Despite success internationally, NFL still has long way to go

In his robust Inside The NFL notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics including (click on the link to take you directly there):

The NFL Fall Meeting earlier this week indicated what the league hopes again will be proven next Sunday in London: The effort to go global with football is working.

There are statistics to back it up. The NFL has 10 sponsors in the United Kingdom, where five years ago there was one. TV ratings are up 91 percent and Super Bowl viewership has grown by 74 percent in that timeframe, and the league counts 11 million fans, 2 million classified as "avid fans" in that nation. Heck, the BBC is covering the NFL, and drew 1.3 million viewers for its Super Bowl pregame show.

But as the league prepares to play its fifth game in the NFL International Series, the next big steps -- expanding past the U.K. and, at some point, finding a way to put a team in Europe permanently -- aren't close to happening.

Is the game having the effect desired? Yes. Does that mean it's time to try to turn those steps into leaps? No. Not yet, anyway.

"It's definitely working. All the metrics point to that," said Chris Parsons, NFL Vice President of International. "From a total international perspective, we've doubled our international business. That's incredibly positive."

But when asked about having a team in London, Parsons said, "We're certainly not putting a timeline on having a team there. We're taking this one step at a time. We know what we have to do, and that's demonstrate the fan growth we have in the past."

And as for going outside the UK, Parsons explained, "We'd use the games in London as a blueprint. But to do that, it has to work in one place. There's no point in going beyond that if it doesn't. So we're focusing the revolution on the U.K."

So here's where you stop. On one hand, Parsons says "it's definitely working". On the other, he adds it "has to work" in London for the league to grow further.

"We want to play more than one game a season there, that's an important success criteria for us," Parsons said. "We want to establish that we can build fans for a team that goes over there and participates. Right now, we've had great growth, but we need to keep moving toward being a top five sport in the U.K. That's our ambition. That's what we have to prove we can do."

Football ranks somewhere around seventh or eighth in popularity, with Parsons sizing up the top five sports in the U.K. as soccer, golf, tennis, cricket and rugby. To put that in perspective, it's roughly in the area where soccer ranks as a spectator sport in the U.S.

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That signifies great progress, as does the fact that there are people playing the game there as well. The collegiate leagues are staged in the fall, while the youth and adult ranks go in the summer. But it also signifies the reality that the NFL is up against the challenge that soccer has faced here, in breaking through into the mainstream from a viewership standpoint.

Parsons hopes the next step is building loyalty and pockets of followings with individual clubs. The Buccaneers' second trip in three years was a lockout circumstance, bringing a club with familiarity back to shortcut planning. But it'll be a good test case -- remember, the Glazers own Manchester United -- to see if Tampa Bay can succeed business-wise there, as other clubs consider whether or not to take the new option for teams to make repeat trips to London.

That happening would likely lead to the league taking up its new option to have more games at Wembley or elsewhere in the U.K., and also serve as a study in whether or not the English can get behind a team.

As for venturing elsewhere, the five primary international markets are Canada, China, Japan, Mexico and the U.K. The league would like to do more to make Bills games in Toronto take on the "Super Bowl" feel that those at Wembley shoot for. With Buffalo's contract with Rogers Centre expiring after the 2012 season, that opportunity might exist soon. Mexico is another frontier the league has tread on, having held a game in Mexico City in 2005, but Parsons said before returning "there are a lot of other things we'd want to establish with our partnerships in that market."

The league even had a preseason game scheduled to be played in China in 2007, but scrapped that game soon thereafter, something Parsons acknowledges is part of a need to "build the business and the fanbase further in those markets."

Germany would appear to be next in line to get a game. TV distribution issues have contributed to the NFL staying away -- it's much easier for the league to get over the air in the U.K. -- but there's clearly a market there. By the end of NFL Europe's run, five of the circuit's six teams were located in Germany, and the game is popular at the developmental levels as well, evidenced by Sebastian Vollmer, a Dusseldorf native who made it to the NFL.

"Germany is an attractive market, we have a residual fan base from NFL Europe, and they like the game, which is demonstrated by their support," said Parsons. "When you look at merchandising and Game Pass (Sunday Ticket, in essence, overseas) sales, you see we do well in Germany. But we're not looking elsewhere now. We want to get right what we're doing in one market."

And progress continues there. On Wednesday, at the House of Commons in London, a parliamentary group will be formed to examine the growth of American football in the U.K., and work with the NFL. Four days later, the NFL will celebrate its five-year anniversary at Wembley.

But if you look elsewhere, you'll see the league still has a long way to go.

Scouts look at Nnamdi Asomugha's deployment in Philly, and scratch their heads. Up I-95, changes in the assignments of another corner, second-year Patriot Devin McCourty, have led to serious growing pains.

