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NFL still a long way from calling London home

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 11/9/2019 Ben Volin
a group of people watching a football game: Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson goes airborne to score against the Jaguars during last Sunday’s game in front of a packed house at London’s Wembley Stadium. © Jack Thomas/Getty Images Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson goes airborne to score against the Jaguars during last Sunday’s game in front of a packed house at London’s Wembley Stadium.

The NFL’s experiment in London over the last decade-plus has certainly been a smashing success.

The league’s international series debuted in 2007 with a single game, and now in 2019 the NFL is holding four games in London, with all four selling out. The NFL reports that there are 15 million fans in the UK, and the league even has its own stadium in London now, with the NFL helping pay for renovations of Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to make it configured for football as well as soccer.

But don’t worry, Chargers or Jaguars fans, or anyone else. The NFL is still a long way from making London a permanent home.

A report from The Athletic last week stated that the Chargers have been discussed as a candidate to move across the pond, given their poor fan showing since moving to Los Angeles in 2017. The report was emphatically denied by just about everyone. Chargers owner Dean Spanos didn’t mince words, calling it “total [bull].” The NFL said in a statement that “there is no substance whatsoever to this report.” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said on his 105.3-FM radio appearance last week, “You’re asking me the question: Is [Chargers to London] a viable option? And, no.”

San Diegans may roll their eyes at the denials, because Spanos also denied he would move the Chargers from San Diego to LA. But moving two hours up the coast is much different than moving the team 5,500 miles to London and becoming the first North American pro sports team to be based in Europe. One big reason to believe the denials is that the Chargers moved to LA on the condition that they would be a full-time tenant of the new stadium being built by Rams owner Stan Kroenke. The pricetag of that stadium, set to open next year, is skyrocketing to $5 billion, and the revenue projections are based on the Chargers holding 10 home dates per year, in addition to 10 by the Rams. Kroenke and the NFL aren’t just going to rip up the 20-year lease before even playing one game there.

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“You’d have to unwind so many transactions, it boggles the mind,” Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani said last week, via the San Diego Union-Tribune.

And the reality is that the NFL still has a ways to go before putting a team in London — if it wants to do so at all. The league is tight-lipped about whether the international series is profitable — despite the sellouts, there are massive costs associated with shipping a team overseas to play one game.

The Jaguars have been playing a game in London every year since 2013, and are believed to have “first rights” to London. Owner Shad Khan even tried to buy Wembley Stadium last year. But while Khan hopes to extend his team’s London deal past 2020, he denied wanting to move the team there permanently.

“There are no plans for us to move the team to London,” Khan told NFL Network last week.

The logistical hurdles of having a team in London are significant — travel, differences in tax and medical laws, the ability to be able to sign players during the season and getting them to London quickly, and many more. The NFL Players Association would also have to sign off on a move, which is a significant roadblock.

The NFL also acknowledges that it doesn’t know if it could hold a playoff game in London on short notice. And before having a team in London, the NFL first wants to see what happens when a team plays back-to-back games over there. “That is a key element of exploration of a franchise in London,” Chris Halpin, the NFL’s chief strategy and growth officer, told The Times of London last week. “Whether that is in 2020 or another year, we are not sure yet.”

And the NFL hasn’t necessarily prioritized putting a single team in London. Mark Waller, the NFL’s previous head of its international division, said in 2017 that the league would first try to hold a rotating slate of eight games featuring various teams before putting a single team in London.

The idea of holding eight London games a year has received a lot of buzz this fall with the news that NFL owners are bargaining for 17 regular-season games in the next collective bargaining agreement — the idea being that each team would play eight home games, eight road, and one international game.

But one NFC owner told the Globe last week that that scenario is not being seriously considered right now, for several reasons. Expanding the London inventory from four games to eight in a year would be a massive undertaking, especially if the London games aren’t major profit-generators. And having eight London games would take care of 16 teams — but what about the other 16 teams? While the NFL plays one game a year in Mexico City, and has strong pockets of fans in Germany and Brazil, the NFL is nowhere close to being able to hold multiple international games in any of those markets.

