• NFL executive vice president of international Mark Waller gives an update on how the league is progressing in Europe, ahead of Jaguars-Ravens at Wembley in Week 3
  • Sections include: a look at the attendance problems in L.A., the rubber stamping of DeMaurice Smith, the ironman streak of Joe Thomas and much more
By Albert Breer
September 21, 2017

London might not be getting a team in the near future. But as the NFL’s executive vice president of international, Mark Waller, sees it, the UK’s capital city is ready for one.

“We’ve proven clearly that the level of support is here from a fan perspective, a stadium and stadium ownership perspective and from a city and government perspective,” Waller said over the phone from London late Wednesday afternoon. “We’ll get a lot of support if and when we need it.”

On Sunday, the league will cut the ribbon on the second decade of the International Series, which started in 2007 with its first regular-season game overseas, a 13-10 win for the Super Bowl champion-to-be Giants over a woeful Dolphins team. The NFL has come a long way since.

The league will play four games in London this year for the first time, and is in its second year back in Mexico City, with hopes to go to Germany and China down the line. Next year, a stadium that the league worked in partnership with Tottenham Hotspur of the Premier League will open. And fan interest, while still not close to the major sports in the UK, has grown steadily.

That brings us to the question that’s been on the docket for years now: Could the NFL become the first major North American sports league to put a team in Europe full-time?

The NFL is fully invested in bringing a franchise to London, and the target date seems to be 2022.
Mark Davison/Icon Sportswire

The answer is definitely maybe. Waller says the league’s international wing has put the pieces in place and now has to keep growing on its progress and wait for a franchise to raise its hand.

“If you think about LA, there were years and years where we weren’t in LA, and then an owner decided to make a move and start building a stadium,” Waller said. “So our job is to make sure, for London, that if and when an owner feels it’s the right move to make, we’re ready for it. And that’s what we’ve put in place—great fan base, stadium options and a real focus on feasibility and logistics.

“The one thing we can’t show yet: can a team be competitive week in and week out? That’s why I’d like to do back-to-back weeks with the same team (next year), to get real sense of how that works. We’ll try to make that happen.”

In this week’s Game Plan we’re going to take a look at the NFL’s situation in a now two-teamed Los Angeles; the NFLPA’s decision to stick with DeMaurice Smith; the Falcons’ new offensive coordinator; the Bengals’ even newer offensive coordinator; Joe Thomas’s amazing streak; and so much more to get you set for Week 3.

But we start with the Jaguars-Ravens game slated for Sunday morning (afternoon, on the ground in London) at Wembley, and the league’s massive effort to take its distinctly American game global. And indulge me on this one, as I remain incredibly interested in the idea that we could have a team playing on the other side of the Atlantic full-time.

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Now, I’m like everyone else on this, which is to say I’m unsure how a team would be received over there on a full-time basis. But I’ve talked to Waller for years on this subject, and the truth is he hasn’t moved far off his position. The goal, to start, was to have a team in London at the International Series’ 15-year mark. We’re two-thirds of the way there, and Waller thinks 2022 is doable.

“Absolutely,” he says. “And that aligns well from a CBA and union standpoint—that would need to be part of a union agreement. Not to say we couldn’t bargain it separately, but obviously if we’re doing it around that time, that would make sense. And from a media/broadcast standpoint, we’d need to think it through. It feels to me like all the indicators are there, showing that’s still a realistic timeframe.”

Indeed, the CBA expires in March 2021 and the broadcast deals are up after the 2022 season, so the timing works. What’s left to figure out in London? The biggest issues are logistical.

Having a team five time zones from New York and eight time zones from Los Angeles isn’t ideal, and competitive-balance issues resulting from that can’t be ignored. To ease the issues, Waller says the hope is to give a London team two facilities—one in the UK and another somewhere in the U.S. southeast.

Waller explains, “If the team had a second base on the East Coast, and when they came over to the States they were going back to a familiar place, there’s a general feel [among teams] that it would solve a vast number of the operational issues, whether it’s transportation issues, talent issues and making sure week-in, week-out, you have the talent you need on hand, increasingly there’s belief that’s the right solution.”

