Wade to the NFL

Wade to the NFL

In the big news of the week, Christian Wade has left Wasps and rugby union as a whole with the intention of pursuing a career in the NFL. The winger, capped just once by England, could potentially have broken the Premiership record for tries in a career but appears to have played his last game (for now at least).

Since the news broke, I have not yet been able to find anything saying how he plans to enter the league: whether he plans to train with a view to entering the draft, or will he sign on directly with a team as an undrafted free agent in a similar way to rugby league star Jarryd Hayne.

Wade becomes the latest in a list of pro rugby players who have made the switch to the NFL in recent years. The aforementioned Hayne had an impressive preseason but struggled in the regular season and split his time between the active roster and practice squad before leaving for the Fiji rugby 7s team less than a year after signing for the 49ers. 2015 RPA Sevens Player of the Year came through the NFL’s International Player Pathway program and currently finds himself on the Atlanta Falcon’s practice squad. Former Worcester lock Christian Scotland-Williamson also finds himself on the practice squad, in case for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As can be seen from those players, it is not an easy transition from rugby to the NFL. The two sports may share many similar skills but they are also two very different games. Whereas rugby requires endurance to keep going for 80 minutes, the NFL is about 4-6 seconds of going flat out with rests in between. Roles are much more specialised and involve skills such as precise route running and blocking. On top of this, there is the extra equipment (a gumshield looks insignificant next to NFL pads and helmets) and also the extra physicality from more larger players and plenty of impacts that would be far from legal in rugby.

Assuming Wade can make the transition, where will he play? Personally, I see him playing offense due to his dangerous footwork and ability to make a player miss. With that footwork and pace, I expect his earliest contributions to be as a returner, much with Hayne in San Francisco. If he develops well enough to feature away from special teams, then I can see him at one of two positions.

My initial thoughts when I heard he was leaving rugby was to imagine him as a Wide Reciever. At 5’8″ it will not be easy for him especially in the redzone, but if he can run precise routes then he could become a dangerous slot receiver like Wes Welker, while his pace could also make him a dangerous downfield threat.

The other position I can see Wade would be in the backfield. Obviously he’s not someone that I would want to see running between the tackles regularly but in more of a scatback role – running outside the tackles and catching out of the backfield. My only worry about this position would be the need for him to learn to pass block and pick up the blitz, or his Quarterback could be in trouble.

How will he do? Well judging by the fact that Wasps look set to sign Malakai Fekitoa, Wade must have been on a pretty nice contact at Wasps, so to give that up he must be confident that he can make it in the NFL and, I would assume, have taken advice from people who know the league. The important thing will be getting a team that will be willing to take the time to develop him rather than expecting him to be an immediate star. It will also help to end up on a team with coaches who can scheme to take advantage of his skills while also trying to limit the impact of his weaknesses. Suffice to say, I will be following the progression of this story with great interest.

Start or Sit?

Start or Sit?

When Baker Mayfield was named the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, it was always going to be a question of when, not if, he would become the starting Quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. In Week 4 of the season, Mayfield made his first start after coming on in relief of the injured Tyrod Taylor the week before and leading the Browns to their first win since December 2016. After the hit-and-miss play of Taylor over the first 2 and a bit games, it’s highly likely that the Mayfield era has now begun in Cleveland. But is it right for a QB to become the starter (permanent, not just as injury cover) in their rookie year?

The NFL does have its stories of stars being picked early and quickly becoming stars in the league. Peyton Manning was an immediate starter for the Colts in 1998 and didn’t miss a start in the regular season until injury saw him miss the 2011 season, while his heir Andrew Luck was also starting from the very beginning.

But for every star like Manning and Luck, there are busts. Manning’s rival for the number 1 draft pick, Ryan Leaf is probably one of the most famous draft busts and was out of league by May 2002. One of Luck’s fellow 2012 first round picks, Brandon Weedon was a regular starter for only his first season and has predominantly been a journeyman backup since the 2013 season, having last played in the regular season in 2015.

As a Titans fan, the 2011 draft was one of the few I paid attention to as I knew the Titans would be going for a new QB with the number 8 pick. After everything I had read and heard, I remember hoping that Blaine Gabbert would be available at the spot. He was available, but the Titans chose to go for Jake Locker instead and Gabbert went to the Jags 2 weeks later. After 2 bad performances by Luke McCown, Gabbert was given his first start in Week 3, but he seriously struggled behind a questionable O-line and has only started 50% or more of his team’s games in 3/7 completed seasons for 3 different teams. He’s now made his way to Tennessee as a backup for Marcus Mariota.

