Key dates this spring

The season may be over, but the path to Super Bowl LI has already begun.

There’s plenty to look forward to this offseason:

Feb 16 – First day for clubs to designate Franchise or Transition Players.

Feb 20 – NFL Regional Combines in Phoenix.

Feb 23-29 – NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

Feb 27 – NFL Regional Combines in Baltimore.

Mar 1 – 9pm (GMT) deadline for clubs to designate Franchise or Transition Players.

Mar 5 – NFL Regional Combines in Minnesota.

Mar 9 – 9pm (GMT) free agency signings can be made.

Mar 12 – NFL Regional Combines in New Orleans.

Mar 20-23 – NFL Annual Meeting

Apr 22 – Deadline for Restricted Free Agents to sign offer sheets.

Apr 28-30 – NFL Draft in Chicago

Cam Newton failed on the biggest stage

Super Bowl Football
Cam Newton looked a shadow of himself during Super Bowl 50

Cam Newton messed up on Sunday night.

National Football League’s most valuable player got it wrong on the biggest stage of all.

Was it over-confidence, or did the occasion just get to him? The warning signs were there as early as last Thursday.

When asked about why he wears socks with sandals he shot back with, “Why are you wearing jeans with shoes?”

Yes it was a silly question to ask, but the response was childish. Cam was immediately on the defensive; was the week starting to get to him?

He looked like he’d lost the game during the warm-up on the Levi’s Stadium field.

He stood on the turf launching balls with his headphones on, trying to mask his nerves by singing along to whatever music gets him pumped. He wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t nervous, Peyton Manning looked nervous and he’d been on this stage many times before.

But Cam brings a lot of bravado with him. He’s cocky, but that’s part of his make-up. He didn’t look his confident self during that warm-up and that confidence never entered the field of play.

During the game he held onto the ball too long when handing it off to Jonathan Stewart. On one occasion in the second quarter this caused a fumble. His passing was off. Throws overshot receivers and there was no accuracy in his execution.

Denver came to do a job on defense and they stepped up. They made this superstar quarterback throw the ball. They blitzed him and had the strength in the secondary to cover his receivers. Cam was pressured and simply could not deliver.

His performance wasn’t the worst QB performance in a Super Bowl, but the problem so many people have is with how he conducted himself.

He’s a bad loser, he said so himself. But, if you’re going to boast and dab and rub salt into the wounds of your opponents when you’re winning, then you should show a bit of grace in defeat.

“I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon.”

Everyone hates losing. Cam can show the world that he’s hurting, but this is professional sport. He should be a professional and accept defeat. He can moan all he wants away from the public eye, but he has a duty to the league that just labelled him their most valuable player, the team that pays his wages and to the fans that idolise him to show a bit of respect.

This is the guy who told everyone, “I’m a firm believer that if you don’t like me to do it (dab) then don’t let me in”. Denver didn’t let him in. They put him in his place and he didn’t like it. But, if you’re going to talk the talk then you have to walk the walk. Show a bit of respect. Congratulate the other team. Use the rhetoric, tell us that you’re hurting, but Denver played the better game. Don’t just sit there moping with your hood up and walk off stage.

Yes, everything is great when you’re winning. No one dresses sharper than Cam in those post-game press conferences, but for the Super Bowl he chose to wear his team hoodie with the hood up. Someone should have taken Cam to one side before he faced the media and told him to compose himself.

“Winning excuses everything,”

His coach played with one of the league’s most confident, gregarious quarterbacks, Jim McMahon. There were lots of similarities brought up between that 1985 Bears team and the 2015 Panthers team during the build-up to Sunday’s game.

Of all the coaches, you’d expect Ron Rivera to have the experience to pull his QB to one side and remind him of his duties as a professional.

Cam Newton once said, “I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon.” Therefore, he should have calmed himself down before confronting the press and thought about how he was going to accept defeat. He should have set an example to the young admirers who look up to him as an icon; their superhero. Super Cam.

After all, this is the man who told the world, “I’ve said numerous times that I play to have a stage that people will listen to, and I pray to God that I do right by my influence.” What cuts most with the media is that he failed to follow his convictions. He had the biggest stage in the world on Sunday and he disgraced himself, his team and professional sport.

“Winning excuses everything,” is another Cam quote. Let’s hope he finds a formula that will win everyone over, even in the face of defeat.

Was Tomsula a 49ers stop gap?

Jim Tomsula looks to the heavens during another 49ers defeat

Jim Tomsula was never going to last three years in the 49ers’ coach hot seat.