Also, most teams are adamant about not giving up a home game to London. Each team currently hosts 10 games a year (including preseason), and a 17-game regular season would coincide with reducing the preseason to three games. If every team were forced to play an international game, half the teams each year would get only nine home dates, 10 road games plus an international game, which is a non-starter for many owners.

And what about holding a Super Bowl eventually in London? It sounds great in theory, but in order to start the game at the usual 6:30 p.m. east coast time, the game would have to kick off at 11:30 p.m. London time, which won’t work.

So while the NFL’s foray into London has been a success, the league is still a long ways off from sending a team or holding a full slate of games across the pond. The likeliest future for London seems to be a continuation of the current model, with up to four games per year.

AN ODD NUMBER

17-game schedule would be strange

I find the concept of a 17-game schedule to be fascinating, because no pro sports league has ever held an odd number of games during its season. Even more fascinating is the fact that while the NFL owners are bargaining hard for a 17-game schedule, they haven’t really vetted many of the details.

The aforementioned owner said that the likeliest scenario for a 17-game schedule would be the simplest one — in a given year, half the teams would play nine home games and eight road games, and vice versa. This way, each team would still get its 10 home dates (either nine regular season and one preseason, or eight and two). But these details haven’t been discussed thoroughly yet, and it’s all still theoretical. The NFL is going full-steam ahead in fighting for a 17-game schedule without really knowing what it will look like.

The league really wanted to expand to 18 games, but it’s a non-starter for the NFLPA. But 17 games is certainly possible — it means more TV money, which means adding money to the salary cap, which means more money for players as well as the owners.

The NFL also hopes to expand the postseason in the next collective bargaining agreement, with the current one expiring in the spring of 2021. The new playoff field would likely have seven teams in each conference, with only the top seed earning a bye.

RAW TALENTS

Young guns have been misfiring

All season, the NFL has been touting its youth movement at quarterback. Last week in a press release, the league highlighted that the Bengals’ Ryan Finley will be the sixth rookie making his first NFL start this year, joining Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Gardner Minshew and Devlin Hodges.

Through nine weeks, more games have been started by quarterbacks under 27 this year (146) than in any other season since the 1970 merger. And 81.5 percent of games have featured at least one quarterback younger than 27, also the most in post-merger history. The NFL is doing what it can to market the next generation of QBs — Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers aren’t going to play forever, after all.

But isn’t all of this youth and inexperience at quarterback actually, you know, a bad thing? The league points out that these sub-27 quarterbacks have a 76-70 record this season (.521). And the league-wide passer rating of 92.6 is just slightly off last year’s pace (92.9), and is the second-highest of the last 20 years.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole picture. As someone who has watched many of these young quarterbacks when they faced the Patriots — Josh Rosen, Luke Falk, Josh Allen, Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield — it is obvious that the NFL has too many raw players at quarterback, and not enough experience. The list of youngsters also includes Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Jacoby Brissett, Kyle Allen, Brandon Allen and Mason Rudolph.

“That position is in trouble,” said 2002 MVP Rich Gannon, now with CBS. “The lack of depth of talent there is alarming.”

Gannon played in a far different era, but quarterback has always been the one position where experience matters. Brady didn’t become a prolific passer until 2007. Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl at 39 despite having a noodle arm. And a majority of the NFL’s top passers are over 30 — Brady, Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins among them.

Gannon is an extreme case, but he said the light finally clicked on for him in his seventh NFL season, and he made the Pro Bowl for the first time at age 34. “When I came in the league, they were three-deep at the position — the first two guys were the veteran guys, and the third guy was usually the draft pick,” Gannon said. “That’s no longer the case since most teams don’t keep three.”

