The NFL season began with Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeating the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night in an exciting first game. It’s exciting enough, but it also means the return of top American football to London is just around the corner. Two games will take place at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium after a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic.
In fact, “the upper class” is spreading the truth a bit. None of the four teams involved have reached the playoffs and three of the four worst teams from last season will travel to Tottenham High Road in October. The Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars have a paltry seven wins between them. The Miami Dolphins have had a bit of bad luck missing the postseason action with a 10-6 record, but they’re still a long way off the elite NFL teams.
The London opener on October 10 will pit the Jets against the Falcons, the nominal home team. It’s been a decade since New York reached the playoffs and one of the worst performing franchises in the sport fell to 2-14 in 2020. It was the signal for a clearance, a regular feature of Jets life. .
Robert Saleh replaced Adam Gase as head coach and quarterback Sam Darnold, third pick in the 2018 Draft, was sent to the Carolina Panthers – which the Jets open the season against on Sunday. With the second pick in the April Draft, New York chose Zach Wilson of Brigham Young University to replace Darnold. There was some skepticism about Wilson throughout the league – he comes from a school with a flexible schedule and suffered injury issues in college. Media scrutiny in the Big Apple is fierce as well, and extra pressure is put on any caller in the quarterback graveyard that the Jets have become.
Wilson is talented but raw. Coaches have kept offense simple for him during a preseason where he has shown positive signs, but he will need a better receiving body to really shine. No one at the club expects the new quarterback to turn them into suitors overnight.
The same can be said about Saleh. The former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator has a good reputation and has built an impressive staff. The previous regime had promised to outdo its rivals. Saleh is more interested in outdoing them. The 42-year-old has charisma and calls for a more physical approach. This first season is a pass for Saleh and there will be a positive feeling in New York if the team wins five or six games.
They will expect one of those wins to be in London. The Falcons went through even more turmoil than the Jets last season. They lost six games in a winning position, including two gruesome fourth-quarter collapses in straight weeks in September, where they fell more than 15 points clear. Head coach Dan Quinn was sacked after a 0-5 start and Raheem Morris led them through for the remainder of the campaign.
Arthur Smith, a former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator, took the helm in January and his priority is rebuilding a defense that couldn’t cope with the passing game. Atlanta has solved some of the free agency issues and should be much better.
There were a number of quarterbacks with the potential to anchor a franchise for the foreseeable future still on the table when the Falcons’ fourth-round pick arrived, but they picked Kyle Pitts, a tight end. That meant they were staying with Matt Ryan, the 36-year-old who led the team to the Super Bowl four years ago (when Atlanta’s most famous collapse happened, losing 34-28 to the New England Patriots after leading 28-3). Ryan was one of the Falcons’ best players last season and the veteran might be suitable for Smith’s offense, which relies on plenty of play passes.
The margins were tight for Atlanta in 2020: they lost eight of the nine games that were decided by seven points or less. If they can turn the tide, a winning season might be on the cards, but reaching the one-division playoffs with Tampa Bay and the New Orleans Saints might be beyond them. Smith would be appalled if they failed to defeat the Jets in North London. A strong home start against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday is essential for Atlanta.
Jacksonville, the reportedly London team, will be at home against Miami on October 17. The Jags are owned by Shad Khan, whose sports portfolio includes Fulham, and the Pakistan-born billionaire has long dreamed of moving from one of the smaller NFL markets to the English capital. Jacksonville has been playing matches in the UK for eight years and they were due to host two home games last season before the coronavirus outbreak.
Why would London want a team that has had a winning record in just eight years of their 26-season history? Despite their struggles, the Jags were only a quarter of the Super Bowl four years ago. And with their first draft pick this year, they’ve taken on Trevor Lawrence, the Clemson quarterback who many believe will be the sport’s next superstar. Jacksonville has improved in a number of positions and while Lawrence may not work wonders, he appears to be a safe bet. The riskiest decision for Khan was to hire Urban Meyer as head coach.
The 57-year-old has a checkered past. He won three National University titles, twice with the University of Florida and once with Ohio State, but there were discipline issues in both programs. He had been retired for two years when he answered Jacksonville’s call and Meyer has already made bizarre decisions and caused murmurs in the locker room about his behavior.
Very few college coaches make an easy transition to the NFL. The rah-rah approach that works with students isn’t for seasoned and cynical pros. Some of Meyer’s early antics caused consternation.
In May, he signed Tim Tebow, a former quarterback who had been out of the league for six years, as a tight end. Tebow was released in the first round of selection after an embarrassing performance. Meyer also blurted out that the Jags were factoring in Covid vaccinations when considering players for release. Doing this is one thing – a number of teams have a similar policy – but admitting it in public is another. The NFL Players Association immediately opened an investigation.
Jacksonville will start the season against the Houston Texans on Sunday. The Texans are in deep trouble and the Jags are expected to tie last season’s winning tally in their first game. If they don’t, then chaos looms. Lawrence’s long-term future looks secure and he could well be the quarterback that will lead the Jaguars into a more formal relationship with London but, if that happens, it’s likely Meyer will be long gone.
The Dolphins can’t afford to give up games to teams like Jacksonville. The next stop for Miami is the playoffs, but they are unlikely to win a competitive division. The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots are home to the AFC East, so a wild card seems the only route to postseason action. There have been signs of progress in head coach Brian Flores’ first two years, but the team has little room for error in a competitive conference.
It’s another team with a young quarterback, but the Dolphins are a year ahead of the Jags. Miami took on Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth pick in the 2020 Draft and despite a top-down introduction to NFL life in his first season, Flores has made a commitment to the 23-year-old.
The team altered the offensive structure to accommodate Tagovailoa, even making the unusual decision to appoint joint co-offensive coordinators, which is similar to the situation the quarterback experienced at college. They also hired a position coach whose relationship with Tagovailoa dates back to high school. In this year’s draft, they selected Jaylen Waddle in the first round, a wide receiver who was a quarterback teammate in Alabama.
Simply put, if Tagovailoa is successful, Miami will take a step forward. If he fails, the Dolphins will back down and risk being overtaken by teams like Jacksonville. Miami travels to New England on Sunday. Their performance there will give an idea of ââwhat form they will be in when they arrive at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
None of the teams visiting the UK next month are likely to be close to the Super Bowl in February, but the subplots make the two London games essential. The four franchises are entering a new era and the NFL is used to producing surprises.