Would it be perfect? No. Having Tuesday free-agent workouts in, say, Atlanta to fill an immediate need for the London team wouldn’t be ideal. Neither would, say, a London vs. Seattle game in the wild-card round of the playoffs. But that doesn’t make these things impossible.

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And the NFL will get an interesting snapshot of how it might work when the Rams go to the UK in late October. They’ll play in Jacksonville on Oct. 15, then spend the week in Northern Florida before flying to London on Thursday night ahead of their Oct. 22 game against the Cardinals at Twickenham Stadium.

Another test Waller was hoping to conduct this year—and hopes to get in 2018—is to have a team play back-to-back games in London, which would allow the league a better look at how being there would affect a franchise’s overall operation. “It’s a bit of a disappointment that we didn’t have a team playing two games this year,” he said. “We couldn’t make it work from a scheduling standpoint.”

Waller also knows that getting a team to do it won’t necessarily be easy, but the idea of getting a club to waive its right to a bye following a trip to the UK wasn’t a simple proposition either. The Colts did it last year—and won the following week—and three teams (Ravens, Jaguars, Dolphins) will do it this year. And one of those three, Baltimore, actually requested it.

These are all signs that progress is being made, and Waller’s department is moving forward. To be sure, it’s not as if there’s a set plan to have a team over there, and there are alternatives to be had.

The plan for now is to stick to four games in 2018. “I don’t think we need to play more games in London to prove that the opportunity is here,” Waller said. But the idea of growing that number raises another option that’s been bandied about—an annual eight-game schedule in the UK with each team being required to make the trip every other year.

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There’s no question the idea of having an NFL team over there still sounds a little crazy. But it’s not quite as nuts as it was 10 years ago, when the Giants and Dolphins played on a soccer pitch that quickly devolved into a mud pit. At that point, the NFL wasn’t even up to speed on the problems that grass would present, and a lot of people in the stands weren’t quite sure what to make of what they were watching.

“All of the things that we talked about confirm our belief that it’s a very doable possibility,” Waller said. “This year we’ll do four games, and 40,000 tickets for each game are bought by the same people, so as far as building a season-ticket base, that’s a meaningful number now. And the fact that we’ve got so many teams that have been over here and have had a good experience is a huge positive.

“We feel confident that the fan base is here, and that the logistics work.”

The NFL has come a long way.

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The 90,000-seat Coliseum was around half-full for the Redskins-Rams game in Week 2.
Jae C. Hong/AP

1. Does the NFL have an L.A. problem? The grisly stat from last weekend was out there—Texas at USC outdrew Redskins at Rams and Dolphins at Chargers combined—so let’s separate the optics from the reality of the attendance situation in Los Angeles.

Last year at the Coliseum, USC and the Rams played back-to-back home games twice. Each time, the Rams outdrew USC. The Rams had more for their game against Buffalo (83,679) than USC had for its game against Colorado (68,302) on the first weekend of October. And the Rams had more for their game against Carolina (86,109) than USC had for its game against Oregon (74,625) on the first weekend of November. And this year the Rams’ expectation internally was that their attendance figures would level off into the 60,000-70,000 range. So while they weren’t happy they fell short of that Sunday (56,612), no one was surprised that USC would beat them at the gate (84,714) against Texas in a Saturday night showdown.

Separately, the Chargers’ issues were apparent in the preseason. And while it is embarrassing to fail to sell out a 27,000-seat venue, that wasn’t altogether unexpected. Bottom line: This wasn’t a good look in the NFL’s second year back in L.A., or for its first Sunday with two games there since 1994. And appearances matter more there than they do in other places. 

“The optics and the media fallout since, it’s actually a bigger issue there, because of the way the L.A. market perceives sports events,” said Marc Ganis, who co-founded the consulting firm Sportscorp and has history with the league’s L.A. dealings going all the way back to the departures of the Rams and Raiders in the 90s. “If perception in L.A. is that you’re hot, they’ll show up and price is no object. If perception is that you’re cold, you can’t give tickets away. And that’s not just football. That’s this market. So the perception and media fallout, that needs to be repaired. … It’s not something to panic over. But maybe more than any other market in the country, perception matters in L.A.”