As a result, both players have taken steps back -- Asomugha because he's playing more zone and more often off receivers, and McCourty because Bill Belichick and Co. are varying his responsibilities and leaning harder on him with less help to his side.

With the explosion in passing, it's vital for the Eagles and Patriots to get these guys right.

It seems it'd be easier for Asomugha, a press corner by nature, to correct his issues, because the rigors of adjusting to playing zone coverages aren't the same as having to man up someone. Personnel people say the answer is to use Asomugha as the Raiders did, where he says he was playing man "almost all the time." But the player himself doesn't think that's necessary.

"There's a certain comfort level you have with a zone because you don't have to play every route," Asomugha told me. "You can ask my coaches, I've always wanted more zone aspects. The more you practice it, the better you are at it, and you have to be able to give quarterbacks that different look.

"I think it's too easy in this league nowadays to be lining up and wanting to do man all the way. (Having variation) is something I've always wanted, something I looked forward to doing."

Meanwhile, when I asked McCourty the reverse question, on the challenges of manning up receivers, he said, "As a corner, that's something you work for, you want to be, where you can say, 'I'm a guy that can cover people, and the coaches have confidence, the teammates have confidence in me going out there.'"

And even though McCourty had a rep as a zone corner coming out of Rutgers, and has struggled mightily against bigger receivers like Vincent Jackson and Brandon Marshall this year, he says he's up to the challenge. When we talked about what Darrelle Revis does or Deion Sanders did, being assigned to take the other team's best out of a game, he called that "the ultimate" for a player at his position. But for now, he's just adjusting to the new responsibilities.

"I think the biggest adjustment is using me in different situations," McCourty told me. "Last year as a rookie, it was more, 'This is what we're doing, and this is what you do.' Now, it's more 'we can play you here, but you also might do this.'

"After you've played a year, your staff, and of course other staffs know what you can do. But your staff realizes how they can use you on defense. My biggest adjustment is having to do different things. And maybe I'm not as good at that yet, but I just keep repping it, keep doing those things and get better."

Interestingly, Asomugha is someone McCourty has studied. "Sometimes he has zero help," he said. Conversely, Asomugha can empathize with McCourty, remembering how tough it was to lose battles as a young corner, "because you haven't trained your mind to get over it. It takes you a little bit longer. But the more you do it, the better you understand, 'OK, there's another play, and here's where I get him on the next play.'"

Ultimately, not just because of the players these guys are, but because of the smart, level-headed people they are, you have to think both will get it right.

Niners turn corner in close games

The 49ers were 3-11 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2009 and '10, and lost their first one-possession game this season against Dallas. Since, as part of the three-game winning streak they'll ride into Detroit on Sunday, they've won two such games.

And San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke doesn't think it's any mistake, either, that the change in fortune in those situations is coming on Jim Harbaugh's watch.

"The players are buying in to what's being taught, how they're being prepared," Baalke said on Tuesday night, from his office. "They know if you keep chopping wood, you're gonna figure a way to come out on top at the end of the day. Jim was like that as a player. He was like at (the University of San Diego) and Stanford. He has a unique ability to keep his guys grinding. There's no quit.

"Coach ran a very difficult camp and preseason with the understanding that, at some point, it's gonna pay off. The players bought in, and they bought in early. Sometimes there's a feeling-out process. That didn't happen here. They bought it, because coach is one of them."

The payoff, Baalke believes, is coming late in games.

Here's the idea: When exhaustion sets in, and pressure mounts, the chances rise of a player getting away from what made his team competitive for the previous 50 or 55 minutes of the game. But if he truly buys into what he's been taught, the chances of that happening aren't as great.

"We had confidence going in not just in the coaches to be able to prepare the guys, but we had confidence in the guys in that locker room," Baalke said. "Go back the last few years, we played a lot of those close games, but we haven't been able to finish."

This year, they have been. And beyond the players buying into the play-calling and fundamentals, they're also adhering to Harbaugh's all-in message: "53 men on 49th Street." He can sell it properly to players, again, because when you've led as a player you have a pretty good view of what might work for a coach.

"He's exactly like a player," rising young linebacker Navorro Bowman told me. "His coaching style, it's like we're being coached by a player. He gets everyone on the same page, gets us excited to play, and he coaches like that on the sideline. We love him being here."

Easy to say these things, of course, when you're 4-1. But Harbaugh's team is already proving to be pretty tough under duress, too. Which is a big reason why they're separating quickly from a mediocre NFC West pack.

One thing that's easy to respect about Al Davis is how he kept his relationship with folks in the league so private. There's something genuine about that, and so it's fitting that in the last NFL game he'd ever attend, just six days before his death, he had a nice exchange with Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Davis said to Kraft, on ex-Patriot Richard Seymour, "He's everything you told me he would be." The two men parted ways, and to Kraft's surprise, just a little while later, the Raiders had a pregame moment of silence for his wife Myra.

