PICK SIX: Looking Over London

With the tenth season of the NFL’s London games now in the bag, Richard O’Hagan takes a look at what 2017 had to offer. 

1. Two Very Different Teams

The Jaguars and the Rams were, of course, the only two teams to return to London this year, but both were vastly improved on 2016’s offering. This might be unsurprising, given that both had new coaches, but the improvements went beyond that.

Jacksonville were, without doubt, the more impressive of the two. Losing number one receiver Allen Robinson actually seemed to have helped them, forcing Blake Bortles to be more careful with his passing, but also to go though his progressions properly. Of course, having Leonard Fournette (who was fully fit at the time) as an option out of the backfield didn’t hurt, either. And the fact that the offense was effective meant that the defense didn’t have to play so many snaps, and so were able to hound the Ravens all day long. It is hard to believe that they’ve just added Marcel Dareus to beef up that unit even more!

The important difference with the Rams was that they all looked so much fitter. The lumbering 1970s throwbacks of last season had largely gone, and and offense that neither Case Keenum nor Jared Goff could get moving suddenly sparked now that the quarterback had proper protection. They still rely too heavily on the defense and on Todd Gurley, but the future looks brighter in LA.

 

2. Speaking of Keenum

The former Rams quarterback is, of course, now a Viking. And having been thrust into the role of starter by Sam Bradford‘s injury woes, he seems to be thriving in Mike Zimmer‘s care. It took him a long time to get going at Twickenham, but once he hit his straps in the third quarter, he was as clinical as any in picking apart the Cleveland secondary, which had actually played quite well until then. With Teddy Bridgewater returning to practice the Vikes have an interesting problem under center, but the way that Keenum linked with not just the fit-again Stephon Diggs, but Laquon Tredwell, Kyle Rudolph and especially Adam Thielen (who is fast developing into a latter-day Wes Welker), suggests that it would be foolish to change anything too soon.

 

3. The Cardinals are Shot

Oddly enough for the NFL, a key player got injured and, at the time, no-one really noticed. With 5.48 to play in the second quarter of their game against the Rams, Cardinals’ veteran quarterback Carson Palmer threw an interception that was returned 29 yards. Moments later, Todd Gurley broke off an 18 yard run for a touchdown. Almost no-one saw Palmer leave the field clutching an arm which was so badly broken that it required surgery the next morning.

At that point, though, Arizona were only 13 points down with over half of the game to play. However, backup Drew Stanton turned in a such a nerve-wracked performance that he completed just five passes in the rest of the game, whilst at the same time appearing even less mobile than the 37-year-old Palmer did,

With the trade deadline gone and no sign of anyone coming in to aid Stanton and Blaine Gabbert (who wasn’t even active at Twickenham), you have to think that the Cards are now focussing on 2018 from hereon in.

 

4. The Kupp Runneth Over

We at Uncle Sam were not alone in raising a sceptical eyebrow at all of the hype surrounding the Rams’ rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Two decent pre-season games do not, after all, necessarily make an NFL player. But he’s actually averaging more yards per catch in the regular season than he did in those games and, if he’s been sparing targeted, it is worth noting that the Rams have not lost a game in which he has had four or more catches.

In London he, understandably, made some rookie errors. But his catch and run from a Goff screen pass for the Rams’ final touchdown was a thing of beauty, he can block (despite only being 205lbs) and he never gives up on a play. Treated wisely, he and Goff could have a long future together.

 

5. The Future For the Browns is…Pleasingly Average

After all of these years of failure, with two of their best players missing and after blowing yet another lead, you’d think that we would be down on the Browns. The truth of their trip to London, though, was that they were undone by one thing, which was their inability to put together long drives. By the end of the third quarter, their defense had been on the field for almost thirty minutes. And it showed, as (understandably) they tired. But there were some positives to take away:

  • Deshone Kizer isn’t ready to play in the NFL, but he is an NFL-level quarterback. Kizer has been thrust into the starting lineup because there aren’t really any alternatives. He moves well, rushes well (and, unlike some young quarterbacks, knows not to slide head first) can make simple passes. Under pressure, though, he repeatedly overthrows. Two red zone opportunities were squandered when he threw passes into no man’s land. The subsequent on-field debates suggested that (a) receivers had run the wrong routes but also that (b) he doesn’t yet command the huddle.
  • Kizer isn’t helped by his anodyne receiving corp. Running back Isiah Crowell was the Browns’ leading receiver. By contrast, tight end and top draft pick David Njoku dropped twice as many passes as he caught, one of them a short pass whilst completely open which would’ve lead to a first down and instead led to a field goal attempt that was missed.
  • Spencer Drango, in his first start at left tackle, played something of a blinder, to the point where (arguably) the Browns didn’t miss Joe Thomas at all. Faced with the not-inconsiderable combination of Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen, he neither looked overmatched nor in need of additional help. The one sack he gave up was both in garbage time with the game long beyond Cleveland and when he was suddenly faced with two rushers against him.
  • Joe Schobert might be one of the best defensive players you have never heard of. He racked up 11 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He currently averages ten tackles per game and this is only his second season in the NFL. Admittedly, Browns’ defensive players get through a lot of work, but at least one player on this team is performing at an above average level

 

6. Wither Twickenham

The home of English rugby has taken a lot of stick for its perceived failings as an NFL venue. Although some of the complaints are somewhat superficial – the seat pitch of many of the seats being the main one – the bigger question is whether there will be any games there next season. The NFL contracted to play three games there in the space of three years, but has fulfilled that obligation a year early. With the new stadium in Tottenham likely to be available in 2018 it seems that Twickenham’s days as an NFL venue are numbered. That will almost certainly disappoint those south of the River Thames, who will see this as another case where the north of London gets all of the good sporting events. However, given that Tottenham is being purpose built, and Wembley has a bigger capacity, you can see why the NFL would prefer those two venues. We may still be back at the home of rugby next season, but it is hard to see games going there beyond that.

 

Richard O’Hagan

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Richard O'Hagan
Writer on such diverse topics as sport, music, theatre, law and politics. Author of 'Eddie the Sheep'. Supporter of underachieving teams, including the Chicago Bears from before that brief, heady, period in the mid-1980s when they were actually any good. All I want for Christmas is a Jim McMahon away shirt.
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    With the tenth season of the NFL’s London games now in the bag, Richard O’Hagan takes a look at what 2017 had to offer.  1. Two Very Different Teams T
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