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Ganis added that the important thing for the league’s long-term health in the nation’s second biggest market is where things are when Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s $2.6 billion palace opens in 2020, and whether the teams can sustain attendance there. Still, last weekend wasn’t a great one for the NFL’s second life in L.A.

2. Three more years (at least) for DeMaurice Smith. The NFLPA extinguished any anticipated drama forecast for next spring when it effectively called off its 2018 executive director election, a result of the union’s selection committee voting 14-0 on Tuesday to keep Smith for a minimum of another three years. So how is it that Smith won’t have to run against burgeoning candidate Cyrus Mehri or anyone else to keep the office he’s held since 2009? NFLPA president Eric Winston took me through it Wednesday.

As it turns out, after Smith was reelected in March 2015, the union passed a resolution to examine its election procedures. A year later, in March 2016, another resolution was approved to empower the selection committee—made up of the 10 executive committee members, the president and the three longest serving player reps—to vote to keep the sitting executive director ahead of an election. The catch was that it would require a unanimous 14-0 vote. Failing that, the entire board, to include all 32 player reps, would then vote. And if the sitting executive director failed to get a two-thirds majority of that vote, then the selection committee would hire a search firm to vet potential candidates. Smith got the 14-0 vote, which rendered the rest moot.

So now, the selection committee will open negotiations on an extension with Smith, whose current deal ends next March. It’ll run a minimum of three years and a maximum of five years, meaning it will at least go up to the March 2021 expiration of the current CBA. “This wasn’t just one call or one vote,” Winston told me. “We spent a lot of time going over things, there were self evaluations of De, we went over strategy, how we’re going to move forward over next two to four years, and how we’re going to accomplish some of the objectives that we’ve already set. When guys looked at the total picture, saw what was going on and asked how we were going to get to where we want to be in four years, that’s why they voted the way they voted. I’m not going to stick words in their mouth, but that’s what I believe. … So how are we gonna accomplish our goals, and who shares that vision? When we looked at our current executive, he shared a way of how to accomplish the goals of the executive committee. It not what De wants for us, it’s what we want for ourselves. We want specific things for ourselves, and he presented us with ways we can accomplish that.”

And as for the potential for a work stoppage, something Smith called a “virtual certainty” to me last month, in 2021, Winston reminded me that the union czar has had good instincts for these things. “I remember being a third- or fourth-year player, he was elected executive director, and he immediately came around to every team, and said, ‘Hey, we’re about to get locked out, you guys need to save up and do these things to get ready,’” Winston said. “And a lot of guys looked at him and said, ‘No way, they’re not gonna really take away our health insurance and do the things you’re saying they’re gonna do.’ And what happened? They did exactly what he said they were gonna do.” We’ll see if they can prevent it from happening again.

3. Falcons flying again. Atlanta is 2-0, and seemingly sidestepping the residue of their Super Bowl LI meltdown. I think the explanation is easy: They haven’t changed the course of a program that, up until that 28-3 lead was blown, was clearly ascending. And that was made most apparent in how they handled their coordinator switch.

Head coach Dan Quinn and the Atlanta brass’ most pertinent question to candidates to replace Kyle Shanahan was “can you run Kyle Shanahan’s system?” The idea to resist fixing was what wasn’t broken also sent a nice side message to the team, basically implying, We’re good. Steve Sarkisian, a guy with background in a Quinn-like program (having cut his teeth under Pete Carroll), wound up being the pick, and the transition has been fairly seamless. And the potential for great results was on display on Sunday night, as Atlanta tore through the Packers defense for 257 yards (7.3 yards per play) and 24 points in the first half alone. Within those 30 minutes, it was that very start that had the players feeling like 2016 again, after a opening-day win in Chicago that’d left them wanting for more.

