So now we know why head coach Jeff Fisher really chose the St Louis Rams over the Miami Dolphins last week – he has a secret yearning for a strong pot of tea and a fry up. He’d better have a good appetite each October, then, as, in an announcement that wrong-footed almost everyone, the NFL has revealed that the Rams will feature as the home team in each of the next three International Series games at Wembley.
Those of us who have been following the NFL’s Wembley adventure since it first began in 2007 had come to expect one of the more unsettled US franchises to follow the Buffalo Bills’ Canadian lead in trying to establish a second “local” fanbase in a new country, but the smart money was on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have already featured as the designated home team in two of the five Wembley fixtures and are famously run by the Glazer family who also own Manchester United. Other names were proposed from time to time, not least the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have also found a Florida fanbase hard to build, but the assumption with the Rams had always been that, if they were going anywhere, it would be back to Los Angeles, the city they left in 1994 and which currently has no NFL team. Had you Googled for “St Louis Rams Wembley” on Thursday you would have returned slim pickings where now there is a landslide.
Perhaps we should have seen it coming, since the Rams are the NFL club that belongs to Arsenal’s majority shareholder Stan Kroenke. He seems now to have stolen the corporate thunder of his Mancunian counterparts ahead of this weekend’s showdown at the Emirates, by successfully lobbying the NFL to allow his Rams the chance to settle in England’s pleasant pastures. Theoretically the move could encourage British NFL fans, and Londoners in particular, to adopt the Rams’ millenium blue, new century gold and white colours as their own between now and 2014, though it remains to be seen whether followers of other football clubs in the capital will baulk at going all out in favour of a team so closely linked to the Gunners.
The NFL could hardly have set a stiffer test of that theory when they chose the hugely popular New England Patriots to return to Wembley as the Rams’s first opponents on October 28th this year. The Buccaneers struggled to escape the Patriots’ shadow both on and off the field in 2009 when, as designated hosts, they were steamrollered by a rampant Patriots team led by superstar quarterback Tom Brady. The Rams, who’ve just finished the season with the league’s second worst record, must rebuild quickly to avoid similar treatment, a task made that much harder by having to entertain a “visiting” club who have played in the home stadium more often than they have. If the Buccaneers came back next year that would again be true or maybe they’ll reappear in 2014 to challenge the Rams in a winner-take-all matchup where the victor claims permanent rights to the home dressing room.
At least British fans will have the opportunity to claim some players as their own over the next few years. Poor as their campaign was, the Rams do have some stars, foremost amongst them elite, record-breaking running back Steven Jackson. On offense he will be accompanied by whichever of the club’s talented but fragile receiving corps can make it unscathed to Heathrow while James Laurinaitis and Chris Long are two standouts on defense. Inevitably, though, it will be the team’s emerging quarterback whose Wembley years will most likely define both his career and the Rams’ success in London. If he gets it right, Wembley Way might even be renamed for one week each year to Sam Bradford Park Avenue.