NFL touches down in London
It's been quite a week building up to Sunday's NFL International Series showdown between the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos at Wembley Stadium.
The excitement has been growing with each passing day and it would be fair to say it has been a memorable few days with the NFL circus in full flow. It has certainly felt like an action-packed and colourful week.
I've seen 49ers head coach Mike Singletary attacked by a persistent and brave wasp, Tottenham and England centre-half Michael Dawson attempt to play quarterback (badly) and I've even thrown a pass to the greatest wide receiver in NFL history in Jerry Rice.
The Denver Broncos finally joined the fray on Friday as they held their first practice in the United Kingdom at The Oval. And in keeping with the madness of the week, tight end Daniel Graham and offensive lineman Chris Kuper ended up having an impromptu game of cricket on the famous old ground, taking on Surrey's Arun Harinath and Tom Lancefield.
"It was a lot of fun and I thought I was pretty good," Graham laughed. "I went two for two. Is that how you say it? I got two wickets (I chose not to correct him given his size and obvious strength). Now I just hope they let me keep the bat." (Would you try to take it off him?)
I cannot see Graham and his American compatriots taking to cricket, particularly the Test variety. Most American sports detest the concept of a tie. Legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi once famously said: "A tie is like kissing your sister."
One can only hope Vince meant that was a bad thing.
The thought of some Tests going five days and still ending in a draw remains an alien concept to our American cousins.
Daniel Graham enjoys the feel of leather on willow at The Oval
Enough of cricket for now. Back to the NFL and the Broncos, who, like the 49ers, need a win in the worst possible way on Sunday after opening the year with two wins and five losses.
Head coach Josh McDaniels was upbeat and positive ahead of the 49ers meeting and feels a win is vital to his club, insisting: "This is an important game for us, no matter where it is being played. It is important to go into the bye week with the momentum of a victory."
McDaniels may still be growing as an NFL head coach but, at the age of 34, I think he should be given time to put things right in Denver. And I think he will be given some leeway as he looks to mould his team into a championship contender.
I interviewed McDaniels on the telephone a couple of weeks back (you can read the results in Sunday's gameday magazine on sale at Wembley Stadium) and I also conducted a quick one on one with him on Friday after his press conference.
I cannot help but be impressed. I know he is fiery and, at times, controversial but he is also passionate, committed and determined to get the very best out of his players.
He learned his trade under one of the greatest coaches in recent NFL history in Bill Belichick and like the New England Patriots boss, McDaniels is keen to stock his roster with players who are smart, tough, versatile and willing to put the team first. Those kind of guys are not always easy to find so building a team like that could take time.
It's also hard to accuse McDaniels of shying away from the big decisions. Since taking charge in Denver, he has traded potential superstars in quarterback Jay Cutler and wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
The real positive from those moves was getting Kyle Orton in exchange for Cutler. The former Chicago Bears passer has been one of the hottest quarterbacks in the NFL in the first half of the season and he is definitely going to be a player to watch on Sunday.
The Broncos are going to take some lumps along the way, but the general feeling is that this 2-5 team has much more potential than the squad that opened the 2009 campaign with six straight wins.
Now the Broncos just need to find a way to turn potential into wins. I think Broncos fans can rest assured that McDaniels has the passion and energy to lead that challenge.
Looking ahead to the weekend, it should be a great Saturday as the NFL is holding a Fan Rally at Trafalgar Square from 1-5pm. Get along if you can. I am especially excited as I will be on stage interviewing some of the biggest names in NFL history in Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Morten Andersen and Mike Singletary. I will also be chatting on stage with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
If you get yourself along to Trafalgar Square, be sure to say hi.
Week 8 on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra
Greg Brady and Darren Fletcher will call the 49ers-Broncos game from 4:45pm (GMT) for UK users only. on Sunday evening but, schedule permitting, I hope to join them for a decent chunk of time as in previous seasons.
I think we will be witness to a San Francisco victory on Sunday night, although it will be a hard-fought and close affair. Sure, there is uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position following the promotion of Troy Smith, but we have to remember this is a team with plenty of playmakers in Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree.
