Eastern Expansion: A look at efforts to increase global participation in American football

Julian Finney

Onward East, NFL. Other countries, including England, Scotland, Wales and India, are playing American football. No one will mistake it for the quality of the NFL, but considering the abundance of athletic talent available across the world, two main ingredients are being sprinkled into these international programs, and the results may change the face of the game.

The linebacker was obviously out of place

That was the clear diagnosis. That 45-yard touchdown run doesn't happen if the linebacker hadn't gotten sucked inside. It was an awareness issue.

A prominent coach looked down at me and asked "Why was he out of place?"

I paused, wondering if he accepted my assessment or was about to rip it apart. "I don't know, coach."

He proceeded to lay into me for a solid minute, the details of why I was wrong took on a level of complexity I didn't think possible. The reasons were as deep as the ocean, and I think he even brought up World War II at one point. Rarely have I been as confused as I was at that moment.

The wisest thing I ever did was simply not speak after he concluded. The coach looked at me and said, "So...yes, he got sucked inside but it wasn't an awareness issue."

The extra dimensions of strategic thinking in the game of football are unknown to even die-hard fans or intelligent former players. That precognitive thinking and anticipation usually reserved for high-level chess players, or the ability to see the future and the past at the same time, seeing the result of a play and immediately pinpointing the failure of the player as well as the coach from issues raised both on the field and off it.

There is no grip it and rip it school in American football. There's beauty in simplicity, and that simplicity becomes the front of organized chaos. A complex and spontaneous cranking and clanking of gears with a set plan but the extraordinary difficulty of working that plan successfully makes for an incredibly complex end result.

A car is relatively simple by comparison. Power generated moves gears into place, which enables the vehicle to move in a forward or backward direction, all at the discretion of the operator. If the machine worked the way a play in American football did, the operator would need to signal each component to move in a unique yet combined way while anticipating the direction the obstacle in front of it will shift from a stopped position.

It seems safe to assume, if that was the case, far fewer of us would have driver's licenses. And while there aren't licenses to coordinate defenses, it would only be because the necessary components to earn that license would discourage armchair quarterbacks from getting involved.

That's really the key to the game of football. Involvement.

Strong as your weakest link

At one point in my journalism "career," I was waylaid in rural hell. The sports editor for a daily paper, covering a five high school area, big news was non-existent. I would supplant the mundane with power headlines and help create the notion many of the athletes there were far better than they were in reality. At one point, I went to our flagship high school's summer captain's practice, just to get a feel for how they were as athletes.

There was always a consistent vibe from this particular town. Expectations never raised higher than "I hope they do well." It wasn't for a lack of success, relatively speaking. There was usually a college-bound athlete somewhere in their classes. They competed among the best of the conference more often than they didn't.

This particular class, though, was talented. Good athletes, if not the most technically proficient players in the state. The key, though, was how they had all played together for so long. That's a highly underrated trait often found in small areas; they all may as well be brothers. They've played together their entire lives in multiple sports.

This particular group had 13 seniors who played three sports at least through their sophomore years. It was the classic cliche; the small forward on the basketball team was the wide receiver and center fielder. The post player was the offensive and defensive tackle and catcher. The point guard was the running back and shortstop.

I meandered over to the Buddy Garrity of the town, who also happened to be my insurance agent. He was a college football player and knew a good amount of the game, but he knew this class like they were all his own kids.

We struck up a conversation about how they'd do, and in the common mentality of the town, he downplayed their ceiling. This school has bigger players, and that school runs an offense no one can handle. As an outsider, I wasn't stuck in that box. I just saw a bunch of talented athletes playing basically backyard football in a manner they almost seemed to know exactly what every player on both teams was going to do.

Buddy was speaking about a few of them who may end up playing one of the three sports at the collegiate level. I said they're all talented, but the key to football at the high school level isn't the level of talent of your best players, it's the level of talent of your worst players. Making your bad players improve to the average level. Those are the best teams.