Last January San Francisco’s CEO, Jed York, unveiled the team’s former Defensive Line Coordinator to the world and declared that the new man at the helm of this once great franchise would be the teacher his players needed to help guide them towards that elusive sixth Super Bowl win.

Tomsula sat in that first press conference looking like a PE teacher suddenly thrust upon the media. His performance behind the microphone left many wondering if this teacher was ready to graduate to the big time.

He came across as a player’s manager. The team appeared to relish his coaching style. It was plain for all to see in their reaction to the opening 20-3 win over the Vikings in Week 1.

That was the only highlight in an otherwise abysmal season. At the same time as their coach was trying to find his feet, the team looked lost on the field. Too often they were seen looking to the sideline for answers and too often he was appeared gormless, looking toward the heavens for answers.

So it came as no surprise when the franchise announced they had terminated Tomsula’s contract just minutes after their 19-16 overtime win at home to the Rams. That result was their only divisional win of the season.

Tomsula had his challenges. You don’t lose the likes of Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Mike Iapati and Chris Borland in a single offseason and expect to challenge the NFL’s elite. But the fans expected more than the lacklustre performances they witnessed in 2015.

Jed York said on Monday that club won’t be appointing their new head coach from within. He told 49ers Faithful that he wants a leader.

It’s interesting that the owner has gone from wanting a teacher to head his troops to a leader. So, was Tomsula promoted to steady the ship through a difficult transitional period?

Was York holding out for the leader he desired, knowing that his leader would become available within a year or two? Is that why he stuck Jimmy in there until his man became available?

Is that man Sean Payton? The Saints boss is reportedly interested in the 49ers hot seat and offers that leadership their CEO craves.

He comes at a price with a second round pick being touted. His proven track record is worth more than what an unproven rookie would bring.

Payton has the attributes to move a talented squad of youngsters onto the next level in one of the most difficult divisions in the league.

There will be a lot of speculation in the coming weeks and whether Payton is indeed the man York has been longing for since Jim Harbaugh’s departure remains to be seen.

The Saints coach is the ace in a pack of contenders working their way through the coaching merry go round. He might be the hand Jed York has been wanting to play.

The Jets fail to take off


It was a dramatic end to the 2015 regular season, and Jets fans have every right to feel blue this Monday.

A win in Buffalo would have secured their place in the play-offs, but former head coach, Rex Ryan, spoiled their party.

The Bills won 22-17 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. A hat-trick of fourth quarter interceptions from Ryan Fitzpatrick compounded defeat for the Jets. The irony is he set the team’s touchdown record in the same game.

That defeat opened the door for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

All that stood in Pittsburgh’s way was a sorry Cleveland Browns team whose quarterback, Johnny Manziel, didn’t bother turning up for.

Manziel’s tenure with the Browns looks over after he failed to show up on Sunday. He was sidelined by the NFL’s concussion protocol, but was scheduled to meet the team’s doctor. An appointment he missed.

That controversy only added to the discontent in Cleveland as the axe loomed over head coach Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer. The pair were ultimately fired after the 28-12 defeat to the Steelers.

Pittsburgh head to Cincinnati late on Saturday night for their wild card game. If they win that one then the Steelers will head to Denver in the divisional round.

That’s because the old man of the NFL made dramatic return late last night. With the Broncos staring a 5th seed in the face, Peyton Manning stepped in and guided his team to a 27-20 win over the Chargers.

The result means the Broncos’ route to the Super Bowl will be through their house.

Manning’s introduction also opens the narrative for a fairytale ending to the legend’s career.

Here’s the wild card schedule:


Chiefs @ Texans (9:35pm)


Steelers @ Bengals (1:15am)

Seahawks @ Vikings (6:05pm)

Packers @ Redskins (9:40pm)

London’s calling Luck home

Andrew Luck spent 4 years in London

When the Indianapolis Colts touch down in London at the start of Week 4 next season their star quarterback will be feeling like he’s returning home.

Andrew Luck grew up in London. His dad, who also played quarterback, had moved his young family to the UK after nine years in Germany.

Oliver Luck was the general manager of Frankfurt Galaxy during the fledgling years of the World League of American Football in 1991. He held that position for two years and then became GM of Rhein Fire when the league resumed after suspending the 1993-94 season.

Oliver moved his family here in ’96 when he became president of NFL Europe. The seven year old Andrew attended The American School in London in St John’s Wood and became accustomed to the British way of life. He played soccer and he even attended a birthday party at Lord’s, the home of cricket.

