Monday, September 30, 2019

NFL overseas: Why Germany could be the league's next big market

Published 1 day ago


NFL players, owners open to playoff expansion: report

Sports reporter Mike Gunzelman discusses how NFL players and owners expressed interest in expanding the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams.

The NFL’s annual London Games kick off next weekend at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. While the league has made that city a focus for over a decade, one broadcaster says the NFL is making big inroads in another European market: Germany.

It's all thanks to a handful of German players breaking into the league, games being available on over-the-top streaming provider DAZN, social media outreach from teams like the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, and fantasy games.

Markus Kuhn, who played four years for the New York Giants, broadcasts Monday Night Football in German with Sebastian Vollmer, who won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots, where he played seven years.

"People really take in American football on a whole 'nother level," Khun said. "It’s crazy to see how Germany is all about American football lately."

In this Sept. 22, 2019, file photo, Arizona Cardinals' David Johnson (31) is stopped by the Carolina Panthers defense in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)

"Of course, there’s a time difference, so people sometimes have to watch in the middle of the night, but the viewership is really going through the roof, and starting this year, we work with DAZN, who has the rights for Thursday night, Sunday night, and Monday night," he said.
Viewers are able to have access to those games for the following three days on DAZN.
The fact that Germany could follow two of their own in the NFL – Kuhn grew up in Mannheim and Vollmer was born in Kaarst – changed interest dramatically.
“Before, you would never read a score in a local German newspaper,” said Khun. “But now, since there was a connection point to a German athlete that’s playing, you just also start reading - not only for rights holders, but in the general public - like ‘hey, the Giants did this in this game,’ I mean, when I scored a touchdown in the NFL, it was even surprising to me, I was on the cover of a lot of newspapers, and my mom was even surprised. Then Sebastian, obviously winning the Super Bowl, he came a lot more into the foreground, a lot about his accomplishments.”
The league has been discussing opening up foreign markets to NFL teams, using the template used by the Jacksonville Jaguars, who play across the pond every year, Sports Business Journal reported recently.
Kuhn was on the call for Super Bowls 50 and 51, as well as commenting on free TV before he and Vollmer teamed up for MNF, which they broadcast from a DAXN studio in Miami. They also have teamed up on German broadcasts of New England Patriots games, with the team signaling the potential they see there.
“The Patriots see Germany as the big market, and they want to lead that market,” says Kuhn. “They’re doing a lot for Germany - they’re very progressive; so me and Sebastian, for the last three years, we broadcasted all their preseason games for, and they did the same thing for Mexico with a Spanish feed, and I think they even – for the first time – had a Chinese feed. Mexico is about an hour time-difference compared to East Coast time, and Germany is six hours ahead, and they were all even (in viewership) in games, and we had more viewers over there stream on than Mexico had.”
Kuhn and Vollmer also host an NFL podcast, which they brought to the biggest German newspaper, BILD. It quickly became the number-one overall podcast in Germany. “That’s pretty impressive; it shows people are eating up football content."

Fantasy sports company Fan Hub Media – which promises to “make the big game your game” on its website – operates two NFL games in Germany with Prosieben – NFL Fantasy and an NFL Pick ‘Em game.
“The NFL has used fantasy games and casual gaming in the international markets to educate the audience,” said Phillip DeWinter, vice president of the Americas for Fan Hub Media. “I think one of the challenges the NFL has as they expand internationally is, you know, it’s hard to educate the fans on what the NFL is. Soccer, everyone understands; football is a little bit harder, so you need the casual game to educate fans and teach them the rules, teach them and the players, teach them about the teams."
“I think gambling is a very exciting space for the NFL in terms of revenue streams, so I think as they go into international markets, there are many different opportunities,” DeWinter said. “They recently announced a major catapult into Australia, and no surprise, see how it goes internationally and then – if it works and it’s proven - bring it to the US and really commercialize  it.”
Kuhn sees the country as worthy of hosting a game someday.
"Whatever is going on in London right now, they could be doing in Germany," he said.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Chiefs film review: Ben Niemann’s coverage impact

By Seth Keysor Sep 25, 2019

Football is the most beautiful sport there is, in part because of how complex it is. Every play contains dozens of small stories, and it’s impossible to follow them all during a broadcast viewing. So every week at The Athletic, I’ll break down the big finds I see on film from each game and some tidbits that might have been missed. And, of course, Patrick Mahomes.
Ben Niemann didn’t seem like part of the plan.
The second-year linebacker out of Iowa managed to make the roster last year after signing as an undrafted free agent. He saw limited action due to injuries to the linebacker group, but quickly faded into the background and special teams once the unit returned to health. With the Chiefs bringing in Darron Lee and Damien Wilson this offseason, there didn’t appear to be a significant role on the defense for Niemann in 2019.
That has changed over the last several weeks, as Niemann has started to see snaps on obvious passing downs as both games wore on. It happened first against Oakland in Week 2, and the trend continued against the Ravens. Niemann didn’t see the field until midway through the second quarter but was able to immediately make a subtle impact.

