Inside the NFL  

 

NFL envisions London-based team in 2022; Notes across league

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NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» The starting debuts of Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles
» A fascinating storyline for a lightning-rod team
» A challenging stretch for the revived Giants
And much more, beginning with the NFL's plan to permanently place a team across the pond. ...

The way Mark Waller sees it, the NFL isn't just weighing putting a team in London anymore -- the plan is already in motion.

And with another set of International Series games upon us, the league doesn't see momentum slowing.

"When we started (with the series in 2007), I reckoned it'd take 15 years to do it," said Waller, the NFL's international chief. "That was what I expected, and we're still on course. We're at the midpoint now."

So if things go according to Waller's forecast, the London (fill-in-the-blanks) will be (likely) kicking off in Wembley Stadium in 2022. At the outset of that season, the next collective bargaining agreement will be in place (establishing stability), and the television contracts will be expiring (providing opportunity).

That ambitious goal is why, under Waller's leadership, the focus of the London project is now set to start shifting. Over the last couple years, the league went from one game across the pond to two and now to three. While the 2011 CBA negotiations temporarily slowed growth, the NFL has now caught up, and this weekend's London game -- between the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders -- will be the first in a set that is expected to draw a quarter of a million fans to Wembley.

Waller has been heavily involved in international business since joining the league in 2006, and that continued with his promotion to chief marketing officer in 2009. During the offseason, he was named executive vice president, international, a job that was created for him (senior vice president of international Chris Parsons, who reported to Waller, left this offseason) and reflects the added emphasis the league is putting on global growth.

Waller says that, since the start, he and the league have subtly been testing London -- and the competing teams -- in different ways, with an eye on putting a franchise there full-time. The first game pitted a pair of East Coast teams (the Giants and Dolphins), while the second one matched up clubs from farther-flung locales (Chargers and Saints). In Year 6, a deal was struck to bring a team to London on a recurring basis -- initially the Rams, later the Jaguars -- and the next year the second game was added.

It's fair to expect the experimenting to become more deliberate now.

"I'm less focused on going from three to four, four to five, five to six," Waller said. "Can we do back-to-back games? Will the surface hold up? Can we start sending teams there without the bye attached? It's not about the number anymore. ... We're at a place now where if we continue to do the job with the fans, the fan base will grow, and we'll be able to have a team (in London). The questions now are logistical."

Travel, and the effect that a (minimum) five-hour time difference has on teams, is front-and-center in that regard. Not far behind is how the stadium -- and, again, it's likely it'd be Wembley for an NFL team -- works as an American football facility, with field conditions primary among the concerns.

And there have been other changes this year, too. Because more than 33,000 fans bought tickets for all three games, the league tried to create different experiences. The first one, this Sunday, is like the others have been. The second game (a Week 8 bout between the Lions and Falcons) kicks off at 2:30 local, rather than the 6 p.m. kickoff that's been normal at Wembley. The third game (Cowboys-Jaguars in Week 10) is deeper in the season and falls on the weekend before England's Remembrance Day and America's Veteran's Day, which will lend to a military theme.

As for the growth cited, the league's data shows that, since 2007, the NFL has gone from the 18th-most-watched sport on Sky Sports to sixth. Not coincidentally, Sky just extended its broadcasting deal with the NFL. Furthermore, amateur football participation has grown by an average of 15 percent per year since the league took the Giants and Dolphins to Wembley seven years ago. As someone who was born in Africa, lived in Hong Kong and went to boarding school in the U.K., Waller sees these leaps in very real terms.

"I think the real answer there is not in how the sport has changed, it's how the world has changed," he said. "When I grew up, there wasn't an Internet. There were three TV channels in the U.K., and you had no idea what was happening around the world in sports, other than the World Cup and the Olympics. Now you have the world sports fan and, particularly with the younger demographic, they belong to a global community. To a young person, the idea of the NFL in the U.K. is not a strange concept."

The hope, for Waller, is that London is just a jumping-off point for the league's pursuit of international growth.

Eventually, he says, the hope is to use the London template elsewhere in Europe or in Latin America. Germany, a hotbed for the sport on the other side of the Atlantic, would be a natural next step. Waller specifically mentioned Brazil as another place to look, based on what he observed in the summer's World Cup.

There are new outposts to mine, too, including China, which has become something of a holy grail for Western sports leagues.