Gabbert is a prime example of the issue for so many rookie QBs, being thrust to the fore without having the real chance to adapt from college football to the NFL. Most QBs coming out of college will not be used to a pro-style offense and instead be more used to hurry-up offenses or spread offenses. Suddenly as well they will be up against players 10 years their senior who know every trick in the book and many that aren’t. Let’s look at Baker’s first start, against the Raiders. He may have made some lovely plays and thrown for just under 300 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he also had a number of bad plays, being picked twice and losing 2 fumbles, the second of which came on a fumbled snap likely caused by his lack of experience under center (he never played there in college).

For me, the ideal situation for a team is to go down the route of 2 of the best QBs currently playing. Tom Brady was never meant to be a star judging by his 6th round pick, but after a season on the bench behind Drew Bledsoe, he took over the reins of the Patriot following Bledsoe’s injury in the 4th quarter of their Week 2 match during the 2001 season and has never looked back since. Perhaps a more comparable tale is that of Aaron Rodgers. Picked by the Green Bay Packers 24th overall in 2005 (behind Alex Smith), Rodgers only appeared in 7 matches over his first 3 seasons as he sat behind the legend that is Brett Favre. Rodgers was made starter for the 2008 season following Favre’s retirement (he later returned but was traded to the Jets) and he has since gone on to win a Super Bowl and be named NFL MVP twice, while being regarded as one of the greatest QBs of all time.

Sitting a QB for their rookie makes sense as they can get used to the environment and adapt to the way football is played in the NFL. The big problem is that the NFL is a business and if a team is not getting results, then the people in charge won’t be there long enough to sort things out. Too often a team is taking a QB in the first round because they need someone who they feel is good enough to start and win immediately. A rookie QB may be able to do enough in the first season or two to keep a coach in their job while they build a team around their star.

But if a coach was brave enough to let that young lad sit for the first year, would the lack of results in year 1 be outweighed by the benefits down the line? I think so. A good QB is a comfortable QB and one year on the bench is surely worth it for potentially developing the franchise QB of the next 10 years. Now teams just need to start thinking a couple of years ahead and picking up a promising rookie while they still have a reliable veteran there to learn from.

How will Baker, Sam Darnold and the other rookie QBs work out down the line? Only time will tell…

NFL Bold Predictions

NFL Bold Predictions

Football is back! The 2018 NFL season kicked off this weekend and in honour of it, I decided to have a look at each Division in the league and try to predict the winner. Obviously it would have been great to get this out before the season started but I only had the inspiration at the last minute and then life got in the way, slowing things down, but I had all the predictions down before the matches started so still felt it was worth putting out.

Now for those who don’t know, I’m a Tennessee Titans fan and as last season was their first playoff appearance since I started cheering for them I’m obviously not the best judge of success, so I decided to get in a few friends to help me:

  • Rob is an old friend from uni, who I got to know through the 3 years. While at uni, he got into American football and began to play for the university’s team, Tarannau. He is (unfortunately) a Jaguars fan
  • Matt is a former work colleague who was actually one of the people who supported me as I initially set up this site. He was the one person at work I could actually have a conversation with about the NFL and not see their eyes glaze over. You can find his blog here. He is an Eagles fan and thinks Carson Wentz and Nick Foles are gods among men
  • Ed is an old friend from school who I recently got back in contact with via social media through a shared love of all things sporty and geeky. He is currently a Patriots fan, but feels dirty to admit it

Now when I set these lads the challenge, I got immediate responses from Rob and Matt but Ed actually took a few days to think about it and came back to me not just with his picks but mini essay’s for each division – in fact it would have probably made a better post than all my rubbish! So as we go through I thought I would throw in some of Ed’s pearls of wisdom too.


NFC North

The Bears will be better with Khalil Mack on defense and Mitch Trubisky entering his second year with an improved receiver corps, however I feel they are maybe 1 year away from competing in this division. The Lions will always be in with a shot as long at Matthew Stafford is throwing big numbers, but again I don’t feel they have the overall quality to make the top 2. The Packers have a great chance to win the division if Aaron Rodgers can stay fit, especially with Jimmy Graham now in Green Bay, however if A-Rod goes down they could easily end up bottom of the standings. For me, the division belongs to the Minnesota Vikings, who will combine one of the best defences in the league with an offense that should go to the next level with Kirk Cousins under center.

Rob’s pick: Vikings           Matt’s pick: Bears            Ed’s pick: Vikings

Ed says: “This is close between the Vikings and the Packers, but the Vikings should be able to build on a good season last year with a top WR corps and Defense now with a solid QB under centre in Kirk Cousins. A fit again packers should push them close in this division and will make the playoffs even without the Rodgers Nelson connection. Excited to see the Bears play this season with Trubisky under pressure to perform and a huge pickup in Khalil Mack – still a side in growth”

NFC East

With OBJ back and Saquon Barkley in the backfield, the Giants should do better than last year, but I do not feel their O-Line will be able to give Eli Manning the time he needs. The Redskins will do well with a strong team, but may be hampered by Alex Smith’s more limited short passing game. The Cowboys’ success depends heavily on Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten gone I can see them struggling in 2018. The clear favourite here is the Philadelphia Eagles, who may go through a sophomore slump but should still have enough to win the division having strengthened a roster that won the Super Bowl last season, they just need to hope Carson Wentz can get back to the same level when he returns from injury.

