Welcome to Week Under Review where I’ll share quick thoughts about Week 11, but first a look at tonight’s second NFL experiment in Mexico City...
In 2005, the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals squared off in the NFL’s first regular season game in Mexico City. Despite the fact that the teams were two of the league’s bottom-feeders at the time, the masses packed Azteca Stadium, with attendance topping out at 103,467, an NFL record. Bear in mind, a much more crucial event to the region—the under-14 World Cup final—was played that same day. But still fans came out to Azteca Stadium in droves, which illustrated both their intrigue and thirst for American football in the region.
Eleven years later, the NFL is back in Mexico City, this time with the Raiders and Texans facing off on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, the first international broadcast for that crew. ESPN has NFL rights in Mexico and throughout Spanish-speaking Latin America, and has built a stronghold in the region. Last year, the network opened a studio in Mexico City, just 10-15 minutes from Azteca Stadium.
ESPN Deportes produces a Spanish version of NFL Live from this studio, where former Super Bowl-winning kicker Raul Allegre is a mainstay. In addition, Allegre is the analyst for Monday Night Football on Deportes, which has been broadcasting alongside the English-speaking version since ESPN secured the rights in 2006. So yes, he’s the Jon Gruden of Deportes. In advance of the NFL’s return to Mexico City, I chatted with Allegre, a native of Torreon, Mexico, about the passion for the NFL in Mexico City, the possibility of more games in the region and what on earth is happening with his former position.
SI:What do you believe is the main reason there has been over a decade between NFL games in Mexico City?
RA: Number one is the stadium. The stadium was outdated. The locker rooms were very small. They were designed for soccer teams, not football teams. Soccer teams have 23 players plus whatever staff, so maybe tops of 30-35 people all together. A football team carries more just on the playing squad. So you have 53 players plus upwards of 15 or 20 coaches plus trainers and equipment people. So the stadium couldn’t handle that.
They didn't have the facilities for the press. Nowadays you have to have a flawless Wi-Fi connection to be able to review plays, and sometimes it's done through fiber optic, so the group that reviews the plays in New York City has to have a live feed that is crystal clear. I think Azteca just didn't have that and there wasn't any other stadium in Mexico that could meet the requirements. My colleagues in Mexico City who have been to the stadium tell me they did a wonderful job. And I think that hopefully it'll be the rebirth of a long-standing series of games in Mexico, not just one game but maybe two or three games just like London.
SI:Roger Goodell has talked a lot about a potential franchise in London. This is admittedly a premature question, but do you think there’s any path to that in Mexico City?
RA: I think both of those long shots, if you ask me. I know that London has the stadium and most likely the economy that can support it. Logistically I don't care how they cut it and slice it, it would be a nightmare for NFL teams. Having been [an NFL] player, I know that every Monday and Tuesday teams like to try out guys just to have a backup list of players. Just imagine somebody in California who needs to go [to London] on a Monday, come back on Tuesday for an overnight trip. It's easy to do in the United States. It's not so easy to go to London. I mean [even from] the East Coast teams, that’s still six hours. It's a long shot for that to work on the logistical side. I have read a lot of proposals and not a lot of them are the type of proposals that would soothe an NFL coach.
In Mexico, the problem is different; the big challenge is to find a stadium. Maybe Azteca Stadiun could be the one if it's truly up to the NFL standard. But still the transfer fee last time I checked was north of $500 million. There is also the cultural and language barrier. So both proposals are tough.
Logistically, Mexico would not be a problem because Mexico is on Central Time. I mean they did the longest stretch would be for Seattle or New England. Now you are talking between four and six hours. A six hours flight, which is not different than going from San Diego to New England or from Seattle to Miami. So logistically it would not be a problem but economically and culturally it would be a different story.
SI: I have seen you comment on the audience in Mexico and Latin America being very sophisticated with their understanding of football. Does that spill into your broadcast? Do you call games any differently than, say, Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden because they might call it assuming that fans inherently understand the game’s history or what a zone read is?
RA: Well, I think we have a challenge and here’s ours: everybody wants to attract the casual audience. I know that's the way they choose to direct the prime time games. If you pay attention they’re different than the Sunday afternoon games. The way you see the shots in the Sunday games, you see more of formations and the players and they go to the action on the field for four or five seconds before the ball is snapped. You see a broadcast for Sunday night and Monday night and they have a variety of shots, close ups of the QBs. They may have a shot of the coach, the cheerleaders the fans and maybe with two or three seconds that will go to the play. They try and attract the casual fan, the fan that is not as sophisticated. So that is the challenge for Sean and Jon.