In the more immediate future, the possibility of doing more to partner with the Barclays Premier League is there, given mutual goals that exist, and the presence of cross-platform owners Stan Kroenke (Rams/Arsenal), Joel Glazer (Buccaneers/Manchester United) and Shad Khan (Jaguars/Fulham).

"We have goals that mirror one another," Waller said of the Premier League and the NFL. "They're big in the U.K. and want to be bigger in the U.S., and we're big in the U.S. and want to be bigger in the U.K.."

So while 2022 doesn't sound like it's right around the corner, eight years isn't exactly an eternity for the NFL to accomplish what it would need to accomplish to reach Waller's stated goal. But the fact that people are already working through logistics is a good sign of how far the NFL has come since 2007.

And it's enough to buoy the ambition of a league that has relentlessly worked to push this project forward.

Four downs

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1) Teddy Bridgewater's rise: The Minnesota Vikings had Bridgewater as the second quarterback on their draft board -- behind Johnny Manziel -- but there's a reason why they felt just about as comfortable dealing up to No. 32 to get the Louisville star as they would've in moving to 22 to snag the former Heisman Trophy winner. In part, that was because of what happened during the quarterback's April 12 workout with offensive coordinator Norv Turner and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner. And it wasn't so much how he performed in total as it was how he looked at the end versus the beginning. Bridgewater was able to take the concepts that the Turners were teaching him and apply them on the fly. So within 90 minutes, he had made himself better, even if it was only a little bit. As a result, the Vikings could take that piece of evidence and add it to the dedication he'd grown a reputation for -- Bridgewater had his stuff packed before he left for the draft in New York, with a moving company on call to take it to his new city, so he could get right to work -- and act with conviction in taking a player they believed would keep getting better. The plan wasn't to get him in there quite yet -- the coaches had expected to stick with Matt Cassel for a while longer before a season-ending foot injury landed the veteran on injured reserve -- but there was a belief going into last week's game that the rookie was ready. What they've seen in practice is a player who's quicker with his feet and decisions and is driving the ball better on intermediate throws. And, as for the way he handled jumping into the fire, the steady nature Bridgewater displayed was just what the club expected.

2) Blake Bortles ready for showtime: The mistake many made in calling for the Jaguars to throw Bortles into the lineup over the summer came in comparing him to the starter. It was never Bortles versus Chad Henne. It was always Bortles versus his own development. The Jaguars thought, when they drafted the UCF product with the third overall pick in May, that he was still more athlete than quarterback and more thrower than passer. And that meant they'd have to rework him mechanically. So sticking him in the lineup now, those in Jacksonville have affirmed, is a sign that he's way ahead of schedule, to the point where they aren't concerned that facing live bullets will mess up his progress. He still needs fundamental work, but his poise in the pocket is miles ahead of where it initially was, as is his understanding of how to distribute the ball and run an NFL huddle. His work ethic -- Bortles stayed in Jacksonville for much of the June/July summer break -- has gotten him here, and the result is advanced knowledge of coordinator Jedd Fisch's offense. Here's the other thing: The Jags think they can help him now. Cecil Shorts got back in the lineup last week and the rookie receivers have a couple games under their belts. Plus, there have been O-line changes, and the hope is that right tackle Austin Pasztor and tight end Clay Harbor will be back this week. All of that should contribute to a healthier environment than Week 1 would've been for Bortles.

3) Ryan Tannehill's fall?: Joe Philbin didn't carry on all week the way he did for nothing, apology or no apology. A couple of people inside the building certainly made it sound to me like benching Tannehill is not out of the question, and that the head coach's public fence-sitting on naming a starter should serve as a de facto warning shot at the eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft. The problems with Tannehill? According to one informed party, the quarterback's ability to see the field hasn't developed as the team would've liked, nor has his pocket presence or deep accuracy. (That final issue is compounded by the heavy investment the club made in Mike Wallace.) It's added up to a quarterback rating that tops only three other qualifiers in the NFL, a completion percentage closer to 55 than 60 and a league-worst average of 5.03 yards per attempt. Miami, like Washington, will have to make a decision on its quarterback after the season, choosing by May whether or not to exercise an option that figures to hover around $15 million for 2016. Whether or not Philbin is involved in that call remains an open question. What seems clear is that he and the staff see backup Matt Moore as a potentially viable leader to get him there.