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“We didn’t have the game we wanted against Chicago, and we really tried to focus in this last week, and get everyone more on the same page,” center Alex Mack told me after practice Wednesday. “It was a good jump to Week 2, coming out playing fast, having a lot of big plays, it’s exactly what we wanted to do. … I’d say the first drive of the game, we were a little backed up and we went right down the field with a fast pace and a lot of different plays. It felt very similar to last year.” And that was, in large part, because it is like last year, and by design. “Very similar,” Mack continued. “It’s important to stay similar, so we can start further ahead than we were the year before. Start of OTAs, everyone knew the terms, everyone knew the plays. … [Sarkisian’s] done a good job adapting. In terms of how we’re doing stuff, it feels really similar, but he’s also done a good job of mixing it up.”

Last year was pretty solid for the Falcons, and one bad night doesn’t change all the good it brought. The continuity fuels the players’ confidence. By the looks of the convincing win over Aaron Rodgers and crew, it fuels their production too.

4. Bengals will dumb it down. So in three words, here’s what I heard the problem was with now-fired Cincinnati offensive coordinator Ken Zampese: Too much volume. In other words, he built too much complexity into the offense which, in turn, slowed the players down. And the fact that Zampese wasn’t particular strong in relating with those players only exacerbated the problem. When I asked a staffer there about it the other day, I was pointed to what second-year receiver Tyler Boyd said after the move. Here are those comments from Boyd (to Local 12 in Cincinnati):

“There were times where I just felt like [Zampese] would overwhelm me with things to do out there in terms of details and what to do and what not to do—just making me think too much. In certain plays I felt like I should just go out there and just play—get my route and get my depth and be the guy. He’s a smart coach; he’s a great offensive coordinator. He put us in a lot of good positions to win. I can’t really say much about it. I’ve been here for a year [two now actually]. I thought he was a great coach. I didn’t really see a negative he was doing wrong. We just have to find our momentum. We have to find us again that’s all.”

So the plan now, with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor assuming the coordinator role, is to pare down the offense and get the players playing fast. It’s a style Lazor watched run at a high level as Chip Kelly’s quarterbacks coach in Philly, and one he employed as offensive coordinator in Miami. The hope, too, is that it can help young players like Cedric Ogbeuhi, Jake Fisher, Joe Mixon and John Ross ascend. 

Two games into the season and Malcolm Butler finds himself in the Patriots’ doghouse.
Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini

1. NFL international head Mark Waller said the league’s focus in China is now in trying to get people playing, since—given the time difference, and that NFL games are played in the middle of the night there—it’ll be hard to simply build viewership. And he added they don’t want to go there and play a one-off game with no long-term plan. Waller isn’t optimistic China will host a game next season, saying, “I don’t think it’ll be ’18. I don’t think we’re ready.”

2. While we’re here, I had to ask Waller about the potential of Germany getting a game, and it was clear that nothing is imminent there either. “We continue to do the work there. But that’s an inventory management thing: How many games do we actually have?”

3. The league’s Halloween trade deadline is less than six weeks away, and I expect teams will call on the availability of Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler. He didn’t start Sunday against the Saints, and his playing time was cut in the same way Jamie Collins’ minutes were last October, before New England dealt him to Cleveland. Sometimes, contract situations can get in players’ heads, and Bill Belichick showed last year with Collins that he won’t hesitate to move on.

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4. Who would be the trade partner? The Eagles make sense. And they have a versatile front seven piece that would fill a major need for the Patriots and has been tied to trade talks in the past: linebacker Mychal Kendricks.

5. If you ask Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan about Thursday night’s Rams-49ers matchup, the ex-Redskins staffmates would tell you there’s something surreal about the two being opposing head coaches this soon. And here’s another interesting side note: Last year McVay blew away the Niners in his interview. During it they asked, “If we can’t get you, who should we hire?” McVay’s answer: Shanahan.

6. Before you grumble about commissioner Roger Goodell’s looming extension, understand that he was elevated into the role in 2006 because the new-school uber-wealthy owners wanted to kick profits into overdrive. Goodell’s ability to creatively generate revenue streams was a hallmark of his time as the NFL’s COO. So until that money train careens off the tracks …

7. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman on injury reports: “I guess from what I understand the rules are for gamblers.” You guess correct, Sherm.

8. Jay Cutler looked pretty good Sunday for a guy working his way back into fighting shape against the Chargers (230 yards passing, 101.8 rating). And now, with the Jets and Saints up next, Cutler has a chance to build some momentum, and maybe start building the case that he should be more than a rental in Miami.

