Thursday, September 25, 2014

What To Watch For: Fins - Raiders In London

When square shouldered American footballers storm into London’s Wembley Stadium this weekend, 80,000 odd sports fans will hope for a spectacle. They’ll anticipate heroic quarterbacking, rampaging rushes and pulverising tackling. But just as it is for fans of an English club treading the waters of relegation, hope isn’t always nearly enough.

In a historical context, they don’t come much mightier than the Raiders and Dolphins, who have five championship titles and rooms full of legends between them. Unfortunately, most of that success occurred in the 1970s, when roughhousing was as lauded as route running. The two clubs actually played in one of the NFL’s greatest ever games, a playoff in 1974 that saw six lead changes and an impossible last minute Raider victory.

That, however, was back when Gerald Ford was the American President and Elton John got around shirtless. The current Raiders offense looks predictably futile, and Miami’s once promising outlook is sinking like a bloated alligator into the swampy Everglades. While good fortune in English football seems to follow, well, the fortunes of very wealthy club owners, the American game is more dependent on the cohesion of its elaborate 53-man rosters. Given the locker room bullying fiasco Miami’s front office faced last year, it’s easy to see how teammates can drift apart.

Now understand that I say this not with a columnist’s disdain for sporting mediocrity, but rather with a face paint coloured tear bleeding down my cheek, because these are, in fact, my two favourite NFL clubs. Perhaps like many of you, I grew up tuning into the glittery gladiatorial battles of this sport from a world completely foreign to airborne theatrics, forward passing and referees who spend more time on microphones than Japanese stockbrokers in karaoke bars. 

In Australia, at least, American football had long been scoffed at because its players wore so much protective equipment and there were countless stoppages to the game. However, with recent concerns about concussions, and the fact that spectators are just as likely to break from the action to check their phones as another timeout occurring, such criticisms seem antiquated. We’ve changed, but the football remains thrilling.

I was always taken by the Dolphins because of the masterful quarterback Dan Marino. His stellar, albeit Super Bowl ring-less career, was underscored by his fireball throws and equally fiery temper. He desperately wanted to win and as long as he was on the pitch, the Dolphins always had a chance of fulfilling that desire. Miami fans haven’t felt this way since Marino retired in 1999.

With the Raiders, it was two things in the early eighties: back then they played in glitzy Los Angeles and their fans were nutters who dressed as pirates, ghouls and gorillas, among many other disturbing creatures. You can see how this might appeal to a seven year old.

Anyway, here we all are many years later, with both squads seemingly much less than the sum of their historic past. Still, don’t toss your ticket aside just yet because there are a few storylines worth following for this London fixture. 

Here are four of them, one for each quarter, perhaps:

Keys to Carr: Since taking over the starting gig from the ailing Matt Schaub, the Raiders rookie QB Derek Carr looks like the franchise signal-caller the club has waited an eternity for. It’s been a revolving door for the team at its most important position, but now Carr brings athleticism, smarts, a good arm and above all else, the type of poise this mad pirate ship needs.

Dolphins D: Miami hasn’t had much to celebrate of late but nobody can question the effort of its defensive unit. These guys charge into the backfield as if the opposing quarterback stole a tub of Gatorade.

Jumpin' James Jones: The veteran receiver has had his share of miscues but also has the ability to make great catches. If he gets an inch in the end zone, he’ll typically out leap his man to secure the ball for a score.

Trouble for Tannehill: Miami’s QB Ryan Tannehill has had a lukewarm start to the season and so as you’d expect, his seat is now hotter than a south beach tan. He’ll need to post about 300 yards worth of passing and bag a couple of touchdowns to keep his starting job.

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