NFL-Ireland’s MVP Awards 2015

2015 we hardly knew ye, all that is left now is Shamrock Bowl 29 and then we face into the bleak off season. Winter training, frozen fields, rain, wind and the true face of football in Ireland. The heroes of Summer are built in the Winter and with all but two teams now focused on 2016, we look now to the heroes of 2015. NFL-Ireland are proud to announce our inaugural Most Valuable Player Awards for the Shamrock Bowl Conference, IAFL 1 and IAFL 2.

2015 Shamrock Bowl Conference Most Valuable Player

James McKelvey

Photography by Dave Bradshaw
Photography by Dave Bradshaw

#1 is number one. The Trojans are with out a doubt the standard of the last number of years. The bar has been reset in recent times by the team from Belfast and while some have come close nobody has cleared that bar to date. At the helm of an offence that has scored 147 points more than the nearest rival (that is 21 touchdowns worth), there is no doubt that McKelvey is among the elite of Irish Quarterbacks. 20 Touchdown Passes sets #1 above all signal callers this season. His 3 rushing touchdowns by way of sneaks is the cherry on top of an extremely fine season. Andy Dennehy, Peter Loughran and Tom Donovan all deserve mention in conversations about the best quarterback but James has doubled all of their passing totals and carried with him perhaps the best offence assembled on this island. It is no surprise that in this run first league, McKelvey’s favourite target, Dave Richardson has topped all skill position players in touchdowns scored.


2015 IAFL 1 Most Valuable Player

Stephen Hayes

Photo by Declan Forrest
Photo by Declan Forrest

25 Touchdown Passes, we could honestly end our summary there. That is impressive enough. What is more impressive is that #12 is the offensive coordinator, play caller and he wrote the offensive playbook. If you are not the sort that is easily impressed, we offer up that Stephen is 23 years old and his offence has produced more than double that of the next best unit and a large proportion of that has come from the right arm of #12. Hayes is without doubt one of the brightest talents at any position in the country. He has earned his place in the National set up and to be achieving so much while still at such a young age defies logic. Unfortunately his quality couldn’t carry the Admirals back to the promised land of the SBC but Hayes has had such a fine season that falling at the last hurdle may prove to be the spark that pushes him and the admirals onto greater things in 2016’s campaign.


IAFL 2 Most Valuable Player

Johnathan Siri

Photo by Lyndsay McVeigh
Photo by Lyndsay McVeigh

Earlier in the year we asked some of his Trojan team mates about Johnathan Siri and our favourite response was ‘he’s like having cheat codes’ Mike Vick in Madden 2004. Bo Jackson in Temco Bowl and now we have Johnathan Siri in IAFL 2. Siri rushed for 10 touchdowns in the regular season and then put on his best Devin Hester and scored 5 return touchdowns on Special Teams. Oh yeah….he got one playing defence too. The only question remains is, has anyone asked him to play quarterback yet? Siri also had 2 touchdowns in the Bowl Game. Making his cameo in IAFL 2 perhaps one of the more dominating performances across a season that we’ve witnessed in the IAFL. Siris game changing ability on all sides of the ball is rare. Gifted players such as this often prove headaches for coaches as to where best to deploy them, the Trojan Coaching staff have gone for the ‘Everywhere’ option. As his eligibility for IAFL 2 expires Johnathan Siri is a name we expect to hear much more of in the Shamrock Bowl Conferences (and likely Shamrock Bowls) for years to come.

How to bluff your way through Super Bowl XLVII

So it’s that time of year again, where NFL fans dust off their old jerseys, have a few beers and gorge themselves on pizza in order to celebrate America’s greatest tradition; the Super Bowl. This year’s game sees the San Francisco 49ers face off against the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans.

Now, we here at NFL-Ireland know that some of you out there just tune in once a year for the big game, so we’ve made this cheat sheet for you on Super Bowl XLVII (or 47, for you non-Romans) to help you trick your friends in to thinking you have a basic idea of what’s going on.

The Teams

This year we see the 49ers (11-4-1 in the regular season) take on the Ravens (10-6). Both teams fell one game short of reaching this stage last year, thanks to some special teams mishaps. The 49ers lost to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game after Kyle Williams fumbled two late punts, while (the now former) Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32 yard field goal to send the AFC Championship game to overtime against the New England Patriots.

This year, however, both teams got over the hump and won on the road in their respective Championship games. The Ravens exacted revenge on the Patriots for last year’s loss, while the 49ers came back from a 17-0 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons.