And this is a San Francisco team that has surely set some sort of NFL record, losing four of their opening seven games by an average of three points per outing. With a couple of bounces going their way, the Niners could be trotting out at Wembley as proud owners of a 5-2 record. Such is the fine loss between success and failure in today's NFL.
One thing I think we can be assured of on Sunday is that the playoff atmosphere in the stands is now going to be matched by some genuine post-season intensity on the field.
The 49ers and Broncos have left themselves no room for error on Sunday. And that should make for a passionate and hard-hitting encounter worthy of the occasion.
I'll be back on Monday to wrap up the International Series week and look ahead to just how far this international activity can go in the future.
If you're going along to the game, have fun and be sure to make plenty of noise.
I had another one of those 'pinch yourself' moments on Thursday as I got to spend a few hours at Wembley Stadium with a genuine NFL legend in Jerry Rice.
And while we technically didn't have a game of catch on the sidelines, Jerry did need a football for a photo-shoot and shouted for me to toss one over to him.
I didn't need asking twice.
I hurried to the nearest ball, grabbed it nervously and lofted a wobbly pass to the Pro Football Hall of Famer who played 20 years in the NFL, won three Super Bowls and took the wide receiver position to a whole new level with 1,549 catches for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns.
Neil with NFL legend Jerry Rice
I should also mention that he caught passes from a pair of Hall of Famers in Joe Montana and Steve Young during the course of his career.
No pressure on this out-of-shape, jelly-armed journalist then!
But like truly great quarterbacks such as Montana, Brett Favre and Dan Marino, I stepped up and performed admirably when the stakes were at their highest. Had he been wearing numbers, I would have hit Jerry right between the famous 8 and the 0.
If you're talking pressure throws in NFL history, I would put The Catch (Joe Montana to Dwight Clark) in first place, Ben Roethlisberger's Super Bowl-winning touchdown strike to Santonio Holmes second, maybe Montana to John Taylor in Super Bowl XXIII third and then my pass to Rice fourth.
What was a massive personal moment for me hardly registered for Mr Rice, though. Jerry simply took the ball and began to pose for the photographer orchestrating the shoot.
I, on the other hand, wanted to chest bump with Jerry, sprint onto the Wembley field, dive head-first onto the lovingly-tended turf Jurgen Klinsmann-style and then launch into a hybrid of the Ickey Shuffle and Mark Gastineau's sack dance.
Given that I spent much of Thursday with Rice, I am not able to comment on the psyche of the 49ers as they enjoyed practice session number two under the leadership of former third-string quarterback turned starter Troy Smith.
But I can tell you that the sense of anticipation surrounding this game is growing by the day and even Rice himself admitted he was tempted to suit up just one more time for the chance to play in front of 85,000 at Wembley on Sunday.
Rice played in preseason American Bowl games in 1988 and 1992 but he knows the regular season is a completely different kettle of fish. In recalling those American Bowls, Rice showed just what a dedicated professional he was during his playing days.
He came away from both games with a deep sense of frustration because he wanted to put on a show and play for the entire 60 minutes, rather than just a series or two. He felt the fans had paid good money and deserved to see the biggest names in the game, even if it meant them risking a season-ending injury in a meaningless contest.
Rice had his number 80 jersey retired by the 49ers in September. Photo: Reuters
That typifies the way Rice approached his NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers (1985-2000), Oakland Raiders (2001-2004) and Seattle Seahawks (2004).
When I chatted with Joe Montana over the summer, he told me how hard Rice worked in practice, taking every single catch 80 yards to the end zone. It caught on and all the 49ers receivers became harder workers as a result. And Montana also pointed out that he was never stupid enough to work out with Rice in the off-season.
Rice's off-season workouts were the stuff of legend. He and 49ers running back Roger Craig would spend hours running the hills around San Francisco until their legs were on fire and they could give no more. Then they would find the strength to push on for just a little while longer.
It was a classic example of a champion knowing that skill alone was not going to get the job done. Hard work was also necessary to be as elite a player as Rice was.
