By the Numbers - Week 8

What a weekend!

I witnessed Rob Gronkowski destroy a microphone at Trafalgar Square, I witnessed some fans running some rather interesting pass patterns at the tailgate party (I’m talking to you, Big Red), I saw more than 84,000 pack into Wembley Stadium and I witnessed an absolute master class in quarterback play from one of the greatest who ever lived in Tom Brady.

The end result – 45-7 to the Patriots – may not have been the best conclusion to a week of NFL activity in the United Kingdom, but it was another fantastic International Series event and I am genuinely so proud of the British fans who took over London this weekend.

It was bitterly cold at the NFL Fan Rally on Saturday – my mum always warned me not go out without a vest! – and there were further occasional showers to add some real chill to the bones. Yet more than 45,000 fans packed into the iconic setting and never left.

That takes some dedication but they were having a blast and it was great to look out from the stage and see all 32 NFL teams well represented.

It was more of the same at the tailgate party, with the only difference being that Darren Fletcher and I got to throw some passes around the field and generally act like a couple of fortunately-positioned fans for a few hours. Which is exactly what we are!

Having seen Fletch fill the air with wobbly footballs though, I wonder how he is ever going to be able to criticise Tim Tebow in the future. Luckily, he brought Internet Rich with him and he was even worse!

There will always be stories surfacing among the American media about “puzzled fans” or a “quiet stadium during TV time-outs” but I maintain that fans in this country are as knowledgeable – if not more so – than their American cousins.

As Robert Kraft reiterated on Saturday at the Fan Rally, we have to start thinking very seriously about the possibility of a London NFL franchise. We may not be ready just yet – and some die-hard fans may be unwilling to change their team after so many years – but the NFL is definitely going to continue down that road.

And it’s hard to argue with their belief that it can work here in the UK.

There were 84,004 fans inside Wembley Stadium on Sunday night, merchandise was flying off the shelves at the tailgate party and I’m sure there was a fair amount of food and drink consumed.

Our game was the largest in the NFL this past weekend and the activities taking place around the contest itself showed me, once again, that there is a growing appetite for the NFL here in the UK.

Jeff Fisher may not echo these sentiments this morning but let the good times roll.

And we get to do it all twice over next year !

Now onto this week’s numbers...

131.1... That is the outstanding passer rating posted by Tom Brady as he led the New England Patriots on their demolition of the Rams on Sunday night. Brady looked right at home inside Wembley Stadium as he hit on 23 of 35 passes for 304 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Brady is not only one of the best in his era – he is one of the very best of all time. Having played in five Super Bowls and won three of them, Brady has always been in the same bracket of people like Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas in my mind. I have seen him play twice this year and he never fails to amaze me with the way he can dissect a defence. Incredibly accurate and intelligent to boot, Brady picked apart the Rams at Wembley Stadium and once he got on a roll, this was never a contest.

8-146-2... I had said leading up to this game at Wembley Stadium that the player I am most looking forward to seeing in person is Rob Gronkowski, of the New England Patriots, and the big tight end didn’t disappoint. The last time I saw him he was a non-factor in the Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants but this time around, he was the mismatch nightmare who has dominated the NFL in recent seasons. He was just too big, strong and talented for the Rams to handle and he caught 8 passes for 146 yards and 2 touchdowns. It’s amazing to me that Gronkowski probably would have played offensive tackle 20 years ago yet he is now the focal point of the most efficient passing attack in the game. The Gronk is also developing a reputation for interesting touchdown celebrations, as evidenced by his ‘changing of the guard’ at Wembley on Sunday night. On a team packed with big names, Gronkowski gives Tom Terrific a run for his money in the stardom stakes.

54 and 283... The pressure continues to build on New York quarterback Mark Sanchez after his Jets were “blown away” (Rex Ryan’s words, not mine) by the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. The Dolphins ran out 30-9 winners and what was worrying from a Jets point of view is that Sanchez only mustered 283 passing yards from 54 attempts. That is a paltry 5.2 yards per attempt. Ryan seems intent on sticking with Sanchez and I don’t blame him – Tebow won’t get any more out of these receivers. However, there is an argument that could be made for the emotional spark Tebow brings and to the punch he gives to the running game. I don’t rate him as a passer but even I stepped on the Tebow Bus in 2011 for a while when magical things seemed to happen week in and week out on his watch. Whatever Ryan decides, the Jets need to play with a sense of urgency from here on out. Halfway through this season, they’re 3-5 and in the basement of the AFC East.

Monday Musings...

  • I thought Bill Belichick made a masterful call in the second quarter of the game at Wembley Stadium on Sunday night. The Rams were about to grab the early momentum. The game was tied at 7-7 and St. Louis had just stuffed the Patriots near the goal-line on three straight plays. The emotional energy that can come from a goal-line stand can be a huge in a game, especially one where the Rams had enjoyed some early success. But Belichick rolled the dice and went for it on fourth down. With an offense as prolific as his, you can afford to give up the occasional chip-shot field goal. Had the move failed, Sam Bradford and the Rams would have been under huge pressure and would have started from within the shadow of their own goal-posts. The ensuing 1-yard touchdown run by Shane Vereen only made the score 14-7 with more than 44 minutes to play, but I think it served as a dagger in the Rams’ hearts and was one of the major moments in the contest.
  • I’ve witnessed fans in Philadelphia call for the head of Eagles coach Andy Reid during the midst of playoff seasons. So I would imagine he is not the most popular guy in town this morning after his Eagles were manhandled by the Atlanta Falcons during the course of a 30-17 defeat on home soil. The Eagles are now 3-4 and in danger of falling out of the playoff race in the ultra-competitive NFC. Reid has long been a successful coach in the NFL but his message might be getting old in Philadelphia now. While I think he would be snapped up by another team very quickly, Reid might be on his way out in Philadelphia. He was told in no uncertain terms by owner Jeffrey Lurie that last year’s 8-8 record was embarrassing and unacceptable, yet he may end up doing even worse in 2012. Only a strong finish and an extended playoff run can save Reid now. But I wonder if only a Super Bowl appearance can save him now. Based on the way the Eagles are playing, this might be the last year for Reid in Philadelphia. And he might be taking Michael Vick to the airport with him because I cannot see the Eagles signing up for the final lucrative (for Vick) years of his big contract signed a few seasons back.
  • If you look at no other play from this past NFL weekend, make sure you go back and find Vick Ballard’s outstanding effort to get into the end zone in overtime against the Tennessee Titans. The rookie running back of the Indianapolis Colts took an Andrew Luck pass 16 yards to the end zone to give his team a 19-13 win in overtime. But the words will never do justice to his effort and the way he put his body on the line. Ballard was losing his balance and racing towards the sidelines when he leapt into the air, turned in mid-air and was lying horizontal on his back about three feet off the ground. Whereas most of us would brace ourselves for a nasty fall onto our backs, Ballard extended the ball backwards over his head and broke the plane of the goal-line just as he was nailed by a Titans defensive back. I don’t care about the nitty gritty of whether he got in or not – it was ruled a touchdown and it was one of the greatest individual efforts I have ever seen. And now the Colts are 4-3 and while they will have some more downs along the way, they’re heading in the right direction and can feel good about their progress to date.

Final Thought

Running out of energy now after a truly incredible week that will long live in the memory... game good... British fans great... proud and privileged to have worked on this game for Sky Sports and the NFL... looking forward to two games next year... must get home for a rest... Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz !