Before I get to the final column of 2013, which will step away from the race towards the Super Bowl for a few moments and look back on some of the highlights of the past 12 months, a few quick thoughts on the final weekend of action in the NFL.
- The Green Bay Packers are a flawed team but they are a dangerous team with Aaron Rodgers back at the helm at quarterback. As evidenced against the Chicago Bears on Sunday night, Rodgers is a big-time performer who makes those around him that much better.
- The return of Randall Cobb is also a real boost for the Packers and I cannot wait for their mouth-watering clash with the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field on Sunday night.
- It’s time to issue serious downgrades for the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens, who laid big-time eggs in games they had to win in Week 17. And low marks should be handed out to quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Joe Flacco. In big games where they would have been expected to lead their teams from the front, each of those passers tossed up three damaging interceptions.
- Miami do not deserve to be in the playoffs, by the way. They turned over the Tom Brady-led Patriots in Week 15 and went into the final two games of the year knowing a win against Thad Lewis (Buffalo Bills) and Geno Smith (NY Jets) would get them in. And they were not even close in either game.
- The San Diego Chargers have more lives than the local Cattery. I thought they were dead and buried against Kansas City but they survived and now face the Bengals on the road in the wild card round. The Bengals are formidable at home, but Philip Rivers and a relevant-again Ryan Mathews always give the Chargers a puncher’s chance.
Now let’s get to some of the highlights of the past year… Some of these are very personal to me and some I am sure you were all a part of as the game continues to grow on this side of the pond.
I’ve tried to work through these chronologically but the memory is a bit shaky these days so forgive me if these go out of order at all.
A super run
Cast your mind back to this time last year and you, like me, were probably not expecting much from the Baltimore Ravens as the playoffs approached. But they went on what I think has to be one of the best post-season runs in NFL history.
The win at home against the Indianapolis Colts might have been expected in the wild card round of the playoffs but who gave Baltimore a hope in hell on the road against Denver and then New England? To cap their impressive march, the Ravens knocked off San Francisco in what turned out to be a thrilling Super Bowl in New Orleans.
Of course, what made Baltimore’s championship chase all the more special was the fact it was the last ride of future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis. I will never forget the moment he turned all Rocky Balboa just moments after the Super Bowl, grabbing the microphone and hollering to Ravens fans: “Yo Baltimore!”
I’ve been very fortunate to host a variety of fan nights for the NFL over the past 12 months and really enjoyed travelling around the country with the likes of John Sullivan, Kyle Rudolph, Harrison Smith, Mark Brunell, Jeff Reinebold, Andrew Luck, Jared Allen, Donte Whitner and ‘Big Ben’ Roethlisberger.
Those nights are a lot of fun and hopefully we can bring you plenty more of them in the future. As well as learning a great deal from the players, those events are also great for meeting the lifeblood of the game in this country – the British American football fans.
If you’ve not been to one yet, make sure you get to an NFL fan night in 2014. Hopefully, we come to a town near you soon!
Meeting Gus Bradley
I first met Jacksonville’s new head coach at the Super Bowl in New Orleans and I was immediately impressed. He was energetic, personable and clearly had a vision. And he has never strayed from his message that his players have to “get better” each and every week.
I’ve met and spoken with Gus several times since then – both in Jacksonville and here in the UK – and I continue to strongly believe he is going to get the job done in Florida. He is going to turn the Jags into contenders and I think he will achieve that goal sooner rather than later.
I also like his attitude when it comes to the Jags playing in London. He does not automatically expect fans to support the Jags because they are committed to the UK. He fully accepts that the Jacksonville Jaguars have to “earn the support” of the British fans. I like that approach and, as you will have gathered by now, I really like Gus Bradley !
Free agency frenzy
There are too many big-name moves to recall now but it was great in March to sit at home one night and follow the transactions across the NFL as the free agency signing period opened.
It was especially noteworthy to see Wes Welker move from the New England Patriots to the Denver Broncos and I think that is a move that has worked out well for both parties. Welker has been a solid addition to the Broncos attack and Julian Edelman has proven himself to be a more than capable replacement in Boston.
The Miami Dolphins were also massive movers and shakers in free agency although it is fair to say now – with the benefit of hindsight – not all of those moves have panned out and I think general manager Jeff Ireland is on the hot seat.
Up close with greatness – part 1
When I was in Minnesota in March, the Vikings players were in attendance but they were only working out in the gym. When I returned in June, I enjoyed a real treat as I got to watch Adrian Peterson from the sidelines as the Vikings held an early-summer mini-camp.
Peterson is even more impressive when you watch him up close and personal, even if such practice conditions take away his ability to break tackles, which is obviously one of his strong points.