And that painful work was never going to be something Rice shied away from. He grew up on construction sites working summers for his father. And to keep his football skills sharp, he would spend his days catching bricks with his bare hands, all the while balancing on some rather precarious scaffolding.
From that hard-working and humble upbringing grew the man often referred to as the greatest player in NFL history. It was an absolute honour to interview him today for BBC Radio 5 Live and the NFL UK website and an even greater privilege to throw a pass to him, albeit a rather shaky and unappreciated one!
Jerry did sterling work in promoting the game between the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers and I'm sure he will do an equally good and thorough job analysing the showdown as part of the BBC television coverage on Sunday night.
What else would you expect from one of the hardest-working men in NFL history?
For those who are concerned about apparent 49ers bias in this diary, I will return tomorrow with long-awaited news and views from the Denver Broncos, who finally touch down in London on Friday, holding their practice session at The Oval cricket ground.
I have sat through a lot of NFL press conferences over the years and, unless you follow a team regularly, you rarely get a great deal of considerable news out of them.
I have almost fallen asleep listening to Bill Belichick drone on in New England and I think I saw Andy Reid set the world record for consecutive one-word answers on one rather dreary occasion at a Philadelphia Eagles game.
In covering all three previous NFL International Series Games played in London, I have sat through sessions with Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and an array of head coaches such as Tom Coughlin, Sean Payton and Norv 'Under Pressure' Turner.
But few have raised eyebrows like San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary did in today's session at the 49ers team hotel as he revealed that quarterback Alex Smith would be sidelined for the next two or three weeks with a pretty serious shoulder injury.
Troy Smith (L) was announced as starting quarterback for Sunday's game. David Carr (R) was widely expected to take the injured Alex Smith's place.
No surprise there. Smith was hurt badly against the Carolina Panthers last week and has a nasty shoulder separation.
The shock came when Singletary announced that third-string quarterback Troy Smith - who was not even with the 49ers during preseason training camp - would leap above the number two passer in David Carr and start on Sunday against the Denver Broncos at Wembley Stadium.
Carr struggled against the Panthers last week and tossed the crucial interception that set Carolina up for their winning points. He had an opportunity to steal the starting job away from Alex Smith and failed in pretty dismal fashion.
It would be fair to say this is a pretty big gamble given that Troy Smith has never taken a snap with San Francisco's first team offense since joining them at the start of the regular season.
Or is it?
If you compare the potential of Troy Smith and Carr, I would lean towards the former having the chance to shine brighter in the future, even though he has considerably less experience. And Troy Smith certainly offers great improvisational skills when the play breaks down - he can make plays with his feet as well as his arm, whereas Carr is like the sacks equivalent of a pin cushion.
Carr was sacked an NFL record 76 times as a rookie with the Houston Texans in 2002 and he admitted to me over the summer that the experience nearly broke him as a quarterback.
"Where we are right now as a team, Troy Smith gives us the best chance to win this game on Sunday," Singletary insisted. "The number one thing I liked about him when he was at Ohio State and with the Baltimore Ravens and now with us is his leadership skills and his ability to get everybody on the same page."
Singletary's decision to go with Troy Smith does not smack of desperation but it comes as a result of two things. First, Carr has clearly shown he does not have the skills and confidence required to take control of this San Francisco attack. Secondly, the move comes with the 49ers desperately needing to light a fire under an offense that has struggled at times and only occasionally flashed its true potential in 2010.
Sometimes a change at such a pivotal position can be good for a team and that is what the 49ers will be hoping come Sunday evening.
Alex Smith has not been sensational in San Francisco this year and has his share of long-term detractors, so Troy Smith will go into the Wembley showdown with Denver knowing a long-term job is possibly there for the taking.
Running back Frank Gore will play a pivotal role in the 49ers offence on Sunday
There may not be a more complete running back in the NFL than Frank Gore and he simply never comes off the field. Troy Smith should not be afraid to load up that workhorse and ride him into the ground.
