Inside the NFL  

 

London team by 2022? NFL continues to forge forward in U.K.

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):

» Who else could leave Chicago in the Bears' fire sale?
» The rising quarterback prospect you don't know -- but should.
» Why EVERYONE should be taking notice of Andy Dalton's performance.
And much more, beginning with the league's continuing effort to establish London as an NFL city ...

A group of NFL executives will meet with Virgin Airlines on Friday, and a pointed question will be one the Americans in the room probably never imagined they would ask as executives of a football league.

Just where will air travel be a decade from now?

No, there isn't sudden, random interest in aviation here. That's just where the league's thrust into the United Kingdom stands now -- with an effort to try to crack the logistical problems that could arise from, eventually, putting a team in London permanently.

The first game of the Wembley series was in 2007. It was hatched as a 15-year project with the endgame resulting in London getting a franchise of its own. So based on that timeline, we're more than halfway home. Those running the show in the U.K. still see 2022 as the target. Friday's summit is more proof of that.

"It's a realistic time frame," NFL Executive Vice President for International Mark Waller said Wednesday. "But there are still things we need to test for, so we have to be able to build a lot of things into the next few years. We don't need to prove as much on the fan-demand side. We feel comfortable that, in a few years, we'll be where we need to be there. The real focus is doing things to keep testing. We're really focusing on the logistical and operational side."

Sunday's Jets-Dolphins bout will be Wembley's 12th NFL game -- the first one matching divisional opponents, and also the first time that both clubs travel only for the weekend. In past years, one or both teams would spend an entire week across the pond. The 13th and 14th games, coming on the last Sunday of October and first Sunday of November, will be the first games played on back-to-back weekends in London. And all of this is aimed at measuring the impact that a U.K. franchise would have on competitive balance.

Naturally, more is planned for 2016.

The league likely would've gone to four games this year if not for scheduling issues involving the Rugby World Cup, and Waller says it's a very good bet there will be (at least) four international games next season. The question, for now, is where?

The NFL is considering either adding another game in London, keeping it at three in London and adding another game in another country, or both. The two countries under consideration, outside of the U.K., for a new International Series game in 2016 are Germany and Mexico. If it's Mexico -- and stadium issues remain there -- it'll be in Mexico City. If it's Germany -- and the NFL's new media deal makes that marketplace more attractive for the owners -- it'll be in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt or Hamburg.

"We feel confident in what we've learned in the U.K. to where we can look at adding a game and applying the model into another market," Waller said. "In the next few weeks, we'll decide on adding an extra game, going somewhere else, or both. We feel good about the U.K., but the idea of moving forward with other countries is attractive, too."

International Series

As for London, specifically, as Waller said, there are still plenty more tires to be kicked. One of those, eventually, will be removing the automatic bye that teams get after going to London, since having a franchise there would certainly necessitate that dynamic. Another could be a team playing two games in a row in London -- perhaps one as the home team and another as the road team -- to see how it affects players, coaches and staff making the trip back west rather than just east.

The other, more obvious logistical hurdles will be more difficult to clear.

"The easiest example to think about in terms of a problem that I'm not sure we have a solution for is a playoff game -- maybe a West Coast team has to play a playoff game in London," said one NFL owner. "There are things like that that I don't know if we have the answer to yet. That's why I'm hesitant to talk very much about a relocation."

One idea that's been floated among owners and execs is the idea of a shared franchise -- one that plays four home games in an American city and the other four in London, with potential playoff games in the U.S. venue. To be sure, that would be risky, with the possibility neither fan base gets behind the team, but it would help to solve problems the league is facing.

"I think it's more viable than putting a team in London full-time," said an executive for an NFC club. "But it's hard to say that makes it work because the logistics would be so odd. Basically, then, London's never getting the playoff game, and if you're a fan, you want to go to playoff games. ... It's an interesting idea, but you'd probably not be reaching your potential in either place."

For his part, Waller said, "To be clear, we've never had real discussions about a shared market. But if a team could play a season in London, you can assume it could play half a season." Waller brought up how Milwaukee and Green Bay shared the Packers' home schedule at one time.

This weekend should provide some interesting insight -- with big Premier League games (Everton-Liverpool and Arsenal-Manchester United) on Sunday, and Ireland and England playing Rugby World Cup matches -- on where the NFL fits into the British sports lexicon.

It's fair to say there's already been plenty of progress. Per Waller, about 40,000 fans will attend all three games, representing what the league believes is a burgeoning season-ticket base. NFL figures TV ratings have doubled since 2007, and the league estimates its U.K. fan base at 13 million. In addition, a 10-year deal to play NFL games in Tottenham Hotspur's new stadium and add an NFL surface to the facility was executed in July. Waller said, "The Tottenham deal was at least as significant as the original Wembley deal."

