While part of the SBNation family as a writer for Bucs Nation, I also co-run a British NFL blog called The Pulling Linemen. TPL will be at all media events this week for the Jaguars-49ers International Series game, and are delighted to work together with Big Cat Country and NinersNation to bring you reports from the teams' media events, practices and press conferences all week long. All photos courtesy of SBMedia.
Tuesday represented the first real opportunity for the Jacksonville Jaguars to embrace the city that they'll be calling home for at least one week of the next four NFL seasons - a chance to establish the tone of the relationship the team wants to have with the London community for the coming years.
The Jaguars' involvement in their Play60 event consisted of their mascot, a handful of cheerleaders, and all of six players.
Perhaps it's unfair to expect more - the team had just arrived at Gatwick airport a few hours earlier; the event was attended by the children of just one school, where other recent Play60 events was attended by the children of multiple schools; and for the first few years of the International Series, the accompanying Play60 events were typically attended by only a small contingent of team players. Yet, when compared to the 49ers' event the day before - one we praised for being the largest yet, representing an increased effort by the NFL to involve their star players in the London community and following a trend established by the Rams - the 'home' team's effort couldn't help but be disappointing.
There were, in the team's defense, different circumstances at play: unlike the Rams, Vikings or 49ers events, the team bus did not go straight from the airport to the event, but rather to the team hotel first - and the more cynical among us might wonder if any of those events would have had anywhere near the same level of team involvement if the players had not been ferried directly from the airport to the events; unlike Monday's event by San Francisco, yesterday's event took place during the players' day off - when the 49ers held a similar event in 2010 during the players' day off, they had a similarly small attendance; the event was held at a physically smaller venue as well.
Still, it did not reflect well on the team, if only because of the seemingly greater effort put in by the 49ers the day before - the supposed 'road' team in Sunday's contest. While the end game is obviously much-mooted at this point, what cannot be denied is that the Jaguars are putting a huge effort into building a fan base in London. Sending over just six players is not going to help this team be embraced by the London community, not when us naturally cynical Brits take the high level of community involvement by American sports personalities with a pinch of salt - an effort that represents something less than total earnestness is more likely to be dismissed as a cheap PR opportunity than a genuine desire of altruism that might otherwise have endeared the team to at least some Londoners. When Brad Meester told the assembled media that the Play60 event was "an awesome opportunity... being able to spend this time [with the London schoolchildren] and introduce some football to them is a great experience for them", his words seemed to say more of Meester as an individual, being one of the very few players who had deigned to make an appearance, than it did of Meester as a representative of the Jaguars organisation.
It's also fair to question how the six players in attendance were chosen. Did they volunteer their time, or where they picked out by the Jags' PR staff? If the latter, then it is certainly confusing why they would choose a majority of their representation to be offensive linemen. Don't get us wrong, here at TPL we naturally love our fellow linemen and relished the opportunity to ask Meester about having to adjust his rhythm back and forth between two different signal callers ("it's been fine because... they're both very similar, both come in the huddle and take control of the huddle and are very consistent with their calls and everything that they do, so really it's been an easy transition back and forth between them"), or to talk with Cam Bradfield about what Luke Joeckel going down to injury so soon after the Eugene Monroe trade meant for him ("it's definitely a great opportunity, coming into the season it wasn't an ideal situation but this is football, crazy things happen [and] I'm just happy for the opportunity") or the prospect of blocking JJ Watt ("he's a great player, you have to watch a lot of film on that guy before you play him").
But what about the schoolchildren of London? Many of the kids yesterday were experiencing American football for the first time. Learning the sport from the athletes who play the game at the highest level should be an experience that they would hold dear to them - but when those kids tune in to the Saturday morning NFL highlights show, it's not likely they'll be able to point to clips on national television of Meester making protection calls in response to different defensive fronts or Will Rackley decleating a defensive tackle on a trap block and boast to their friends, "he taught me American football". When Sunday's game is broadcast live on Channel 4, the cameras are going to focus in on Henne (or is it Gabbert's turn this week?) throwing to Cecil Shorts and the school children are going think, "why aren't they showing the players we met?". Each child went home with a Jaguars poster featuring several players; these kids aren't going to know the Jaguars now hanging on their wall from Adam. Even something as simple as having the players wear their jerseys, rather than the nondescript Jaguars-branded black t-shirts they were wearing so that the children will be able to at least recognise the players on Sunday from their jersey numbers would have been a step in the right direction, but instead we were left wondering just how the Jaguars plan to work their way into the hearts and minds of London's youth if this represented their opening gambit to become "London's team" for the next four years.