I'm sure he will get plenty of advice in the days to come but Troy Smith should remember this - the 49ers have enough offensive weaponry to be successful each and every week and he needs to find his playmakers early and often.
And let's not forget there are aerial targets in the form of tight end Vernon Davis - arguably the best playmaker at his position in the NFL - and the up and coming wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
All those guys are going to be vital for San Francisco's chances in this game and during the remainder of this season. But Sunday is no longer about them - it is about the intriguing Troy Smith and his chance to take advantage of opportunities that do not come along every day.
Singletary made sure of that when he thrust his young signal-caller into the international spotlight at Wednesday's press conference.
While most of the San Francisco 49ers were putting their feet up on what was officially their day off on Tuesday, some hardy souls were out and about in London attempting to win the hearts and minds of the locals ahead of this weekend's clash with the Denver Broncos.
And the brave and committed 49ers were given a typical British welcome as they took part in a Football and Football Clinic with Tottenham Hotspur at Northumberland Park Community School.
It didn't just rain cats and dogs. It was freezing cold, the wind was howling and it was generally a miserable and grey day in the capital.
I should know because I spent so long standing around in the rain that I was soaked to the skin and so frozen that only now my hands have thawed out enough to type today's diary entry.
Forget about the latter days of October. Had you told me this was a promotional event on the eve of the Super Bowl in February, I would have believed you. If I was suffering from the cold, goodness knows how the men from California were feeling.
Somehow, and I think you have to be a kid to truly understand how this can be, every single child taking part in the event was so enthused that they hardly noticed the Baltic temperatures and driving rain.
Among the 49ers taking part alongside Tottenham and England defender Michael Dawson were offensive linemen Mike Iupati and Tony Wragge and wide receiver Josh Morgan. There was also a special appearance by team owner Dr John York and the 49ers' Gold Rush cheerleaders.
Also participating in the community event aimed at getting young kids active playing American football and 'our' football, was one of the most proficient kickers in pro football history.
London Monarchs fans among you may not even know that I am talking about former Tottenham striking great Clive Allen, who tried life on the gridiron for the 1997 season in the NFL Europe League.
And during his one campaign with the Monarchs, Allen made every single kick that came his way and did not miss a single field goal or extra point.
But my overriding memory of Allen in an American football uniform is not one where he calmly splits the uprights for another field goal. Instead, I recall a game played at Stamford Bridge in which Allen clearly needed to take a 'rest break' during the heat of the battle.
The Monarchs were situated on the far side of the field on that day away from the tunnel but, fortunately for Allen, Chelsea's stadium was being refurbished at the time and that entire side was a building site piled high with rubble.
So as the Monarchs battled on the field, Allen nipped behind a pile of bricks and stones and emerged moments later brazenly doing his pants up and returning to watch the game.
The penny had been spent and Allen could return to the game, although I'm not sure where he washed his hands. Hand hygiene, Clive?
Clive Allen at the 'Football and Football' event in Tottenham
I spoke to Allen today but, not surprisingly, I chose not to mention my prominent memory of him in a Monarchs' uniform. Instead, I wanted to find out what he really felt about the British fans who, albeit in small numbers at that time, cheered him on during his American football career.
And what struck me clearly is that Allen is still a big fan of the NFL today and he fully feels the British fans deserve to be enjoying these servings of regular season games.
"They were a passionate and very knowledgeable group of fans," Allen explained. "They were really hard core when it came to their American football and I think it's fantastic that the NFL is now playing regular season games in the UK."
Seeing Clive Allen today got me thinking about how far we have come in the UK in the past 15 years.
I followed the Monarchs as a fan and a journalist from Wembley Stadium to White Hart Lane to Stamford Bridge to the disaster that was Crystal Palace. And I recall spending at least an hour or so before each game nervously looking around the stands, desperately hoping the place would fill up to somehow ensure the future of the game on these shores.
It rarely did.
Ultimately, the Monarchs and NFL Europe could not survive, but I always felt there was still a massive NFL fan base in the UK. Like Allen, I felt the crowds in England and Scotland were extremely savvy and, as a result, I think they wanted to see top flight football and not a group of third string players and guys signed as free agents off the street.
