International Series is Here, But China Still a World Away
Sunday’s Colts-Jaguars game is the first of four the NFL will stage outside our borders this season, a high-water mark for the league. But as is usually the case, the NFL’s sights are on something bigger, well beyond just the six-hour flight from JFK to Heathrow.
For some time, China has been in that field of vision.
A decade ago, in Roger Goodell’s first month on the job, the NFL scheduled a Patriots-Seahawks preseason game for August 2007 in Beijing, before canceling it six months later for a number of reasons. Fast forward to this March, when word started to surface that the league would be ready (again) to put a game there, this time planning it for early in the 2018 regular season. And we haven’t heard a lot about it since.
There’s a reason for that. As it turns out, coming out of the March owners’ meeting, the cart was a few lengths out in front of the horse.
“I would say there’s a low likelihood of it happening,” NFL executive vice-president of International Mark Waller said Tuesday, just before boarding his flight for the UK. “But we’re working hard to see if we can make it work.”
In this week’s Game Plan column, we’ll get into Russell Wilson’s recovery and Matt Ryan’s renaissance. I’ll take a look at how the rebirth of the running back could affect the decision-making of a number of teams. And I’ll close with an early look at the coaching market, after some big news in the college game this week.
We’ll start where the 345 Park suits are focused this week—the International Series, as it starts its 10th season with Indy and Jacksonville kicking off a slate of four contests (three in London, one in Mexico City). And we’ll get that going with the ambition the league has to develop the game in China, the world’s most populous nation and a largely untapped market for the NFL.
So the idea of playing a regular-season game over there sounds great on paper. Beijing has a world-class venue, and hosted the Olympics just eight years ago. The NBA successfully has turned China into a seemingly limitless arena for growth, and it makes sense that other professional leagues would follow suit. On top of that, just the idea of playing over there has certain amount of prestige attached to it.
In practice? Different story altogether.
First, there’s the logistics issue. Beijing is a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles and over 14 hours from New York (flying over the North Pole), a 15-hour time difference from the West Coast and a 12-hour time difference from the East Coast. Fitting that into an NFL team’s schedule would be challenging, to say the least.
The league has toyed with several ideas. One that had some steam behind it was playing at noon Beijing time on the Saturday of opening weekend. That would allow for: A) a 9 p.m. Pacific kickoff on Friday night (good if it’s, say, Rams-Niners); and B) the teams to get home on Saturday nigh. But the truth is, there is no perfect concept.
“When do the teams get back? How do you schedule them? Does it affect the teams coming back?” Waller said. “If we want to do this in China, it has to be a good time for Chinese fans, but also so that U.S. fans can watch. And we want to make sure we can keep growing it.”
That’s where one of the other issues would exist. The NFL’s data shows it has about a half-million fans watching consistently (most of them online) in China. So could they sell out one game? Maybe, but then what? Could you grow it the way you’ve grown in it in the UK, going from one to two to three games annually?
Then, there’s the human rights issue, which came up with the Beijing Olympics, and surely would come up again here. It’s something the league isn’t taking lightly, and an issue they had to confront in Mexico, as well.
“We’re talking with CEOs of other companies that do business in Mexico and China, talking to the governments and embassies in those markets, talking to political figures,” Waller said. “We definitely factor that into the decision-making process. … You can’t live in this day and age and not be globally aware and diligent about it. So it’s definitely part of the initial evaluation, and the final decision.”
Waller explained that it’ll probably be another two months before the league is ready to make a final call on China.
Despite all of this, the idea remains an exciting one. The reality just may be a little farther off than people were led to believe in March.
And while we’re here—and I’m as ready as anyone for the return of the 9:30 a.m. ET kickoff—here are a few other things to keep in mind as Colts/Jags approaches:
• China isn’t the only country vying to hop in the on-deck circle. “We definitely have demand to play in Canada and Germany,” Waller said. “The question is if it’s logistically feasible, and if we have the inventory, and the stadium to play it in.” By “inventory,” Waller is referencing the number of teams willing to give up a home game. The NFL can compel the Rams, Dolphins and Vikings to do it (because of rules that teams in temporary stadiums and future Super Bowl hosts have to), and the Jags are under contract to go the next four years. But the NFL already has committed to playing at least eight games in London and two games in Mexico City over the next two years, meaning the numbers will come into play.