As it turned out, Kraft was the last owner that Davis would encounter after spending the final 51 years of his life in professional football. And Kraft can remember how Davis and the late Lamar Hunt, two of the AFL's patriarchs, were first to welcome him as an owner in 1994.

Davis, Kraft says, "was sort of an iconic figure, and as a fan of the NFL up until that point, I thought it was pretty cool."

Though their relationship, again, was hardly one that got much publicity, Kraft would go to Davis as he learned his way in owning an NFL team. The big reason: Kraft knew he wouldn't get the run-around from the Raiders' owner.

"He was a great help to me in the early years," Kraft told me. "I don't think Harvard Business School trains you for NFL ownership or, for that matter, any MBA program. And I would ask Al a lot, especially football questions, and he was always very helpful and always gave me an honest opinion.

"Sometimes, he wouldn't answer. But when he did answer, he always gave it to me straight. I'll forever be grateful to him for that."

Davis certainly had flaws, particularly in the later years when his management style came under a lot of scrutiny and his decisions often seemed bizarre. But Kraft's memory is of a unique figure who did as much to grow the game and aggrandize its image. The Patriots owner is grateful, too, not just for the personal help Davis gave him, but also for what he did to enhance the business of football at all levels.

"He sort of represents, whether people liked him or didn't like him, that special sizzle factor that separates the NFL," Kraft said. "He made it exciting. He was a personality who knew how to be contrarian. But also, look at all the positions he held, I don't think that'll ever be replicated. He did everything. He's unique and he was passionate about the game, loved the game, and created a certain mystique. We'll miss him."

1) How the Eagles' offensive line holds up. From one personnel executive studying up on Philly: "It doesn't matter what you do if you can't win up front, at the line of scrimmage, with your offensive line. That's their biggest weakness." Now, it's hard to point the finger only at the Eagles' front five. Philly is minus-10 in takeaways, which is a big problem that extends to each side of the ball, and Juan Castillo hasn't exactly aced the daunting test of going from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator. But of Philly's problems, it might be the least correctable. They need to pray that rookies Jason Kelce, at center, and Danny Watkins, at guard, make quantum leaps in the coming weeks. This would be a good time for progress too, with a trip to Washington on tap. The Redskins, behind the fearsome edge duo of Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, rank second in the NFL in sacks per pass play.

2) How the Ravens stand up to the challenge that the Texans present. I'm a buyer in Chuck Pagano, the new Baltimore defensive coordinator who's revived the wild-dog mentality in his group. Only Buffalo has more takeaways than Baltimore's 14, and that's even though the Ravens have already had their bye. But to this point, the Ravens have faced the Steelers (12th in total offense), Rams (31st), Titans (18th) and Jets (28th). So this week is different. Even with Houston missing Andre Johnson, the challenge is there for Baltimore -- last year, the Texans averaged 29.3 points and 446.3 yards in the three games their superstar receiver missed. Through five weeks, the Ravens rank third in total defense. We'll see if they can keep it up.

3) If the Steelers can build on Revival Sunday. Pittsburgh has a relative lay-up this week, following its complete beatdown of a good Tennessee team, with Jacksonville coming to town. The Steelers need this one, and next week's game against the Cardinals too, with three big ones leading into their Week 11 bye -- New England at home, Baltimore at home, and a trip to Cincinnati. The post-bye slate is far less of a problem, so the Steelers' place in the playoff race, and possible seeding if they get there, is very much at stake now. Make it out of the next five at 4-1, then they're 7-3 going into a very manageable homestretch with, presumably, a healthier Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall and James Harrison. Don't count out the Steelers yet.

4) What the Rams have left. Much as I think the management there has done good things after entering an unenviable situation, this week's "impossible situation" game against the Packers is the kind of spot that can serve as a litmus test for a struggling team. The Rams are 0-4, 27th in defense, 31st in offense and have lost their games by an average of 17 points. And playing with their top three corners on IR against Green Bay is like taking a capgun to a bazooka fight. If Aaron Rodgers and Co. bulldoze St. Louis to the tune of something like 59-3, it could send the team into playing-out-the-string mode and threaten Steve Spagnuolo's job security, something that would really be too bad. If the Rams compete, it could be a springboard. The game itself might not be interesting. But this dynamic is.

