(This article is re-printed with permission from The Pulling Linemen, and its author Gur Samuel, who you can find on Twitter at @FredTheGur. The Pulling Linemen Twitter account can be found at @PullingLinemen.)
It's not a secret that the NFL are stepping up their efforts in a big way to promote the league in the UK. Every big business seeks financial growth, and, through the UK, the NFL is trying to enter a European market with a potential consumer base of over 400 million. Their increased efforts are most obvious in the biggest change from last year: that Wembley will be hosting not one, but two International Series games this season - and the media chatter around the event very strongly suggests that 2014 will see three NFL regular season games in London.
There are other more visible too. Though the second contest, which will see the Jaguars "hosting" the 49ers, will see the same build-up events as previous years - a 'fan rally' in Trafalgar Square the day before the game, and a 'tailgate party' outside the stadium on the Sunday - this match up will see these events bigger than ever, with the 'fan rally' replaced by a 'block party' that will shut down Regent Street all Saturday afternoon; the 'tailgate' is no longer confined to the area out the back of the stadium, but will take over the entire of the iconic Olympic Way plaza that sprawls out before Wembley Stadium itself.
Yet the efforts are also clearer in the smaller details, the ones that might not be particularly noticeable, but in a quiet way speaks volumes. One such less-trumpeted effort is in the NFL Play 60 events that the 'home' team for the past few International Series. Where once the players running this event comprised of lower-round and undrafted rookies and practice squad players, last year saw the entire Rams roster present and participating in the event. This year continued that trend, with the entire Vikings organisation, including the full coaching staff, GM Rick Spielman and co-owner Mark Wilf all arriving straight from the airport to the Powerleague outside Wembley Stadium, where children from local schools from the London Borough of Brent were waiting for them.
The children arrived around an hour before the Vikings players first emerged, excitedly running about while weary-looking teachers attempted to get them to stay in line as they queued up alongside some cartoon cardboard cutouts representing each Wembley-bound NFL team to receiver their Vikings-branded NFL Flag jerseys. Donning their new shirts - some in home purple, others in road white - they made their way to the fields where various footballs, cones and step-overs where laid out in preparation for the drill. The event began without the presence of the Vikings players, but instead under the watchful gaze of assistants comprising of volunteers from a local US Air Force base, and coaches from the UK-based Maidstone Pumas American football team, who were invited to participate in the event as a result of their work in bringing flag football to schools in the Kent area.
Eventually the Vikings emerged to take over running the drills, much to the excitement of the children - though if one were to be cynical, you'd have to question if they knew exactly who they were cheering for, or why. Still, American football being a minority sport in this country, one might hope that the schoolkids will be able to look back in a few years and realise what it meant to have spent some time running basic football drills, or light-hearted flag football sessions, under the supervision of Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen et al.
The Play 60 message was emphasised over and over today, not just to the children but the media too. "It's extremely important to teach kids at a young age to be active", said tight end Kyle Rudolph, "especially nowadays with all the electronics and video games kids can get a hold [of]." It's a message echoed by Vikings linebacker Marvin Mitchell: "I don't know about over here, but in the US, obesity is a real big [problem], some of the schools have gotten rid of their playgrounds and PE time, so the Play 60 programme has been real helpful from that standpoint."
Mitchell, who won the starting weakside linebacker spot in the Minnesota defense during training camp, has some particular insight into the International Series game, having played in the second edition of the series for the New Orleans Saints when they "hosted" the San Diego Chargers at Wembley back in 2008, making him one of only two Vikings players to have played previously in London, the other being tackle J'Marcus Webb. Having made the trip before, Mitchell found that "a lot of the guys were asking me about [dealing with] the time difference, but also [about] the weather and the food!" It's an experience he's found an enjoyable one, and one he thinks has a lot of value for the NFL: "[where] the game of American football is really big in the US, it's soccer that's big over here. Being a football player, I want to get this game known around the world, and [the International Series] is one way to do that."
The International Series as a means to promote the sport was a common theme among many of the players. "It's great to be a part of spreading this game of American football that we love around the globe," All-Pro center John Sullivan told us. "We're excited to expose it to another country and be part of the growth of our sport." Rudolph, in response to a question as to whether the players were being 'encouraged' to promote the league, replied that "we are representatives of the league. We got chosen to be one of four teams to come over here and spread the brand. We feel like we have the best sport in the world, and to be able to give that to the world is extremely important... it's definitely a privilege and we're excited."
While the NFL is no doubt thrilled that the players at least appear to relish the opportunity to help grow the sport's popularity on these shores, they were aware that there is all that jet lag to contend with. Rudolph explained that the organisation "[have] been preparing since last spring to make this as normal a week as possible."
Sullivan explained how the Vikings were hoping to achieve that: "We flew out early in the week so we can get acclimated to the time change. I know we tried to sleep on the plane over last night. We don't want to be going to sleep in the middle of the day and mess up our internal clocks, we we're gonna try and get on local time as soon as possible from there." Sullivan went on to say that the early arrival would give them an advantage over the Steelers, who are due to arrive in the UK Friday morning.
