Never mind the 10-hour flight and six-hour time change. Playing a football game in Munich last week, at the home of soccer powerhouse Bayern Munich, was one of the most memorable games of Tom Brady’s life.
“It says a lot for 23 years in the league and for a regular-season game,” Brady said after the Buccaneers’ 21-16 win over the Seahawks. “The fan turnout was incredible. It felt very electric from the time we took the field. The end of the game, with them singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Country Roads,’ that was pretty epic. So I think everyone who’s a part of that experience got to have something pretty amazing, [a] memory for the rest of their life.”
Brady wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the NFL’s first regular-season trip to Germany. The game had a sellout crowd of 69,811, with more than 3 million ticket requests, per Ticketmaster. Thousands of fans swarmed to the city’s Odeonsplatz for three days of an NFL fan fest. German broadcaster ProSieben had a viewership of 2.7 million, making it the fourth-most-watched NFL game in the country’s history, behind the last three Super Bowls. And Fanatics reported that game-day merchandise sales were the highest ever for a game outside the United States.
The one hiccup was the playing surface, which Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called “a nightmare,” with players sliding all over the field. But TV viewers didn’t seem to mind, as 5.8 million watched on NFL Network, the highest viewership for an international game.
“Our first international regular-season game in Germany comes after many years of planning and was a tremendous success,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “We are grateful to the city and to our German fans, who were extremely passionate and respectful, and welcomed the NFL with open arms.”
The game went so well that players and fans may want to make sure their passports are in order. The NFL is about to embark on a lot more international travel.
The NFL opened the door to more international games in 2021 when it added a 17th game to the regular season. The NFL also instituted a schedule rotation to ensure that, starting in 2022, all 32 teams will play at least one game abroad in an eight-year stretch.
Four international games per year is the minimum. The NFL is ready for more.
The league holds three games per year in the United Kingdom, one in Mexico City (though there is no deal past this year), and has a deal to hold at least one game per year in Germany through 2025, though more can (and probably will) be added.
The Munich game was such a success that the NFL is already thinking about its next destination. The Associated Press reported last week that Spain and France are at the top of the list as destinations, along with Sweden.
Potential sites are Real Madrid’s Bernabeu Stadium, Barcelona’s Camp Nou, Paris’s Stade de France, and Sweden’s Friends Arena in Solna. The Vikings and Bears played a preseason game in Sweden in 1988.
“We need to do our homework,” said Brett Gosper, the NFL’s head of Europe and the UK. “[France and Spain are] two very healthy media markets, healthy sports markets, some strong indicators from our streaming platform as well as from our consumer sales. When you mine the data a little bit, they certainly are two markets with high potential.”
In the last two years, the NFL doled out exclusive marketing rights among its teams to 10 international markets: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Ghana, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Not included were France and Sweden, even though the NFL has identified them as potential game sites.
The Patriots are one of four teams given rights to Germany, along with the Buccaneers, Panthers, and Chiefs. Since the AFC is getting the ninth home game in 2023, the Patriots and Chiefs are candidates to have a game moved to Germany. The NFL’s deal in Germany guarantees two games each in Frankfurt and Munich between 2022-25 but leaves open the possibility for more.
“The city came alive when the NFL were in town, and we cannot wait to build on this momentum,” said Dr. Alexander Steinforth, general manager of NFL Germany.
The time difference with Australia, China, and New Zealand may make it difficult to hold regular-season games there. But Mexico, Brazil, Ghana, and all of Europe are fair game. European cities and Ghana are especially attractive because they could help institute a regular 9:30 a.m. game on Sunday, giving the NFL 14 hours of TV dominance.
The NFL waded slowly into international waters with one game in the United Kingdom in 2007. In 2013 it brought multiple games to London, in 2016 it began an annual game in Mexico City, and in 2022 it expanded to Germany.
In the near future, the NFL may be hosting games all over the map.
GAME OF NO RETURN
TDs in kicking game a thing of the past?
As the NFL looks for ways to reduce concussions, one area targeted for change has been the kicking game.