Rob’s pick: Eagles             Matt’s pick: Eagles           Ed’s pick: Eagles

NFC South

The Bucs have too many questions at quarterback to compete in arguably one of the tightest divisions in the competition. The Panthers need to hope that the good Cam Newton shows up and players like Greg Olsen can stay fit, but will probably be looking at a wildcard spot as opposed to winning the division. The Falcons have the potential, especially offensively, to win the division but do not usually perform to the level they need to for enough of the season. I give this division to the New Orleans Saints, who will always be able to stay in the game with Drew Brees at QB and a running game that includes Alvin Kamara and (once back from suspension) Mark Ingram Jr.

Rob’s pick: Saints             Matt’s pick: Saints           Ed’s pick: Saints

NFC West

The 49ers may have gone undefeated with Jimmy Garoppolo starting last season but I don’t expect that to last long, especially with Jerick McKinnon now out for the season. The Legion of Boom is gone in Seattle and while Russell Wilson will always keep them in the hunt, I think their questionable O-line will cost them even a wildcard spot. The Cardinals need to hope David Johnson and Sam Bradford can both stay healthy if they are to have any chance of making the playoffs. The LA Rams get the nod here as they have strengthened their defense with Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. This is a team in win-now mode and that’s exactly what I expect them to do this season.

Rob’s pick: Rams              Matt’s pick: Rams            Ed’s pick: Rams

Ed says: “A division that has been turned on its head within two years. Big offseason moves by the Rams look like they are heading for a Superbowl or Bust kind of season this year, no disagreement about their strength all over the field and they should easily win this division. Tough call between the 49ers and the Cardinals but if Jimmy G finds the form he left off on, the 49ers should just grasp the final playoff position in a tight, tight race. Without Russell Wilson the Seahawks would be 0-16!”

AFC North

The Browns are the Browns and there was nothing I saw on Hard Knocks that will make me think they can be genuine contenders, I do expect them to get a few wins though. The Bengals need to hope Andy Dalton have one of his rare above-average years but I don’t see them making it to .500. The Ravens are another team that need to see the best from their QB Joe Flacco, but even if they do I don’t think there is enough talent through the roster to get more than a wildcard spot. Clear favourites here are the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their defense may not be the best but can cope in a relatively easy division, while Ben Roethlisberger will love flinging the ball around to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster while James Conner (and Leveon Bell if/when he comes back) will cause havoc on the ground and out of the backfield.

Rob’s pick: Ravens           Matt’s pick: Steelers       Ed’s pick: Steelers

AFC East

The Bills may regret moving on from Tyrod Taylor as Nathan Peterman and Josh Allen fight for the starting job. The Jets showed promise last year but I think they will be happy with an 8-8 season. The Dolphins need Ryan Tannehill to not just stay healthy but also to have one of his best seasons ever. Of course the only team that I could pick here was the New England Patriots. They may have lost some big names (Malcolm Butler, Danny Amendola & Brandin Cooks) and be without the suspended Julian Edelman for the first few games, but it is impossible to bet against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick winning the division, especially if Gronk can stay healthy.

Rob’s pick: Patriots          Matt’s pick: Patriots        Ed’s pick: Patriots

AFC South

The Colts are pinning their season on the health of Andrew Luck, who has not played since the 2016 season, and I don’t think even a top form Luck can make up for the deficiencies in this roster. As much as it pains me to say it, I think the Titans will miss out on a wildcard spot this season as they begin life under Mike Vrabel. The Jags defense is immense but I don’t see how thay can have success with Blake Bortles at QB, especially now his top 3 receivers from last year are gone. Providing the majority of their top players can stay healthy, I would expect the Houston Texans to win the division as they also have a strong defense. There may currently be questions over how Deshaun Watson does returning from an ACL injury, but with Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins on the roster he has better targets than Bortles.

