WEMBLEY, England -- Pints were raised all over London this weekend in celebration of the long-awaited American football match. It was a coming-out party with a Super Bowl feel. This was the NFL's chance -- our chance as Americans, really -- to show the U.K. up close what all the fuss is about, why professional football is America's game and why it could be so much more.
And it wasn't hard to find a pub mate around town to toast to that with.
But sadly, a game had to be played Sunday. Sadly, 81,176 spectators at Wembley had to sit through a 13-10 New York Giants win, complete with such league staples as a, uh, Cleo Lemon comeback attempt. And as the fans began to leave for the Underground back to London with three minutes left, you could hear exactly what the Yanks were howling:
This isn't the real NFL! Quarterbacks usually complete passes! It's not this bad on every Sunday, I swear!
Well, guess what? We should quit trying to save face. If this game's goal was to take the temperature of European fans, then the NFL supplied a representative sample. What we saw is what the NFL is like nowadays. There are a lot of mediocre teams, and it's not always easy to tell the difference between the probable playoff teams (6-2 Giants) versus the
0-8 ones (Miami Dolphins). If you felt sorry for the fans at Wembley Stadium, then you have to feel sorry for the fans who pack any NFL stadium not named Gillette or RCA. After all, nothing changed but the venue and the kickoff time.
"It was an ugly game," Giants guard Grey Ruegamer said. "But a lot of games are ugly. Most games are decided by three points or less."
The Dolphins technically were the home team, with their logo painted in each penalty kick area ... er, end zone. But it wasn't a pro-Dolphins crowd. On hand was a pro-NFL crowd -- there were as many Chad Johnson jerseys as Dan Marino ones -- eager for the type of electric passing, crafty running and unrelenting defense that only a few teams are capable of playing.
Instead, London got 67 combined net passing yards in the first half.
Instead, London got a winning quarterback who completed 36 percent of his passes.
Instead, London got Miami's bread-and-butter passing play, which Sunday was a short out route to backup tight end Justin Peelle.
In fact, aside from Eli Manning's 12-yard touchdown run, the plays that got the biggest rise out of the crowd all were incomplete passes: a bomb from Lemon to Derek Hagan that was ruled out of bounds; two tipped-away deep balls intended for Plaxico Burress; and two Manning misses in the end zone, one while trying to connect with Amani Toomer and another to fullback Madison Hedgecock.
But don't worry. The fans actually enjoyed it. What transcended the Atlantic this weekend is that NFL games are fun, if ugly. And sure, there are those who have pointed out that if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell really wants to sell the game to European audiences, he should airmail the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots. Yeah, Bill Belichick and Bill Polian probably would privately complain about it, but what two teams are better equipped to sell the sport?
But the league, as a whole, makes its money and brands its appeal on having
32 teams capable of playing competitively every weekend. That's why the fans here loved the game. And that's why Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor said afterward, "Fans got to see our game at its best."
Well, maybe not its best, but its most typical. The match London witnessed is what American fans witness every week, what games are really like this year anyway. There were dumb penalties and shoddy quarterback play and dropped touchdowns and botched field goals, and, in the end, an exciting ending.
Goodell could have sent over any team except the Colts and the Pats, and the game probably wouldn't have been marginally different. When you have a salary cap and parity and a host of injuries to semi-marquee players, there is no Premier League. There's only this, for 55 pounds a seat.
So, cheers to that.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. For Wick's picks, click here.