Considering the smaller capacity and FieldTurf, it's fair to wonder if Tottenham will be a London team's home when the time comes. That represents another step forward.

"It's gonna take a visionary owner to say, 'I'm willing to overcome all that,' " said the NFC exec. "But I actually think we're ahead of schedule with the growth that's happened."

Taking all the progress into account, Waller's still cautious about speaking in absolutes when it comes to this massive undertaking. He acknowledges what's ahead of the league is more challenging than what's behind it, but it's hard not to feel his optimism.

"I'd just say that I believe, with everything we're doing, we'll continue to grow," he said. "It's a much better market for us now than it was and fan interest is growing. I wouldn't want to come across as saying that we have the fan base we need yet. But the game is good enough, the appeal in there, and we have great fan demand."

And so, on Friday, he and others will take a closer look into how fast planes can go.

Four downs

1) Broncos still evolving. Through three games, it looks like Wade Phillips continues to stick to what he does best -- effectively changing a defense in short order. Denver is exceedingly strong on the edges of the front seven and the secondary, and solid everywhere else. The Broncos have allowed 18 yards fewer per game than any other team in the league. We know a considerable amount less about Denver's offense because, up to this point, the Broncos are confused about who they'll be over the next month or two. At the very least, credit head coach Gary Kubiak with seeking solutions that are outside the box. Denver spent the offseason with Peyton Manning mostly under center and played the first two weeks of the season that way -- with very mixed results. In Week 3 against Detroit, Kubiak didn't tear up the script, but he did adjust it. Manning spent basically the entire night in Detroit in the shotgun or pistol, only taking goal-line and kneel-down snaps from under center. The pistol, according to players, was a way of middling the decision. Against the Chiefs in Week 2, it was clear late that Manning was most comfortable detached from the line, and the pistol allowed Kubiak to give his quarterback that without compromising the run game. "Absolutely, it's still run the same plays. I don't think (pistol) affects (the run game) too much whatsoever as long as 18 is comfortable back there, and we're not giving anything away," said Broncos tight end Owen Daniels, who played for Kubiak in Houston. "If we had the backs offset, speaking to defensive guys, I think that kind of gives things away a little. In the pistol, you can still go both ways, and run play-action off of it." Denver is second to last in the NFL in rushing offense, but the thought here is it just takes time to get Kubiak's vaunted run system installed. Getting Manning to produce buys time for first-year starters Ty Sambrailo and Matt Paradis and September acquisition Evan Mathis to come together on the O-line. "For the talk about chemistry and jelling, that usually comes into play when you're talking about double-team blocks or passing off stunts on passing downs, and I feel like we're moving along very fast when it comes to those things," Mathis said. "It feels natural. It feels natural when I'm working with Ty, it feels natural when I'm working with Matt." The hope being, of course, that it shows up on game day soon.

2) Big shoes filled in Foxborough. Last year, Dave DeGuglielmo took the place of long-time Patriots offensive line coach (and longer-time Patriots assistant) Dante Scarnecchia, a daunting task for any coach but particularly for one returning to his home state and being charged with keeping the jersey of a legend clean. It hasn't been perfect, but it certainly hasn't been bad. And where the O-line rotation had Tom Brady tasting the turf often early last season -- before the Patriots settled on a starting five -- the concept of one has been validated early this year. New England, in fact, is rotating more than it did in early 2014. In each of the Patriots' first three games, six of the team's offensive linemen have played more than 50 percent of the snaps, and every lineman in uniform has gotten significant time. Those are statistical oddities for a position group where chemistry is considered paramount. And the Patriots' willingness to rotate players has allowed three rookies to develop, and put the team in position to maintain depth when second-year center Bryan Stork returns in midseason. One executive who's worked with DeGuglielmo described him to me: "He has the interior OL personality. ... I think guys like playing for him because he's honest and they think he equips them with what they need to know preparation-wise to go out on Sunday and be successful. He tells it like it is. He can be firm but also put his arm around a guy when he needs it. Just an all-around good guy that's passionate about ball and offensive-line play." Taking all this into account, it's hard to believe the guy spent 2013 in sports radio in South Carolina after getting fired by the Jets.