4) New England Patriots winning the old-fashioned way: The Patriots are 2-1, and 2-1 doesn't look like it has in the recent past in Foxborough. Tom Brady is 23rd in QB rating, and the offense is 26th in the league. The offensive line's transition following Dante Scarnecchia's retirement has been messy, and Rob Gronkowski (who has played 44, 42 and 57 percent of the offensive snaps in his first three weeks) isn't himself yet. And yet, there's plenty of reason for optimism. That the team has been able to lean on its third-ranked defense is a sign that Bill Belichick might well finally have an early 2000s-style Patriots group on his hands again. The explosion of Swiss Army knife Dont'a Hightower and edge-rushing monster Chandler Jones up front has keyed the revival, and the addition of Darrelle Revis hasn't hurt, either. Veteran Rob Ninkovich pointed out to me the versatility the team has with guys like Hightower, and that the young core on that side of the ball (the team has spent 12 top-100 picks in the last five drafts on defense) is starting to mature. The Pats were headed this way last year, too, before injuries to Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Aqib Talib submarined the effort. If they have better luck in that department this time around, the Patriots might be in a position to ask a lot less of Brady and the offense than they have the last few years.

Three checkdowns

1) Broncos-Seahawks provided the perfect window into how Denver's defensive overhaul is paying off. That game could've gotten ugly in the third quarter. Instead, the Broncos got two stops, blocked a field goal, then opened the fourth quarter with a safety and a pick to set up a touchdown. John Elway told me two years ago he wanted to give Peyton Manning what he had in his twilight years: A team that could win without him being otherworldly. Looks like that's getting accomplished.

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2) Smart play by Jay Gruden this week, making it clear that he's open to Kirk Cousins seizing the job outright from Robert Griffin III over the next few weeks. Had he painted himself in a corner by saying Griffin is his guy, he'd make a potential reversal of field much messier. Should that switch actually happen, it'd be tough for the Redskins to exercise the $15 million option on Griffin for 2016, given his injury history. Thursday night's blowout loss, in which Cousins turned the ball over five times, obviously further clouds things.

3) The Jets' quarterback situation promises to be fascinating over the next month, with the Lions, Chargers, Broncos and Patriots looming on the schedule. On one side, you have a coach (Rex Ryan) who might need Michael Vick to save his job. On the other, you have a GM (John Idzik) who has to figure out what he has in Geno Smith in order to plan for 2015 and beyond.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Georgia WR Chris Conley (vs. Tennessee, noon ET, ESPN): Conley and Michael Bennett aren't exactly what Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry were at LSU, but each Georgia receiver has a legit shot at going in the middle rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft, and both have proven to be productive four-year players. Conley edges out his teammate as a prospect, projecting to be a tough, solid Jason Avant-type receiver at the next level. "He's not a great talent, but he's steady with solid hands and good enough speed," an AFC area scout said. "He's a heady player in routes, really good at finding soft spots in zones." The scout said playing an athletic Vols defense should provide a valuable test for Conley, who has to prove he has the top-end speed to make it in the NFL.

2) Baylor DE Shawn Oakman (at Iowa State, 8 p.m. ET, FOX): This 6-foot-9, 280-pound goliath bolted from Penn State after the child sex abuse scandal rocked Happy Valley and finally got on the field in 2013 as a redshirt sophomore. A year later, he's a candidate for almost every award a defensive lineman can win. "He's big and strong and relentless," an NFC area scout said. "He's got a great motor, too. He'll be first round for someone." The big test for Oakman will come in November at Oklahoma, but this week gives him a national TV spotlight during a pretty average Saturday, schedule-wise. Still raw, Oakman has to show scouts he's improving against the run and learning to shed blocks.

Extra point

After Thursday night's shellacking of the Washington Redskins, the New York Giants have won the last two by a 75-31 count -- which isn't bad, no matter which teams the wins came against. And in pulling that off to overcome an 0-2 start, they've made the three games leading into their bye pretty interesting.

New York gets Atlanta at home next week before trips to Philadelphia and Dallas. If the team can make it through that at 5-2 or 4-3, then November becomes even more intriguing, with Indianapolis (home, on Monday Night Football), Seattle (away), San Francisco (home) and Dallas (home, on Sunday Night Football) on tap.

The bottom line: What's in front of Tom Coughlin's crew certainly is no cakewalk.

But internally, during training camp, the Giants expected this to be a team that would grow up over the course of the season. That should continue, with offensive players getting more comfortable in Ben McAdoo's scheme and guys like Odell Beckham and Geoff Schwartz getting healthy.

What's unique about the Giants is that the two biggest variables might be their two most prominent players: Eli Manning and Jason Pierre-Paul. And, even with the big bounceback over the past two games, that continues to be the case.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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