It’s that time of year that every British NFL fan looks forward to – the tenth year of the International Series kicks off on Sunday with the IS’s second-ever divisional game, between the Indianapolis Colts and “London’s Team”, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Colts and the Jags both arrived in the UK Friday morning, the former for the first time, the latter for the fourth. This would have been the final year of the Jags’ commitment to the UK, but the team extended the agreement until 2020, further cementing their status as the UK’s franchise.
“We just feel the love”
Indeed, even those players new to the Jaguars are already feeling the love from the UK fans. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who previously played in the International Series with the Pittsburgh Steelers, told RealSport that as soon as he had signed with the Jags, “I got many message on Twitter and social media from fans from over here.”
Veteran DT Roy Miller – who holds the record for playing in more International Series games than any other player in NFL history – feels the same: “It’s crazy, they say there’s over 40,000 Union Jax members [the Jaguars’ official UK fan club], and we just feel the love.”.
“We’re getting great support [from UK fans],” said head coach Gus Bradley at his Friday press conference, “you feel it growing and there’s familiarity with our players now, and I think that’s the big thing: we want to connect with this group. It’s an important group, we loving playing at home and then coming over here and having that same type of atmosphere, where you have a lot of fans supporting you.”
The game comes at an interesting time for both teams. At the end of last season, there was speculation swirling around Indy that Chuck Pagano would be parting ways with the team; instead, reportedly after players made a case on his behalf, the Colts HC was given a contract extension. Owner Jim Irsay was probably hoping for a better return on his investment than a 1-2 start. Of course, the season is still very young, and they sit only one game behind last season’s division winners, the Texans, but a loss on Sunday heading into the bye week could see them chasing Houston for the remainder of the year. Indeed, Colts tackle Anthony Castonzo admitted that “we aren’t the team that people are gunning for”.
Fighting for his job
The situation is even more stark for Jags’ head coach Gus Bradley, though. A Week 2 shellacking at the hands of the San Diego Chargers saw Bradley own the second-worst win record of any coach in NFL history with 50 games under his belt. Sunday’s game will be Bradley’s 52nd in charge, and could well be his last. For the past two seasons, the head coach who lost the first International Series game of the season has found himself fired on their return to America, first Dennis Allen in 2014 and then Joe Philbin last year. Bradley could make it three-in-a-row. Only one team – the 1992 San Diego Chargers – has ever made the playoffs after starting 0-4, and there were four fewer teams in the NFL back then. Simply put, a loss to the Colts on Sunday makes the 2016 campaign all but lost for the Jaguars. Should that happen, it wouldn’t be surprising for Shad Khan to make a coaching change. The team has an experienced former NFL head coach on staff already in Doug Marrone, and a Week 5 bye to let him bed in as Bradley’s replacement.
The players cannot deny that they’ve heard the noises from outside the locker room suggesting that Coach Bradley may be on his way out. “That’s part of the game, that’s part of the society we currently have”, said Beachum. “We can’t worry about those things, all we can worry about is winning this game, controlling what we can control, and move on from there.”
When we asked Miller about the rumblings around Bradley, he came to his coaches defense: “There’s a lot of things that I felt players could have done better in a lot of situations. We take it personally as a defense and as a team, because we let Gus down by not executing in certain situations. A clear example is against the Ravens and the Packers. We had chances to take advantage of the game and we didn’t. You can’t blame that on coach.”
If the Jags want to give their coach the best chance of staying in place, then both sides of the ball know that they need to work better together. Miller told us that “We need to keep building on what our strengths are. We’ve got a young team, a new team that’s… learning how to play with each other. The more we do that, we get a bit more confidence through each thing that we’ve done. Even when we lost big in the game against the Chargers, we were learning. That’s important”.
Beachum similarly knows that his unit need to find a way to operate better, in order to generate a much-needed rushing attack: “We’ve got to start fast and be more consistent in the run game. That takes time. You hate that it’s taking three games but we need to get things rolling really fast.”
If the Jags are unable to get the W on Sunday, then the game may prove to be the swansong for Gus Bradley – the only Jaguars head coach that many of those 40,000 Union Jax members may have ever known.
- Both teams have put in measures to try and get accustomed to the change in timezone before Sunday’s early (9:30am ET) kickoff. For the Colts, “we’ve had the most regimented schedule”, according to Castonzo. “They organised the schedules such that the powers that be can worry about it and we just do what they tell us to do and hope for the best”. Indy HC Chuck Pagano said that “[the training staff] have done a great job the past 24 hours from the last practice in Indy, getting everyone on the plane, trying to get everyone as much sleep as possible on the way over. Everyone’s done what we’ve asked them to do from getting over in terms of not falling asleep. We’ve kept them busy, encouraged them to stay up the rest of the afternoon.”
- For years, teams have taken one of two approaches to the International Series – arriving as close to kickoff as possible, or arriving as early as possible, in order to get acclimated. However, as the player with who has done this trip more than any other, Roy Miller told us which approach he thinks is best: “I’d have to say a short stay, it worked out for us last year and I think it’s going to work out this year. You get a quick time to adjust, you don’t have a full week to be a tourist so you come in focused on why you’re here and you perform.”
- The Jaguars drafted two defensive players in Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack that were expected to contribute from Day 1. When asked about how the two rookies were getting on, Miller told us that “those guys have stepped in and contributed right away, whether it’s on special teams or just making guys compete harder. It’s made our team tougher, and we’re finding more ways of incorporating [them] and put them in better position to be the playmakers they are.” On Myles Jack, Gus Bradley said that he’s “still getting reps at all the positions. That’s the biggest challenge for him… going back and forth just so he’s ready at all the positions. I give him a lot of credit, he’s put a lot on his plate and I said ‘on Sunday when you get that opportunity, that’s your day, just let loose.’”
RealSport will be at the game on Sunday to bring you all the quotes from the post-game press conferences and locker rooms. Meanwhile, check out our video from today’s practices:
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