Note the role Niemann plays here, threatening blitz at the line of scrimmage then quickly dropping into coverage once the ball is snapped. The Chiefs used him repeatedly in this fashion, and it’s workable because he has excellent lateral mobility and can drop quickly into a zone. He’s able to take away the seam initially, then sees the ball go underneath and helps Tyrann Mathieu converge on the receiver and stop him well short of the first down marker.
Niemann was used almost exclusively as a pass defender on Sunday, often in this role. The Chiefs don’t appear satisfied with what they’ve seen from their other linebackers on obvious passing downs, and Niemann looks to be a great fit to fill the role. He’s got excellent athleticism and appears very instinctive in coverage.

On this play, Niemann is asked to carry the slot receiver up the field for a short time in order to prevent a quick throw. He once again is very comfortable backpedaling and gets good depth quickly, making a throw there almost impossible. As the play drags out, he keeps his eyes on the quarterback to stay aware of where the ball might go or the risk of a scramble.
Something that separates Niemann in coverage is that he seems to stay aware of receivers’ locations even as he watches the quarterback. Here, he moves inside briefly to take away a throw up the seam, then moves back toward the sideline. When he sees the quarterback looking back to his side of the field, he gets even more depth to account for where his receiver has gone. By doing so, he brackets the receiver very effectively, and when the throw comes, he does a nice job playing on where the ball would be if it weren’t placed too high.
The job of any coverage defender is to force a great throw/catch for a completion to take place, and Niemann does that. He consistently carried routes up the field perfectly and protected the intermediate middle zone very well. He also stayed aware of the shallow portion of the field and swarmed quickly to the ball when a throw was made, including on an important stop on 3rd-and-13 that led to a Baltimore punt.
Niemann was only on the field for a few run plays, but he didn’t appear comfortable when asked to take on blockers or track where a runner was heading. As such, he’s unlikely to take significant snaps away from the Chiefs’ primary linebackers. However, his range and instincts in zone coverage are a marked improvement over what the Chiefs have had in the middle of the field the past few seasons, and his ability has been a big part of the pass defense looking better over the last two games. Keep an eye on his role moving forward.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

A new field: Ex-Colts wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez settling in to life as U.S. Congressman

Tom Schad, USA TODAY
Published 3:29 p.m. ET Sept. 25, 2019 | Updated 6:11 p.m. ET Sept. 25, 2019

WASHINGTON — Anthony Gonzalez was back on the football field Tuesday night, running slant routes and even catching a touchdown pass.
"Physically, I feel awful," he said with a smile. "I think it shows."
Gonzalez didn't attend any of the practices for this year's Congressional Football Game for Charity, in which members of Congress and a handful of ex-NFL players faced off against U.S. Capitol Police officers at Gallaudet University. But he obviously didn't need much practice.
Before he was Rep. Gonzalez, R-Ohio, he was a wide receiver with the Indianapolis Colts, catching passes from Peyton Manning.
"(I'm a) Congressman who used to play football," Gonzalez said, when asked about how he perceives himself today. "It’s now been well (over) seven years since I was on an NFL roster. I left the game in 2012. A lot has happened in my life since then."

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning talks with WR Anthony Gonzalez, right, before their game against the New England Patriots (Sunday, December 4, 2011, afternoon at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough MA). Matt Kryger / The Star
 A first-round draft pick out of Ohio State in 2007, Gonzalez was a slot receiver for Indianapolis during the final years of coach Tony Dungy's tenure. He played in 40 NFL games over five seasons, all for the Colts, and finished with 99 career catches for 1,307 yards. In his most productive year, 2008, he actually finished third on the team in receiving yards — just behind tight end Dallas Clark and slightly ahead of wide receiver Marvin Harrison.
But after diminishing playing time, injuries and a brief tryout with the New England Patriots, Gonzalez retired in the spring of 2012 and immediately enrolled at Stanford, where he earned his MBA. His focus then shifted to politics, which led him to run for the House seat in Ohio's 16th Congressional District last November — and win it with 56.7% of the vote.
Gonzalez, 35, said both roles — NFL player and U.S. Congressman — have proven to be difficult, albeit in different ways.
"The NFL is great because you feel like you can control more of the outcome. ... Congress isn't like that at all," he said with a laugh. "Congress is more if you’re in the majority, and you have the votes, and this, that and the other, that’s ultimately going to win the day on the House floor. So that’s just different. But both are interesting."
Gonzalez — who received campaign contributions last fall from Manning and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, among others — now represents a swath of Ohio that spans from the western suburbs of Cleveland to areas both east and west of Akron. And though he played for the Colts, the Ohio native said he remains a "rabid" Browns fan.
While Gonzalez considers himself to be "happily retired" from football, Tuesday's event gave him a chance to relive his past career. He was a go-to target on a team of Congresspeople and NFL veterans that also featured former Pro Bowl wideout Gary Clark and longtime Denver Broncos defensive back Ray Crockett, among others. The event raised money for a trio of nonprofit organizations, including The Capitol Police Memorial Fund.
In an event that married politics and sports, Gonzalez was eventually asked if he would field a political question.
"Nope," Gonzalez said. "Not today."
And with that, he jogged back to rejoin his team — happy to be a football player again, if only for one night.
Contact Tom Schad at or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