The Ravens had arguably the harder route to the Super Bowl, having to take out Andrew Luck’s Colts at home before travelling to Peyton Manning’s Broncos (an instant classic that went to double overtime) and then going on the road again to Tom Brady’s Patriots.

The 49ers, on the other hand, beat Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers at home before making the cross-country trip to Atlanta to take on Matt Ryan and the Falcons. The 49ers’ win over Atlanta was the first time they had managed to win three games in a row all season.

Offense

Here we will look at how each team’s offenses function, and who to tell your friends should be getting more of the ball in the second half. Both teams made big calls in the season, which have changed how their offenses run, so it is hard to use too much of the regular season to judge them.

San Francisco

The 49ers replaced quarterback Alex Smith with second-year player Colin Kaepernick after Smith was concussed. Kaepernick is a more dynamic player than Smith, as he allows them to use what is known as the zone-read option.
The zone-read option (you’ll probably hear it referred to simply as “the option”) is a style of play that is quite common at the college level, but not in the pros. It relies heavily on the quarterback’s ability to make quick and definite decisions based on the look of the defence immediately after the ball is snapped.

The quarterback will have the option to hand the ball off to his running-back, keep the ball and throw it downfield to a receiver, or simply run the ball himself. It is this third option that truly makes the option so dangerous, and it is why San Francisco has stood by Kaepernick over Smith, since he is a better runner of the ball.

The 49ers offense will be built largely on the option, although Kaepernick prefers only to run it himself if the defence shuts down his passing lanes. He often hands it off to the human-wrecking ball that is Frank Gore, who should see a lot of action on Sunday. In the passing game, look for Kaepernick to target Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.

Baltimore

The Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron towards the end of the season and installed former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell. Cameron was criticised heavily for not using star running-back Ray Rice enough, but its Caldwell’s ability to get the most out of the inconsistent Joe Flacco that has really helped the Ravens reach their second Super Bowl in their short history.

Quite simply, Flacco has been on fire during the playoffs. His eight touchdown passes are complemented by the fact he has yet to throw an interception. This has allowed him to see off arguably the two best quarterbacks since the turn of the century, in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Like the 49ers, the Ravens will want to control the clock, so expect to see Ray Rice get plenty of carries, especially on second down. Flacco’s main targets in the air will be the speedster Torrey Smith, the powerful Anquan Boldin and the underrated Dennis Pitta.

The Ravens’ passing attack has the added advantage of Rice being a very dangerous option out of the backfield, with his ability to make defenders miss in the open field giving Flacco a reliable safety blanket when there is nothing available down-field.

Defence

Since both teams are largely built around the defensive side of the ball, it only makes sense to take a look here too.

San Francisco

The 49ers’ defence is one of the most feared in the NFL; however, they have allowed an average of 28.8 points a game over their last five games. In fact, when you look at their record against teams who made the playoffs this year, you see that they give up just over 26 points a game, compared to 13 points against non-playoff teams.

A few weeks ago, it would have been expected that the 49ers would go after Joe Flacco, but the injury to Justin Smith has seriously stunted Aldon Smith’s production , with the latter not making a single sack since the former was injured in week 15, despite recording an astonishing 19.5 sacks in the previous thirteen games.

Justin Smith has played the last two games with 50% of his triceps tendon torn, but has clearly not had the same impact he had when healthy. Whether or not San Francisco can get to Flacco will seriously affect whether or not they can create the turnovers that this team once relied on so heavily.

This year, the 49ers forced 25 takeaways, which left them tied for 14th in the league with the Ravens. Curiously, both teams also had the same number of giveaways, with 16, leaving both teams tied for third fewest. It is an old cliché of football that whoever wins the turnover battle will win the game, with only 3 out of 46 Super Bowls being won by a team with a negative turnover differential.

Baltimore

It makes little sense to compare the post-season version of the Baltimore Ravens defence to their regular season stats. It was not until the playoffs that the Ravens finally had all four of their “big four” back.
The Baltimore “big four” consists of defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and safety Ed Reed. With an average age of 32.5, it is no surprise that at least one of the big four have been injured throughout the season.

With the core of their defence back, Baltimore are a ferocious unit. As a team, there are so many big-hit specialists that the 49ers have to take extra care to protect the ball when running. When you factor in the emotion of Ray Lewis’ last game, everyone is expecting a huge game on the defensive side.

But there are weaknesses. They are an old team and lack some pace in the open field. They are also a very aggressive unit, which can leaves gaps to be exploited. It remains to be seen if this Ravens defence can handle the dual-threat of Colin Kaepernick, since Robert Griffin III posted a quarterback rating of 101.8 against them in week 15, although he was held to only 4.9 yards a rush.

