In 1814, the British burned Washington and bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore while Francis Scott Key, watching the fireworks from a jail cell, wrote the “The Star Spangled Banner.” It took us 193 years, but we finally got revenge: We made the Brits sit and listen to our national anthem. As further punishment, we gave them the New York Giants–Miami Dolphins game. It’s too early to call the 13-10 win by the Giants the worst football game of the year, but it was probably the worst since the Rutgers-Princeton game in 1869.
Not that the British could necessarily tell the difference between a good American football game and a bad one. First, there’s the problem of seeing anything through a London haze of mist and fog. Then, given that the Brits are used to watching soccer, an American football game in which 23 points were scored must have seemed like a starburst of offense.
To viewers on this side of the pond, Eli Manning looked worse than the face of a British heavyweight. It’s true that Manning was hampered by a soggy turf and slick ball, but given their traditional sense of fairness, British officials arranged for the turf and ball to be equally perilous for Miami quarterback Cleo Lemon. In a personal showdown, Lemon ate Manning’s tea and scones, completing 17 of 30 passes for 149 yards. It wasn’t much, but compared to Eli’s eight of 22 for 59 yards, Lemon looked like Manning—Peyton Manning. (Except when, of course, he resembled that great Dolphin passer of yesteryear, Garo Yepremian. Lemon’s embarrassing second-quarter whiff was the kind of thing it was painful to think of the British witnessing.)
Not that the fans at Wembley Stadium cared about the sloppiness and lack of precision. For Americans, one of the curiosities of watching an American football game played in the U.K. is the enthusiastic reaction to things we have come to take for granted—long punts, for instance, which elicit oohs and ahhs. It’s hard to explain to them that in the States, fourth down is when we head for the refrigerator.
Twenty-one years ago, the publishers of The Village Voice passed the hat around the office and scraped together enough to send me to London for the first American Bowl, an exhibition between the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys. Even then, there was already a sizable audience in Britain for gridiron (as they call it), the way having been paved by telecasts of NFL games. It helped considerably that the games there were showed with limited commercial interruption, and it came as an unpleasant surprise to many English fans when they began watching the Super Bowl and found the commercial breaks longer than the silences in Harold Pinter plays.
The late British sportswriter Paul Phillips hit on American football’s primary appeal more than two decades ago when he told me: “TV sports here isn’t nearly so sophisticated as in the U.S. Football—soccer—has long, long stretches of activity that don’t appear that exciting on camera except to diehard fans. Gridiron, on the other hand, looks like it was made for TV, with its sudden bursts of action followed by breaks where you can discuss the play. A team can go for a long pass and then watch it again on instant replay. And it’s done by people who know TV. And if nothing much is happening, they can always turn to the cheerleaders.”
Gridiron probably has a solid future in Britain and much of Europe as a TV commodity, but—despite the NFL’s marketing blitz—nothing else. Contrary to the blizzard of publicity, the proposition of actually establishing an NFL franchise in the U.K. or anywhere east of the Channel is absurd. Though the league won’t admit it, the obvious purpose of the game was to pump some fresh blood into the NFL’s not-inconsiderable overseas market in jerseys, jackets, and caps.
It’s doubtful, though, that the Giants did much to boost the sales of their apparel with this game. British fans, like those here, are front-runners, and there’s no telling right now whether this lackluster win represents a continuation of the team’s recent surge or the first step in a regression pattern that Giants fans are all too familiar with. In the previous three seasons under Tom Coughlin, the Giants have been two radically different teams in the first and second half. From 2004 through 2006, the Giants were 5-3, 6-2, and 6-2 through their first eight games, then 1-7, 5-3, and 2-6 in the last eight. For math majors and Jets fans, that adds up to 25-23, as close to mediocrity as last year’s American Idol tour.
This year, with the kinder, more sensitive Tom Coughlin, things are supposed to be different. With the relatively soft schedule over the last eight games—the only two tough games will be the Dallas Cowboys on November 11 and the season closer with New England on December 29—the Giants certainly look to finish the season with a winning record and make the playoffs. But if they lose to the Cowboys and Patriots, no one is going to like their chances in the postseason.