Sunday, October 25, 2009
Underdog Bucs had crowd on their side
By Mark Woods
Special to ESPNBoston
LONDON -- We British love an underdog. It's one of the curiosities of the collective psyche of the United Kingdom. Winners become more celebrated once their decline toward mediocrity begins. Losers, especially when they adhere to the traditional cliché of "trying 110 percent," capture a special place in our hearts. Perhaps it's to do with our rather reserved nature that makes us feel embarrassed about overt success. Maybe it's because, when it comes to sports, glorious failure is what we do best.
The only way the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers could have been less favored against the New England Patriots at Wembley Stadium is if Her Majesty had invoked her ancient right to lock up their defensive line in the Tower of London. Not that it mattered too much as the Patriots dominated their way to a 35-7 rout. However, as a designated home game for the Bucs, NFL officials did their best to convert this part of northwestern London into a corner of Tampa Bay, distributing Jolly Roger flags to each member of the 85,000 capacity crowd. They even brought their own cheerleaders. With adopted New Englanders in plentiful supply, the atmosphere was almost adversarial between the Brady and anti-Brady bunch. Almost, dare one say, like an adversarial soccer crowd.
Ultimately, a mismatch was not the ideal showcase to convert the unconverted, but the Pepsi Max International Series, as this was tagged, was as much about the occasion as the result. Sunday represented a gathering of the clan of American football fans from the U.K. and around Europe, a chance to pull on a jersey, share a pint of ale and trade tales of Super Bowls past -- without soccer intruding on the debate.
"We've come the past two years and it was pretty amazing," agreed a father and son, Paul and Daniel, from London. Both proudly wearing their Patriots jerseys, they wouldn't have missed this game.
"We've always wanted to go to Foxborough, but this is the next best thing."
No question who they were rooting for. But wandering around the adapted tailgate party, it was clear that all 32 NFL teams were represented.
Plus the colors of the defunct NFL Europe league. Gone but not forgotten.
"I used to go to every Rhein Fire game," said Jan Voigt, from Gelsenkirchen, Germany. "We have come here to enjoy the experience and spend the weekend in London."
No doubt, that reaction is what league executives in attendance -- including commissioner Roger Goodell -- were hoping for. No matter that, in terms of widespread interest, the NFL's detour to London was still second to Sunday's English Premier League top bill of Liverpool against Manchester United. Goodell's overseas crew has likely accomplished enough to export an additional game across the Atlantic next season, with Weeks 3 and 8 already penciled in.
Whether enough passion -- and cash -- exists to support up to four British games is another question. Will the novelty wear off? The NFL hopes not. As an event, the "London Bowl" is a different beast than the average soccer game. More razzamatazz, more entertainment, more congenial.
It didn't matter too much that the Patriots' honorary captain for the afternoon, Sir Elton John, was forced onto the inactive list with the flu.
Organizers had rustled up R&B diva Toni Braxton to perform the "Star-Spangled Banner" and well-known opera singer Katherine Jenkins to follow suit with "God Save The Queen." A splash of star power, if any more was needed.
It probably wasn't. While the average attendee at Wembley might not have been familiar with the Patriots' ever-changing offensive packages, they could recognize bad defense when they saw it.
Or in the case of the Buccaneers in the first quarter, really bad defense.
Nobody was confusing Brady with Josh Johnson. Even if the Tampa Bay offense looked confused, period.
Now 0-7, the Bucs are likely to have a long plane ride back to Florida. And the Patriots, at 5-2 headed into the bye week, can be satisfied with their extended road trip.
The NFL's supporters-in-exile got their money's worth, even if -- this time -- the underdog was simply overwhelmed by Patriotic fervor.
Mark Woods is a writer for Britball Media and will file periodic updates from London this week for ESPNBoston.com.