It has been 14 years since we first saw the NFL in London and it has become a staple. Paul Higham looks at the illustrious history of gridiron football in the UK.
We missed out last year but the NFL is back in London with two games on back-to-back weekends, starting with the New York Jets facing the Atlanta Falcons at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
That will be followed by the Miami Dolphins playing London’s adopted team the Jacksonville Jaguars who are now yearly visitors to the UK and had been thought of as the most likely side to be installed as a permanent resident of the NFL over here.
It looks like that plan has gone on the back burner for now as the NFL look to play more games across different countries around the world, but games will continue to be played in London, with Spurs having their new stadium made specifically so it could host American football.
Wembley and Twickenham have also hosted the NFL but with extra big locker rooms and a retractable artificial pitch specifically designed for the sport then for now it looks like Tottenham is the home of the gridiron game for the foreseeable future.
The world's first dividing retractable pitch 🏟️.
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) October 14, 2020
Starting back in 2007, 28 games have been played in London, kicking-off with one per season but having as many as four when the NFL were trying to find out if the market could sustain a team playing eight games every season here.
One game a year turned into two, turned into three and the two seasons with four games all sold well, but for now it’s two games – both in the afternoon time slot in the UK that makes it an early morning ‘Breakfast Bowl’ viewing time back in the States. That’s to ensure the games get national coverage across America.
31 of the 32 teams in the NFL have been across to play in London with just the Green Bay Packers yet to make the journey.
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Quantity over Quality?
A major problem with bringing over the bigger more successful sides in the NFL is that a team has to give up a home game to go and play in London. It’s actually part of the deal now if you host the Super Bowl hence the Falcons playing host to the Jets this season.
It’s why you won’t get the Dallas Cowboys or Pittsburgh Steelers or the like giving up a home game, and even in their case and in the case of the Packers, when they’re the away side they’re huge games for the hosts back in the USA so it wouldn’t be a game a London host would want to deprive their home fan base of.
We’ve seen a lot of the Raiders (3), Rams (4) and Dolphins (4) in London recently, with the Rams and Raiders both moving home in the USA being a factor while the Dolphins come under the category of teams that just aren’t selling out because they aren’t playing well – so losing a game isn’t a massive upset to their fans.
It's been a memorable 13 years!
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) October 25, 2020
We have seen Tom Brady and the Patriots play twice and win convincingly twice, which is a treat for any NFL fan, while the likes of Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo and Adrian Peterson all strut their stuff.
A big downside though, which NFL purists will point to, is that because of the circumstances of giving up a game we’d tended to get the, how can we put this, less well performing teams coming over to play.
Just 17 of the 56 teams that have played in a London game have come over with a winning record, and that will continue as all four of our teams this year have had poor starts – they’re a combined 3-13 ahead of Week Five in the league.
That’ll make it 30 games played in London, with 10 being played between two sides with losing records and still no match-up between two teams with winning records – or a quality match-up as NFL fans would call it.
There have been seven games between two teams without a losing record, with sides on an even .500 having won and lost the same amount playing a similar team or one with a winning record – and six have been in the last five years.
Great Plays And Great Games
It all started with a messy 13-10 win for the New York Giants over the Miami Dolphins back in 2007 and although the game and the Wembley turf was a bit of a letdown, the fact the Giants managed to go on to win the Super Bowl that season was a massive boost for the London games.
A second game wasn’t originally planned for a few years, but the NFL came right back 12 months later and have been coming back ever since.
And of course, just because you don’t have the best or most in-form teams in the league doesn’t mean you can’t have yourselves a good game of American football – and some of the biggest names in the business have strut their stuff on this side of the Atlantic.
In 2013 we saw Colin Kaepernick at the peak of his powers as the San Francisco 49ers, fresh off a Super Bowl appearance earlier that year, dismantled the Jaguars. In that same year legendary running back Adrian Peterson was also flying as he helped the Minnesota Vikings run all over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
THE best London Games play.
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) November 1, 2020
Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys gave us a quarterback clinic in 2014 with wide receiver Dez Bryant also starring in a big win over the Jaguars, while that year also saw one of this year’s teams, the Atlanta Falcons, in town playing the Detroit Lions.
QB Matt Ryan will not want to be reminded of this game too much as he led them to a 21-0 lead at half-time only to lose 22-21 thanks to a huge collapse and 48-yard Matt Prater field goal with the last kick of the game.
The New York Giants played and won the first game at Twickenham, just as they had helped christen Wembley, with Landon Collins’ pick six right up there with the best plays we’ve ever seen in their victory over the Rams (then of St Louis) in 2016.
That same year we saw an NFL rarity with a tied game taking place at Wembley between Washington and Cincinnati after the first case of overtime in London. The UK crowd was also treated to a classic case of ‘icing the kicker’ as Dustin Hopkins slotted a 34-yard field goal in overtime to seemingly win it only to discover the Bengals had called a timeout just before he connected.
Naturally he missed his second attempt!
We saw two shutouts (Saints 20-0 Dolphins, Cardinals 0-33 Rams) in the four one-sided games in 2017 which was somewhat of a blow in the first year of four games being played. This was the best Jaguars side we’ve seen and after a 44-7 rout of the Ravens they came within a whisker of making the Super Bowl that season.
2018 saw Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel hit the headlines as, when his team scored to get to within a point of the Chargers with second left in the game, he opted to go for a two-point conversion to win instead of sending it to overtime with a kick.
A brave, gutsy call…that backfired as they failed and the Titans lost.