ASHBURN — Will Blackmon remembers staying in a castle. Donte Whitner looked into the stands in wonder at countless combinations of NFL jerseys. Joe Barry endured a weather nightmare.
The NFL has been playing games in London annually since 2007 – all part of its push to market the sport to an international audience – and now it is finally the Redskins’ turn to make an appearance when they play the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday at Wembley Stadium.
Ten current Washington players and two coaches have already made a trip to England with other teams. They’ve adjusted to the time change and the travel, embraced fans new and old and done their best to sell the sport in a country where football remains a curiosity even as NFL games there have become routine.
“The energy, the atmosphere is very, very similar to a Super Bowl,” Blackmon said. “It’s pretty explosive.”
Blackmon would know. He played in a Super Bowl with the New York Giants in 2012. He was with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2013 when they were stomped at Wembley Stadium by the San Francisco 49ers, 42-10. Whitner, now a teammate in Washington, was on the opposing side that day.
Barry was an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when that team played in London in 2009. Redskins center John Sullivan not only played at Wembley with the Minnesota Vikings in 2013, he went on two NFL promotional trips to England and Ireland in the months before and after.
This will be the 16th regular-season game played at Wembley since 2007 and the 17th in London overall during that time span. Last Sunday, the league staged a game between the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams at nearby Twickenham Stadium, primarily a rugby field.
The NFL expanded to two London games per year in 2012 and plays three every season now. These games are almost routine there now, which is the point.
“But it’s not old hat,” Sullivan said. “As an NFL player you’re used to playing at times under different sets of circumstances. And it’s not always easy…You could be playing in a hurricane. You could be playing on the moon. You could be playing in a parking lot somewhere. You’re job is just to win.”
The Redskins leave Thursday night from Dulles Airport so they have as normal a week as possible. They will practice at Redskins Park on Wednesday and Thursday and land in London at 7 a.m. on Friday morning. They have a 1:30 p.m. practice a few hours later so players will sleep as best they can on the plane.
Teams have gone in two directions on the time change. Some leave as early as possible so that their bodies have adjusted by game day. Blackmon and the Jaguars did that in 2013, arriving on Tuesday morning of game week. The Rams didn’t really have a choice last week. They left directly for London after a game in Detroit instead of going home to Los Angeles first.
Other organizations fly over later in the week. The Bengals, like the Redskins, will land Friday morning at Heathrow Airport and have an afternoon practice hours later. Washington defensive end Ziggy Hood remembers going that route when he was with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013 before they played Sullivan’s Vikings in London. It didn’t go well.
“That was the worst practice of my life,” Hood said.
Logistics are always an issue. Barry’s Tampa Bay team tried to fly late in the week, but the weather was poor and Friday’s scheduled practice was canceled. So was the Saturday walk through. No surprise the Buccaneers lost to the New England Patriots, 35-7.
“It was a nightmare,” Barry said.
The Redskins are confident their travel plans this week will be easier on the players. But there are still a myriad of things to think about. The playing surface at Wembley is primarily for soccer teams. It is England’s national stadium, after all, and plays host to dozens of soccer and rugby events throughout the year with some concerts mixed in.
The grass is thicker, slower, and any rain at all – a likely event in London in late October – turns it slick. Both Whitner and Hood said players must be ready to change the studs on the bottom of their cleats to deal with the playing surface.
Arriving on Friday does eliminate many of the distractions and temptations. Players will likely crash shortly after Friday’s practice. Hood remembered his second trip to London with Jacksonville in 2014 when the team flew in Monday morning. That Jaguars team was younger, less disciplined, and some players enjoyed the London nightlife a little too much during the week. They lost to Dallas, 31-17.
Staying all week has another down side. The year before, Blackmon said, Jaguars players were invited to a lavish party at the Tower of London hosted by Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan, the Pakistani-American billionaire who also owns English soccer club Fulham F.C.
Blackmon and his teammates snuck a few selfies with the Crown Jewels of England – but he and his teammates had to leave before the party really started because they had practice the next day. There is a balance needed between experiencing a different country and preparing for the game.
“You’re not gonna treat every single day of the week like it’s a Saturday night at the team hotel the night before a game,” Sullivan said. “The most important aspect of being over there is winning the football game and making sure you don’t do anything to compromise that. But I don’t see going out and doing a little bit of sight-seeing and going to eat at a restaurant as compromising your ability to go win a game.”
One advantage for the Redskins is they aren’t the ones losing a home game. Fans from both teams will travel and make a mini-vacation out of it. But the majority of fans in attendance will be Americans with rooting interests elsewhere or UK fans who just want to be entertained and care little for who wins.
“There’s really no home field advantage,” Whitner said. “There’s not a bunch of fans cheering for Cincinnati, there won’t be a bunch of fans cheering for us. They’ll be cheering for big plays and touchdowns and big hits. It’s kind of weird.”
Redskins coach Jay Gruden said his team will treat Friday’s practice as more of a “jog through” with some red zone work just to get his players a good sweat. But they won’t be overworked while adjusting to the time change. There is also a walk through at Wembley scheduled for Saturday.
One oddity: The United Kingdom ends its version of daylight savings time this weekend. So at 2 a.m. on Sunday the clock drops back to 1 a.m. It’s an extra hour of sleep for everyone – if they so choose.
That could help the adjustment for a game scheduled at 1:30 p.m. local time and 9:30 a.m. back home. Gruden joked he’ll have to hire a sleep doctor. But the Redskins are telling players to get to plenty of rest early in the week.
Not everyone loves the idea of a London game. There are annoyances big and small. Whitner said the 49ers endured a massive traffic jam getting from the team hotel to Wembley. Blackmon remembers a long walk from the locker room to the practice field and the weight room being set up in an event tent. The Jaguars also stayed well out in the suburbs in a castle, according to Blackmon, that may or may not have been haunted.
“It was awful,” Blackmon said.
Told that tale, Hood just rolled his eyes and said it was a resort made to look like a castle. There were no moats. Or ghosts. The food situation wasn’t great, however, with some players admitting to eating pizza or some version of Italian cuisine every day during their stay. It’s not an ideal work week.
“Maybe also because we got our ass kicked when we got out there,” Blackmon cracked. “That had a lot to do with it, too.”
But even Blackmon thought the added headaches still worth it. The players visited schools and experienced London’s unique culture. They embraced the differences as best they could, an American sport searching for a global audience.
“It really felt like you were back at college training camp,” Sullivan said. “They had a makeshift locker room set up for us during the week. Then you look around and you’re practicing on a field in the countryside in England. It was pretty cool.”
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