It's a shame, because those players that were in attendance were perfectly affable and seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves as they coached the kids through various football drills, or even pretending to compete against them at a flag football station in the Play60 circuit. There is no question too that the NFL Play60 brand, behind the scenes, are trying to do their part to help the sport grow in the UK, inviting along the volunteers from South East Youth American Football Foundation. SEYAFF is an initiative spearheaded by British gridiron team
the Maidstone Pumas, that has since expanded to include their local 'rival' teams, the Kent Exiles and the
|DJ Williams poses with Ian Miles, SEYAFF co-ordinator
East Kent Mavericks, to throw away the traditional territorial mentality that has long divided Kent in favour of all three teams working together to introduce flag football at schools across the county for the good of the sport in general. As at the previous two Play60 events this year, the Pumas sent over volunteers to run the drills alongside the NFL players, which is not so much a reward for the effort the Pumas have already made in growing the sport as rather an opportunity for the SEYAFF volunteers to better learn how to run drills for younger children in the mould of the Play60 and NFL Flag initiatives, so as to give SEYAFF the best possible tools to establish flag football programmes all over south-east England. It's efforts such as these that should be the cornerstone of the Jaguars' pitch to the average British sports fan - but those efforts can't help but be somewhat negated when the public face of the Jaguars' community outreach consisted of such a low level of player involvement.
We asked both Bradfield and tight end DJ Williams what British fans will see on Sunday to make them want to come back to watch the Jaguars' next three London games. "I want the fans to know that we're a team that's definitely trying to improve and we're working very hard", replied Bradfield, before adding "but I'm really not sure. It's the first of four games so we'll see". Williams sold a more rousing vision of the product the Jaguars will be trying to sell to the British public this weekend: "We play with a lot of passion... we care about this game and I think you'll see Sunday how fast we play, how physical we play, how bad you can see we want to win rather than just collecting pay cheques. That's what we offer and we bring every Sunday."
It's an admirable pitch from the tight end, but the problem with yesterday's Play60 event, coming on the heels of the superior 49ers' event the day before, is made more clear in the light of a comment Williams made about how the Jaguars can beat San Francisco at Wembley: "We have to not just win on Sunday, but win in practice tomorrow, win on Thursday, win on Friday. We have to earn the right to win the game first."
The Jaguars should be approaching the affection of the British public in the same fashion.
Other notes from the Play60 event:
- When asked how difficult it was to make the flight across the Atlantic still searching for their first win of the year, the offensive linemen were relatively stoic, with Meester saying the team will "lock in and do everything that we do in a normal game week and get ready", while Bradfield claimed "I don't think it's about location for us. We have the mindset of competing anywhere... we're not so worried about where it is, we're just happy for the chance to go out and compete". Williams was more forthcoming on the topic: "It is difficult, but at the same time it's very exciting. A lot of us have never even been out of the country... it might be what we need. Something fresh, something new, something we've never been around before to get us kick started."
- Meester's take on the Jaguars season so far: "obviously it hasn't gone quite the way we'd hoped, but we're focusing on getting better every day and every week and we're going to do that again this week. We're focusing on each day this week, and hopefully that turns into a victory on Sunday."
- On last week's lack of offensive production against San Diego, Meester admitted "it wasn't what we wanted. We moved the ball pretty well, we have just got to get more consistent in the red zone and score some more touchdowns instead of putting field goals up." Williams concurred: "I think our defense is playing great [but] obviously our offense needs to put up points. We do a great job driving the ball, getting it to the red zone, we just need to find a way to get in the end zone and stop kicking field goals. You just can't win games kicking field goals in this league, you have to score touchdowns so that's our main focus this week."
- It's often said that athletes are a suspicious lot - so it was asked of them whether they thought the big win by Fulham earlier in the week (who, of course, are also owned by Shahid Khan) is a good omen for the Jaguars. Williams replied that "I would hope so! I don't even know how much stuff our owner owns but it's a good thing that whatever he's owning is winning this week, so hopefully we can win too." Meester also said he considered it a good omen and hoped it would bring the team a win. Only Bradfield took a more sceptical tack, laughing off the question and just saying "that's two different sports, man".
- Williams talked about how it feels going from catching passes from Aaron Rodgers to the Henne/Gabbert tag team: "it's different. You have a guy who's a future Hall of Famer, probably one of the best quarterbacks of all time already. But it's good to see people grow because I came in Aaron's prime, now I'm watching people develop as players. I can see the throws that they can make, the decisions they can make. It's just like anyone else - you get better with experience, so I'm excited to see where they're going to go."
- Finally, we asked DJ Williams to nominate a DB to take on our TPL Freestyle DB Rap Challenge
. Williams nominated second year safety Winston Guy, describing him as a "character". We'll do our best to have Guy answer the call and see if he can out-rap Robert Steeples, the current Rap Challenge Champion after he raised the bar from Cortland Finnegan's effort last year.
We'll be live-tweeting today's Jags press conferences, which are slated to begin just after 12 noon UK time (7am ET), so make sure you're following us on Twitter
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