Back in 2007, watching the New York Giants splutter to a scrappy 13-10 win over a hapless Miami Dolphins side on a wet and windy autumn night at Wembley, much of the assembled throng — players, coaches, media, long-standing fans and the curious — would have been forgiven for thinking that NFL doesn’t travel well.
Even before the game, the future plans for American football in the UK were not exactly wildly optimistic, with the next regular season game scheduled to follow a somewhat concerning four years later. But certain twists of fate — not least the Giants going on to win the Super Bowl that very season, something that powerfully negated the idea of an international trip as ultimately disruptive to a season — meant the big show came back the following year, and has done so ever since. The frequency of games has been steadily increasing, now set at four a season, with every chance we’ll be seeing more and more over the coming years. And let’s not even get into that London franchise chat.
This Sunday, the first of this season’s London Series takes place at Tottenham Hotspur’s shiny new stadium in North London, a fresh environment for two old-stagers of the NFL, the Chicago Bears and the Oakland Raiders.
So as we roll into the 13th year of games being played in the UK, we figured it made sense to take stock of what we’ve seen to date — the good, the bad and the Vontaze Burfict — and put together an International Series All Pro line-up, celebrating the stand out performances and extraordinary characters that have crossed the pond to bring us their A-game.
Kirk Cousins (REDSKINS vs Bengals, Oct. 30, 2016, Tied 27-27)
Stats: 38-56, 458 pass yds, 2 TD, INT
Given the fire he’s under right now, this accolade will surely offer Kirk Cousins some respite from the haters.
This was back when Kirk was a Redskin — simpler times, when his “You Like That” catchphrase was being emulated by kids all across Washington D.C.. Different team, same Kirk though, with most of us scratching our heads as to the money he was getting paid at Washington relative to other QB’s (and in my case attempting to get his agent to represent me also) yet simultaneously being capable of seismically impressive displays.
Against the Bengals, in 2016, Kirk delivered a virtuoso performance in one of the best games we’ve had on these shores, a 27-27 thriller – “They can tie?” – where his 458 yards stand as the most passing yards in a London game since 2007. Presumably Mike Zimmer has him watching this tape on repeat instead of practicing right now.
RB: Matt Forte (BEARS vs Buccaneers, Oct. 23, 2011, Won 24-18)
Stats: 27 touches, 183 scrimmage yards
RB: Adrian Peterson (VIKINGS vs Steelers, Sept. 29, 2013, Won 34-27)
Stats: 23 rushes, 140 rush yds, 2 Rush TDs
At the running back spot, we’re doubling down and taking former Chicago Bear Matt Forte, who decimated the Bucs back in 2011, peak Forte era, with 183 scrimmage yards and a TD featuring cuts so sharp, he broke to his left and accelerated leaving two Bucs player tackling each other. A thing of beauty.
Alongside him is a lock for the Hall of Fame, and still going strong in the NFL, Adrian Peterson, back in 2013 playing for his first NFL team the Minnesota Vikings, running all over the Steelers defense in an impressive performance, featuring 140 rushing yards, and 2 TD’s, including a 60-yarder, the longest run from scrimmage in a London game.
Dez Bryant (COWBOYS vs Jaguars, Nov. 9, 2014, Won 31-17)
Stats: 6 rec, 158 rec yds, 2 TD
Golden Tate (LIONS vs Falcons, Oct. 26, 2014, Won 22-21)
Stats: 7 rec, 151 rec yds, TD
Our aerial threats start with Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys, who’s 158 receiving yards against the Jags in 2014 represents the second most ever from a receiver in a game in London. The first TD of the two he scored that day helped the Cowboys pull away from a hitherto gutsy Jaguars, while his second was a vintage connection with Tony Romo: 68 yards, making a defender miss then strong-arming another like he’s swatting away a wasp on his way to the endzone. Textbook.
Alongside No. 88 we’ve gone for Golden Tate, instrumental in the greatest International Series comeback. His Lions team were, at one point, down 21-0 to the Falcons, but his 58-yard TD got the offense moving, and he ended up with 151 receiving yards as Detroit edged a thriller 22-21.
Rob Gronkowski (PATRIOTS vs Rams, Oct. 28, 2012, Won 45-7)
Stats: 8 rec, 146 rec yds, 2 TD
At tight end is a player who, quite frankly, we’d have had in the side even if his London jaunts were a washout. Of course, they were anything but. “Gronk” ripped up the Rams in his usual imperious fashion back in 2012. His 146 receiving yards still ranks as the most by any TE in a London game and his two touchdown performance was particularly notable for his marching tin solider celebration — a nice nod to his location.
LT: Tyron Smith (COWBOYS vs Jaguars, Nov. 9, 2014, Won 31-17)
OG: Brandon Brooks (EAGLES vs Jaguars, Oct. 28, 2018, Won 24-18)
C: Nick Mangold (JETS vs Dolphins, Oct. 4, 2015, Won 27-14)
OG: Jahri Evans (SAINTS vs Chargers, Oct. 26, 2008, Won 37-32)
RT: Sebastian Vollmer (PATRIOTS vs Rams, Oct. 28, 2012, Won 45-7)
All these elite skill players would struggle of course without the big five in front of them.
Our OL starts with left tackle Tyron Smith (Dallas Cowboys), a six-time Pro Bowler who was a key part of a formidable Cowboys offensive line. From an entirely selfish point of view, he was part of the Dallas team, against the Jags in 2014, who played in the first season I was anchoring the London games for British TV.