He was here for four years with his brother and sisters. The young Luck was ten when he returned to the States. The family moved back to Houston where Oliver was named CEO of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

A few years later his son was starting behind center at Stratford High. During his time there he threw for 7,139 yards and 53 touchdowns, and rushed for another 2,085 yards.

Jim Harbaugh signed him for Stanford where he broke Pac-12 records and came runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in his senior year. And we know what happened after that.

So when Luck takes to the field at Wembley on October 2, 2016 he’ll be just a deep ball away from the place he used to call home.

Despite a roller coaster season that has been plagued by injury, UK fans should feel grateful to be able to see a real superstar up close.

The Colts vs Jags has all the possibilities of being a shoot-out between the two top teams in their division and the man in white wearing the blue number 12 will be one we can embrace as our own.

Sanders on Abdullah: he can be great


Sanders attended a coaching clinic at Tottenham’s training complex
London hosts it’s third and final NFL International Series game at Wembley this weekend. 

The Detroit Lions take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2:30pm kick off and amongst the sell-out crowd will be one of the sport’s greatest players. 

Depending on who you support you might say Barry Sanders is the greatest player to have played running back. 

Clocking up 15,269 yards during his ten year career, the former Lions back is the third highest rusher in NFL history. 

If he had played one more season, which he was physically capable of doing, he would have smashed the record and would sit top of the pile. But for Sanders it wasn’t about records. 

“He’s got a bright future, he knows how to make big plays”

It’s taken the Lions fifteen years to find a back that can excite their fans the way he did. There’s been a lot of hype around Ameer Abdullah, their rookie from Nebraska. So far though he’s struggled to set the field on fire this season. 

But Sanders isn’t worried, “He’s a great player” he said whilst at a coaching masterclass for British amateur players at Tottenham’s training ground. 

“He’s been very successful”, the Hall of Fame star added, “he had a great preseason and he can do well in space.”

So does Sanders see any comparisons with his former self? “I think there are. He’s a guy you’d love to get in space and give him the ball.”

Barry Sanders rushed for 1,491 yards in his rookie year, scoring four touchdowns and averaged 4.3yds per carry. 

Abdullah has featured in each of Detroit’s seven games this season. So far he’s rushed for 222 yards with one touchdown. He’s averaging 3.6yds per carry, but Sanders isn’t concerned, “he’s got a bright future because he’s a player who knows how to make big plays”.

Ameer Abdullah speaking to the British media

Ameer Abdullah is enjoying his football and his time in London. Speaking at Detroit’s Hertfordshire HQ at The Grove hotel he said that the trip has been good for team building, “I’ve grown closer to some of my team mates.”

“I’ve gone old school,” Abdullah explained when asked about what the players have been doing in their spare time, “I don’t have a phone signal so I’ve had to call team mates or knock on their doors. I’ve got to know guys better.”

“I can only aspire to be that great”

After an explosive preseason a lot of Lions fans pinned their hopes on this running back to take them to that next level in the play-offs, but Abdullah isn’t feeling that weight of expectation, “I don’t feel it (pressure). People compare me to Barry but that was 20/30 years ago when he played.”  

Has he approached Sanders for advice? “I have not. Barry is busy doing his thing, he does a lot of work with the community.”

But the young back does plan to talk the former All Pro, “I’m looking forward it. He’s the greatest running back ever. He can help me out.”

Ameer Abdullah is fully aware of the pride the Detroit faithful have in their former star, “if you know anything about the Detroit fanbase is they hold on to that (Sanders’s record) and they don’t forget.”

Abdullah hopes he’s the man they’ve been longing for since Sanders announced his retirement in 1999, “Lions fans trust that they will find another like him and I can only aspire to be that great.”

So why has it taken Detroit 15 years to find another feature back? “I’d like to think that guys like me are a rare breed,” explained Sanders. 

“The draft hasn’t gone their way in previous years,” added Barry. “The game has changed. It’s played different from junior level right up to the pros. There’s less emphasis on running plays, but there are guys out there.”

Ameer Abdullah has the potential and Lions fans will be hoping he’s given that space soon. 

Super Bowl winner talks of London Pride

The Buffalo Bills spent the week training at The Grove near Watford
The Buffalo Bills spent the week training at The Grove near Watford

With the Buffalo Bills taking on the Jacksonville Jaguars it’s not surprising that this weekend we’ll see two of the NFL’s leading tacklers on the field at Wembley.

Both teams have defensive-minded coaches and they each boast a defender ranked amongst the top five tacklers in the league coming into Week 7.

We spoke exclusively to Bills safety Corey Graham ahead of the Jags game. Graham is ranked fifth in total tackles so far this season with 55, four behind Jacksonville’s linebacker Telvin Smith (ranked second overall).