• To break that down—the NFL will play two games in Wembley in both 2017 and ’18, at least two games at the new multipurpose stadium at Tottenham in ’18, and two games at Twickenham and two games in Mexico City over the next two seasons. The Twickenham and Tottenham deals have facilitated growth of the UK project because, for scheduling reasons, the league couldn’t go much further than it already has in adding games at Wembley. As for how demand would dictate it in England, Waller said, “We could definitely play four (this year), and probably do up to six. I don’t have the data to back it up, but my gut says a half-season is doable.”
• The plausibility of an eight-game schedule, of course, raises questions about a permanent team. Waller has told me for a few years that 2022—15 years after the launch of the UK effort—was the target. Asked if that’s still realistic, Waller said, “I still think so. Absolutely.” He’s especially encouraged by not only the popularity of two new NFL shows on the BBC—the Tuesday and Saturday broadcasts average about a million viewers a pop—but also the demographics. It has the youngest audience of any program on the network. Now, the flip side here is that logistics of having a team in the UK six years from now remain, at best, very difficult. Waller and an NFL contingent actually met with the airlines, and the indication they got was air travel should get more comfortable and cabin pressure will become less extreme (which will make flying less stressful on your stomach and circulation), but nothing is coming that will change travel times in “a transformational way.”
• Two big changes will take place during this year’s series. First, and most obvious, is the return to Mexico City. “There’s a lot of work left to be done, but we’re really optimistic (Azteca Stadium) will work,” said Waller. “It looks fantastic. I think the players will be thrilled with temporary locker rooms, and the new hospitality makes it a much better experience for the fans.” The renovations did cut capacity for American football down to about 75,000 (the 2005 game drew 103,467), but as Waller sees it, just about everything else should be better than it was 11 years ago. And Waller reports that the Mexican government was helpful in making it happen, working through details like getting the teams access to fly in and out of a private airport, which will allow Oakland and Houston to leave right after the game and maintain a normal in-season schedule. The other big change this year? The Colts will become the first team to make the London trip without a bye on the other end of it, another test of how having a permanent team there would work.
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1. Russell Wilson’s taking all the hits, and he keeps coming back. When Russell Wilson’s left leg collapsed under the weight of 49ers linebacker Eli Harold, rehab specialist Drew Morcos was on his couch. Two things happened. One, before Wilson left the field, Morcos was on the phone with Wilson’s agent, Mark Rodgers. And Morcos was on his way to the airport to fly to Seattle before Wilson went back in the game. Two, Morcos thought that there was a pretty good chance that Wilson was okay.
Let’s start with the first part. This wasn’t Morcos’ first impromptu trip of the season. Wilson suffered a high ankle sprain in the opener, and that led also led to a late Sunday flight up the West Coast. When Wilson goes down, the people around him know what Wilson’s directive will be—“I’m going to play on Sunday, period,”—and it’s their job to get him ready to go. So after the Seahawks’ season-opening win over the Dolphins, Morcos basically moved in with Wilson for the week, doing round-the-clock work with him to make sure he’d be good to go in Los Angeles the following Sunday. Similarly, the physical therapist is with Wilson now, making sure every last bit of flexibility work gets done. And that brings us to the second part, which will explain why Morcos felt okay when he saw Wilson go down. The preventive work they’ve done has made it so Wilson can rotate his pelvis and trunk over his left hip joint, which makes it so the knee doesn’t take the brunt of hits like the Harold shot. If he didn’t have that hip mobility, Morcos says, “that’s where people blow their knee out. Any of it could’ve happened—ACL, meniscus, fully torn MCL. That’s where the really bad stuff happens.” By the time Morcos was in Seattle late Sunday, they knew it was just an MCL sprain, and he was doing all he could to make sure Wilson wouldn’t stiffen up, which is why it was so important for him to make the trip up as quickly as he could.
All of this should illustrate why a lot of the best athletes invest like they do to surround themselves with specialists. Like Tom Brady and Drew Brees do, Wilson has assembled a sizable team (trainers, chef/nutritionist, mental/emotional coach, strength and conditioning coach, personal assistant, etc.) to ensure his well-being. Days like last Sunday are where the insurance policy pays off. Without all the work, maybe Wilson is out for the season and getting his knee rebuilt. Or maybe that would’ve happened before now. So Wilson goes on a sprained left MCL and high ankle sprain in his left leg on Sunday. He can, as the saying goes, bend like Gumby. There are reasons for that.