Rob’s pick: Jaguars          Matt’s pick: Texans         Ed’s pick: Texans

Ed says: “Very tough to call between the Jags and the Texans but if they can stay healthy in Houston there is a real buzz around this team on offense, with some absolute stars on D with Watt, Clowney and the addition of the Honey Badger, and I think they’ll make the playoffs. The Jags have the outstanding defense in the league without doubt but Blake Bortles just holds them back here…”

AFC West

Denver has the pass rush and the WR corps to win, but they are relying on Case Keenum replicating last year’s Vikings form, which is by no means a guarantee. The Raiders have some quality on offense but their defense has just taken a huge step back with the loss of Khalil Mack. I expect the Chargers to make the playoffs as they have a dangerous offense containing Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and the ageless Antonio Gates, while Joey Bosa will always be looking for a way to get to the opposition QB. However I think the Chargers reach the playoffs via a wildcard spot and the top spot goes to the Kansas City Chiefs. Though they lost Marcus Peters, they will be getting Eric Berry back, while moving on from Alex Smith and trusting Patrick Mahomes could see the offense go to a new level as he opens up the field with Sammy Watkins, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt.

Rob’s pick: Chiefs             Matt’s pick: Chargers     Ed’s pick: Chargers

Ed says: “I just cannot see the Raiders mounting a serious challenge in this division without Khalil Mack. The Broncos could do something if we see last years Case but for me this division is between the Chiefs and Chargers, and that very much hangs on how prolific Mahomes is going to be. The chargers are best set up here with a strong Defense and talent at skill positions”

So there you have it, our selections for every divisional winner. I was surprise just how all of our picks lined up considering we all picked separately, with only 1 pick even having a 50/50 split and many being unanimous. When I first started asking the lads for picks, Rob was the first to come back to me and also threw a little extra prediction in there that I loved, so I decided to get this from everyone else too:

Super Bowl LIII will be…

  • Me – Vikings v Patriots
  • Rob – Jaguars v Saints
  • Matt – Eagles v Texans
  • Ed – Chargers v Packers

Interestingly, though we were all very similar in our picks for who tops the division, we all have different franchises having success in the postseason, with Ed being brave enough to pick the Packers as NFC Champions after making their way in through a wildcard spot!

What do you think of our selections? Do you think we’re close or completely wrong? Let me know in the comments below. It will be fun to see how close we got come the end of the season!

Super Bowl LII: Moments that made the Eagles Fly

Super Bowl LII: Moments that made the Eagles Fly

The 52nd Super Bowl was a fantastic show of offensive ability with a record 1151 yards made from scrimmage over the 60 minutes. After a thrilling encounter, the Eagles came away with a 41-33 victory to lift the Vince Lombardi trophy for the first time in the franchise’s history.

Well it was a fantastic game, the amount of sport from this weekend that I already planned to write about and my inability to stay awake throughout meant that I was not going to write about the game, until my cousin decided to be helpful on twitter and promote an article that I wasn’t doing…

 duff

Thanks Lucy!

Luckily though, I had the match recorded and the tweet had given me some inspiration so I watched the game back and the rest, as they say, is history!

In some sporting events, there is clearly one moment that decides the result of a game. A missed kick, a costly penalty, a Hail Mary. This game went so back and forth, the Pats were able to stay in it right to the last and were not far from taking the game to overtime. So with this in mind, I wanted to look at some of the moments that won Philadelphia their first ever Super Bowl. By this I do not necessarily mean the touchdowns and successful kicks – though some of these will certainly feature – but rather events that will have had an impact on who had the momentum and the way the game panned out.

Pre-game – Malcolm Butler was the hero of Super Bowl XLIX with his late interception of Russell Wilson and has developed into a dependable cornerback who has started all but 1 regular season game for the Patriots this season. Yet a decision was made at the eleventh hour to hold him out of the defense and only play him on special teams. It is not currently clear the exact reasons for his drop, but there have been mentions of poor practices following an illness early in the week and also a violation of team rules. To drop a starting defensive back at the last moment against a receiving corps that includes Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz is a dangerous move and will have surely put the Patriots at a disadvantage.

1st Quarter, 4:25 remaining, 3rd & 4 – With the Eagles settling for a field goal on the opening drive, Tom Brady drives the Pats the length of the field but his 3rd down pass to Rob Gronkowski in the end zone is deflected away by Jalen Mills and the Patriots are forced to kick a field goal to level the game at 3-3. Though it was well defended by Mills, Gronk should be a matchup nightmare but the pass made it too easy for the cornerback. This was systematic of the Brady-Gronkowski link in the first half as they only combined for a single 9-yard catch.

1st Quarter, 2:41 remaining, 1st & 10 – Following a 36-yard rush from former Patriot LeGarrette Blount, Nick Foles connects with Alshon Jeffery for a 34-yard touchdown. The field goal was missed, leaving the Eagles with a 9-3 lead. The coverage from the Patriots was not poor, but Jeffery is a large receiver that specialises in this kind of play. Whether it was caused by the late withdrawal of Butler, but it is odd that the Pats did not line up Stephon Gilmore against him considering he is usually the man to match up against the big-bodied receivers. When the Pats defense later adjusted to have Gilmore follow Jeffery, his effectiveness in the Philly passing game was reduced.