The sense of normality the Vikings are trying to instill extends to the team not making any specific arrangements for sight seeing: "there's nothing built in [for sight seeing]," said Rudolph, "we have our normal meeting and practice schedule throughout the week and we'll just spend a week together in the hotel", adding that the "bonding experience" from that protracted time together in a hotel room was one of the things the tight end felt the team would most benefit from, calling it a "springboard" to turning around the team's 0-3 season.
The team's season so far was one of the major talking points today, and the players were under no illusion that for all the opportunities to represent the sport, the week would wrap up with a game that is increasingly looking like a must-win. "[The London trip] is not a vacation for us, we came here to get a job done" said reigning league MVP Adrian Peterson, whose 20-odd foot picture adorns the side of Wembley Stadium. The losses were clearly weighing on the running back's mind: "for me, it was a little bit [tough, when] you just to relax and get ready", referring to how difficult it was was to make the flight under those conditions, something with which Mitchell concurred. "It's definitely much tougher, even with [Pittsburgh] being 0-3, that's a good team that's won in the past, so coming over on an 8 hour trip to try and get our first win is definitely much tougher." Mitchell was as focused as Peterson, reiterating that "this is a business trip for us, it's just a game for us and a game that at 0-3 we need to win." Mitchell continued on to say the the season had been "definitely disappointing, but I think this is a good team. You can see the way the guys are here, no-one's moping right now, and when you have a good group of guys like that you can go ahead and get things done."
Mitchell's response would not surprise Eric Perkins, the sports director for NBC's affiliate station for Minneapolis-St. Paul, who had made the trip over to cover the Vikings. "They're too professional to throw in the towel and start pointing fingers," said Perkins on the general mood within the locker room, "they're all so competitive, and [although] the 0-3 start is completely discouraging... they do have the [reigning] MVP on the team, and as long as you have an MVP on your team, you at least have a chance." Unsurprisingly, Sullivan was immediately forthcoming with praise for Peterson: "You just know that if you go out and do your job, he's gonna hit home runs for you. We love playing in the NFL, but it's especially great playing offensive line for one of the greatest backs of all time."
Still, Perkins takes a more realistic view when looking forward to the rest of the season. "What bodes against them is that the schedule from here on out is remarkably hard and challenging. Even though you could get on a little hot streak because the next three teams you play are 0-3, 1-2 and 0-3... what comes after is mind-blowingly difficult and I think it's an uphill climb at this point."
If any one player has been the biggest target for Vikings fans as to the reason for that 0-3 start, it's unquestionably Christian Ponder. Not that you'd know that from asking his team mates. "He's our quarterback", bluntly stated Mitchell, saying that the team "definitely" believed in him. Sullivan claimed that "the sky's the limit for Christian", stating that his work ethic reminded him of the quarterback he snapped to as a rookie - Brett Favre. Still, even Sullivan added the caveat that Ponder does need to "keep working [and] keep progressing".
Perkins offers a more sober assessment of the Ponder situation. "He's on an incredibly short leash. The problem... is that the backup quarterback [Matt Cassell] isn't entirely equipped to handle [the position] either. Ponder has been given a lot of leeway and tolerance, and last year when they were 6-6 after their loss at Lambeau Field to the Packers, people were in this same mode of frustration. Then all of a sudden, he rallied the team to four straight victories and got them into the playoffs, and was injured and didn't even play in the playoff loss [to the Packers], so I think people were like, "OK, let's give this guy a chance, maybe there's some progress made", although so much of that success had to do with Adrian Peterson's monster season. Now, in the offseason, so much was spent to give him the receivers he needs, as that was a big knock last year, that they had a lot of injured players and that the receivers were incompetent at best, but now they've boosted that all up and bolstered so much of that, and it's still not really working out."
Perkins referenced an additional benefit of the Wembley game: "[whereas] normally it would be pretty disruptive... with the way they played their last game and how unbelievably disappointing it was, I think it was rather fortuitous for them to come now and get away and erase what just happened." That fortuitousness comes at a price, of course - specifically, one genuine home game. It's what Perkins feels is one of the biggest reasons why some NFL fans are against the International Series: "with seven home games instead of eight, it robs fans, and especially season-ticket holders, of that opportunity of having one extra game." Rudolph, on the other hand, sees less of an issue with the situation, despite it being the team's final season in the Metrodome: "It's something that you have to trade in. We're excited to have the opportunity to come here and play. We feel like we'll take full advantage of the seven home games we have, but we're excited to have Wembley as our home stadium for one [of them]."
Having fewer home games than normal, it makes it perhaps more understandable just how bad the backlash was against the team when they lost their home opener against the Brown. "People were so upset, and, honestly, calling for the heads of some people, it was that bad of a loss," says Perkins. Once again, the head most being called for is that of their third-year quarterback. "I think you're gonna see an increased level of disdain... if he doesn't come through this week. You might see him hooked after the first quarter of the season if he doesn't produce and come through with a victory [this week]." When asked if he believed the starting quarterback of the 2014 Vikings is currently on their roster, Perkins immediately answered "no", though he added he hoped Ponder would prove him wrong. If he doesn't prove the naysayers wrong on Sunday, he may not get another chance.