3) The Bear minimum: Chicago GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox can't come out and say it, but the feeling around the league is just about unanimous: The new regime inherited a roster in complete disrepair thanks to years of shaky drafting, in part due to a resource-draining 2009 trade for quarterback Jay Cutler. That's why it makes all the sense in the world for the decision makers to tear the house in Chicago right down to the studs, a process seemingly underway with this week's deals to jettison pass rusher Jared Allen and linebacker Jon Bostic. The issue, of course, is that there isn't a whole lot else here that's marketable. A pair of personnel directors ID'd five players with trade value on the roster: Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery, Kyle Fuller and Kyle Long. The later three are 25, 23 and 26, and still on rookie deals, so those are potential building blocks. That leaves Bennett and Forte, both in their late 20s with workable financial situations (Forte is up after this year, Bennett is up after next year). The Bears actively called around to shop Allen last week. Is it possible they could do the same with others? The bottom line is that building draft capital is a priority here -- and for good reason. There are only 14 players drafted by the Bears prior to this year left on the roster, and only three of those guys (Forte, Jeffery and Shea McClellin) with four or more years of experience. Forte is the only draft pick left from the Jerry Angelo era (2001 to 2011). Suffice it to say, that's pretty staggering. And it's pretty obvious why the buzz from rival teams is that Pace and Fox are already positioning the Bears to draft a quarterback in April.

4) Pre-draft misfires: Football's a little different than other sports in that many of its players arrive in the league as bona fide stars, thanks to the immense popularity of the game at the college level. And so this year, the public already knew Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and a number of other guys well. Or at least, people think they did. Perception, in these cases, doesn't always match reality, and Cam Newton's good deed last week (he brought an ice cream truck to a cancer-stricken child's Halloween party an hour from his house) is a good example. At Auburn, Newton was widely seen as an example of what is wrong with college sports -- many perceived he was a selfish opportunist on the take who'd worked (allegedly) with the boosters of the SEC to find a one-year way station. The reality, as far as who scouts saw he was, was much different. They went to The Plains and had a hard time finding people who didn't like Newton. Most left with a story of Newton doing something nice for a janitor or a ball boy or the guy picking up towels three hours after the final gun. And on the flip side, Robert Griffin III had a squeaky-clean public image coming out of Baylor but was dogged in scouting circles by evaluators who went to Waco, and heard the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner had personality quirks and an entitled "AAU" mentality. The difference, of course, is that Newton did little to burnish his reputation with larger populace, while Griffin did plenty.

Three checkdowns

Every game, all season

1) The Colts' decision to shift offensive-line pieces on Sunday was fascinating, considering Chuck Pagano's comments after the team's loss two Mondays ago. The coaches identified and pushed line help as a big need going into the offseason. The offseason's big acquisition, veteran guard Todd Herremans, was one of two guys benched last week, and the only draft pick used on the position group was 255th overall (Denzelle Good made the team, and is now a reserve). And now, Andrew Luck is banged up. It's a problem, and perhaps a reason for Pagano's displeasure.

2) So there's an O-line theme going with this week's notes, continuing with an interesting stat I picked up from a club the other day. There were 40 Week 1 rookie starters across the league. The breakdown, by position: 15 OL; 6 DL; 5 DB; 5 RB; 4 LB; 2 WR; 2 QB; 1 TE. One NFC exec said that tells him that there's an "easier assimilation (for linemen), functional ability there and solid return on investment for OL/DL."

3) It's hard to miss -- when Aaron Rodgers gets a free play (thanks to a defensive penalty), there's a sense in the stadium that something BIG is about to happen. This past Monday night, those big things were 27- and 52-yard connections to James Jones, the former being a touchdown. The important thing? He's aware he has a margin for error. On four other free plays, Rodgers failed to connect twice, hit a 7-yarder and was strip-sacked. Bottom line: He can take risks. And he moves quickly with them. "You step back, they keep going," Chiefs OLB Dee Ford told me. "We practiced that, but we just didn't execute."

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Georgia OLB Leonard Floyd (vs. Alabama, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): Georgia's produced its share of front-seven prospects over the last 15 years, and the sleek, athletic Floyd is the latest -- a versatile defender who's spent much of this, his junior season, out of position at inside linebacker. The 6-foot-4, 231-pounder will be evaluated as an edge rusher by the pros, and he led the Bulldogs last year with six sacks. "I like him a lot," said one AFC college scouting director, who regards Floyd as a first-round talent. "He is playing out of position. He's a speed rusher with length and athleticism. He be very disruptive." Another AFC college director added that Floyd's speed to rush the quarterback is what stands out most, but "he's got the athletic ability to cover," too. When the Georgia coaches do give Floyd a chance to pin his ears back and go this week, he'll likely see some one-on-one time with Alabama's stud sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson. So from an NFL standpoint, this might be the biggest week of the season for Floyd.