2nd Quarter, 15:00 remaining, 3rd & 2 – The Patriots again got in the Philly red zone but failed to convert the chance into a touchdown. A sweep play to Brandin Cooks was well blocked on the right, leaving the receiver with a 1v1 against safety Rodney McLeod to earn 1st & Goal. Rather than trying to step around McLeod, Cooks saw him begin to duck into the tackle so attempted a hurdle, but McLeod reacted quick enough to stop him making the necessary yards in what ended up being a bizarre looking play. New England were forced to attempt a field goal but a fumbled hold put Stephen Gostkowski off and he kicked wide, leaving the Eagles with a 9-3 lead.

2nd Quarter, 13:11 remaining, 1st & 10 – Tom Brady connects with Brandin Cooks for a first down, however he is blindsided by Malcolm Jenkins while trying to gain extra yards and left the game with a head injury. He did not return to the pitch. The hit was completely legal, but unfortunately there was a helmet-to-helmet clash in the collision that Cooks – who had been looking the other way when hit – came off worst from. This was a big loss for New England as Cooks was their downfield playmaker, so the offensive capability was reduced for the rest of the game.

2nd Quarter, 12:04 remaining, 3rd & 5 – The Patriots decided to go for a trick play on 3rd down and it so nearly worked! Brady handed off to James White and looked to get out of the way of the defense, but when White reversed the play to Danny Amendola, Brady was in space on the right and ready to make the first down. Unfortunately for the Pats, Brady may be an elite quarterback but he is not an elite wide receiver and he was unable to make the catch over his shoulder on the run. While a trick play was a great idea, Brady is still recovering from a hand injury that almost ended his season early and is not the most athletic of quarterbacks, so the decision to use him as a receiver here was an odd one. The Pats then decided to go for it on 4th down but were unable to convert and turned the ball over on the Eagles 35 yard line still 9-3 down.

2nd Quarter, 0:38 remaining, 4th & Goal – With Eagles 15-12 up and less than 2 yards away from the end zone, they decided to take a risk and make a trick play of their own. With Foles up at the line of scrimmage pretending to call an audible, the ball was snapped direct to Corey Clement who ran left and reversed to Trey Burton, who threw a pass to none other than Nick Foles, who had a simple catch for a touchdown! As well as an incredibly ballsy play, the fact the Eagles scored with a receiving touchdown for their quarterback must have been incredibly satisfying following Brady’s early drop. The successful conversion gave the Eagles a 22-12 lead going into halftime, and the morale boost may have proved vital considering the Pats came out swinging in the 3rd quarter.

3rd Quarter, 7:24 remaining, 3rd & 6 – Nick Foles scores with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Corey Clement, which is then converted for a 29-19 lead. In my mind, this is the most contentious play of the game as watching the replays I feel that Clement did not have enough control to have been classed as completing the catch before stepping out the back of the end zone. The officials had so many looks at this, but I feel that the decision on Sunday flies against other similar plays during the regular season. Considering the Pats end up needing a touchdown and 2-point conversion on their final drive, the decision to award the touchdown here rather than call an incomplete pass as leave Philly settling for a field goal has a huge impact on the remainder of the game. One thing for sure, the catch rule needs looking at before next season!

4th Quarter, 5:38 remaining, 4th & 1 – Nick Foles completes a 2-yard pass to Zach Ertz to keep the chains moving. While the Pats offense failed to convert many of their big plays, their defense allowed too many vital plays from the Eagles and could not get off the field. At this point in the game, the Pats led 32-33 and their offense was performing much better. Had they turned the ball over on downs here, I am sure they would have put at least 3 points on the board while using up as much time as possible, leaving Philly with a hard task to pull off the win.

4th Quarter, 2:25 remaining, 3rd & 7 – Foles connects with Ertz again on another vital play for an 11-yard touchdown. The play is reviewed a number of times due to the ball coming out as Ertz dives for the line and hits the ground, but in my view he was clearly a runner by that point so just had to cross the plane of the line. This put the Eagles back ahead 38-33 following a failed 2-point conversion, a lead that they would not relinquish.

4th Quarter, 2:16 remaining, 2nd & 2 – With the Patriots needing a touchdown to win, Tom Brady is sacked by Brandon Graham and fumbles. Eagles defensive lineman Derek Barnett recovers. This is the only sack of the entire game! The Eagles score a field gone from the ensuing drive and leave the Patriots with about a minute to go the length of the field, score a touchdown and a 2-point conversion.

The final play – The Patriots manage to drive into range to legitimately attempt a Hail Mary to the end zone. Rob Gronkowski goes up in coverage but is unable to collect the ball, which bobbles around a bit but hits the ground before any Patriots player can collect it. The game ends with the Philadelphia Eagles victorious.