Bidwell, Wahle to be featured alumni this week

Wednesday, Sep 25, 2019 08:15 AM

The Green Bay Packers are welcoming back featured alumni Josh Bidwell and Mike Wahle for the Packers-Eagles game on Thursday, Sept. 26.

Leading up to the game, the alumni will be signing autographs and visiting with fans at the Lambeau Field Atrium on Wednesday, Sept. 25, from 11 a.m. to noon.

Wahle will be visiting with fans and signing autographs at surprise locations around Lambeau Field on gameday from 5:50 to 6:50 p.m. Bidwell will be visiting with fans and signing autographs during that same time in the Legends Club on the Associated Bank Club Level, an area accessible to game attendees with suite or club seat tickets, as a guest of the ‘Alumni Meet and Greet.

Mike Wahle was selected by the Green Bay Packers in the second round the NFL’s 1998 supplementary draft out of Navy, and he spent seven seasons with the team. A highly durable left guard, Wahle was an important piece of an offensive line that provided protection for quarterback Brett Favre, and his consistency bolstered the offensive line as he played in every single game during six of his seven seasons in Green Bay.

Selected by the Green Bay Packers in the fourth round of the 1999 draft, Josh Bidwell spent four seasons with the team and holds the record for most consecutive punts without a block, with 308. An extraordinarily effective punter in helping out his coverage teams, his 35.5-yard career net average ranks third in team annals. Equally dangerous as a placement punter, his 85 career punts inside the 20 rank third in Packers history.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Rex Burkhead's versatility traces back to father's failed journey to NFL

By: Henry McKenna | 1 hour ago 
Rex Burkhead’s versatility goes back to pool noodles and Nerf footballs.
Somehow, those two items helped build Burkhead into someone that New England Patriots running back Sony Michel called “the best back on the team” and who Bill Belichick called “one of our most dependable players.” Burkhead contributes on every down, whether he’s running between the tackles, executing routes with precision, demonstrating reliable hands or applying proper technique in pass protection. But that’s just on offense. The Patriots trust Burkhead on special teams, too, where he can contribute on all four elements between kickoffs and punts.
Rex’s versatility was discovered in pee wee football, when he was coached by his father, Rick Burkhead. Rick had pursued an NFL career but failed to make a roster after attending the Dolphins’ training camp in 1992 and the Eagles’ camp in 1993. Rick’s failure, in part, fueled Rex’s success. Rick was a fullback out of Eastern Kentucky, where they ran the option. The 1992 Miami Dolphins were not running the option.
“You’re standing with Dan Marino in practice, and Marino is changing the play three times before the snap in the first week of practice,” Rick said. “And I had no clue what he was saying.”
Rick did his best to learn and apply the passing concepts which were well beyond what he’d seen in college. And he felt he was doing a nice job. On one particular play, a defender clobbered Rick in coverage, yet Marino threw it to the fullback’s left knee and he caught it.
“Dude that was crazy,” Rick remembered saying to Marino. “Guy was all over me.”
“No, you were open,” Marino said. “I threw it to the open spot.”
It was another level of football.
When fullback Tony Paige came out of retirement at the end of that training camp, the Dolphins cut Burkhead. One year later, he tried out for Philadelphia, but the Eagles didn’t end up keeping a fullback on its 53-man roster. Rick landed with the FBI in Dallas, where he has enjoyed a 20-year career and runs the critical response teams. Rick had learned a lesson he would relay to his sons, Rex and Ryan, many years later.
When Rick coached Rex in pee wee and 7-on-7 football (a version with no offensive line and consisting exclusively of passing plays), Rick instilled an emphasis on versatility. He said he did his best not to be one of those crazy football dads — although it sounds as if he teetered on the edge.
Rick sat Rex down one day and asked if the NFL was Rex’s goal. Rex said it was, and they became committed to that goal together. But Rex said he didn’t feel added pressure to make the NFL just because his father didn’t.
“I didn’t honestly,” Rex said. “He made sure I had as much fun as possible. Yeah, he pushed me. … But he never put that pressure on me that if I didn’t make it, he’s going to frown upon me. It was always a great relationship between enjoying the game and continuing improvement.”