Kickers

This game is expected to be very close, so the kickers on each side could determine the outcome in of the Super Bowl. Both sides will be hoping that their kicker is more Adam Vinatieri than Scott Norwood. Since Sunday’s game will be played in a dome, neither will need to worry about the weather.

San Francisco – David Akers

A year is a long time in sport. No one knows this as clearly as 49ers kicker David Akers. Last year, Akers set an NFL record with 44 successful field goals from 52 attempts. He seemed to be carrying his form over from last season when he equalled the NFL record for longest field goal with a 63 yard strike against the Packers in week 1.

Unfortunately, Akers’ form dipped dramatically as the season went on, leaving him with only 29 field goals from 42 attempts, or a success rate of just 69%. In his last outing, his only attempt struck the top of the bar. He is clearly lacking in confidence right now.

Baltimore – Justin Tucker

Baltimore definitely has the upper hand in this area in terms of current form, with rookie kicker Justin Tucker, who replaced the infamous Billy Cundiff, connecting on 32 of his 35 attempts this season, including a long of 56 yards.

Cundiff has made three game-winning field goals this year, and has been incredibly reliable despite his youth. He has also made all four of his tries from over 50 yards. Given the chance, he could make himself a hero in Baltimore, especially considering what happened last season.

Potential Surprise Hero

It is almost an unwritten rule of the Super Bowl that a previously unproductive player will step up and make a big play at a crucial time in order to clinch the game for his team. When the Giants knocked off the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLI, David Tyree made arguably the most incredible catch in the history of the Super Bowl.

With this in mind, let’s look at one player on each team who is relatively unheralded, but could be that key player on Sunday.

San Francisco – LaMichael James

For anyone familiar with the college game, LaMichael James is anything but unheralded. He was one of the most dominant runners the NCAA during his time at Oregon, but has yet to break through with the 49ers. He did not have a single carry until week 14, so he is still fresh.

Against an old defence like Baltimore’s, and with the threat of Colin Kaepernick keeping the linebackers honest, James could well have a breakout game at the most crucial time. He has only been given 8 carries this post-season, but he has averaged around 7 yards per carry and scored his only NFL touchdown to date against the Falcons two weeks ago.

Baltimore – Dennis Pitta

Dennis Pitta is one of the most underrated tight ends in the NFL right now. Although he doesn’t put up the same numbers as Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, Pitta is a solid receiver who can really contribute this Sunday.
The last time these two teams met, on Thanksgiving of last season, Pitta caught the touchdown to give Baltimore a 13-6 lead in the fourth quarter, so he has shown he can do it against a defence that is better at stopping the run than the pass. Couple this with the fact that Pitta has caught at least one pass for 20+ yards in each of his last five games and four touchdowns in that span, it is clear that he and Flacco have a great understanding of one another.

Extra Interesting Info

As a reward for staying with this piece for so long (or for figuring out how to scroll down), here are some facts about Super Bowl XLVII that you can annoy your friends with:

  • The two head coaches are brothers. John Harbaugh (Ravens) is the older brother to Jim (49ers). Their coaching style was heavily influenced by their dad, who was also a coach in his time. His name is Jack and he is married to his lovely wife, Jackie. I’m not making this up.
  • Not only are the Harbaughs the first set of brothers to face off as head coaches in a Super Bowl, but they were the first set of brothers to have faced off as head coaches in the NFL at all, when the Ravens beat the 49ers 16-6 on Thanksgiving Day in the 2011 season.
  • As a result of this fraternal connection, you will hear some variation of the term “Harbaugh Bowl”, “Harbowl” or “Harbaul” around a thousand times. Do not turn it in to a drinking game; you will lose.
  • Sunday will be the last game in the career of future Hall-of-Famer (and Madden 2005 cover star) Ray Lewis. He was part of the only other Ravens team to have won the Super Bowl, back in 2001, when they beat the Giants 34-7. He was named the game’s MVP, only the eighth non-offensive player to ever be given the award.
  • Ray Lewis’ first career sack was against the Indianapolis Colts back in 1996. This may seem insignificant, except for the fact that the quarterback that Lewis sacked that day was Jim Harbaugh, the current head coach of the 49ers.
  • During the week, Lewis was accused of using deer antler spray to aid his recovery from a triceps injury in order to be available for Baltimore’s playoff run.
  • Both teams have a legend of the game nearing the end of their career searching for their first Super Bowl ring. The Ravens have safety Ed Reed, who has been with them since he was drafted in 2002, while the 49ers have probably the second best wide receiver ever in Randy Moss. It is unlikely that either will get another chance to win a Super Bowl.
  • Super Bowl XLVII will be San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s tenth NFL start, the third fewest for a starting Super Bowl QB. He is behind Jeff Hostetler (six previous starts, won Super Bowl XXV) and Vince Ferragamo (seven previous starts, lost Super Bowl XIV)
  • This is the first time in 10 years that a there will not be a quarterback named Brady, Manning or Roethlisberger playing in the Super Bowl.
  • Neither team has ever lost a Super Bowl. Baltimore won their only previous Super Bowl back in 2001, while San Francisco won the most recent of their 5 back in 1995, when they beat the San Diego Chargers 49-26.
  • If the 49ers win, they will equal the Steelers for most Super Bowl wins by a franchise with six.
  • Only once has a player on the losing team won the MVP award, back in Super Bowl V, when Chuck Howley won the award despite the fact his Cowboys lost to the Colts, who were located in Baltimore at the time.
  • Of last 15 Super Bowls, 12 have seen a team that is trailing by a single score or less have possession of the ball in the fourth quarter. In fact, the last nine Super Bowls have seen this phenomenon. This is a contrast to only 10 of the first 31 experiencing this.
  • This is the first time since the creation of the Super Bowl that both losers of the Conference Championship games have met in the Super Bowl the following year.
  • The Ravens scored one more point than the 49ers during the regular season, but conceded 71 more.
  • Joe Flacco is the only NFL quarterback to have ever won at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons. He was also the first quarterback to win two playoff games as a rookie.
  • Joe Flacco’s contract expires at the end of the season. If the Ravens win and do not re-sign him, it will be only the second time in NFL history that a Super Bowl winning quarterback did not play for that same team the next season (barring retirements). The only other time it happened was when the Ravens released Trent Dilfer after winning their first Super Bowl.
  • Also, Beyoncé.

Big thanks to Scott Kacsmar (aka @CaptainComeback) for providing some of these stats.

NFL in Europe Vs NFL Europe

With the success of the annual NFL games in Wembley, there has been much talk about the league establishing a permanent franchise in London, talk that has been reinforced by the considerably influential Robert Kraft, the owner of the successful New England Patriots. Sorry NFL, but this is a bad idea. Seeing the impressive Wembley Stadium packed to the rafters with European football fans has no doubt got the number crunchers salivating, but bear in mind that there are a number of factors that realistically rule out the possibility, as you can’t base this idea on one-off game, but there is an alternative. Read on:

The European Fanbase:
If the NFL types actually took the time to mingle with the fans at any of these London games, they would notice, for example, that there are probably 32 different NFL jerseys on display throughout the 80,000 fans or so. This is because European NFL supporters already have favorite teams, and many have followed them for 30 years or more. While a new franchise would be a novelty to some, most fans would be wary of casting off the shackles of supporting a team, especially for what would essentially be an expansion franchise (shiver!).

I Said the “European” Fanbase:
Another thing mingling execs may notice is the disparity of accents and languages spoken. They aren’t getting up on a Sunday morning to travel from Fort Worth to Dallas for a Cowboys game, they’re flying from all over Europe to come and see two teams they probably don’t really give a hoot about, but enjoy the novelty factor. Flying around Europe is generally inexpensive, probably less so than the same distance on a Greyhound, but such trips are expensive due to being bumped up by somewhat pricier train fares, depending on where you land. People need to take time off work, and more often than not need to stay overnight in London, not the cheapest of cities, especially when major sporting events are on. Throw in food, social beers etc., and the whole package comes to somewhere in the vicinity of $100 minimum. That doesn’t even include the price of the tickets, and the costs start to become prohibitive for all but people in close vicinity to London, and forget about any away games.

The Team:
Playing in a city with a time difference of at least 5 hours will no doubt create unparalleled home-field advantage, but can London field a competitive team? Even if it survives the early years of expansion (unless there’s a Carolina/Jacksonville type surge), how will players feel about playing in what is essentially a foreign city? Sure, they speak English, but what other draws does London have for American kids? They are far away from home for starters, but to be honest that’s not a much bigger deal than moving from Pennsylvania to San Diego distance-wise. Even so, will players want to go there? How will London compete in the free agent market? They may find they need to pay above scale for mid-level talent just to get them to move across the Pond. What about draft picks? Will there be petulant draftees doing a “Manning” and refusing to play in the UK, even though they may not even know where it is (Sorry, low blow)? Then of course there are those who may not be granted a visa for previous transgressions. I could go on, but I’d only get angry.