For us, we have two types of fans: the highly sophisticated and the newcomer. So you have to have a broadcast intelligent enough for those that are sophisticated fans. At the same time we have a huge audience primarily in Latin America south of Mexico that is just now beginning to get interested in football. They don't necessarily understand the rules and they don't necessarily pick up on the nuances of the game. You don't want to have a broadcast that is going to go over their heads. So sometimes I may be a little bit more repetitive with regards to rules and why teams do that, but knowledgeable fans have learned to accept it knowing all of the fans who want to become part of the mix and part of the broadcast. Even in Mexico, there are those just now getting acquainted with American football.
SI:I saw there's a huge poster of Derek Carr already outside Azteca Stadium. Just how popular are the Raiders in Mexico City (and I guess the Texans).
RA: Arturo Olive, the G.M. for NFL Mexico showed us a graphic a year ago when he was a guest on our show, NFL Live. The Cowboys and the Steelers were neck and neck [in popularity in Mexico]. Maybe this year the Cowboys are slightly ahead maybe because they are doing so well. Then after that there were a number of teams like the Raiders, the 49ers, the Patriots, the Dolphins and after that everybody more or less a divides the rest. Last summer the Texans were 12th. I know the Texans really want to get a foothold in Mexico and are hoping to crack the top ten when it comes to popularity.
SI:Onto your specialty, the Raiders obviously have a kicking legend in first-rounder Sebastian Janikowski and the Bucs spent a second-round pick on Roberto Aguayo this year. Given Aguayo’s early-season woes, when do you think we will next see a kicker drafted in the first two rounds?
RA: It depends on how Roberto goes. People learn the lesson with Janikowski because he also struggled in his first year. If I'm not mistaken he missed something like ten field goals that year and then he became one of the best kickers in the NFL.
The expectations, most of them are just too high. I think Robert is going to justify that selection. I hope that Coach Koetter has shown some patience because I've seen Roberto kick in person. The guy has tremendous talent and I think he's going to be very successful and have a great NFL career.
SI:Where do you do you think the position is moving as a whole?
RA: Whether you like it or not some of the most exciting plays happen on kickoffs and punt returns. There aren't as many injuries on punt returns so I’ve heard proposals that they want to make the kickoffs look more like punt returns. I think that it's fine the way things are now. The change to move the PAT back is something that I do not like but people love the fact that games are now being decided because of extra points blocked or missed. You saw the championship game between New England in Denver and Gostkowski missed an extra point and it changed the whole strategy after that.
I do think the special teams and kicking are here to stay, and that we'll continue to adopt rules to protect the players. Concussion protocol is such a huge step in the right direction. Holding players out whenever they suffer a big blow to the head. When I was playing in the 80’s that didn't happen. They just gave us all smelling salts and they sent you back in. A lot of players are paying the price because of that. But overall, I think kickoffs are here to stay.
SI:Speaking of kickoffs, how do you feel about this year’s new rule where kickoffs emanate from the 35 and touchbacks have been moved to the 25?
RA: I think it might backfire. They want to minimize the returns but in essence kickers kicking the ball high into the corners are provoking more returns and more collisions so I think they may go back from the 30-yard line like once before and probably staying with a 25 yard touchback or moving it back. I just think something is changing there.
SI: If you could change one rule in the NFL would it be something related to kicking or completely different?
RA: Well, first of all we have to agree what constitutes a catch. I don't remember that being a problem when I was in the NFL. I don't keep a list but there are a number of things that when they happen you just shake your hand and realize that things have to change.
I’ll take it a step further. Roger Goodell has to realize that people are losing interest because of the overwhelming amount of penalties that you see week after week. I would commission somebody to basically redraft the rulebook and simplify the rulebook. I don’t know if you have read it, but it is extremely complicated to read, to digest, to understand. It is so complicated that even the refs that have been in the NFL for years miss certain rules when they happen, especially with rules in place that are not so common.
Eleven musings about Week 11
1. There were twelve missed extra points on Sunday, an NFL record. My colleague Chris Burke wrote a spot on piece with a appropriate begrudging tone about how the Competition Committee’s decision to move back the extra point has actually made the NFL more—ahem—competitive. While this is true, there is an overriding issue. We now think kickers to be terribel. Plus, the frequency of these misses has developed into the poster child for the overall woeful play of the league. Therefore it is impossible for this engaged fan to appreciate the extra point for the conundrum-causing pivot it is intended to be.
