Ben Isaacs on why now is the time to put ‘soccer’ to one side and let the NFL into your life
When the NFL first stormed British shores in the early Eighties, our own football was at a low ebb. And even though for years the only NFL TV coverage was an hour of highlights a week after the games had been played, the Super Bowl was the lone live broadcast, and the annual summer fixture at Wembley was full of second-string players during preseason, the sport was everywhere and – despite ‘rugby in pads’ detractors – felt like a true cult. It was full of colour, glamour and wholesome violence.
Those three all-American aspects haven’t changed, but our access to the sport has. Sky, Channel 4 and British Eurosport now show five live games between them each week, and the league has announced that London will host three games next autumn, up from two this season.
So, if last week’s big game at Wembley whet your appetite for the sport, here are eight reasons why even those of you without a replica shirt in your wardrobe should be paying close attention to every touchdown in this, the league’s 93rd season.
1. The teams are more familiar than you think
Even if you don’t know much about NFL teams, they’re more recognisable than you realise. The New England Patriots, for example, are basically Manchester United, as they both have loads of bandwagon fans and are already being massively underestimated this season. This year’s San Francisco 49ers are akin to the current Liverpool team; desperately hoping to be the league’s clear leaders for the first time since the late Eighties – when, chances are, lots of your school friends declared themselves loyal fans of both teams. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears are more like Everton: currently tough to beat, with more seasons at the top than anyone else, but the years since the mid-Eighties haven’t been kind to them. The Dallas Cowboys? They’re Chelsea, thanks to both being defined by ostentatious spending and fans’ sense of entitlement – still. We could go on.
2. The legends are unbreakable
The early contender for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award is Denver’s Peyton Manning. Barely a year after returning from what should’ve been a career-ending broken neck(!), the 37-year-old is setting passing records he has no right even thinking about: 19 touchdown passes in the first five games of 2013, for example. Despite all this, he’s one big hit away from, at best, never setting foot on the field again, at worst being stuck in a wheelchair.
3. Players are arrested every week
American football is a collision sport, not a contact sport – or so the cliché goes. Grisly injuries and controversies over the long-term effects of players’ frequent concussions have forced the NFL to introduce measures to make players safer. But can they make the public safer? NFL website profootballtalk.com features a ‘days since last arrest’ counter. The site claims it’ll remove the feature if it ever reaches 100 – so far the record is 32 days. The biggest recent arrest was that of New England Patriots star tight end Aaron Hernandez in June, charged as an accessory to murder. The more the police looked into his movements, the more charges popped up, with his firearms linked to more fatal shootings – all charges Hernandez denies.
4. New boys are shaking up the league and the country
Two younger quarterbacks turning heads on necks healthier than Manning’s are Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III. After bursting on to the scene last season both have struggled to replicate their rookie achievements, but don’t count them out as the season progresses. If anything, they’re worth watching for the off-the-field chaos. San Francisco QB Kaepernick drew ire from fans for wearing a Miami Dolphins hat and caught flack from a US columnist for having ‘prison-style’ tattoos that could set a bad example to children. Meanwhile, Griffin was called out for being a “cornball brother” by a TV sport pundit questioning his ‘black’ credentials. Kaep and RG3 have become symbols of a so-called ‘post-racial US’ under a black president, as, for many years, the position of quarterback was whiter than white in more ways than one. Thankfully, we’re past that and these new players have the talent to rise above the noise.
5. It has some of the world’s most futuristic stadiums…
The likes of Old Trafford and the Millennium Stadium have nothing on NFL venues. Some amazing new sporting palaces are on the way in Atlanta (for the Falcons), Minnesota (for the Vikings) and Santa Clara (where the San Francisco 49ers will push their luck geographically, 38 miles from home). But for now, the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, just outside Dallas, is king. Known by many as Jerry World, because it was a theme park-style passion project for the team’s eccentric owner, Jerry Jones, on opening it boasted the world’s biggest HD screens and a packed bar that the players have to walk through to enter the field. How big are the TVs? We won’t bore you with dimensions, but put it this way, the team sells standing-room only tickets with no view of the field – just of the Jumbotrons.
6. ...as well as one of the weirdest
If gleaming AT&T Stadium is like the NFL’s answer to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, decaying O.Co Coliseum in Oakland is a decrepit haunted house attraction. The Raiders have to share it with the local baseball franchise (the only NFL team to do so) and both clubs’ owners want to up sticks. But the place is an incredible spectacle. One end is called the Black Hole and fans go to great lengths to create elaborate Halloween-style costumes to outdo their peers and intimidate visiting players. Because it’s more like a drunken Rocky Horror Picture Show screening, the intimidation factor is negligible, but at least the fans are enjoying themselves. The Raiders haven’t won a Super Bowl since the early days of Channel 4, so you can see why the faithful have descended into madness. Enjoy the O.Co this season, because it’s won’t be with us much longer and we may never see its kind again.
7. The best coaches are often crazy
Since the late Nineties, the NFL has been built on parity – in other words, unlike the Premier League, anyone can become champion or sign the best players – but the teams who have been consistent contenders since the turn of the century have their coaches to thank. Perma-hoodied evil genius Bill Belichick is half the reason the New England Patriots are now always in the discussion after decades of futility – but in public he’s dull. Unlike Sean Payton, who won a Super Bowl with New Orleans before serving a year-long suspension (whatever he spent his time doing in those 12 months without a job ended with his wife divorcing him) for his part in a scheme that put locker-room bounties on players’ heads – often cynically encouraging his players to rack up dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits. The team foundered in his absence, but this season he triumphantly returned and put the Saints back near the top. Although some credit can go to his new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, a wildly bearded man who howls from the sideline and, despite his salary, used to drive something resembling a kidnapper’s van. Never change, Rob.
8. And so are the worst coaches
Less popular, but no less hilarious, is struggling hard-ass Greg Schiano. His firing is almost inevitable at season’s end, not just because his Tampa Bay Buccaneers keep finding imaginative ways to lose, but also because he alienated star QB Josh Freeman to the extent the team let the player leave ‘on a free’ while under contract. Schiano can’t be blamed for the bizarre MRSA outbreak that has hit the team, but we could put it down to karma, and he is known for telling his players to hit hard when the off-guard opposition runs out the clock with a big lead. He recently told fans the team was a laughing stock before he arrived. What the hell are they now? Get the popcorn and enjoy his implosion this season.
(Images: PA; Getty)