America’s Game: Previewing Super Bowl LII

America’s Game: Previewing Super Bowl LII

For a sports nut like me, this is a busy week: Transfer deadline day in the football, the start of the 6 Nations and – most importantly for this piece – the Super Bowl. The 2018 Super Bowl will be the 52nd Super Bowl (for those of you who can’t read Roman Numerals) and will be a match-up between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, the Eagles’ first appearance in the big game since they lost to the same team in 2005.

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest events in the sporting calendar and draws attention from around the globe, hence the big money spent on commercials during the game and the halftime show – this year we have Justin Timberlake making his return following 2004’s Nipplegate controversy!

But enough about wardrobe malfunctions and the inevitable trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story, if you’re reading this then it is for the sports talk! So without further ado, let’s have a look at the storylines going into Super Bowl LII.

A place in the history books

dynBy defeating the Jags in the AFC Championship game, the Patriots became the first franchise to make it to 10 Super Bowls, while the next best franchises (the Steelers, Cowboys and Broncos each have 8 appearances). If they win on Sunday, they will join the Steelers on the top of the NFL pile with 6 victories.

While this record in itself is great, it is even better when you realise that the Pats’ first Super Bowl victory came at the end of the 2001 season, whereas the Steelers won their first Vince Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 1974 season. After last year’s 5th Super Bowl victory, I wrote about how Bill Belichick’s Patriots are probably the greatest dynasty in modern sports, and to make it back to the Super Bowl despite star receiver Julian Edelman missing the season through injury shows just how impressive this franchise is.

I don’t think anyone will be too surprised if Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels and Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia are both in Head Coaching roles elsewhere next season, yet it is hard to imagine the franchise not pushing for a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance.

The GOAT

Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, it is almost impossible to argue against this. He already has 5 Super Bowl Rings but looks well on his way to a 6th, which would mean no franchise has more rings than him as an individual.

He certainly benefits from a system that made even Matt Cassel look good, but he continues to perform regardless of the players around him. His experience in the big games and the big moments is next to none and was perfectly highlighted by the way he cut the Jaguars apart in the 4th quarter of the AFC Championship game. It is not just blind luck that has seen him named Super Bowl MVP 5 times!

He has struggled sometimes in the past against teams that are getting pressure on him – see the Pat’s 2 losses to the Giants – but I think even the Eagles’ highly rated defence will struggle to deal with him for the whole game, though they may be helped if a certain tight end is unavailable…

Gronkwatch

When fit, Rob Gronkowski is one of the best offensive weapons in the NFL. His combination of pace, size and strength is a nightmare for defenders to match up against, while the quality of Tom Brady and the Pats’ receiving corps means that he can’t be double covered as regularly as a defense would want.

rec
Even with Edelman (and possibly Gronkowski) missing, Brady still has some great options to throw to

Gronk was forced off just before halftime in the AFC Championship game after failing a concussion test following a hit from Barry Church. While the reports coming out suggest he is on track to play, concussions are notoriously difficult to put a time frame on and he is still going through the concussion protocols at the moment.

It will not be the end of the world for the Patriots if he is missing – he has had his injury issues over the years so they are used to playing without him – but having a player of his ability on the field certainly helps to open up the defense.

 

 

As a Titans fan I come into this game as a neutral, but will be leaning my support towards the Patriots as I am continually impressed by Brady and this football dynasty. I would love to see this crop of players continue to break records!

I certainly think the Eagles have a chance, especially if Gronk is unable to play, but after last year’s comeback victory over the Falcons, I really can’t look beyond the Pats for the victory and Super Bowl MVP number 5 for Brady. How do you see the game going?

A Season in Review: the 2017 Tennessee Titans

A Season in Review: the 2017 Tennessee Titans

Back before the 2017 NFL season started, I had a look through the regular season schedule for the Tennessee Titans with a view to seeing what the chances were that I’d have any loyalty to a team in the playoffs or just be watching games as a neutral. After looking at the fixture I made the following prediction:

“As it stands, I can imagine the Titans getting 10+ wins this season, and think they should be disappointed by anything less than a 9-7 season and a return to the playoffs.”

So how did the Titans fare? Well, they finished 9-7, making it into the playoffs (the first time since 2008) as the 5th seed in the AFC, then beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium 22-21 in the Wildcard Round, only to lose in Foxborough 14-35 in the Divisional Round. And yet while I don’t think the Titans could have really expected to go beyond this stage, I actually feel disappointed with the way the season panned out for the franchise.

