Football in the UK: Regular season games the norm

Football in the UK: Regular season games the norm

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Part 5 of a series
By Neil Reynolds
Special to Profootballhof.com

While the first regular season game played in London between the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants in 2007 will always hold a special place in the hearts of British NFL fans, each of the subsequent four contests have been just as passionately supported and celebrated.

The International Series games in London have grown over the years and now feature an entire weekend of events for fans to enjoy.

The past two games in London have been preceded by an NFL Fan Rally in the very heart of London with more than 40,000 fans packing into Trafalgar Square ahead of each contest in 2010 and 2011.

With Big Ben and Nelson’s Column serving as an iconic backdrop, some of the biggest names in football history have graced the stage at the past two Fan Rallies including Jerry Rice, Marshall Faulk, Jerome Bettis, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney.

On the field, international series games have been perennial sellouts at Wembley Stadium and have epitomized the competitive and unpredictable nature of professional football. The four regular season games played since the Giants-Dolphins matchup have also seen British fans exposed to some of the greatest players in the NFL’s modern era.

Two outstanding quarterbacks were on display in 2008 as another sell-out crowd witnessed a shoot-out when the Drew Brees-led New Orleans Saints ran out as 37-32 winners over a San Diego Chargers club marshalled by a Pro Bowl passer of their own in Philip Rivers.

While it poured for much of that game day in 2008, the rain did relent in time for the kickoff and Brees and Rivers put on an aerial clinic. Brees threw for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns as he recorded his sixth 300-yard passing game of the season.

Rivers countered with 341 yards and three scores of his own but threw a costly interception when driving for the game-tying score late in the fourth period, getting picked off by Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

“The whole experience was a lot of fun, except the outcome of the game,” Rivers said. “It is a tough one to swallow and being 3-5 with a 13-hour flight ahead of us doesn’t make it any better.”

Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo added: “I thought it was what the fans here wanted to see. I thought they wanted a high-scoring game. I thought they wanted to see the ball being thrown. I thought they wanted to see amazing athletes making amazing plays. That’s what they got.”

The 2009 game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots turned into a one-sided affair as Bill Belichick’s Patriots romped to a 35-7 victory.

Despite Tampa Bay being the official home team that year, the Patriots were very well supported in London and that made quite an impression on owner Robert Kraft.

“It was a great experience for our team,” Kraft said. “It was good for team bonding and it was a different kind of experience. Everyone really enjoyed it. We would love to be the permanent visiting team in the U.K.”

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had a big night against the Buccaneers, throwing for 308 yards and 3 touchdowns before admitting: “This game is something we will remember for the rest of our lives. You don’t get opportunities like this too often.”

Despite being on the losing team, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman enjoyed his own piece of personal history as he threw the first pass of his NFL career at Wembley.

“The atmosphere was electric, “Freeman shared. “The British fans were awesome for the entire game and it’s great to see the support for the NFL in the U.K.”

In 2010, it was the San Francisco 49ers’ turn to be the home team and they enjoyed a hard-fought 24-16 win over the Denver Broncos. Backup quarterback Troy Smith – subbing for the injured Alex Smith – threw for 196 yards and one touchdown.

With five regular season games already in the record books and the possibility of a London NFL franchise regularly featured on the news agenda, the United Kingdom remains one of professional football’s key international markets. NFL games across the pond date back to 1983 and some of the greatest names in the sport’s history have graced the hallowed turf at Wembley Stadium.

“Football in the UK” is a series of articles for Profootballhof.com looking at the growth of professional football in the UK, British NFL journalist and Sky Sports television presenter Neil Reynolds examines the league’s history overseas, recalls some of the great games played in England’s capital city and assesses the chances of a British NFL franchise in the future. The series will run each Wednesday on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s website through Week 8 when the New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams play in London.

Last week, Reynolds shared a perspective of the first regular season game played in London. In his fifth article, he remembers the other four NFL regular season games that took place at Wembley Stadium and potential Hall of Famers who’ve entertained the British fan base.

Part 4 "Real NFL games"
Part 3 Hall of Famers at Wembley
Part 2 Whetting the global appetite
Part 1 – 1986 American Bowl

Smith’s 38-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree led to perhaps the most outlandish quote in the history of the International Series in London as then-49ers head coach Mike Singletary said, “It’s kind of like watching Brett Favre. Not to put him in the same light, but it was like watching a Brett Favre pass.”

It’s certainly not every day you hear Troy Smith compared to Brett Favre, that’s for sure!

While he may have been a bit giddy following a big win, 49ers cornerback Shawntae Spencer commented, “We’ve got to get an NFL team over in the U.K. The energy is unbelievable – the fans, the wave, the flags... it really felt like a home game for us.”