The NFL has changed several rules to the kickoff to try to make it safer — most notably, moving the kickoff up to encourage touchbacks, and preventing players on the kicking team from getting a running start — and has made tweaks to the punt play as well. Still, according to the NFL, about 17 percent of concussions, 30 percent of knee injuries, and 29 percent of other lower-body injuries in 2021 occurred on special teams.
“The punt play is the one [that] particularly would be targeted by us,” NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said at the most recent Super Bowl. “The rate of injury far exceeds others.”
The consequence of these rule changes, though, is that they have killed off the kick return touchdown. Through 151 games this year, the NFL has seen just one kickoff returned for a touchdown (103 yards by the Ravens’ Devin Duvernay), and not a single punt. The longest punt return of the season is just 56 yards.
It’s a shocking dropoff from past years, and even compared with recent seasons:
2022 (1): 0 punt TDs, 1 kickoff TD.
2021 (11): 2 punt TDs, 9 kickoff TDs.
2020 (15): 8 punt TDs, 7 kickoff TDs.
2019 (14): 7 punt TDs, 7 kickoff TDs.
2018 (12): 7 punt TDs, 5 kickoff TDs.
2015 (20): 13 punt TDs, 7 kickoff TDs.
2010 (36): 13 punt TDs, 23 kickoff TDs.
2007 (42): 17 punt TDs, 25 kickoff TDs.
The average between 2000-10 was 30 per season, and between 2011-21 it was 19. There have never been fewer than 11 (2021), but this year is on pace to shatter that.
Reducing the injury risk on special teams is obviously most important. Unfortunately, it might also mean killing off the most exciting play in the sport.
Colts changing on the fly
A few notes on the Colts, who suddenly are back in the playoff mix at 4-5-1:
▪ Matt Ryan, in his first year in Indianapolis after 14 in Atlanta, earned rave reviews from teammates and coaches for how he handled his benching three weeks ago. Ryan sat for two games behind Sam Ehlinger, but unexpectedly was given his job back last week and will remain the starter moving forward.
“A lot of guys would probably go in the tank and maybe even say, ‘All right, well, my time’s passed. I’m out.’ Matt didn’t,” new offensive play caller Parks Frazier said. “I’ve told him this week after week, just how much of an example he’s set for me and I think for a lot of guys on the team and on the staff — just how to handle adverse situations.”
Ryan went about his business, didn’t pout, and was a great resource for Ehlinger.
“You could tell he was feeling [frustration], but he never let it show,” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said, via The Athletic. “He’s one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever been around.”
▪ When they fired Frank Reich and Marcus Brady, the Colts had no one on staff who had ever called a play. Interim coach Jeff Saturday asked quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich to do it, but Milanovich declined, saying the timing wasn’t right.
Enter Frazier. The 30-year-old came to the Colts in 2018 with Reich to be Dwight Schrute — assistant to the head coach. After two years in that role, one year as offensive quality control, and 1½ seasons as assistant quarterbacks coach, Frazier is calling plays.
In last week’s 25-20 win over the Raiders, the Colts gained 415 yards, their third most this year, and had just one turnover.
“I thought Parks did a hell of a job,” Ryan said. “And the first time doing it, to come on the road, to have all the changes that we had this week — I thought he did a great job.”
▪ One change under Saturday — the Ping-Pong table, Pop-A-Shot, and cornhole boards have been removed from the locker room.
Buckner told the Indianapolis Star that players, not the new coach, made the decision.
“I’m just going to keep it in-house, but it happened before Jeff got here,” Buckner said.
▪ Jim Irsay’s hiring of Saturday, with no prior experience, was an insult to the coaching profession and a slap in the face to the NFL’s diversity efforts. The NFL said the league’s Rooney Rules do not apply to interim hirings, but the Colts will have to comply with them after the season, even if they want to hire Saturday permanently.
But the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which advocates on behalf of minority coaches and helped craft the Rooney Rule 20 years ago, is throwing a flag. The Alliance said Thursday it has “initiated an inquiry” with the NFL over Saturday’s hiring. The Alliance believes (correctly) that since Saturday was hired from outside the organization, the Rooney Rule should apply. The rule requires teams to interview two external minority candidates for a head coaching job.