Rex Burkhead carries the ball during the third quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium in Week 3. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
From the perspective of Robyn Burkhead, Rex’s mom, that pressure was “self-inflicted.” And Rick and Rex, a pair of perfectionists, were a perfect match in Rex’s pursuit of the NFL.
“This was the kid that had goals stapled above his bedroom door every summer and hit it before he went out the door every morning,” she said. “It’s not like we had to enforce anything at all. It was pretty much on him. … He’s always been wired a little differently. As a little boy, every little thing was about a ball. The drive and the desire was always there.”
Rick used drills that he learned in Miami — with adaptations to suit youngsters. Instead of smacking ball-carriers with blocking dummies, Rick would have a running back run through a line of teammates with pool noodles.
“We’re doing the same stuff out here (with the Patriots),” Rex said. “[Although] we may not have pool noodles.”
Indeed, New England coaches throw white rags at players’ faces when they try to catch the football at practice. Belichick will even squirt water in the face of the holder to simulate rain on a field-goal attempt.
Rick and Rex invented similar drills together, often emphasizing a player’s ability to catch the ball. One drill had a player lying on his back while another player ran in circles around him while they threw the ball back and forth. (This emphasized catching the ball away from the prostrate player’s body). Another had a player get in a wheelbarrow-like position on his hands, push up, catch the ball and retain it through contact with the ground. Rex also performed drills with the offensive line, which surely paid off in his pass blocking.
Then there was the Nerf drill, a maniacal exercise mixed with father-son bonding. They’d stay up late at night, with Rick chucking the ball at either one of Rex’s ears, a spot which Rick had found was the hardest spot for him to make a catch.
“He would basically bring me balls every night, kind of like a dog,” Rick said. “I would stand behind the couch and throw it as hard as I can, and he didn’t know which ear (I was targeting).”
They drove Robyn crazy. She is a big football fan who takes pride in her own passing ability and might enjoy watching football on TV more than Rick. But she didn’t enjoy the broken lampshades and picture frames. Rex also would host “knee football” games which left holes in the wall and the blood on the carpet from rug burns.
“It drove her crazy. … We kept doing it,” Rex said with a laugh.
Rex’s strong play at Plano High School in suburban Dallas earned him a scholarship at Nebraska, where he ran the ball (3,329 rushing yards, 30 touchdowns), caught the ball (507 yards, five touchdowns), passed the ball (4 of 7 for 46 yards and three touchdowns) returned punts and logged special teams tackles.
After four college seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals selected Rex in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He was stuck on the depth chart behind Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, only getting a shot as a feature back when both players sat out in Week 17 of 2016. That game — with 119 rushing yards, two touchdowns and 25 receiving yards — helped raise Rex’s profile, and the Patriots signed him the following offseason. Although Burkhead has endured injuries in New England, he has been a nice fit with Tom Brady and the offense.

At Nebraska, Rex Burkhead catches a long pass over Idaho Vandals cornerback Aaron Grymes on September 4, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Rex has gone through many of the same things with Tom Brady that Rick went through with Marino. In New England, the media often refers to Brady’s circle of trust — Rex is in it. Rick was trying to do the same, soaking up feedback from Marino, whom Rick said was enormously helpful, patient and instructive in Rick’s development. In his early days, Rex needed a few nudges from Brady, who paid close attention to the running back’s routes and helped him understand the timing that is paramount when playing with the Patriots quarterback. Rex has since become a fixture in the New England offense and on special teams.
“You know, there’s a handful of guys like that that can just play on every down but those guys are rare, and then to play at a high level like Kyle (Van Noy), Devin (McCourty), Pat (Chung), Rex do,” Belichick said in a press conference last week. “As a coach, that’s a tremendous luxury to have on your team, to have players that are that versatile in terms of the variety of things they can do, and then that versatile in terms of being able to do it at a high level in all of those situations. You’re lucky to have one of those guys on your team, maybe two of those guys on your team.”
In Week 3 against the New York Jets, Burkhead had 11 carries for 47 yards and a touchdown, plus six receptions for 22 yards, while playing 74 percent of the offensive snaps. He also pitched in on 40 percent of the special teams plays. Burkhead statitically outperformed the lead back, Michel, who has been unable to contribute in the passing game since joining the Patriots as a first-round draft choice in 2018.
That hearkens back to something Rex said last week: “The more you can do, the longer you can play.”
It’s not a novel concept in the NFL. But it’s a phrase that clearly holds special meaning to Rick and Rex Burkhead.

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