This coming Sunday will see a little piece of NFL history made - the first ever game to kick off at 9 30am ET. What this new kickoff slot could mean to the league - a fourth nationally-televised game a week, a timeslot that allows the NFL to truly market live broadcasts in the Middle and Far East, a kickoff time that could one day host a London-based NFL franchise - may well one day be viewed as the turning point where American football truly became international.
What it means for the Falcons is an opportunity to salvage what has been, to say the least, a very difficult season.
What it means for Mike Smith, is the challenge of staving off what is quickly becoming something of a graveyard for NFL head coaches. Of the past six international series games, four of them saw at least one of the coaches involved fired either during, or immediately upon the conclusion, of that same season - or five out of nine games total. Already 2014's International Series has claimed its first victim in Dennis Allen, and there's plenty of speculation that Mike Smith may join Allen, Leslie Frazier, Raheem Morris, Josh McDaniels, Mike Singletary, and Cam Cameron as head coaches who have seen a trip to London be soon followed by a final trip to the owner's office. Here's a more worrying stat for Smith: Norv Turner, whose Chargers lost to the Saints in 2008, and Mike Tomlin, whose Steelers lost to the Vikings in 2013, remains the only non-first year head coaches to have lost a game at Wembley, and still be with the same team the following season (though Tomlin's oponent, Frazier, didn't fare as well).
Speaking with Smith at a Falcons 'community day' yesterday, under the NFL's Play60 banner, he seemed remarkably laid back for a coach who must surely be aware that his position with the team is on unsure footing. Not that he's unaware of the challenges the team faces:
"It's very important for us to play good football this week," Smith told us at the Bushey Meads school in north west London, "we didn't get the outcome we wanted yesterday, we've got a good team in Detroit coming to play us, so we're going to have to have a good week of practice."
Before they can start that, they need to deal with the matter of adjusting to a timezone five hours ahead of the east coast. "You got to get on the time schedule so we can get some sleep," Roddy White explained, "it's going to be important to the game to get our body and minds right for this opportunity in London." The best way of doing that is by keeping as busy as you would be otherwise. "When you're away from home, you've got to make yourself as comfortable as possible as fast as possible. When we get back to the hotel, we're going to start watching the game film on Detroit, and go to work".
Smith confirmed that this morning's Play60 event is part of that strategy: "we wanted to come right out of the plane and stay busy, so we can start get our bodies acclimated to this time zone. We're going to get some activities done with these kids, and then we're going to go to the hotel and work out, get a little walkthrough, and start our regular week on Wednesday."
White sees another advantage of the Play60 programme, beyond giving back to the community. When asked about the Wembley crowd, White responded, "we're going to do a lot of things throughout the week, talking to everybody to be on our side - especially me, I'm going to be doing a lot of things like this around the community... the crowd is so important, especially away from home, so the more guys we can get on our side the better it will be."
While the schoolkids took their turns awkwardly attempting to wrap up a tackle bag, throw footballs like shotputs, or running backwards and forwards between various cones, the usual questions were answered by various Falcons. Mike Smith is hoping to get a chance to try fish and chips; Roddy White thinks it would be great if there were a London team, and he'd play for a London franchise if he got the opportunity; Matt Ryan thinks the opportunity to let US fans watch football over breakfast is a unique experience. Yet, they were also forthcoming on some of the challenges the team has faced this season.
The biggest of these challenges is the mutliple injuries to the team's offensive line. "It's just so unexpected to lose so many linemen in one season," lamented White, "it's hard to bounce back. Protecting the quarterback is one of the biggest issues, one of the biggest concerns of our team because the guys are just filling in spots right now." Matt Ryan, talking about chemistry with the offensive line, agrees that "it can be tough, when you've got a bunch of guys who week to week are playing in different spots... you've got to find ways during the practice week to get on the same page as quickly as possible."
The news keeps getting worse for the offensive line too. "We've had a number of injuries on the offensive line this year, and just had another one yesterday [to center Peter Konz] that is probably going to affect us as well," said Smith. "We're going to have to do some things schematically, put more people in protection and try to protect our quarterback."
Smith talked about a 'next man up' mentality for the offensive line - and the next man up appears to be James Stone. "I thought James Stone did a great job filling for Peter," said Ryan, "Stoney did a great job and if he's got to play again this weekend I'm sure he'll do a great job."
For all that Matt Ryan appears to have confidence, at least publicly, in his makeshift offensive line, they have a huge task contending with the fearsome Lions front four. "We've got to account for what [Detroit] do defensively and how talented they are", said Ryan, "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, that's where have to get our strategy right so that we can go in with a good gameplan". White even spilled the beans on how they're going to try to compensate for the offensive line: "We just got to do a lot more of the quick game, try to get the ball out of Matt's hand... we've got to find a way to push the tempo, go as fast as we can against those guys and try to wear them out".
With a defense that ranks top five in sacks, interceptions and rushing defense, White's strategy to wear them out better work - or the next thing that gets worn out may be Arthur Blank's patience.
Other notes from Monday:
- Roddy White said that setting the new franchise record on Sunday for receiving touchdowns was "a good record to break, and the last record I wanted to break. Now we move forward."
- White talked about what the loss of Harry Douglas has meant for the offense: "it's affected our team because he's such an important part with his knowledge of the game and what he does on the field. Hopefully we can get him back in the next couple of weeks, and we can roll from there. He adds an important package to our team, we can go for four wideout sets and things like that, so we'll be happy to have him whenever he comes back."
- Matt Ryan repeated the old traditional refrain of how you win football games - in the trenches. "We have to play well up front. Our O-line going against their D-line is going to be important for us, but we've got to play well in the front seven on defense as well. If we can do that, if we can win the line of scrimmage, that gives us a good chance."
- I asked Mike Smith about the challenged of fixing an unproductive pass rush in the middle of the season. "It's very difficult. The guys on our roster are the guys on our roster. They've been working hard and training hard and we got a little more pressure yesterday, we didn't really show up in sack numbers but we moved the quarterback off his spot, and it's going to be important for us to pressure the quarterback this week."
- Smith said that he was treating this game, gameplanning-wise, like any other road game, before correcting himself. "We're trying to make it like a home game, our schedule of the week will be the same. We want to have our regular Wednesday-Thursday-Friday-Saturday routine".
- And what of the school kids? In their first real exposure to American football, a session that began with a short speech by Thomas Dimitroff and by Mike Smith, followed by being guided through drills by the entire 53-man roster of the Atlanta Falcons, the biggest topic of discussion after the Play60 event was, well, the cheerleaders. There are some aspects of football, it appears, that transcends all borders.