NFL, it has been decided by yours truly that an NFL team in London would be a waste of time, so here’s the alternative.

Bring Back NFL Europe

Yep! You heard me right. Bring back the old NFL Europe, except this time run it, like, properly. After the initial novelty (there’s that word again) of the league, interest in most of the teams died quickly, with interest only remaining high in Germany, where the last incarnation league finally based 5 teams. Of course, bear in mind that David Hasselhoff as a musician is still considered to be fresh in Germany, so don’t read into that fact too deeply without a grain of salt handy. I believe that an NFL Europe league would be welcomed back, even by cynical Europeans, despite the general disgust at the cessation of the old league (I know of guys who no longer support anything NFL as a result). Here are some things that must be considered:

Let the Teams Grow:
Stop farting around with the teams because they’re not pulling in 80,000 fans after a couple of years. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was the NFL – ask Charles Woodson, he was there. Europeans appreciate loyalty, and if you build it they will come. The school ticket packages and ideas like it to draw in the younger generation was a stroke of genius, bring it back. Investing in grass-roots football again will also build loyalty. Sticking with the old team names is also a possibility, or trying something new and relevant to the country/city base too. But pledge 10 years to a team, play in smaller stadiums and expect to lose a few shekels initially. In time, merchandising will earn it back.

Team Locations:
This is of such importance to your new league, and while an extra presence in Germany is important, spread your wings a little. Start with eight (10 game schedule), one for each conference, and work your way up from there. How about 2 (maybe 3) teams in Germany, say, Frankfurt and Dusseldorf? Both had some success on the pitch and were the top 2 in terms of ticket sales over the last few years of the league. London is a must, of course, but don’t write off Italy, Scandinavia or even as far east as Poland or Russia. Each has their drawbacks, but there is a decent enough amateur league to build from – which leads me to my final point.

The Players:
Here’s my two cents on why NFLE failed – the players, or more likely, the lack of consistency in rosters. Shuttling in different players every season doesn’t provide a fanbase with favorite players to root for, and it does nothing for the play on the pitch – check out the general lack of a running game with most teams. I’m not saying write off the farm league concept entirely, but strip it down and stop sending over any old training camp chaff in the hope of finding the next Kurt Warner. European fans are extremely knowledgeable about football, and won’t buy into it again. Instead, model it on the CFL. They have a 37 player roster, with 8 native players. This has a nice double-edged effect, as it encourages teams to find truly outstanding local talent as they will be needed to contribute regularly with a smallish roster. How about each team donates 2 or 3 players at their own expense for development, but they have to earn their spot as opposed to getting it because Kraft said so? There could also be a 5 round draft for fringe NFL talent. This leaves a core group of at least 20 players for fans to root for. The key points here are limiting the amount of players sent over from the NFL, and keeping a veteran group intact.

So there is my take on the return of NFL Europe. Of course, some of the problems associated with locating an NFL team in London could be equally applied to NFLE, but when players are fighting for a bigger dream, or just for the fun of playing professional football, they will get it done. Again, look at the Canadian model and its success in drawing American talent (albeit on the same continent).

Jesuit Prep Dallas 30 Loyola Academy 29

Jesuit kicker Cody Wilker nailed a 28-yard field goal with 49 seconds remaining lifting Jesuit to a 30-29 victory over Loyola Academy in the season opener for Jesuit (1-0). What made the field goal even more dramatic was the fact that in addition to a stiff breeze, the goal posts were set at the rugby width of 18 feet instead of the standard high school width of 24 feet. Wicker had missed an extra point earlier while Loyola’s kicker missed two extra points in the game. All three misses would have been successful under normal circumstances. Continue reading “Jesuit Prep Dallas 30 Loyola Academy 29”

GIFT 2012: Oak Park and Villanova College will play by different rules when Canadian High School teams meet at Pairc Tailteann in Ireland on August 31

When two top high school teams from Canada meet at Páirc Tailteann, home of Meath Gaelic Football and Hurling, on Friday August 31 as part of the Global Ireland Football Tournament (GIFT) 2012, they will be playing by different rules of ‘American’ football. The Canadians will naturally play by Canadian rules. Continue reading “GIFT 2012: Oak Park and Villanova College will play by different rules when Canadian High School teams meet at Pairc Tailteann in Ireland on August 31”