2. Will J.J. Watt ever be the same? Back injuries are always scary for football players, and this is the third one for Watt inside a year. In March, he told a Houston radio station that he played the 2015 season with a herniated disk, in addition to the groin injury (that necessitated surgery) and broken hand that were already known. Then, over the summer, this disc flared up again, necessitating his July surgery. And now, he’s going through a third back “event,” with perhaps a second surgery to come. In these situations, there’s always a rush to assign blame. Just understand that this one is tricky. Watt was cleared, and as Bill O’Brien said there was an effort to be as smart as possible, on both the part of the team and Watt. The flip side is that Watt beat the normal timetable to return from a discectomy. So was he rushed?
In some cases, discectomies take close to three months to come back from, but the expectation was it would take 6-8 weeks for Watt to recover, and his surgery happened seven weeks and two days before the opener. And while there was a feeling inside the Houston organization that Watt was not completely right over the season’s first three weeks, players often need time just to work themselves back from these kinds of injuries. And if the player and the medical people are all-in, is it the football staff’s place to jam on the brakes? Generally, the answer to that question is no. There are plenty of moving parts here. And those will spin right forward into the future, where the Texans may have to be careful with their franchise player. Watt was among the top five defensive linemen in football in percentage of snaps played in 2012 (88.0%), ’13 (94.1%), ’14 (93.0%) and ’15 (96.2%), and those numbers weren’t dipping much as this year began. He was tops among Texan defensive linemen in snaps played in all three of Houston’s games (50, 58, 49), and was in on a total of 86.3% of the team’s defensive snaps, which put him 10th among all NFL defensive linemen. On top of that, those three games were played in an 11-day stretch, thanks to Houston drawing a Thursday appointment for Week 3 (and that could open an entirely different argument about TNF that we don’t have time to get into now). Now, Watt is Houston’s best player, and he prides himself on never coming out, and the team always has been better for it. But when he comes back late this year (at age 27) or next season (28), it’s certainly fair now to ask if it’s time to manage him a little differently.
3. Jaguars on the ropes. Gus Bradley was considered the ideal hire in Jacksonville for a very specific reason four years ago—his ability to teach and develop talent, which was apparent in the growth of his Seattle defenses the three years previous. “It was a long-term premise,” said one source, with strong background on the process. “The culture had to be built. The team had to be rebuilt. It wasn’t going to happen quickly. And the idea was that everyone would have the chance to prove themselves when the talent was good enough.” There’s a strong feeling inside the building that the talent now is good enough. Add that to the recent trend of firing coaches or front-office people on the way back from London—the Dolphins, Lions and Raiders all did so inside the past two years—and it’s understandable why all eyes will be on Bradley when the Jags hit the Wembley stage Sunday morning.
Where I’d pump the brakes here, at least for the time being, would be by taking a look at the actions of ownership. Fair to say, Shad Khan’s been patient, and he won’t make a franchise-shifting decision until he has clear answers, and I’m not sure he has those after just four games. The Jags have six new starters on defense, and rank seventh against the pass after games against Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco. The offense needs to be better, no question, but the bigger problems are correctable—Jacksonville is second in the league in penalties (34) and fourth in giveaways (7). That comes down to coaching too, but is also indicative of a team with a lot of moving parts coming together. And Bradley’s teams generally have been better after the bye (9-14) than before it (3-25). Now, all of this may not matter much if Andrew Luck lights up Jacksonville on the national stage. We know that billionaires don’t like that brand of humiliation, and we’ve seen it shift thinking in the past. But Khan’s never shown himself to be overly reactionary, and short of wanting to give Doug Marrone an audition or trying to prevent things from getting toxic, I’m not sure there’s an overwhelming benefit to pulling the plug now. On the surface, it makes more sense to see if Bradley can turn the potential the Jags have continued to show into production over a larger sample size than four games. If Jacksonville finishes with double-digit losses again, hard decisions should be made. For now, giving Bradley the chance to avoid that would be smart.
4. Adrian Peterson, Le’Veon Bell and the young tailback renaissance. Next March, Adrian Peterson will turn 32 and the Vikings will have to make a decision on whether to keep him in the fold at $18 million (or, more likely, negotiate a Larry Fitzgerald-like compromise deal with him). Around the same time, the Steelers will have to make a call on re-signing the star-crossed Le’Veon Bell, tagging him at around $11 million, or letting him walk. Could both Peterson and Bell switch teams next year? Don’t rule it out. And here’s why: next year’s draft class is expected to be historic.