2. Congratulations to Steve Smith on his 1,000th catch. Others may disagree but I consider Smith the most enthralling, entertaining wideout of the modern era. Show me the last Smith catch where he didn’t sacrifice his body for that extra millimeter of a yard.
3. Hidden in both losing and playing in one of the league’s most minuscule markets is phenom corner Jalen Ramsey, who is having a monstrous rookie season. The disparity between Ramsey’s elite level of play and Jacksonville’s struggles came to a head Sunday; Ramsey orchestrated a crucial third down stop with the Jaguars down 23–19 and 2:30 left on the clock—that is until teammate Sen’Derrick Marks fell for Matthew Stafford’s obvious attempt to draw Jacksonville offsides on the ensuing fourth down.
As another loss was cemented, cameras caught a dejected Ramsey on the sideline in tears.
Imagine losing more in one season than your entire high school and college careers. Hopefully Jacksonville will find a way to get out of its constant rut because there’s nothing worse than seeing sheer talent wasted. For now, let’s all give Ramsey a virtual hug.
4. The issues run deep for the Packers, who have allowed 89 points in the last two weeks. Green Bay’s secondary has been decimated by injuries but that’s only the culprit du jour. I’ll repeat what I said last week: The Packers skill players seem like they met about 45 seconds before kickoff. Mike McCarthy’s hot-seat meter should be off the charts at this point.
5. Josh Norman had one of the most heads-up plays of Week 11 when he literally punched the ball out of Jared Cook’s hand with 2:55 left to secure the win for Washington. Remember when Norman didn’t cover Antonio Brown in Week 1, and everyone thought he was a free agent bust? Yeah, that wasn’t true. Norman has proven to be a smothering playmaker all season. His current team is thriving while his former team is 4–6 and could sure use just a wee bit of help in the secondary.
6. Jared Goff’s long-awaited debut was lackluster—for lack of a better descriptor. In fairness, beyond the handoffs, the five-yard slants and dump offs (4.3 yards per completion—a Jeff Fisher special!) there wasn’t much opportunity to shine. However, one of the odd moments emanating from a broadcasting booth this week came when Goff and the Rams had the ball on their own 35-yard line down four points with 10 seconds left in the game. Analyst Ronde Barber felt it appropriate to declare, “I don’t think he has what it takes to get it done here.” I’m sure with a few more years under his belt he’ll execute that play to perfection. (Though Goff’s Hail Mary attempt was shockingly unimpressive).
7. Two years ago Tom Brady was a statue in the pocket. Now he’s Mr. Elusive, as evidenced by his array of dance moves that avoided sacks three times on a drive that led to a go-ahead TD to Danny Amendola and sealed the Patriots’ 30-17 win over San Francisco. The idea of Brady adding more skills to his repertoire at age 39 is mindblowing.
8. J.J. Watt, Tony Romo, Adrian Peterson, NaVorro Bowman, Keenan Allen, C.J. Anderson and now A.J. Green. That’s a mountain of star power befallen to injury. Not to mention suspensions. I’ll never get used to these losses as simply “part of the game.”
9. Dak Prescott now has 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He should legitimately be in the MVP conversation, and has checked almost all the boxes when it comes to what you want out of your franchise QB. Yet when Prescott had those early three-and-outs, I’ll admit, thoughts of ‘I wonder what Romo could have done with those plays’ crept into my head.
10. I’m not known for my advance planning but I now have one date filled out: January 22. NFC Championship. Cowboys at Seahawks or Seahawks at Cowboys, based on whomever secures home-field advantage. Yes, the Giants won and Kirk Cousins earned a new contract based on lazy night alone, but the Cowboys and Seahawks are top-to-bottom simply more talented than their NFC brethren. The NFL is a strange wasteland and I’ll probably be wrong, but I just want to record an official prediction in case I’m not.
11. Not sure if this makes me super old or young and hip but I can no longer handle the incessant screaming that is synonymous with NFL pregames shows. Aside from a tearjerker feature here and there, it all feels like someone is mounting an attack on my ear drums. Then when it’s time to take a break and you happen to watching FOX, Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless somehow up the intensity. I much prefer the casual, conversational, intellectual nature of podcasts. Shout out (I mean, calm mention out) to my current favorite, Keepin’ it 1600.