College Football 24/7 Hot Topics:

2) North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz (at South Dakota State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN3): You'll have to fire up the laptop for this one, but Wentz might make the effort worth it. Almost annually, there's a quarterback who emerges from the weeds and goes higher than anyone initially thought he would -- and the leader of the four-time defending FCS national champs is a good bet to be that guy in 2016. NDSU did lose already this year, to Montana, and Wentz was affected by a high ankle sprain in that one. But outside some shaky moments in the aftermath of that, Wentz has been rock solid this season, with a sparkling 9:0 TD-to-INT ratio for the 2-1 Bison. Even better, he's showing the requisite traits to be an NFL player, starting with a sturdy 6-foot-6, 235-pound frame. "Big kid, big arm, better athlete than you'd think," one AFC personnel executive said. "I think people will start noticing him late. ... He's a smart kid with tools to work with." An NFC quarterback coach added that he "looks the part." And when asked to compare him to one-time FCS prospect Joe Flacco, the coach said, "He seemed like a better athlete than Flacco, but not quite as good an arm." The big challenges might be few and far between for Wentz, but this week's clash with South Dakota State, another top-10 team in FCS, is one of them.

Extra point

Watching Andy Dalton beat the Ravens on Sunday brought me back to a conversation I had with Jay Gruden in July. We'd begun talking about Robert Griffin III. But the conversation morphed into a larger one on quarterbacking and how, in the Redskins coach's opinion, the position was being turned sideways as a result of chronic, league-wide impatience.

"The bar's been set so high with Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning -- everybody expects that from every young quarterback and it's not gonna happen," Gruden said to me then. "Everybody expected that from Andy when I was in Cincinnati -- and we went to three playoffs in a row, and they're booing him out of the stadium. It's a hard position to play, and you gotta be patient with the young quarterbacks. Back in the day, quarterbacks didn't even play until Year 3."

So I looked this up: Dalton became Cincinnati's starter as a rookie in 2011, and that makes him one of only 13 quarterbacks starting for the same team now as he was then -- meaning 19 clubs have turned over the position in the past four years.

Is the Dalton who threw for 383 yards and three scores on Sunday the best Dalton we've seen? Of course he is, because with that kind of continuity, you can't help but get better. Likewise, Brady has played for one coach and in one system his whole career. Rodgers went through one change in head coach and system, and it was between his first and second seasons, when he wasn't even playing.

"That's part of the matrix of putting together a quarterback, and giving him a real chance," Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said over the phone Thursday. "You draft them because you believe in them, because you think they have all the characteristics to play for your team and lead your organization. Sometimes, it takes time -- and that's not just them, but to get the right guys around them, let the coaches build and get the environment right. Andy's in a great situation, because he had time."

Jackson then added, "You either grow or you deteriorate. And he's continued to grow."

That much was evident in Baltimore. The Bengals were faced with a proud and desperate 0-2 Ravens team, and built and blew a 14-point lead on that group's home turf.

Jackson says that Dalton has improved in every way, but it might be most clear in Dalton's resolve to shake things up this past offseason with his routine, seeking better results in the long run in 2015. And while he might not truly be able to answer all of his critics until January, there were some awfully good signs in September, and more proof that he's taken advantage of the continuity around him -- not to mention the improved health of studs like A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert. Last Sunday's game in Baltimore was proof positive.

"He didn't blink," said Jackson. "I couldn't tell you a year ago we wouldn't have blinked in that situation. On Sunday, no one blinked -- and it was because of him. The turnover [Baltimore returned a Dalton fumble for a touchdown in the fourth quarter], he played a hand in it, and he was gonna make it right. And he was able to make it right, because he said, 'They got me, and I know where they got me, and now I can use that and go get them.' "

And while he did get them, everyone knows the monkey on Dalton's back is gonna stay attached there until he wins a playoff game. That stigma does bother Jackson: "Oh yeah, because I know how hard he works, and the demands I place on him." But Jackson also knows that, particularly with Cincy's rugged October slate, just getting to January won't be easy.

The upshot? Jackson couldn't feel stronger about his quarterback now, and that's in large part because so much is right around him.

"The Bengals have surrounded him with good players, a great environment, the same head coach, and between Jay and I, the same system," Jackson said. "There's never a lot new, so he always hits the ground running. And everyone knows how I feel about him. He's playing as well as anyone right now."

And tucked into that fact are a few lessons a lot of other teams can learn.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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