Week 7: College football's best defender
Week 6: Geno Smith is the real deal
Week 5: Looking for prototype running backs
Week 4: FSU QB E.J. Manuel answers doubts
Week 3: USC's Barkley is still the best QB
Week 2: Georgia's Jarvis Jones is top Dawg
Week 1: ND's Tyler Eifert stands out

1) Mississippi State CB Johnthan Banks at Alabama, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN. The NFL's a copycat league, and the success of the Seattle Seahawks' Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman has sent scouts on the hunt for taller corners. Enter Banks, a 6-foot-2 senior cover man who's considered NFL-ready. As one college scout puts it, the first thing general managers do now with SEC players is "put the 'Bama tape on," so every prospect's game against the Tide is important. Which is to say, Banks has plenty to gain -- and lose -- on Saturday. "Teams haven't challenged him this year because he generated so much respect last year," said the scout. "He's built the way you want a corner to be built, has really good feet, and they run a lot of zone concepts, but also shows he can mirror routes and play press man. But we have to see him open up and run. That's the only question." And Alabama should test that.

2) Oklahoma WR Kenny Stills vs. Notre Dame, 8 p.m. ET, ABC. In 2012, Stills has taken on the big-play role that Ryan Broyles, now with the Detroit Lions, had occupied for the Sooners in past seasons. And he's done well with it, posting 38 catches for 471 yards and four touchdowns through six games. But Stills is running into a perception problem that really is beyond his control. While there's plenty of stock in what any player does against Alabama, there's very little in what a guy does against a Big 12 defense at this point. So, this week offers a nice proving ground for Stills, playing a Notre Dame defense that's been among the best in America. "Stills is their most talented guy, but he's had a rep for being a knucklehead," said a college scout. "He'll have something to prove. Big 12 defense is non-existent, so you're looking for the best competition to evaluate a guy like him against, and this is probably it."

One prediction

The St. Louis Rams and Washington Redskins will both come out looking like winners on their blockbuster trade in March. The Washington part of this equation is pretty simple: Robert Griffin III looks like a completely different breed of quarterback out there. There's no question that Mike Shanahan's group would pull the trigger on that deal again.

But this one doesn't look bad for St. Louis, either. No, Sam Bradford has not set the world on fire, currently playing for his third offensive coordinator in as many NFL seasons. But he's done fine considering the dearth of weapons around him, particularly since Danny Amendola's injury. Most NFL folks believe that Bradford will ascend as GM Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher continue to stock the roster.

And the Rams are clearly improving, notwithstanding what happened Sunday against a red-hot Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. With a very promising defense and the quarterback in place, St. Louis is in position to build a monster going forward, with two first-round picks in each of the next two drafts.

In the end, we could have the rare circumstance of two teams engaging in a massive deal ... and both walking away satisfied. If that's the case, more clubs could be open to these kinds of trades in the future.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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