That's not to knock NFL Europe - I was one of the biggest supporters of the European farm system and loved covering and later working for the league. NFL Europe was full of good young players and good people. But I accept it was not for everybody - there were many genuine fans of the NFL who stayed away, preferring to wait for the real deal.
That group of fans - who also fell out of love with the American Bowl series of games - were rewarded in 2007 when the NFL International Series came to London. And now the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos join the list that includes New England, Tampa Bay, San Diego, New Orleans, New York Giants and Miami.
Given how far we have come since the days of Allen taking enforced toilet breaks with the London Monarchs, you wouldn't bet against a significant number of NFL teams being added to that list in the coming years.
Tomorrow, I will check in from the 49ers press conference and their opening practice of what head coach Mike Singletary has described as a "pivotal week." Until then, I'm off for a warm bath!
As Mike Singletary marched into the San Francisco 49ers' opening press conference of the week in London on Monday lunchtime, he looked every bit as intimidating as during his playing days as a hard-hitting linebacker with the Chicago Bears.
A return of one win and six losses from the opening seven games of the 2010 NFL season is enough to darken the best of moods. So the general feeling was that the under pressure head coach was not to be messed with as he spoke about this Sunday's Wembley showdown with the Denver Broncos.
To tread carefully was the generally accepted belief among the gathered media but one press conference attendee failed to pick up on that vibe.
And that meant that while Singletary was stood in what basically amounted to a long greenhouse complete with foliage that was both attracting and inviting to local wildlife, he came under constant attack from a persistent, brave and somewhat foolish wasp!
Within seconds of taking his place at the podium, one of the most intimidating defenders in NFL history was reduced to sticking his finger in his ear and turfing out an insect with an apparent death wish.
A couple more questions were fired from the floor and expertly batted away by the 49ers top man. And then he got buzzed again, this time being forced to momentarily duck as he exclaimed: "What the heck was that?"
If the 49ers had a couple more wins in the bag it might have been funny. Instead, I watched on from the media seats praying the wasp didn't return for another round. A third attack was never going to be well received and might well have prompted another classic Singletary YouTube meltdown or brought a halt to proceedings all together.
Thankfully, the wasp chose to bounce off a nearby window frame three or four times and was then expertly dispatched by a public relations executive from the NFL's New York office, who quickly undid the window and sent Singletary's first nemesis of the NFL International Series week packing.
To his credit, Singletary maintained his poise and impressed me with his positive nature. He struck me as the kind of guy who rarely has a negative thought. Sure, he gets into the faces of his players when they make a mistake but only because he demands greatness.
But he refuses to give up on the 2010 season and feels the trip to London could be a turning point in a difficult year, explaining: "This has come at a really good time for us. It's a nice change for us and a chance to get away, re-group and re-think. I feel this will be a pivotal week for us as a team."
Singletary also genuinely believes his 49ers can bounce back and win the NFC West Division and he may yet be proved right. Stranger things have certainly happened in the NFL. They remain just three games behind Seattle and have to play the Seahawks in San Francisco and have other winnable contests against Tampa Bay, St. Louis (twice) and Arizona (twice).
Of course, if they are to have any chance of salvaging a season threatening to spiral out of control, they must start with a win against Denver at Wembley on Sunday night.
That was a sentiment shared by All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, who said: "We're 1-6 at the moment so we don't have that same positive vibe we had around us during the preseason. But there's still a lot of fight left in this team and there's still a lot of football left to be played this season. We're in a hole but we've just got to dig ourselves out of it."
Bold words from Willis and it's clear they're going to take inspiration from today's press conference wasp - they're going to keep buzzing, keep coming back for more and keep fighting.
At least until, in NFL terms, someone opens the window and kicks them out.
Neil will be blogging throughout the week in the build-up to the Wembley fixture.
Watch highlights of San Francisco 49ers v Denver Broncos on BBC One and this website (UK users only) on 31 October from 2335 GMT.