Purple Jesus was making his team-mates miss for fun at the practice session I attended and he even had his own defenders laughing as they attempted to chase him downfield. I remember watching ‘All Day’ in action on that sultry afternoon in Minneapolis and thinking that I was seeing a true legend of the game. I later discovered for myself how bone-crushing Peterson’s hand shake can be – when he greeted me after practice he shook my hand and laughed at the audible pop of my knuckles.
The growth of university football
I have been very fortunate to host a series of events in the British University League in recent seasons, including the championship game in Leeds and the annual Xplosion kickoff event in Birmingham
Student football continues to go from strength to strength and there have been stories of 400 or 500 people signing up to be involved in the American football team at Fresher’s Fairs. That is an indication of how much the sport is being recognised in universities up and down Great Britain.
The introduction of NFL games at Wembley Stadium has encouraged more students to try their hand at American football. In turn, there are plenty of young players who have given American football a go who have now become NFL fans.
Whichever way you slice this chicken and egg situation, it is good news for the NFL and the British football community. If you can, you should check out a university game in the New Year. For more information visit www.britishamericanfootball.org
NFL fans take over Regent Street
What incredible scenes as more than 500,000 fans took over Regent Street ahead of the Wembley clash between the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers. There are two things I think were important on this day with regard to the future of American football in the UK.
- There were a lot of NFL jerseys in the crowd in the heart of London on that Saturday afternoon. But, importantly, there were also a large number of people who were experiencing what the NFL has to offer for the first time. I’m sure the NFL hit on its goal of creating new fans that weekend and lots of them. And that is vital as we continue to grow the game on these shores.
- There were a large number of young fans in attendance. Again, that bodes very well for the future of the game and it was really cool to see so many kids trying their hand at the sport of American football.
Finally, it was an amazing scene on Regent Street when Adrian Peterson took to the stage. As I introduced him and looked out into the crowd, it was a sea of NFL jerseys – mostly Vikings at that time – and a wall of camera phones. It was a memorable sight.
A thriller at Wembley Stadium
Who would have thought such an enticing match-up would feature two winless teams? But if the International Series is going to serve up entertainment like the Vikings and Steelers offered at the end of September, they can send me winless teams every year.
The Vikings jumped out to a big lead but as has been the case for them all year long, they could not put the opposition away and the Steelers – showing a fierce desire to win behind the passing of Ben Roethlisberger – came storming back.
It was a thrilling finish as the Vikings produced just enough pass rush – and a timely turnover – to win the game by a 34-27 scoreline. One other highlight on this day, for me, was the pre-game. The Vikings fans were making deafening noise, the Steelers fans were waving their Terrible Towels, David Haye was involved in the festivities and the stage was set for Adrian Peterson to receive the warmest of Wembley welcomes.
Up close with greatness – part 2
I cannot tell you how I got on at this stage because Sky Sports are still going to run a feature on the day I attempted to catch passes from Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. But I can tell you it was a day I will never forget.
I don’t care if it was not in a proper game – I got to line up and run routes for arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. That was a pinch-yourself moment and something I will always appreciate.
I’m not sure Joe was bothered one way or the other, but I certainly had a good time. Keep an eye out for that feature on Sky Sports in the New Year and see if I embarrassed myself or escaped with a shred or two of dignity !
The Fan Rally
This remains one of my favourite days in the UK American football calendar. And this year’s Fan Rally holds many special memories for me – Jim Harbaugh launching passes as far as possible across Trafalgar Square, Jaxson De Ville ripping my brand new jacket on stage and, of course, big-name interviews throughout the day.
There was no bigger star on stage than Montana and he brought the magic to the occasion, along with the players and coaches from the Jags and 49ers.
I can tell you for a fact that those associated with the competing teams – from ownership down to the players preparing for the big game the next day – were taken aback by the fan support in the UK.
Three games for 2014
… Which is another reason why the NFL is bringing three games to Wembley Stadium in 2014. This was big news for me as we entered the final months of 2013. It was further evidence of growth in the United Kingdom.
I cannot wait for the NFL to sell out three regular season games in 2014 and some of the biggest stars in the league are heading our way next year, led by Calvin Johnson, of the Detroit Lions.
How cool will it be to see Megatron grace Wembley Stadium?
So it has been quite a 2013 for the NFL and for American football fans in the UK. We have been treated to some big-name players on tour, two games at Wembley Stadium with the promise of three to come, and thrilling action each and every week during the regular season.
Who can ever forget Week 14 when the snow games unfolded across the United States? It was stirring stuff and will live long in the memory.
It has been that kind of year and I’m sure 2014 will offer up plenty of highlights along the way, starting this weekend when the playoffs begin.
Happy New Year and everyone enjoy the playoffs and everything the NFL has to offer in the coming 12 months!