London games are no vacation

Sunday marked the NFL’s now-annual visit overseas to London. The game was predictably non-competitive – the Patriots routed the Buccaneers 35-7 at Wembley Stadium -- but the bigger story was the venue and the possibility that it might be the site of multiple games in the future. The commissioner seems to want it, and owners, seeing the financial opportunities of another market, want it. But players, coaches and team management? Uh, not so much.

Although most players and coaches say the right things about expanding the reach of the NFL and enjoying the opportunity, the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) reality is that they wish they didn’t have to go. Players and coaches are the ultimate creatures of routine, comforted by the regimented weekly schedule of meetings, practices, walk-throughs and games. The international trips are necessary inconveniences that the league has pushed and the teams have bought into at various levels, depending on whom you talk to.

Certainly, the travel is difficult. And the training, practice and playing conditions are not what NFL players and staffs are used to. And the food is different. And the lodging. And the reaction from people. And the language, even in London.

I should know. As the first general manager of the Barcelona Dragons of the NFL’s World League in 1991, I was part of the pioneering crew trying to introduce football to Spain, a country that was -- and still is -- consumed by futbol, or soccer. We tried, we really did. We tried different marketing campaigns, different tutorials about the game, and offered appearances by players, coaches and cheerleaders to try to get people to understand and appreciate American football.

It wasn’t to be. Our first touchdown was a 70-yard tight end seam pattern. As I jumped up and down, there was scattered, polite golf applause. Huh? Then, as our kicker came on and kicked the extra point, the crowd erupted! We weren’t in Kansas any more, Toto.

The Spanish fans did the wave the entire game. They cheered at the wrong times. They chanted, “Ole, ole, ole!” at every chance. They had no understanding of the game and really didn’t want to have one. American football was a diversion, an amusement from their beloved soccer. The fans were there to party and enjoy, not to appreciate the game of American football, complete with its mystifying huddles and stoppages.

I told our staff that we were no longer selling touchdowns and tackles; we were selling an event, three hours of America. We hired NFL cheerleaders to teach the women there how to dance like them (Las Chicas Del Dragons became more popular than the team). We hired marching bands. We brought over thousands of pounds of hot dogs and hamburgers. We hired a Frisbee dog, who lived with us and left his waste all over the hotel. We made it a party and they came, albeit in small numbers compared to the NFL.

At our hotel, I ordered food for 60 the first night and it was gone after 15 minutes; they had never seen people consume like us. We had to put night tables with pillows at the end of each bed so players’ feet would be upright. We had to order new uniforms three times because the laundry didn’t know how to wash jerseys. I had to “negotiate” a few times to get our equipment out of customs, a lesson in cultural negotiations that was eye-opening.

This was not just a job, it was an adventure.

As for travel, for a game at, say, Sacramento, we would leave Barcelona on a Tuesday, fly to London, change airports in London, wait several hours, board a plane to Atlanta, wait several more hours, board a plane for San Jose, then ride a bus to Sacramento, arriving sometime late Wednesday night or Thursday. We would be lucky to have more than one practice on the week of a game in the United States.

So, Patriots and Bucs, please don’t complain about your trip to London, followed by a bye week to rest after all the travel. Although it was not part of the usual routine, it was a morning commute compared to the old days of the World League.

Now Commissioner Roger Goodell is talking about doubling the number of games in London next year with an eye toward even more, or perhaps having repeat performances by the same team to grab the NFL audience and push it toward one team. The likely reaction from owners is positive, as more awareness in England can sell more licensed merchandise and eventually increase rights fees. The reaction from players and coaches is likely the same everywhere: “I hope we don’t have to go.” For people who are slaves to routine, the routine is shaken for that week.

The international games, however, are one of those things that teams do in the interests of the bigger picture. The NFL has always thrived due to a “league-first” mentality, and the London games are a shining example of that.

And some quick hits from Sunday:

Think Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and agent Bus Cook are glad they got their deal done before the game?

Now we see why the 49ers never got personal in their negotiations with Michael Crabtree despite his lengthy absence. He’s their future at wide receiver.

Remember the outrage over the Cowboys’ video board? Now it’s radio silence.

When did the NFL turn into the first month of college football? There sure seem to be a lot of blowouts these days. Perhaps it’s time to relegate a few of these teams to the subdivision.

Did the Steelers’ Keyaron Fox have some magnetic force in his shoulder pads? Didn’t that deflection off the hands of Chester Taylor take a weird turn right into Fox’s chest?

Don’t you get the feeling the Saints can score whenever they feel like scoring?

Can we let Sam Bradford have surgery in peace before breaking down his NFL future?

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