NFL London: Between a novelty and an expansion trial, can American football really take off without competitive games?

Jane McManus
The Independent
Doug Baldwin salutes the Wembley crowd as he leaves the field: Action Images via Reuters
Doug Baldwin salutes the Wembley crowd as he leaves the field: Action Images via Reuters

The happiest American in London yesterday was Rainn Wilson.

The actor, notable in the US for his starring role as Dwight in the inferior version of The Office, was born and raised in Seattle and suffered through the Seahawks’ dark era at an impressionable age. Now, filming a movie here, Wilson got some good tickets and watched his team crush Oakland 27-3. Then, as an entertainer of a certain status, Wilson was ushered to the hallways under Wembley where some players spotted him as they came off the field.

“Dwight!!”

There were hugs, and then Wilson was pulled straight into the cramped Seattle locker room to celebrate with all his favourite players. Several cheers and a few photos later, a rumpled and happily-dazed Wilson was deposited back into the hallway.

I managed the interception. What happened in there?

“That was pretty surreal,” Wilson said. “It was absolute mayhem – just dozens of adrenalised, testosterone-fuelled sweaty men. I kind of became this mascot and all my favourite players wanted selfies with me and I have a lot of their sweat all over my hands and my coat. It was awesome.”

Tight end Nick Vannett was star-struck on the other end, since he regularly watches old episodes with his girlfriend. “He’s a funny guy,” Vannett testified.

Seattle demolished their west-coast opponents 27-3 (Reuters)
Seattle demolished their west-coast opponents 27-3 (Reuters)

A nice moment, but was it objectively a good game? Not if you’re a fan of both teams scoring what sports people call “touchdowns.” That won’t bother the Seattle fans who did a remarkable job of traveling 11 or so hours from their cold and drizzly city to this cold and drizzly city, but it might be a concern to the NFL generally. Last season in the four-game series, only one game was competitive, and it inexplicably included a Cleveland team that didn’t win a single game all season.

Like Wilson’s adoption, the NFL in London makes no sense in a wonderful way; a most American game in this most British of Wembleys, where Seattle and Raiders fans walked to their seats using the same entrance. The home team fans are arguably in the minority of any given NFL game here, and yesterday Colts hats and Washington jerseys contributed to the randomness of loyalties.

Seattle Seahawks condemned Oakland to their fifth defeat of the season (Getty)
Seattle Seahawks condemned Oakland to their fifth defeat of the season (Getty)

Something between a novelty – Marshawn Lynch in a Raiders jersey for heaven’s sake – and a test case for a future home team, the NFL in London features three games this year. There’s plenty to confuse fans from both sides of the pond, and I can personally guarantee that most Americans inside the stadium wondered if an inscrutable interview with England rugby player Chris Robshaw was actually conducted in English.

David Jordan has been to six of these games over the last 11 years, including the first. Jordan ventured from Halifax with two friends for an NFL lads weekend that has become a tradition. Jordan, who is full disclosure an old friend, grew up watching the NFL on Channel 4, and when a game finally came to England he had to be there.

“It’s not the team you’re here for,” Jordan said in front of a pint at Black Sheep Coffee. “It’s the spectacle of seeing it in London.”

The 'Raiderettes' cheerleaders were two sleeves away from wearing only a bikini (Getty)
The 'Raiderettes' cheerleaders were two sleeves away from wearing only a bikini (Getty)

If by spectacle he means cheerleaders wearing two sleeves more than a bikini and white go-go boots, then well done all around. The columns of fire and smoke machines are a very American tendency to gild every lily to within an inch of its life. T Shirt cannons! Spring-loaded jumping stilts! Concussion protocol!

Beyond the smoke and Jess Glynne pregame concert, a few football things happened.

Sebastian Janikowski, the former Oakland kicker, had three points after touchdown (PATs) and two field goals while Matt McCrane, his replacement across the field, muffed one of two field goal attempts. Janikowski blazed quickly out of the locker room to the team bus rather than detail for the media just how delicious that must have been. Oakland, which drafted Janikowski in 2000 with a first round pick, is now 1-5 under Jon Gruden in his less-than-triumphant return to coaching.

Former Seattle running back Lynch, now with Oakland, struggled mightily in facing his old team. Lynch had 45 yards on 14 carries as part of an Oakland offense that couldn’t protect quarterback Derek Carr, who was sacked six times.

Singer Jess Glynne performs prior to kick-off during the International Series NFL match at Wembley (PA)
Singer Jess Glynne performs prior to kick-off during the International Series NFL match at Wembley (PA)

“We’re going to have to do the best we can do to find five men that can collectively pass protect much better,” Gruden said while Carr should have been sitting in an ice tub up to his earlobes.

To be fair, it was challenging for these two West Coast teams to travel roughly 4,700 miles and face an eight-hour time difference. Seattle defensive tackle Shamar Stephen had no idea when to sleep. Safety Shalom Luani said he just couldn’t sleep at all.

“It wasn’t the easiest thing,” Seattle guard JR Sweezy said. “If you don’t handle the process right it can mess you up, and I think we handled it right.”

So maybe London can stand the influx of NFL fans this year, as they stand like obstacles on the left side of Tube escalators, or stop suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk after spotting a nearby Starbucks. They can be helpful! Back in the stands, Rainn Wilson said he explained a few key rules to the Brits around him.

“They’re a very polite crowd but people were really into the game,” Wilson said. “I think that’s the next phase of the NFL – Canada, Mexico, the UK. Broadening out.”

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