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9. The situation with Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels’ hip bears watching, particularly since the team signed Ricky Jean-Francois on Wednesday night. Daniels may be the second best player on the team as it stands now, so losing him would be devastating.

10. How I took coach Ben McAdoo calling out Giants QB Eli Manning on Monday? McAdoo was putting his players on notice, by showing them that no one (not even a two-time Super Bowl MVP) is above being called out. Harder to address for McAdoo will be the longstanding issues along the offensive line and with defensive depth.

Joe Thomas has started every game for the Browns since they picked him third overall in the 2007 draft.
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

This one is easy: Joe Thomas is a monster, and his accomplishment of reaching 10,000 consecutive snaps played was, if anything, underplayed this week.

And I reached out Wednesday to a few people who worked with Thomas, and they confirmed our lesson through their memories of him. The story relayed by Mike Pettine, Thomas’ coach in Cleveland in 2014 and ’15, was one that Thomas himself told our Peter King on Sunday night. “The famous Vinston Painter incident,” as Thomas called it, is a story so good that we’ll have Pettine tell it again.

“I almost ended the streak!” said Pettine, who’s now working as a consultant with the Seahawks. “We were beating the Steelers at home, we were up big in the fourth quarter, and I said on the headset to the offensive staff, ‘Hey, if you’ve got anyone you wanna get out of the game, go ahead and get them out.’ … Andy Moeller, the offensive line coach, sent in a replacement for John Greco, and had somebody to go in for Joe, a young lineman by the name of Vinston Painter.

“And next thing I know, Vinston goes running into the huddle and comes running right back. Joe kicked him out of the huddle. Andy’s on the headset, and Vinston’s got a very confused look on his face. ‘He shook me off.’ Here I come to find out after the game that he’s got this streak going. None of us knew.

“Even crazier was that Alex Mack broke his ankle earlier in the game, and that was one of the reasons that spurred it on. This is a ray of opportunity to get guys out. And Alex to that point had not missed a snap. And even crazier, Mitchell Schwartz, the right tackle, had not missed a snap. So we had three guys who were all on multiple-year streaks of not missing a snap.”

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Schwartz’s streak, by the way, is still going, two games into his sixth NFL season, his second with the Chiefs. (His brother Geoff tells me that Pro Football Focus has Mitchell at 5,625 consecutive snaps, if you’re counting.) And yes, the guys knew.

“We were aware of it,” Mack said. “It wasn’t in the forefront of our minds. You just keep playing. My streak ended when my ankle was no longer attached. It would’ve been fun to keep it going.”

Luck, of course, has played a role in Thomas never having to come out, considering that beyond just the inevitability of injuries in football, how the most mundane of events (like, say, a bent facemask) can cause an NFL player to miss a snap or two.

But there’s also a method to this. One thing raised by everyone I spoke to Wednesday was Thomas’ devotion to maintaining flexibility through resistance band work that would lead to him regularly being the last one off the practice field. “That was his thing he didn’t miss,” said Pettine.

“I can’t really remember a time where he was banged up,” said Brady Quinn, who was drafted to Cleveland with Thomas in 2007. “If he was, he never showed it.  I was always impressed with the way he trained.  So calculated.  Had that track background, so he never overtrained. Knew when to shut it down. I was always a grinder, so I used to watch him work out and think, ‘Man he should be doing more.’

“Clearly, I was wrong. … Him and (ex-Browns strength coach) Tom Myzlinski were dialed in as far as when they’d push him and when they didn’t.”

So part of it is luck, and part of it is by design. And part of it is just plain toughness. Thomas told King that he played through a Grade 2 LCL tear, three MCL strains and two high ankle sprains.

All of it is crazy and hard to believe and remarkable. And most of all, it’s indicative of who Thomas is.

“He was ultra dependable,” said Pettine. “A guy you could go to. Very easily he could’ve been standoffish, and ‘whatever, this is my however-many-th head coach.’ But he always had a positive attitude, and was always there willing to help.”

Always there seems like an understatement.

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