Two years ago, 22 backs were drafted, including Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, T.J. Yeldon, Ameer Abullah, Tevin Coleman, Duke Johnson, David Johnson, Matt Jones, Jeremy Langford and Jay Ajayi. Last year, Ezekiel Elliott went fourth overall. Next year, this renaissance will kick into another gear, with Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, and Royce Freeman all considered to have front-line NFL potential right now. And there are others like Jalen Hurd who could work their way into the mix. “Based on watching LSU (Fournette) and FSU (Cook) on film, the class is strong as s---,” said a top personnel man from one team. “It’s a rebirth of the position.” So say you’re the Vikings or the Steelers and you’re drafting 24th (the average of their draft spots last year). You’re not getting Fournette there, and you probably won’t get Cook. But you will have a shot at a good player at that position, and the 24th pick last year (William Jackson) signed a contract worth about $2.4 million per year. Now, that’s not to say that they’ll get a Peterson or Bell there. Chances are, they won’t. But if you consider age and money with Peterson, and money and off-field issues with Bell, it’s easy to see why Pittsburgh and Minnesota might think, down the line, that 2017 would be the right time to overhaul the position on their roster.
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• The early results the Bengals have gotten from their 27th-ranked run game haven’t matched the investment they’ve made, both in money and picks sunk into the line and backfield. But internally, going into tonight’s game, they view the problems as very fixable. So here’s what you want to watch—how the linemen finish blocks against the Dolphins’ front. What the coaches have found is that “one-person mistakes” have cost them big time, and as one assistant put it, “it’s a different guy each time.” A lot of those have been guys falling off blocks late in plays. And so that’s been a big emphasis this week, even without there being any padded practices during the three days of work.
• Tough to imagine a QB blowing the roof off September would fly under the radar, but that’s what seems to be happening in Atlanta. Matt Ryan has hit on 70.9 percent of his passes for 970 yards, seven TDs and a pick in three games, and both offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Matt LeFleur deserve credit. The play-calling has made a difference—65 of Ryan’s 108 attempts have been throws within 10 yards, and he’s completed 56 of them. His offseason core-strength work also has helped, and he’s been better with the deep ball as a result (he’s completed 5 of 8 throws going over 20 for 208 yards). And he’s also got a better cast, which has made him less reliant on Julio Jones. So I’m really interested to see how he looks the next three weeks against Carolina, Denver and Seattle, elite defenses that don’t concede the short stuff.
• Did the Jets roll the dice on Austin Seferian-Jenkins? They most certainly did. But this didn’t come out of nowhere. New York discussed trading for the star-crossed, but physically freakish tight end back in August, and have done a lot of work on him. And they believe they have the right influence for him in Brandon Marshall, who brought his own question marks to New York and has been nothing but a positive force in their locker room. If it works, it adds to the basketball team of receivers they have. If it doesn’t, it won’t cost them much. They owe him $557,969 for the rest of this year, and have him for $1.14 million next year.
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TWO COLLEGE PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Michigan S/LB Jabrill Peppers (vs. Wisconsin, ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET): The safety/linebacker/Mr. Everything for the Wolverines has piled up 30 tackles, 9.5 tackles for losses, and 2.5 sacks on defense, and he’s averaging 40.5 yards on his two kickoff returns and 22.7 yards on his 10 punt returns (with one touchdown). He hasn’t played as much on offense this year, but he’s gone for 24 yards on his two carries there, after running up 151 scrimmage yards in 2015 as a tailback/slot receiver/wildcat quarterback. And, well, you get the picture. “He’s a special player,” said one NFC personnel exec. “He’s a bigger version of Honey Badger. Great blitzer. Tough as s---. Excellent punt returner. I’ve seen enough. You just have to see how fast he runs.” Our exec went on to say that if Peppers runs well, he’s likely to be drafted inside the Top 10 next April, presuming the redshirt sophomore declares. And the exec’s Tyrann Mathieu comparison is how he sees Peppers projecting to the pros, in a dual safety/nickel corner role. The rising demand for such malleable defensive players in recent years won’t hurt Peppers either, and this showdown with Wisconsin likely will be one of the first pieces of tape most evaluators pop in come draft season.
2. Clemson QB DeShaun Watson (vs. Louisville, ABC, 8 p.m.): Watson came into the season as the presumptive favorite to be the first quarterback taken in the 2017 draft. Since, the Tigers have looked a little uneven, despite ringing off four straight wins to start the season, which is reflected in how they’ve fallen from No. 2 to 5 in the polls. Louisville, on the other hand, has risen from 19th to 3rd in the AP poll, and the Cardinals’ quarterback, Lamar Jackson, has swiped much of the attention Watson was getting coming into the year. So this one will provide a good stage for the Clemson junior, who still has plenty of questions left to answer. “Very good athlete with a good arm, great intangibles, but average accuracy and decision-making,” said one AFC college scouting director of Watson. “He’ll need time to acclimate to a pro system.” This particular scout said that he wouldn’t spend a 1 on Watson as it stands now (though he conceded Watson would almost certainly go somewhere in the first round. “I’d want to see improved accuracy,” he said. “And also for him to settle down, seems like he’s rushing things a little bit.” Given this week’s big-game circumstances, we should know a little more by midnight on Saturday.