“Stats don’t mean that much to me, but it’s good” said Graham when asked about his performances up until now. “For me it’s about finding a way to win, I’m in a new position (safety), so I guess it’s good that I’m getting a lot of tackles.”

Just four tackles behind the former Super Bowl winner is team mate, linebacker, Preston Brown. So is there much competition between them? “There’s not much rivalry, I think it means a lot more to him because he’s a linebacker, they pride themselves on things like that.”

But don’t let the 2011 Pro Bowler kid you, Graham quickly added, “since you’ve mentioned it I would like to beat him though.”

“I do set myself targets each year and tackles are one of them, but they’re not the most important goals for me” explained the safety who was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fifth round in 2007.

Corey Graham spent four years with the Bears before signing for the Ravens in 2012. Also a solid special team player, he won Super Bowl XLVII that year in the memorable 34-31 win over the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans. He joined the Bills in 2014.

Buffalo landed in the UK on Monday morning. Jetlag is an issue for teams crossing the five time zones to get here, so for Graham sleep was essential, “I tried to sleep as much as possible (on the flight) because I knew I was going to be tired once I got here.”

“I listened to a bit of music. I watched a movie here and there but not much, I just wanted some shut eye!” Graham told us.

Not everyone can ride first class, but did the eight year veteran? “Yeah baby.” He added, “I don’t know who makes the decision but some of us get to fly in first, some don’t.”

“You board the plane and sit and hope you get a good seat.”

The Bills head to Wembley 3&3 for the season. Their record within the AFC is a winning one at 3&2. Graham said it’s a positive, “It’s very important you beat the teams in your conference. Obviously in the AFC every win you can get is important and we know that this game is big.”

The safety didn’t practice on Thursday, but head coach Rex Ryan confirmed that he will play this weekend. When Graham steps under the Wembley arch there will be just one thing on his mind, winning. “We’ve just come off a loss, we’ve got a bad taste in our mouths and we’re hungry to get another win on Sunday”

UK fan spoke exclusively to Philbin’s in-laws

The International Series has been a festival of football in the UK
The International Series has been a festival of football in the UK

The NFL hosted its twelfth regular season game in London last weekend and saw the third-highest attendance.

Among  the crowd was a relative newcomer to the sport. Ben has adopted the Jags as his team, and has a season ticket for the 2015 games.

Here’s his diary of the day:

Before heading into the stadium we enjoyed the pre-game entertainment located around the stadium, including chilli dogs which is always a necessity. The vast array of colourful jerseys is always a great sight.

My friend’s number 81 Terrell Owens Philadelphia Eagles Jersey caught the attention of two wonderful American ladies, as they were from Philly, who we preceded to chat to about American Football and their previous week’s trip around the British Isles.

After a while it transpired that they were the Mother-in-law and Sister-in-law of, the now former Miami Dolphins head coach, Joe Philbin.

It was a bizarre but humbling experience being able to mingle and chat with individuals who are so closely linked with a professional outfit such as the Dolphins. Having come into the stadium on the team bus and spending most of the morning on the pitch, they were grateful to come outside the stadium and spend time with fans (and have a smoke). This showed to me the community-minded side of this sport. This kind of thing would never be seen in any of our home-grown sports.

They told us that they attended a large number of the games with the team, home and away, and explained to us about how the team is very family orientated, with family functions after each game to get the kids and other halves of all the players and staff involved.

The explained how Joe Philbin took an extremely proactive approach to his role at the club, and set the standard for players with a philosophy of hard work and often worked out with players.

His mother-in-law told us that he would often return home after midnight, and was back out the door at 4.30am.

We also asked about how the ticket prices were in comparison to the UK. At a divisional NFL game you could expect to pay anywhere between $100-150 for a game, with discounts given to season ticket holders, and costs spiralling as the Playoff and Super Bowl games are reached. At the home games they told us about the box that is hired for the coach’s wife (at a mere $30k per game) however, they were in the normal central seating for this game, and I think it was a welcome change.

We also talked about how the money being taken out of the NFL was a great thing, and we talked about how this would benefit more European sports to stop their escalation of transfer fees.

I asked them how they felt about the NFL games being held in London, and they told me that it was lovely to see so many teams being supported at one event and in such a nice and vibrant atmosphere. We also talked about how the Philadelphia Eagles are perceived to be the worst fans in America, but how the Buffalo Bills are by far the worst for fans, and never to go there!