Freak injury costing Patrick money
Broncos linebacker Aaron Patrick suffered a freak injury last month in a Monday night game against the Chargers at SoFi Stadium that cost him a quarter of his salary. Now he’s taking the NFL to court. Patrick sued the NFL, ESPN, the Rams (who own SoFi Stadium), the Chargers, plus other entities in Los Angeles civil court last week.
Patrick, chasing a ball carrier toward the sideline, suffered a season-ending ACL tear when he avoided a sideline worker but slipped on a black mat that was protecting the cords and cables leading to the instant replay monitor.
Not only is Patrick out for the year, but his contract squeezes him for his pay. An undrafted rookie in 2021 who is making the league minimum ($45,833 per week for a maximum $825,000), Patrick’s salary was cut nearly in half ($25,277 per week) because of an “injury split” in his contract, which is standard for undrafted players. Patrick now gets six weeks of full pay and 12 weeks of “split” pay, which means he will make about $238,000 less because of a freak injury that clearly wasn’t his fault.
Reggie Bush successfully sued the Rams, who were then playing in St. Louis, for $12.5 million after a similar injury in 2015. Here’s hoping Patrick recovers his lost wages and gets a fat settlement.
For a guy who supposedly retired on his own terms and wants to give breathing room to former assistants Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich, Bruce Arians is still doing a lot of talking. Speaking last week with JoeBucsFan.com, Arians was his classic self — expressing optimism about the Buccaneers while throwing Tom Brady under the bus. “Nobody is going to say that Brady was playing bad, but he was playing bad,” Arians said. He added, “I’m really optimistic about the rest of the season. First off, we’re getting healthy. Tom smiled at practice last week for the first time this season. He’s going to be fine.” You’d be hard pressed to argue that Brady played well in the first half of the season. But considering the offensive line was decimated by injuries, Rob Gronkowski retired, the run game fell apart, and a different receiver got hurt every week, Brady was the least of Tampa Bay’s problems . . . Now that Thanksgiving is almost here, the time is coming for free agent Odell Beckham Jr. to pick a team. A reunion with the Rams was probably the leader in the clubhouse, but they’re probably out now that they’re 3-6. The Cowboys probably make the most sense, as they need a second receiver to pair with CeeDee Lamb. The Bills, Ravens, Titans, Chiefs, Giants, and 49ers also should look into it. But it’s hard to know how much Beckham is going to contribute this year, nine months after tearing his ACL and having not practiced with a team . . . The East is beast this year. The AFC East is a combined 24-13 (.649), the first division since the 2016 NFC East to have all four teams above .500 this late in the season. The NFC East doesn’t have all four teams with a winning record — the Commanders are 5-5 — but it is the best division at 26-11 (.703) . . . The House Oversight Committee is done investigating Dan Snyder come January now that Republicans have taken control. The committee coerced testimony, released information that investigator Beth Wilkinson couldn’t, and potentially compelled Snyder to put his team up for sale. Then again, Snyder has not actually confirmed he is going to sell his team, and knowing him, he won’t . . . The Patriots are the only team not to have scored a touchdown in the first quarter this year. They have an NFL-low 15 points on five field goals . . . The Eagles had three turnovers in their first eight games (8-0), and had four turnovers in last week’s loss. Receiver A.J. Brown didn’t mind the loss. “Now all this 17-0 [expletive] is over with” . . . Peyton Manning telling Pro Football Talk that he’s not interested in being NFL commissioner because “I’m not qualified” feels like a direct shot at Irsay for hiring Saturday . . . Titans defensive tackle Denico Autry, a nine-year veteran, is the new Sultan of Swat. He blocked an extra point in Thursday night’s win over the Packers, giving him 10 blocked kicks in his career (3 field goals, 6 PATs, and 1 punt). He trails Shaun Rogers (17) and Julius Peppers (13) since 2000.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.