As we know, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been on a mission to grow the sport from the global standpoint, using Wembley as the focal point for the European leg of the venture.
So far, it would seem, at least as far as the figures are concerned, that Goodell and the NFL are well on their way to fulfilling those lofty aspirations, as the five games played to date have amassed attendance figures of 81,176 (Miami Dolphins v New York Giants - 2007), 83,226 (New Orleans Saints v San Diego Chargers - 2008), 84, 254 (New England Patriots v Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 2009), 83,941 (San Francisco 49ers v Denver Broncos), and 76,891 (Chicago Bears v Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 2011), all impressive figures, especially so when totaled together to bring a staggering 409,578 through the Wembley gates.
Job done then. Or is it? It would appear that recent events have conspired to pull the carpet from under the legs of Goodell and his mission, as on the 14th of August the St. Louis Rams suddenly reneged on their agreement to stage home games at Wembley for the next two seasons - "In an effort to focus on the Edward Jones Dome First Tier Process with the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, the St. Louis Rams are withdrawing their commitment to play a home game in London in each of the 2013 and 2014 seasons". Thankfully though, crisis was averted when the Rams decided to honor their commitment to this years clash with the New England Patriots on October 28th.
So, what of the International series future beyond this October? Well, it seems that Shad Khan and his newly acquired Jacksonville have ridden to the rescue by agreeing to stage a regular season game from 2013 - 16, thus ensuring that Goodell's gravy train won't be left in the sidings for long, as he, Khan has declared a desire in establishing his franchise on a global scale - starting from the hallowed Wembley turf.
As Goodell and Khan departed the podium following this quite extraordinary announcement, it would appear that we, as fans of this great game were in the midst of a consummation that would bear fruits of success for league, franchise, and fans alike.....But could it all end in an expensive divorce?
Khan himself can't see this multi-year arrangement as anything other than a romance of unbridled success, as even as far back as last year, he bullishly declared "The NFL is going to be developing an International fan base. Why shouldn't it be the Jaguars?" He continued "I think it would serve Jacksonville well to play a game or two overseas, to get the name Jacksonville out. "If you look at some of the Premier League teams, they have a huge following overseas in the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, e.t.c".
But, do the players and fans buy into their owners vision? It would certainly appear so, as Wide-Receiver Mike Thomas was quoted as saying "I just think Khan has a vision of what he wants us to be, and what he wants the organisation to stand for. We're getting a glimpse of the direction of direction he wants us to go in (anywhere but Jacksonville?). I don't think you can put a limit, That's exciting for us. I'm looking forward to it". Kicker Josh Scobee added: "It's like a dream come true to be able to play in that stadium. I'm hoping we go for a few days, because you can get jet - lagged, but I'm pretty excited about it, to be able to experience a country that I haven't been to. This will be cool to get over there and experience the city and be able to play in a legendary stadium".
However not all seem to share Thomas's enthusiasm, certainly if Cornerback Rasheem Mathis reluctant acceptance of the project is anything to go by - "But like I said, the advertisements and promotion is great. Other than that, I can't speak much, but the overall process .......it's great for the game".
Hmm, doesn't sound too 'great', if anything, to me, it spells nothing but indifference. Indifference that seems to be the general theme amongst fans on the Jaguars online forum. "Wonderful. The franchise will expand it's brand internationally! What about the dedicated season ticket holders that have been here through the crappy times? "What is Khan planning to do for us? "We have lost one of our opportunities to watch OUR team", roared 'Hammer9'. - "Hey! Ever thought of travelling to an away game here in the States? It's fun. Atlanta, New Orleans, Tampa, Miami and Charlotte are just a days drive. VACATION" - PaulBlalock sarcastically declared, and the apathy didn't end there, as demonstrated by the ingeniously named 'Jagsdude' who opined "Also, how does this build the fan base where it counts most here in JAX?? I don't understand it as anything other than being a money grabber for the owner. Sure one less home game in JAX....you should have sent them one of our pre - season games.
It would also appear that some UK fans are also less than enthusiastic about the prospect of the Jaguars taking up residency at Wembley - "Have to say I'm a bit disappointed if this turns out to be true. As others have said before, I'd like to see as many teams as possible" - bemoaned 'jrt55555' of the NFLUK online forum. - Not a popular decision then? Well, if their history is any sort of barometer....
Since their inception in 1995, Jacksonville's regular season performances on the whole have been decidedly inauspicious, particularly in the last decade, as they have achieved winning records on only three occasions, 9-7 in 2004-05, 12-4 in 2005-06, and 11-5 in 2007-08, and their play-off record hardly makes for encouraging reading.
In all, the Jaguars have made six appearances (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2005, 2007) ,and only twice, in 1996 and 1999 respectively, have they ventured beyond the Divisional Round, when they defeated both the Broncos (30 - 27 in 1996) and Miami Dolphins (62 - 7 in 1999) respectively.
So, what do we have to look forward to in 2013? Well, if past history is any sort of guide, I wouldn't suggest a whole lot. But what of the recent past, and the current campaign? First round pick Blaine Gabbert endured a treacherous start to life in the NFL last season, throwing 11 interceptions, suffering 40 sacks, and achieving a woeful 50.8 Quarterback rating, all factors that contributed to the Jaguars ranking dead last in total offence, and yet another 5 - 11 finish.
However, 2012 began to hint at a brighter future, as despite a narrow 26 - 23 defeat to the Vikings on opening day, Gabbert appeared to represent the complete antithesis of the error strewn bag of nerves he became during his rookie year. A particular highlight, in a performance that contributed 23 out of 29 completed passes for 260 - yards and two touchdowns, being a superbly constructed drive, with 91 seconds remaining from his own 24 - yard line, that culminated in a completion to Cecil Shorts 111.
Week 2 however, was a very different story. Gabbert was a complete disaster. So poor in fact, he finished 7 of 19 for a porous 53 - yards - his fewest as a starter, threw a torrent of hurried throws that continuously missed open receivers, two of which were batted down by Texans defensive end J.J Watt, and was only taken out of his misery due to a retirement enforced by a knee injury sustained in the 4th quarter. So, 0 - 2, and the potential re - visit of an all too familiar sight?
It would certainly appear so, and if allowed to continue, could prove wholly detrimental to Khan's hopes of selling his product to UK fans, not just for now, but for the foreseeable future. After all, if your team is contributing to an average attendance of 65, 306, and 25th overall out of the 32 teams in the league in 2011, you've got problems.
Problems, that despite the acquisition of receiver Justin Blackmon, a precocious talent widely considered to be the best of his class (So good in fact, he was twice voted top receiver at college level, an accolade that resulted in the award of the 'Fred Bilentnikoff Award') in the 2012 draft, may show no signs of abating.
When you take into consideration all the above, and an NFL360 survey which places Jacksonville as one of the least popular teams with a meagre 2,000 fans in the UK, it makes it increasingly difficult to share Khan and Goddell's optimism for growing such a franchise.
On the 19th of January, the director of NFLUK, Alistair Kirkwood, announced via the NFLUK website that viewing figures increased 18% on 2010 in 2011, a trend that if continues, will result in viewers of more than 8 million by 2016. With this in mind you have to wonder how many of those, if things continue as they are, will be watching Jacksonville?
Before we completely dismiss the possibility of a successful Jaguars side lighting up Wembley, one must embrace the fact that in ever changing league, one that so often throws up possibilities that would normally be dismissed as mere folly on the eve of a new season, anything is possible. Especially as the Jaguars don't arrive in London for another 13 months.
Shad Khad said "In all honesty, internationally, they don't know the difference between the Jaguars and the Steelers". We shall find out........
image: © craigoneal