They did however tell us that the Green Bay Packers have the best supporters, and that the philosophy of the team being owned by the fans it really etched into the atmosphere of the entire franchise, and that if we were to visit only one NFL stadium that it be Lambeau Field (and of course the Miami Dolphins) but to go before October!

I would like to thank them for their wonderful insight into the workings of an NFL organisation and also to help us see beyond the perceptions anyone could have in this country about the untouchability of the sport. It would have been great to chat more and despite the result, I hope they enjoyed their time in London!

NFL Scouting rugby stars

Eric Decker spoke exclusively to 5thDownUK

Despite coming under public scrutiny following their abysmal performance at the Rugby World Cup, reports suggest that some members of the England rugby team have caught the eye of NFL scouts.

This summer we saw the Australian rugby league star, Jarryd Hayne, successfully make the transition to football. His standout performances in the preseason and his ability to run through players has been a breath of fresh air for the sport.

The former Giants defensive end, Osi Umenyiora, has been following the World Cup and has made a note of a few England stars he’d like to speak to.

Umenyiora is London-born and won two Super Bowls during his time in New York. He’s now a UK ambassador for the NFL and understands the attraction English players would bring to the sport this side of the pond, especially if London were to get a franchise.

The NFL would be an attractive option for players. Top rugby earners could earn at least three times their salaries.

Umenyiora told the Daily Mail, “These rugby players are so physical. I watched a guy who was just incredible, the way he ran through opponents. I can’t wait to talk to him. If you put a helmet and pads on him he would kill people.”

“There is a huge talent pool in the US but there is always going to be a demand for guys who are 6ft 5in, weigh 250lbs and can run the 100m in 11 seconds.”

During the New York Jets’ visit to the UK we spoke exclusively to wide receiver Eric Decker.

He told us he was hoping to watch some rugby whilst he was here, “I wish we’d get some more free time to check it out” said Decker after their Friday practice session at London Irish’s training ground.

“We’re on a tight schedule so being able to get to games will be tricky, but I’m hoping to watch some on the TV”.

When asked if NFL stars could compete in rugby Decker replied, “we were picking out some of the guys from the team who could make it as rugby players, I don’t know if there are enough tough guys who can compete with the guys out here.”

The Canadian rugby team impressed against France and Italy during this year’s tournament. One of their stars, Hubert Buydens, started his career playing in the CFL for the BC Lions. The 270lb prop was told to add an extra 30lbs if he wanted to make the Lions’ offensive line. Buydens decided to follow his heart and chose rugby.

He went on to play union at club level in New Zealand. “The travel is one of things I love the most,” Buydens said. “If not for rugby, I doubt I would have visited many of the amazing countries I’ve seen.”

So will we one day see Owen Farrell kicking field goals, or Jonathan Joseph playing running back? It’s not as bizarre as it once seemed.

Third-highest International Series Crowd for Jets vs Dolphins

New York Jets vs Miami Dolphins attracted the 3rd biggest International Series crowd
New York Jets vs Miami Dolphins attracted the 3rd biggest International Series crowd

The New York Jets flew into London and dominated a lacklustre Miami Dolphins at Wembley this weekend.

The Dolphins looked like they were suffering from jetlag as they failed to find any rhythm in the opening half of this game, whilst the Jets clearly meant business as they looked to put pressure in their group during New England’s bye week.

Their preparations were so meticulous they even brought over 350 rolls of their own toilet paper to ensure their players had a comfortable trip.

This 27-14 win made it 9-3 in favour of the away teams in the International Series. The London crowd was awash, mainly, with aqua and green as thousands of fans came out to support these bitter rivals.

Talk leading up to the game was about the possibility of a London franchise. The Chancellor, George Osborne, continued to pledge his government’s commitment to bring a team over here. On Friday he told his aspirations of having a franchise within the next four to five years.

So what do the fans think? Some don’t want it. A few would rather keep the International Series. The concern is that so many fans have such strong affiliation with their own team, they would find it difficult to support another.

The Jets vs Dolphins brought the third-highest International Series attendance. 83,986 were at this game. Tens of thousands of them decked in the colours of the teams they’ve long supported. There’s a clear case to keep this festival of football going.

But the UK market is growing. The crowds have increased on each of the last four games over here. British media coverage is expanding. People want more. There’s no way we will see eight games in London unless a franchise is set up here. If the current momentum continues, a British team will attract sell-out crowds.

People want football and they will endorse it. Over time a solid fan base for this franchise will be built. The foundations are being put in place.

In the meantime we have two more games to look forward to in 2015 and they come in quick succession in weeks 7&8. During that time we will learn who will be heading over next year with talk of even more games in 2016.