Three conclusions

1) Counting on a veteran quarterback from elsewhere is an iffy proposition. You can start with the stat that 17 of the past 23 Super Bowls were won by quarterbacks playing for the team that drafted them. And then, you can take a look at how the veteran market played out this year. Kyle Orton (75.7 rating) has been benched in Denver. Kevin Kolb (77.2 rating) and the Cardinals are 1-4. Donovan McNabb (80.0 rating) is also 1-4 in Minnesota. Kerry Collins (65.9 rating) didn't work out as a Band-aid in Indianapolis. Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson has a higher rating than them all, at 81.0. That leaves the one who worked out: Matt Hasselbeck, who's thrown for 1,414 yards, nine touchdowns and a 95.9 rating with the Titans. You hear complaints from fan bases whose teams didn't make a splash at the position in 2011. But considering the above options, it's hard to blame the teams that stood still. Turns out those Brett Favres and Steve Youngs are far and few between.

2) Charley Casserly doesn't get the credit he deserves for forming the core he did in Houston. And yes, I'm serious. Casserly was doomed by his selection of David Carr at the top of the 2002 draft, but if you look hard enough, you see, four years after his departure, that the ex-GM's fingerprints remain. Mario Williams might be out for the year, and Andre Johnson's hamstring might limit him for a while, but both those guys figure to be big-time pieces for years to come in Houston. Ditto on DeMeco Ryans, and Owen Daniels is another Pro Bowl selection drafted by Casserly. Two other holdovers, receiver Kevin Walter and tackle Eric Winston, also started last Sunday. Overall, that's not a bad haul. Now, in addition to missing on the quarterback, Casserly also struggled in building the roster's middle class. But the above group shows how his tenure in Houston was actually underrated.

3) Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have taken home the majority of the quarterback plaudits through five weeks, but Drew Brees is right there with them. And his ability to guide the Saints through some transition without a hiccup is proof positive of that. The Saints lost No. 1 receiver Marques Colston in the opener, and Brees has completed more than 70 percent of his passes in each of the four games since. In fact, just two years after becoming the first player in 15 years to complete 70 percent of his passes for a season, Brees has a shot to become the first player ever to do it twice. More important, though, the quarterback has been there to help the Saints ride out the bumps. One reason I picked the Saints to win the Super Bowl before the season is that I thought they'd ascend over the course of the year. Brees is why they can afford to absorb those growing pains after a fair amount of roster renovation was done.

1) Now that we know Super Bowl XLIX will be held in Arizona, the race is on for the 50th edition, which will be played in February 2016. Los Angeles is where the first Super Bowl was held -- the Coliseum, to be exact -- and the possible symmetry of bringing the game home, to an area that hasn't hosted since January of 1993, certainly has come up. And while there isn't a team there now, it's possible that one could be in place before the 2015 season. The larger issue is the stadium. My understanding is the very earliest a stadium could be ready at AEG's downtown site is 2016, which would be too late, because the new wing of the convention center would need to be built before an old wing is demolished to make room for the facility. Ed Roski's site in City of Industry, Majestic Realty, could have a new stadium up and running 30 months after groundbreaking, meaning having something ready in 2015 is an outside possibility. But in any case, the great likelihood is the game having to be held in the Coliseum or a refurbished Rose Bowl, and it's up in the air whether the league would be willing to hold its signature event in an older facility lacking premium seating.

Trying to keep focus on football

Few members of the young Raiders were close with late owner Al Davis, something that's forcing the team to move forward during a tough time, says Steve Wyche. **More ...**

2) Earlier in the week, we reported on the Raiders deciding they will hire a general manager, and taking preliminary steps to start the search. In the time since, what I've found is that this job is one that's intriguing a lot of aspiring young personnel management types. The position won't provide absolute power -- my understanding is Oakland would like to have a Pittsburgh type of setup -- but Hue Jackson's presence as the other half in this structure, where the coach and GM will work in concert, is considered a plus by most. Jackson, of course, has a handle on that locker room, and has worked in different types of organizations in Cincinnati, Atlanta (during the Bobby Petrino year) and Baltimore, so he's adaptable. The chase for this job should be interesting.

One prediction

The Green Bay Packers will make it to Thanksgiving Day at 10-0. That's not exactly going out on a limb -- between now and then, the champs have the Rams at home, a trip to Minnesota, a bye, a trip to San Diego, and home dates against the Vikings and Buccaneers.

More interesting will be if the Lions can make it to 10-0 too. If Detroit gets through the 49ers and Falcons at home the next two weeks, it too could be unblemished when Green Bay comes to town on the holiday.

Only once since the merger have two teams made it to 10-0 in the same season -- in 2009, both the Colts and Saints did -- and there has never been a game between unbeaten clubs that deep into the season.

I remember complaining a couple years ago about the sad-sack Lions hanging on to the Thanksgiving Day game, preferring a rotation. The idea was always off, given that Detroit is responsible for that tradition, and most teams go through their downtimes.

And I'll bet that this time around, when it comes time to play that game, we probably won't be hearing much from those people.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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