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Les Miles’ ouster marked the start of the spinning of the coaching carousel, which seems to come earlier every year.
So LSU is open. It seems like USC could be soon, too. And the goodwill of Texas’ season-opening win was erased by a loss to a mediocre Cal team, which means Charlie Strong’s future is far from certain in Austin.
The prime names for these jobs will be, of course, mostly those at that level of the game, like Tom Herman and Bobby Petrino. Chip Kelly always will be discussed as a possibility to return to the college ranks.
But there are also less obvious names in the NFL ranks that potentially could draw interest from college programs. So in an effort to relate the Miles news to the pros this week, I asked around. (I left off some names, like Josh McDaniels and Jim Schwartz, because I believe they’ll get NFL jobs soon.) Here’s the list, in alphabetical order:
49ers quarterbacks coach Ryan Day: A bright young assistant who was a quarterback for Chip Kelly at New Hampshire, and has coached the position for Kelly in Philly and San Francisco the last two years, Day has three years of experience as a college offensive coordinator. He also worked for Urban Meyer at Florida, which can’t hurt, and he’s just 37 years old.
Bears running backs coach Stan Drayton: Drayton was a top recruiter for Urban Meyer at both Florida and Ohio State and has strong ties to the talent-rich Miami area. He’s also got a good reputation as a teacher, with the way he developed Ezekiel Elliott in Columbus serving as Exhibit A.
Texans offensive coordinator George Godsey: Godsey spent his first seven years coaching at UCF under George O’Leary, who he played for at Georgia Tech. Also, the Texans OC helped Bill O’Brien find Christian Hackenberg during O’Brien’s transition from New England to Penn State. Godsey has a future as a head coach somewhere, so it’s conceivable that colleges would call this year.
Browns associate head coach Pep Hamilton: His re-entry to the NFL hasn’t been smooth but he worked under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw—wildly successful college coaches—at Stanford and was considered at Vanderbilt two years ago. Hamilton’s also still young (42) and the fact that his background is with quarterbacks doesn’t hurt.
Jaguars offensive line coach Doug Marrone: Before the messy exit from Buffalo, Marrone was known, in part, for the impressive rebuild he pulled off at his alma mater. Dead as can be when he arrived in 2009, Syracuse shared a conference title three years later and the Orange haven’t been the same since.
Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay: His star has risen so quickly that the 30-year-old may be an NFL head coach before colleges even get the chance to call, but he’d make a lot of sense for a program looking for energy and buzz.
Jaguars offensive coordinator Greg Olson: He was Drew Brees’ position coach a generation ago at Purdue, and has made his bones with quarterbacks for 25 years. More recently, he’s helped break in first-round picks Josh Freeman, Blaine Gabbert, Derek Carr and Blake Bortles. He’s never been a head coach. And at 53, the idea of going back to college to do it could entice him.
Dolphins special teams coach Darren Rizzi: The level of respect for Rizzi is reflected in how he was held over from Tony Sparano’s staff to Joe Philbin’s in Miami, and now to Adam Gase’s. Rizzi also was a key assistant during Greg Schiano’s Rutgers rebuild, and has done two stints as a college head coach—one at New Haven and another at Rhode Island.
Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan: Would Shanahan go? He’s 37 and he’s been an OC for nine years, so it’s possible he’d want to get his feet wet as a head coach. Remember, O’Brien went to Penn State after knocking on the door for NFL jobs, so it’s not hard to see another rising young guy doing it. Shanahan played at Texas and coached at UCLA, which means he’s not foreign to big college programs.
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula: In Tuscaloosa, Shula may always be known as Nick Saban’s predecessor, but it’s not like he was a total failure. He walked into a chaotic mess, and won 10 games in his third year. He got a new six-year deal the following February, then was fired 10 months later. He’s still just 51, is a bright offensive mind, and would make sense for a lot of schools.
Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel: The 41-year-old established himself as a top recruiter in his three years at Ohio State, one spent under Luke Fickell and two under Urban Meyer. With a 14-year NFL career in the books, he’s got credibility on several levels, and the charisma to carry a program. And as for his coaching chops, he turned down an offer to be Kelly’s DC in San Francisco last January.
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