1920x1200_Walker
The 2017 regular season schedule for the Titans, featuring Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker

The schedule for the AFC South teams was very kind this year – only 6 games were against teams with a winning record, 2 of which were the Jaguars – so this was always going to give the Titans a chance to push for a wildcard spot if they did not win the division. While wins at Jacksonville (who ended 10-6) and at home to the Seahawks (9-7) in the opening 3 weeks suggested this was a team that could go far, they were brought crashing back down to earth in a humbling 14-57 loss at the Texans (4-12) as rookie QB Deshaun Watson ran riot. They then lost to a Dolphins (6-10) team that was led by the less-than-impressive Jay Cutler and in Week 7 were taken to overtime by a Cleveland Browns team that failed to win all season! After their Week 8 bye, they were able to get back on track with close wins over the up-and-down Ravens (9-7) and Bengals (7-9) before another humbling at Heinz Field, where the Steelers (13-3) won 17-40. Their late push for a Divisional title faltered following losses to the Cardinals (8-8), Rams (11-5) and a resurgent 49ers who salvaged a poor start to the season to finish 6-10 with Jimmy Garoppolo under center.

Even while they finished 5-1 in their Divisional games, this must be looked at closer as 3 of these games (both Colts fixtures and Week 13’s game against the Texans) were against backup quarterbacks, while the Texans had also lost JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus to Injured Reserve by this point in the season. It’s fair to say that they had an easy schedule and an easy division, yet they still only just scraped into the playoff due to their record in the conference.

There were some bright sparks for Tennessee this year. Derrick Henry continued to impress with his increased work load and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is promoted to starter in 2018. The O-Line continued to draw praise from pundits, with Taylor Lewan being selected to the Pro Bowl. With Dick LeBeau in place as Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator, the Titans defense ranked 4th in the league on rushing yards and 13th in overall yards (16th in points). Defensive lineman Jurrell Casey was selected to the Pro Bowl, safety Kevin Byard was the league leader in interceptions (8) and was selected 1st team All Pro, while rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson impressed as a starter and will only improve going forward. Marcus Mariota did not have a great season and arguably regressed a bit this season – though he was hampered by a hamstring injury picked up in Week 4 – but he showed flashes of the quality player we know he is towards the end of the season and is also a clear leader on the team who puts his team before his body (check out the block he threw on the Chiefs’ Frank Zombo to allow Derrick Henry to pick up a game-sealing first down on 3rd & 10 and the reaction of his teammates). I would argue though that his regression was more symptomatic of the Titans offense rather than an issue with him.

Android_Kern
Punter Brett Kern was selected for the Pro Bowl, but I doubt the Titans would have wanted to use him so often in matches

The offense as a whole this season was terrible! Despite averaging more yards in both the rushing and passing game, Derrick Henry started only 2 games, while the lead back continued to be DeMarco Murray. First round draft pick Corey Davis showed some real flashes of his potential, especially in the playoffs against New England, but he struggled with injury throughout the season, which limited his effectiveness. The signing of Eric Decker in June really excited me, but though he was probably not on his best form this year, he was also not often used as the Red Zone target that we have seen him excel as being in recent seasons with the Jets. Mike Mularkey had previously described the offensive style as exotic smash mouth. The offense this season was rarely exotic and sometimes not even very smash mouth.

I do not want to put all the blame on Mularkey – while he is the Head Coach, Terry Robiskie is the Offensive Coordinator – but unfortunately if things are not going in the direction the team wants, he will be the one at risk. The offense this season was what stopped them performing as well as they should and a change was clearly needed ahead of next year. I am not overly surprised to see that the Titans and Mularkey have parted ways, Mularkey was the right person to get the franchise back on track but I did not see him as being the person to push them on to the next level.

Looking ahead to 2018

Header_Mariota
Mariota’s passer rating in 2017 regular season (79.3) was the worst of his NFL career (91.5 in 2015, 95.6 in 2016)

I think that there is plenty to be positive about in 2018. Mike Vrabel has been named as the new Head Coach so it will be interesting to see the effect he can have considering his limited NFL coaching experience (he was the Texans’ linebacker coach 2014-2016 and Defensive Coordinator this season). It will also be interesting to see what changes are made with the offensive coaching staff considering this was where the issues seemed to lie.

Looking at the roster, there is not really much that needs improving if the big pieces can stay in place. The important this is to work on the depth. The Titans offense fell apart following Jack Conklin’s injury against the Pats and the defense was clearly tiring as the Patriots maintained their drives. The AFC South will be much more competitive next year with Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson fit (and who knows what the Jags will do at QB!), but I feel that the Titans should be able to push on from this year and fight for the Divisional title.

Hopefully they are going to do better than this season, as I’m planning to watch them play at Wembley!

 

All images in the text of this article are from the Tennessee Titans website http://www.titansonline.com

NFL 2018: The UK Games

NFL 2018: The UK Games

The 2017 NFL season may still be ongoing for some teams as we continue through the playoffs, but for 28 teams (by the time the weekend is over) it will be time to consign this season to the record books and start looking ahead to the 2018 season.