In 2011, the Buccaneers returned to play host to the Chicago Bears. Freeman was now firmly ensconced as the starter but tossed four interceptions as the modern version of the “Monsters of the Midway” recorded a 24-18 victory.

Bears running back Matt Fortè was the driving force behind the Chicago victory. He opened the scoring on a weaving 32-yard run and ended the evening having carried the ball 25 times for 145 yards.

Chicago wide receiver Roy Williams also found the end zone on a 25-yard pass from Jay Cutler and recalled: “We had a squirrel on the field and we had a streaker on the field – so it was a great experience!”

That London loss started a horrible slide for the Buccaneers. They didn’t win another game in 2011 and head coach Raheem Morris was fired at the end of the year.

Immediately following the Wembley loss, Morris moaned: “There’s no excuses, no explanations, no travel excuses, no time zone excuses or whatever you want to call it. The problem with us is that we’re too young. We’re foolish.”

With five regular season games in the history books, attention now turns to the Rams and Patriots at Wembley Stadium on Sunday October 28.

Rams quarterback Sam Bradford admitted, “I’m really excited to be coming to London. I’ve never been over there and I’ve never been to Europe. I think this will be a great experience and I’m really looking forward to it.

“And I get to play against Tom Brady,” Bradford continued. “Tom is a tremendous player and one of the best in the league – he has been one of the best in the NFL for quite a while now. Any time you have the opportunity to play against Tom, it’s a special experience.”

Reynolds' potential Hall of Famers who have played at Wembley Stadium...

Michael Strahan (New York Giants 2007)
Strahan called time on his 15-year career following a Super Bowl win at the end of the 2007 campaign. The seven-time Pro Bowler recorded 141.5 sacks and forced 14 fumbles during his career. He holds the NFL single season record with 22.5 sacks in 2001.

Jason Taylor (Miami Dolphins 2007)
Athletic, fast and reliable, Jason Taylor was a stalwart for the Miami Dolphins for the majority of his 15-year NFL career. When he retired after the 2011 season, Taylor had recorded 139.5 sacks, an incredible 40 forced fumbles and 8 interceptions, 3 of which were returned for touchdowns.

Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints 2008)
Brees is still going strong as the undisputed leader of the New Orleans Saints. Now in his 12th season, Brees has thrown for 42,462 yards and 295 touchdowns. In 2011, he set new NFL records for completion percentage (71.2) and yards (5,476). He also threw 46 touchdown strikes during a career year. Last week, Brees broke a tie with the great Johnny Unitas by throwing at least one touchdown pass in his 48th straight game.

LaDainian Tomlinson (San Diego Chargers 2008)
"LT" enjoyed his best night of the 2008 season at Wembley Stadium, rushing for 105 yards and adding 65 receiving yards and a touchdown. Tomlinson retired at the conclusion of the 2011 campaign having rushed for 13,684 yards and 145 touchdowns over 11 seasons. He added 624 catches for 4,772 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Junior Seau (New England Patriots 2009)
The legendary linebacker answered the call to play for the injury-plagued Patriots in 2009 and was signed the week before the Wembley showdown with Tampa Bay. That 2009 campaign brought down the curtain on the late linebacker's glittering 20-season career. Seau was named All-Pro on 10 occasions and was voted to 12 Pro Bowls. In total, he recorded 1,849 tackles and 56.5 sacks.

Tom Brady (New England Patriots 2009)
Brady starred in New England's 2009 win over Tampa Bay and is set to shine at Wembley Stadium again in 2011. Now in his 13th season, Brady has appeared in five Super Bowls and won three NFL titles. The seven-time Pro Bowler has thrown for 41,429 yards and 308 touchdowns.

Brian Urlacher (Chicago Bears 2011)
The athletic and inspirational middle linebacker was at the heart of Chicago's victory over Tampa Bay last season. Now in his 13th season, the eight-time Pro Bowler and 2005 NFL Defensive Player of the Year has recorded 1,181 tackles, 41.5 sacks and 21 interceptions.

Neil Reynolds has covered the NFL as a journalist and broadcaster since 1991. He is currently serving as co-presenter of NFL coverage in the United Kingdom on Sky Sports and also has experience presenting BBC Radio’s NFL coverage in 2009 and 2010. The author of “Pain Gang: Pro Football’s 50 Toughest Players,” Reynolds has worked for British football magazines First Down and Gridiron and has also written for American publications and websites such as NFL.com, the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Pittsburgh Post-Press Gazette. He currently writes for nfluk.com, SkySports.com and Sky.com and has interviewed some of the biggest names in football, including Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway, Ray Lewis and Tom Brady.
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