Aside from the unusual number of fans who arrived at Wembley Stadium in shoulder pads, and aside from the less-than-Carson-Palmer throwing mechanics on display at the NFL Tailgate party's passing contest, the pregame buildup to Sunday's Giants-Dolphins game felt a lot like any other NFL game. An almost tangible anticipation of kickoff, the inevitable jerseys everywhere, the sight of a barbecue that-combined with the horrid weather and aforementionted giddiness-recalled Rich Stadium in late October. It was all precisely what the league envisioned when this date was made, and what it had been building toward since.
The event that jolted me into the moment, however, and reminded me that I was in the city where Ann Boleyn was beheaded and Parliament bombed by the Nazis, was when the crowd broke into "God Save the Queen." It sounded as if 70,000 of the more than 80,000 fans in attendance were belting it out with all they had. It could have been a Euro Cup final. The sheer volume of it made my insides quiver like I was next to a tower of speakers at a rock concert. All around were a sea of English folks, mouths wide open, cords on their necks standing out. I'm not English, but I felt proud. I have been to hundreds of sporting events in America's biggest stadiums, but I have never heard 70,000 fans sing our national anthem as if their lives depended on it.
Notes and asides:
Interested in what will happen now to the 30-foot Jason Taylor action figure. A dumpster behind Wembley? Can't exactly put it on eBay…
Didn't see the sun once during our week in London. Not even a light spot on the clouds.
You ever notice how European TV just looks different than in the States? The picture is hazier, like a U.S. broadcast from the '70s. I kinda like it.
Speaking of the '70s, Cleo Lemon looks exactly like former Steelers quarterback Joe Gilliam - facially and otherwise. He's probably heard this before, but even Lemon's wiry build and whiplike throwing motion resemble the quarterback who preceded Terry Bradshaw. They're from neighboring states (Lemon from Mississippi and Gilliam from Tennessee) and Lemon also wears "Jefferson Street Joe's" number: 17.
The Dolphins should stick with Lemon, give him a chance. Yes, John Beck is a second-round pick, and with the Dolphins not exactly in the playoff hunt, the temptation is to give Beck a look sooner rather than later. But Lemon and Cam Cameron go back a ways. Lemon knows his offense, and Sunday's slog aside, he is executing well and making plays. Lemon is at his physical peak age, still young (28 to Beck's 26) and clearly has the necessary athletic tools. His passer rating isn't great, but it's better than those of Alex Smith, Marc Bulger, Vince Young, and Matt Leinart. Most important, he has that "something" that every winning quarterback must, and like most winning quarterbacks, he doesn't flaunt or abuse it. His teammates love him, respect him, like his playing style, and want to see him succeed. For what it's worth, Lemon had a better day on Sunday than Eli Manning, with far fewer weapons, against a heavier pass rush and a better overall defense. He played well against New England. His first start was a 26-22 loss to the Colts last December. Based on these factors alone, Lemon deserves the extended opportunity that Cam Cameron should give him. In a just world, it wouldn't matter that he was undrafted coming out of college in 2003. For the sake of Dolphins fans, don't make Beck his Bradshaw just yet.
Over the weekend, FOX's John Salley gave Michael Strahan a "Mind the Gap" t-shirt (a popular item based on the English-accented voice who reminds London's Tube riders to step carefully on and off the train). "I think he did it to mess with me," Strahan said after the game, smiling his garage-like smile.
The pitch took an awful beating on Sunday, and not because of the rain. The grass had looked immaculate all week - partially because any soul who dared step on it received a quick Cockney tongue-lashing from the groundskeepers, but we didn't learn until game time that it was as delicate as a putting green (should have listened to England native Marvin Allen; the Dolphins receiver predicted that the biggest adjustment would be texture of the pitch). Put simply, it was trimmed too short for American football. By the end of the first quarter, it looked like the Luftwaffe had made a bombing pass. Owners and NFL brass everywhere made a mental note: Next time, tougher turf.
Couldn't help noticing that the crowd cheered at the wrong times on a few occasions, which was expected. (Although, as one middle-aged attendee asked me: "Is there a wrong toim? The right toim is whenever you feel loik cheering, inn-it?" Touche…) When a Jeff Feagles punt trickled out of bounds at the Dolphins' 1 - which would have received at least a murmur in the States - Wembley offered crickets. (The punt was called back due to penalty.)
On a third-and-long, the crowd erupted when Lemon broke away from pressure and into the open field. They were still roaring when he jogged out of bounds 10 yards short of the first. A perplexed and slightly embarrassed pause welcomed the Dolphins' punting team onto the field.
We were pleasantly surprised, however, by all the times they cheered at the right moments. During a fourth-and-1 in the second quarter, the crowd noise ramped up just before the snap -- just like in the U.S. - then hushed in anticipation when the play was over and the measurement team trotted on.
I suppose it's universal among humans to cheer when a naked man sprints into the midst of a high-profile athletic event and performs as many push-ups as he can in the center of it - on the logo of the sport's governing body no less. (The local security squad's tackling technique should be commended, by the way.) It was one of the louder cheers of the night, but it fell short of the reaction after Lemon's late touchdown pass to Ted Ginn made it a ballgame again. These were the moments the American NFL folks were taking notes on. (Not sure why, but the Wembley fans were decidedly pro-Dolphins. They cheered them when they took the field as if they were Super Bowl champs, amid shooting fire, then booed the Giants entry as if they were the French.)
Overall, I was surprised by the Londoners' passion for our game. (And it is our game, what with other nations racking up world titles in baseball and hoops). I'd estimate that one of every four fans in attendance had an NFL replica jersey on. And not just Peyton Manning and Reggie Bush shirts, either. As NFL UK boss Alistair Kirkwood said, "This will be the only game I know where 32 team jerseys will be represented… This is a celebration of the sport." We saw a Deion Branch jersey, an Urlacher (on a guy who screamed "That Grossman is rubbish, mate!"), a Larry Fitzgerald, and two Vince Youngs. Even saw a Charles Rogers Lions jersey. Our colleague Marshall Faulk should feel proud of the number of Rams 28 jerseys we spotted. A band of blad, inebriated 20-ish fellas (I hesitate to call them hooligans, a bad word in Europe) were seen wearing official NFL gear. Not sure what to make of the fact that they were Michael Vick jerseys. (Ran into a 40-ish bloke in a pub the other night, by the way, who knew every detail of the Vick case. "The fella had dead dogs buried on his propitty, mate!" (Dogfighting was once the rage among England's upper classes.)
Now that it's all said and done, the English received an interesting version of what the NFL suits call "our product." A woeful team against one made woeful by the conditions. The Patriots and, say, the Jaguars, on dry field turf, would have certainly given them a different experience. Would the reaction have been different? Would they be hungrier for more? As NFL UK boss danced the night away at the NFL's private party Sunday night, and as the teams packed their 15,000 pounds of equipment back into their planes, the question remained: Is the world ready for some (more) football?