With this in mind, a few days ago, the NFL announced the team’s involved in 2018’s London games as part of the 2018 NFL International Series. As well as one as-yet unannounced game in Mexico – we know the Rams will be involved as part of a previous deal but do not yet know who their opponents will be – we will be getting 3 matches in London. As well as some returning teams, including regular visitors the Jacksonville Jaguars, 3 teams will be making their London debuts and I’m sure fans of the Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles will be looking forward to the chance to finally see their teams play this side of the pond.

As with last year, I have decided to take a quick look at the 3 UK fixtures to see what fans could have to look forward to. Though the announcement has come slightly later than last year – so we know the final regular season records for each team – there is still so much that could change between now and the matches, but at least we can begin to get an idea of what we may have to look forward to in October.

 

Seattle Seahawks (9-7) @ Oakland Raiders (6-10) – 14/10/18

Neither team will be happy with the way their 2017 seasons went and you can bet they will be looking to get back to winning ways in 2018. London has never yet seen a match between two teams with winning records.

Feat:IMG-20171025-WA0000
Wembley will host 2 games in 2018, with the other played at Tottenham’s new stadium

Derek Carr may have had a down season, but with former Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden – who won Super Bowl XXXVII with the Buccaneers – returning, you would imagine that he will be back to his best in 2018 and looking forward to taking on Seattle’s Legion of Boom. UK fans will also be hoping to see 3-time Pro Bowler Khalil Mack at his very best against Russell Wilson, who always seems so be able to throw in a couple of magical plays per game.

The big draw for this game will be the first appearance of Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium. The stadium has been been designed with the NFL in mind and has a retractable artificial turf for NFL games. There will only be 1 game here in 2018 but the plan is for it to host 2 games a year going forward, a good opening game between 2 successful teams will go along way to helping secure the NFL’s future here.

Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) – 21/10/18 or 28/10/18

The only 2018 game in the UK that pits two teams who made the playoffs in 2017, this game has the potential to be one of the best games Wembley has ever seen!

Despite losing star receiver Allen Robinson to injury in Week 1, the Jags relied on a top-class defense that contained 4 Pro Bowlers to top the AFC West and get to at least the AFC Divisional Playoffs (at time of writing they are still to play their game against the Steelers). They are a team on the up and if they can get a more reliable quarterback then the sky could be the limit in 2018.

The Eagles 13-3 record was level with the Patriots, Steelers and Vikings as the best in the NFL this season, but this season will likely not reach the heights that it could have courtesy of Carson Wentz’s ACL injury in Week 14. Wentz was on track for an MVP season before his injury and the fact that they won 2 of their remaining 3 regular season games and their NFC Divisional Round Playoff game against the Falcons with Nick Foles starting under center, which shows just how good this team was this season.

If both teams can continue to play at this season’s high level and also improve on their problem areas, then this will be a match nobody will want to miss. Oh and as if that wasn’t enough, it will likely be another chance for UK fans to cheer on London-born Jay Ajayi.

Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) – 21/10/18 or 28/10/18

As a Titans fan, I have been looking forward to them coming over for a while, especially in recent years as they have started to become more competitive again. Their 9-7 record may flatter to deceive somewhat (more than that in the coming days) but they are a team on the up and will (hopefully) continue to improve in 2018. When it is firing on all cylinders the Titans offense can be brilliant to watch with Derrick Henry in the backfield, 2-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and receivers Corey Davis and Delanie Walker all on the pitch. And if the receivers are having an off day, Marcus Mariota could just start throwing touchdown passes to himself again! Mariota is one of the most impressive young quarterbacks in the league in my (somewhat biased) opinion and will treat the Wembley crowd to one hell of a show with his dual-threat ability. On defense, the Titans have an impressive front 7 and a set of young defensive backs including Adoree’ Jackson and 2017 interception leader Kevin Byard who will benefit so much from their playoff run this season.

Header_Mariota
Fans will be hoping Marcus Mariota is at his best when he comes to London – From http://www.titansonline.com

The Chargers narrowly missed out on a playoff spot this season, but quarterback Philip Rivers reminded us all of the quality he possesses in 2017, while Joey Bosa continues to impress at defensive end and was named to his first Pro Bowl this year.

This may not have the same attraction as the other 2 games, but this could also be a great spectacle between 2 improving teams. Every team who won in London this season made it into the playoffs as Divisional champions, while Jacksonville have previously use the London games to get themselves back on track after poor starts to the season. I imagine both franchises will be looking to use this game as a springboard to launch forwards in their quest for a 2018 playoff berth.

 

Will you be going to any of the games? Which one are you most looking forward to?