Only 13 of 32 teams currently have three quarterbacks on the roster, though. And of the 45 backups, only 15 can reasonably be considered a veteran (and that’s being generous with inexperienced players like Chase Daniel, A.J. McCarron and Geno Smith).

“If you have a playoff-caliber team, or any team for that matter, and you want to roll the dice and have some backup who never played the position, you put yourself and your team at risk,” Gannon said.

And despite what some of the stats say, the proliferation of young quarterbacks has led to a lot of sloppy football this year.

ETC.

Ryan gives Titans an added bonus

The Titans knew they were getting a solid cornerback when they signed Logan Ryan to a three-year deal before the 2017 season.

Little did they know they were getting a ferocious pass rusher, too.

Ryan has 7.5 sacks the last two seasons, the most among all defensive backs (safety Jamal Adams and cornerback Mackensie Alexander are next at 4.5). Ryan was not a big blitzer in New England, compiling 2.5 sacks in his four seasons and none in his first year in Tennessee. But defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who arrived in 2018, has had a lot of fun sending Ryan after quarterbacks off the edge.

Since the start of 2018, cornerbacks have only registered 71 sacks, and Ryan has 7.5 of them (10.6 percent). He had four last year, and already has 3.5 through nine games this season (he even got Brady last year). Ryan’s 137 tackles the last two seasons are also the most among the 258 cornerbacks that have suited up across the league.

Two weeks ago against Arizona, Ryan led the way with eight tackles, a sack and a game-clinching interception. With three interceptions, three forced fumbles and 3.5 sacks on the season, Ryan is making a case for Defensive Player of the Year.

Newton could be done in Carolina

Two former All Pros had significant injury setbacks last week and may not play another down for their current team.

The Panthers placed Cam Newton on injured reserve with a foot injury that he initially suffered in a preseason game in New England. Newton, 30, has one year left on his contract, and given his history of shoulder and foot injuries, he may be done in Carolina. The Panthers can save $19.1 million in cash and salary cap by releasing or trading Newton after this season. However, $19.1 million is actually a reasonable number for a quarterback — the market is now $25-30 million per season — so keeping him one more season isn’t the craziest idea.

And in Cincinnati, it wasn’t too surprising to see that receiver A.J. Green reportedly is out indefinitely after having a setback with his ankle. Green will make $11.976 million this year whether he plays or not. With the Bengals at 0-8, and Green set to be a free agent after this season, why would he push himself and risk further damage if he’s not 100 percent healthy?

Extra points

I got a kick out of this stat from the NFL — the AFC East has a .514 winning percentage since the start of 2012, the fourth-best among the eight divisions (the NFC West is first at .540). Yeah, but the Patriots are doing the heavy lifting. Since 2012, the Patriots are 94-27 (.777), while the Jets, Bills and Dolphins are 153-207 (.425) . . . The Patriots, who have their bye this week, are 14-5 in games following a bye under Bill Belichick, tied for the fourth-best record since 2000. The Ravens are 16-4, followed by the Colts (15-5), Eagles (15-4) and Broncos (14-5) . . . The Jets are the “home” team today in their city championship game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. The Giants are 8-5 all-time against the Jets, including 5-1 as the “visiting” team . . . One of the most impressive stats of the year: Through nine games, the Cardinals have lost just four turnovers. It’s even more impressive considering they have a rookie QB ( Kyler Murray) and head coach (Kliff Kingsbury). The Patriots have lost 10, tied for 10th-fewest . . . Kareem Hunt mentioned the number 342 five times in his media availability this week — the number of days since the Chiefs released him last year. Hunt finally makes his debut for the Browns on Sunday following his eight-game suspension for violating the personal conduct policy. “I’ve been counting down,” said Hunt, who did play two preseason games. “I’m under a microscope. I’m not trying to put anything in jeopardy at 342 days. I had a lot of time to think about, ‘If I get in this situation, how am I going to handle this? If I get in this situation, how am I going to handle that?’ ”

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

Related slideshow: The 2019 NFL season games (Provided by imagn) 

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