My guards are Brandon Brooks (Philadelphia Eagles), a Pro-Bowler last season when the Eagles beat the Jags at Wembley, and Jahri Evans (New Orleans Saints), who was part of a line that allowed only 13 sacks in the 2008 season — the year they first came to London — which remains a franchise record.
At center, Nick Mangold (New York Jets), a seven-time Pro Bowler, a leader, and part of the Jets team that famously brought 350 of their own toilet rolls with them when they played the Dolphins in 2015.
And at right tackle? Sebastian Vollmer, the two-time Super Bowl winner from the New England Patriots, representing Germany, and reinforcing the international message.
DE: Frank Clark (SEAHAWKS vs Raiders, Oct. 14, 2018, Won 27-3)
Stats: 4 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
DT: Damon Harrison (GIANTS vs Rams, Oct. 23, 2016, Won 17-10)
Stats: 6 tackles, sack
DE: Jared Allen (VIKINGS vs Steelers, Sept. 29, 2013, Won 34-27)
Stats: 4 tackles, 2.5 Sacks, 2 tackles for loss
So, on to the defense and we start with a devastating performance from the Seahawks, embarrassing the Raiders last year, holding them to just three points. Seattle’s standout player was Frank Clark. Treating the Oakland O-Line with contempt, Clark racked up 2.5 sacks on the day, the most by a defensive lineman in the history of the London games. No wonder the Chiefs stumped up a serious deal to land him this off season.
In 2016, Damon Harrison of the Giants put on the kind of defensive masterclass against the (then) St. Louis Rams at Twickenham that I’m sure had rugby greats who love their NFL — like Brian Moore and Martin Johnson — nodding respectfully.
Rounding off our All-Pro defensive line is DE Jared Allen, a five-time pro-bowler and surely a Hall of Famer, who notched up 136 sacks in his career, including 2.5 at Wembley back in 2013 when he was a Viking. His second quarter performance helped turn the game for Minnesota, who cantered into what proved to be an unassailable lead against the Steelers.
Telvin Smith (JAGUARS vs Bills, Oct. 25, 2015, Won 34-31)
Stats: 8 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 break-ups, INT-TD
Jonathan Vilma (SAINTS vs Chargers, Oct. 26, 2008, Won 37-32)
Stats: 9 tackles, one break-up, game-clinching INT
Joe Schobert (BROWNS vs Vikings, Oct. 29, 2017, Lost 33-16)
Stats: 12 tackles, 11 solo tackles, FF, INT
Jordan Hicks (EAGLES vs Jaguars, Oct. 28, 2018, Won 24-18)
Stats: 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks
The Jaguars have been fixtures of the London series for many years, and as an organisation have made a lot of friends over in the UK, but during that time have rarely had a team that has been a contender, and when it has, it has been the impressive defense that has defined the franchise.
Telvin Smith is one of their stars — though currently on a sabbatical and out of football — but we have his stunning performance against the Bills in 2015 to remember, punctuated by a pick-six to light up Wembley. Smith is the only llinebacker to have a pick-six in London, and it was instrumental in the end, as the Jags almost blew a big lead, with his score proving the difference.
Deep diving to the early days of the series next, we’re taking Jonathan Vilma of the Saints, who picked off Philip Rivers in the final stages of the 2008 thriller between New Orleans and the then San Diego Chargers to seal the win for his team.
Next, step up Joe Schobert — perhaps not a household name but his 11 solo tackles against Minnesota at Twickenham in 2017 are the most by any player in London. Stripes awarded. He’s also the only player in this 22 that ended up on the losing side. And completing our set, Jordan Hicks had a huge game for the Eagles against the Jags in 2018.
CB: Janoris Jenkins (GIANTS vs Rams, Oct. 23, 2016, Won 17-10)
Stats: 76 snaps, 4 tackles, 3 break-ups (two on 3rd down)
CB: Josh Norman (REDSKINS vs Bengals, Oct. 30, 2016, Tied 27-27)
Stats: 78 snaps, 6 tackles, 3 break-ups
S: Landon Collins (GIANTS vs Rams, Oct. 23, 2016, Won 17-10)
Stats: 8 tackles, 2 INTs, INT-TD
S: Brandon Meriweather (PATRIOTS vs Buccaneers, Oct. 25, 2009, Won 35-7)
Stats: 2 tackles, 2 INTs, INT-TD
Into the secondary and we start with another pick-six special from Brandon Meriwether, who scored the first ever defensive touchdown of the International Series back in 2009 as the Pats beat the Bucs 35-7.
Speaking of which, rise up Landon Collins. Remember the storming game Snacks Harrison had against the Rams that earned him a place in our line up? The play of the game and one that features in Iron Mike Carlson’s Top 5 All Time International Series plays was Collins’ very own pick six, where he danced his way through the St Louis players all the way to the house. Add another pick and eight tackles and you’ve got a pretty decent day at the office.
We’ll also give a spot to his then team-mate Janoris Jenkins at cornerback — the pair were part of a secondary unit that held Rams receivers to under 10 yards per catch as a collective group.
And lining up on the other side of the field CB Josh Norman of the Redskins who lived up to his big money deal from Carolina with a masterclass against the Bengals. Facing up to AJ Green all game, Norman was targeted 13 times but allowed only seven receptions, a 53% completion percentage for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton against Norman when his game average was 64%.
Before I go and plug this particular all-star team into Madden and raise hell, I realise we need a Head Coach to manage all these super stars. How about hitting us up on Twitter @thencshow with suggestions and we’ll read out our favourites on the pod!
The Nat Coombs Show podcast joins the ESPN network for four episodes a week. Join Nat and his guests every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday as they get you up to speed with the latest goings on from the NFL with a unique transatlantic twist.