International competition

Those two stories come to mind when considering the NFL's stated intentions of increasing the visibility of their product to a broader international stage. This game, played at a high level, is extremely complicated, and while other countries certainly have the athletes to compete in any sport at a high level, the involvement and the technical know-how is decades - generations even - from getting to the point the game is played at today.

Making their bad players average in comparison to the players in the United States is a task of epic proportions.

That doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted, however. Viewing film of the recent championship game of the Elite Football League of India, it's amazing the level of coordination and fluidity their product has. I think the play itself is on par with high schools in the United States, but in its first year of NFL-backed marketing, it has created a championship game between two teams playing different brands of football - they've already begun to accomplish that multi-dimensional strategy.

Make no mistake, the NFL is not scouting the players here. But there is no better time to view sports and competition as the pure act of starting and finishing with honor than when the Olympic flame is lit. The Indian teams competing played in literally monsoon-like conditions, and that likely kills any speed they may play with regularly. The tackling was substandard, blocking was a confused jumble of individuals as opposed to the machine-like precision we're used to seeing. But they're in their first year.

Imagine what it will be when they make their bad players average. Imagine what it will be when they get involvement from the coaches who can apply World War II metaphors to the positioning of a linebacker against an outside sweep.

The lowest hanging fruit

The political and social alliance of the United States and England is obviously well-defined. It's also probably the crown jewel in NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's future expansion dreams. London is a gigantic market, and judging by the country's ferocious dedication and loyalty to their national sport, football (a.k.a. soccer), it makes logical sense to think another sport rooted in similar traditions could gain some popularity there.

While it's a fair question to wonder if the 85,000 fans in attendance watching when Steelers and Vikings kicked off at Wembley Stadium in 2013 were there for the sake of it being a live sporting event with beer on sale. Or it being a reminder of home for all the ex-pats in attendance. We saw Troy Polamalu jerseys and Adrian Peterson jerseys...and Brett Favre jerseys and Cameron Wake jerseys. It was a unique event much more than it was a celebration of the two teams in the game.

That doesn't mean the message isn't being spread, however. Looking at film of the London Blitz of the British American Football Association, you can see the seeds beginning to take root. The schemes being run are a bit more sophisticated, the game is being played with more speed and the overall product is a bit more in line with how it's played in the U.S.

No one will confuse this for Baltimore at Pittsburgh, but it has upward mobility. The product itself will never come within megaphone-aided shouting distance of the Premier League, but considering the complexity of the game and the level of involvement needed (clubs within the BAFA are constantly recruiting for junior and senior leagues, tackle and flag), there's a feeling of optimism, perhaps in a generation or two, there could be further advances and signs of evolution.

The International Football League

It's the NFL now. Expansion efforts to include global markets will certainly have to be funded and worked almost entirely by American businesses and marketers. But how American is the spirit behind such an effort? It's highest and best use is to further fuel the NFL branding machine and generate new sources of revenue, but the added intrigue of foreign teams associated with pro clubs in the U.S., perhaps not all that dissimilar to the individual player feeder system set by the NCAA, would only increase fan involvement stateside.

Major League Baseball has academies dotted all over Latin America for the development of talent. Latinos make up nearly 2/3 of all baseball players. While there's a well-rooted tradition of baseball in those countries, an effort by the NFL to gain even five percent marketshare would be an extraordinary accomplishment.

How much would teams be willing to invest in such a venture? A unification of the London Blitz and the Pittsburgh Steelers would not likely be the structure, but with the amount of undrafted free agents making an immediate impact in the NFL today, expansion of development programs beyond the end of the collegiate careers of many players seems like a wise move.

Who knows, maybe a future All Pro linebacker hasn't quite figured out the reason he was out of position. Maybe the talented high school athlete who played in the middle of nowhere just didn't get noticed in time to begin the development necessary to play this extremely complex game.

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