Why Are NFL London Games So Bad? Saints and Dolphins Made Another Mess at Wembley

In hindsight, the first-ever NFL game at Wembley may have been a warning of things to come.

On October 28, 2007, rain fell in great sheets over Wembley Stadium. Eli Manning and Cleo Lemon—a pub-quiz answer if ever there were one—combined for 168 total passing yards as the New York Giants beat the Miami Dolphins 13-10.

It was ugly. And while London’s enthusiasm for the NFL hasn’t waned over the subsequent decade, the games the U.K.’s capital has hosted—or been subjected to—have not increased in prettiness.

Sunday’s fixture between the New Orleans Saints and the Dolphins at Wembley fit the pattern. The Dolphins mustered zero points, Jay Cutler threw a red-zone interception and got sacked, lots. Jay Ajayi, the London-born running back, was forgotten after a promising first half as the Dolphins fell further and further behind. The Saints defense, with all its holes and rookies in the secondary, looked like the 1985 Chicago Bears. The great Drew Brees only had to be adequate.

“New Orleans Saints beat Miami Dolphins in Wembley stinker” was British newspaper The Guardian’s headline on Sunday evening in a report of the game, describing it as “error-riddled” and “penalty-strewn.” “There rightly remains a healthy degree of scepticism about whether a full-time London NFL team is viable,” Sean Ingle wrote, before continuing pithily: “But perhaps this was another small step forward in realizing the ambitions of the sport’s power brokers. If people tolerate this, perhaps a franchise will be next.”

It isn’t entirely fair to say that the International Series has never seen a good game. In October 2014 Matthew Stafford did a Matthew Stafford and dug the Detroit Lions out of a hole against the Atlanta Falcons, the game eventually finishing 22-21 to the Lions after a fierce comeback. The Redskins-Bengals tie last year was exciting, and amusing for the result alone (it ended 27-27 to the delight of London fans.) The novelty factor has provided more and better memories, though, than the games themselves.

The NFL is in something of a bind, of course. The teams that really want to come over—with the aim of eventually establishing a London-based franchise—would like to relocate because they are struggling in the U.S., as in the case of the Jacksonville Jaguars. And they are struggling, at least in part, because they are not very good. The NFL used to send over matchups like the Steelers against the Vikings or the Broncos against the 49ers. But where is the logic in reducing your television audience for big-market teams when you could be promoting a luckless, unhappy franchise to a new audience?

There’s a serious question here for the NFL. While the London games continue to sell out on the experience of going to an NFL fixture, the league need not worry. But will London put up with games like the Saints’ win over the Dolphins every week? While Mexico only gets one game this year, that game is the Patriots against the Raiders. Twickenham, the home of English rugby, has the delights of the Cardinals against the Rams and Vikings against the Browns to come. The choice of teams isn’t the only factor to consider, of course. There’s also the travel element, and in the Dolphins’ case this year the stress caused by Hurricane Irma. London has been a boon for the NFL and will likely be for many years to come. But it won’t put up with the novelty of terrible football forever.

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