When the buses rolled in to Allianz Park, home ground of the Saracens rugby club in the north-west London suburb of Mill Hill, for a lot of the Miami Dolphins staff and players, it felt familiar. That was the point.
Last year, the Dolphins flew out just two days before the ninth game in the International Series, where they were "hosted" by the Raiders at Wembley. The Dolphins stayed at a hotel near Wembley Stadium itself, trained at Allianz Park, and came away from the game with a 38-14 beatdown of Oakland to head into their Week 5 bye with a 2-2 record.
Now, it’s the Dolphins who are the hosts at Wembley, taking part as the ‘home’ team in the first divisional game to be played outside the US in NFL history – but everything else is familiar. The team flew out just two days before the twelfth game in the International Series. They’re staying at the same hotel near Wembley Stadium itself, and they’re training at Allianz Park; and they’re hoping that a victory Sunday can see them head into their Week 5 bye with a 2-2 record.
"I’d have to be honest and say it’s kinda what we did last year and it seemed to work OK", Joe Philbin responded when he was asked about the short turnaround the Dolphins are facing between flying across the Atlantic and playing on Sunday, "sometimes coaches are creatures of habit."
"It’s very similar," Ryan Tannehill said when asked to compare this year’s trip with last’s, "it feels the same, staying at the same spot right next to the stadium, the whole trip’s been very similar." Tannehill’s not oblivious to the other parallels either. "There are some similarities [in that] we’re coming off two tough losses, and it’s a big game for us."
One difference Tannehill is hoping for: "Last year, we came out the tunnel and everyone was holding up Oakland Raiders signs, and I was like, ‘wow, there’s a lot of Oakland fans here’, but they weren’t Oakland fans – they just got handed out the signs. Hopefully this year, [the signs] will say Dolphins."
The team may have done this trip before, but that isn’t necessarily going to give them an edge over the New York Jets. "I wouldn’t call it an advantage, being here last year", Olivier Vernon told me at the NFL’s International Series media day back in July, "you come into each year as a clean slate. Both teams are going to playing like it’s our first time here."
The Dolphins may have had a short turn around last year, but there’s another difference – the kickoff time. Last year, the game kicked off at 6pm local time – 1pm ET. The team could afford to be over for only a short time, not having to make a drastic transition to the local timezone. This year, the game is kicking off at 2:30pm local – 9:30am ET. The team aren’t over for long enough to acclimatise fully to British Summer Time, but keeping an Eastern body clock puts the kickoff time at earlier than any of these players will have played a professional football game.
Philbin explained in his press conference that "that’s why it’s been similar [to a normal gameweek], we’d normally get out a little bit earlier on a Friday if we were here, but tomorrow we’re going to be doing things very very similar to what they’re used to doing. This season, we’ve played at 1pm, 4 25pm, 4 05pm, we played night games in the preseason, and we’ve practiced in the morning at 8 o’clock. The guys have done a lot of different things relating to the body, but this week we’ve taken an extra hard look at how we’re preparing the team for this game and how they’re physically going to feel… the nice thing about it is we had the vast majority of our gameplan installed back at home, so the players know the gameplan well, and now it’s just the final touches of the preparation that we can do over here."
Tannehill said that he had learnt some things the previous year that he feels will help him acclimatise more easily – "being able to sleep at night to get your body transitioned over to British time, making sure you’re staying hydrated after a long flight… it’s a little cooler so some guys don’t pay attention to hydration, but I think our team did a good job of preparing us for things we need to look out for, and things we need to get on top of."
It will be interesting for the league to see how the Dolphins, and the Jets, react to a short turnaround combined with that 9:30am ET kickoff. Whether you’re for it or against it, every year the signs are stronger that the league is putting in the foundations to potentially place a franchise permanently in London, or at the very least, to continue playing games in the UK for another 15+ years, with more games being added almost every year since 2012 – only the Rugby World Cup, being hosted by England, prevented the International Series being expanded to four games this season. If the two teams on Sunday prove that they can play a competitive game, then it would no doubt strengthen the league’s resolve to continue the London project.
Indeed, at the same time the Dolphins were arriving at London Heathrow airport, the Chancellor, George Osborne (the UK government’s equivalent to the Secretary of the Treasury in the US cabinet) held a public meeting with Dan Marino, and a private meeting with executives from the NFL about putting a franchise in the UK – something that was a Conservative Party manifesto pledge in the run up to their successful victory at the UK general election earlier this year.
Philbin, Tannehill and London-born rookie running back Jay Ajayi were all asked about the topic at the podium. Philbin, perhaps playing the diplomat, was the most receptive to the idea. "Sounds good to me", the head coach said, "the fans here, the gameday atmosphere last year was just outstanding… it seems like there’s certainly enough support to have a team here." Tannehill appeared less warm to the concept: "It’ll definitely be interesting, logistically it can be tough with the travel schedule but we’ll see what the future holds."
Ajayi, who said that he felt "blessed" that the Dolphins brought the young back - who is on injured reserve but with a designation to return - back to his hometown, was perhaps the most realistic. "I would love to play in London every year, that’d be great, but I think that there would definitely be some people who might not want to travel, who might not want to stay in London." However, he continued that "it’s definitely something to look at, simply from the exposure that the NFL have been doing and the sellouts [at Wembley], you can tell that the game is growing over here so you never know, you might be able to see this happening in five years’ time".
In terms of the game itself, the Dolphins are under no illusions that this game is a very important one for their season’s hopes. When asked about the potential of starting the season 1-3, Philbin replied that "we’ve talked a lot about that. We’ve talked a lot about playing a 60 minute football game, which we haven’t really done at this point in time. We talked a lot about making first downs and having a balanced rhythm on offense, about getting off the field on third down [on defense], we’ve talked about playing with better discipline overall as a football team."
Philbin expanded when asked about Lamar Miller specifically: "we want some consistency in the run game, frankly we haven’t run enough plays. I talked to the team Wednesday when we started preparation for the game and said we’ve got to work for first downs – let’s get some first downs, let’s get normal down and distance situations and eliminate the penalties and negative yardage plays that have really hampered our production. Absolutely we want to see more from the running game."
Ajayi said that this was specifically one of the things that was motivating him in his rehab, which he said was "going great, just following every step that the trainers have been telling me what to do, and I do really feel good right now, [but] for what’s going on with the team? ?We’re just focusing on getting better each day, I know our running backs are working hard each day to prepare themselves to play great games every Sunday, and so when I come back I’m just motivated to do whatever I can to help the team win."
Tannehill, when asked if the team were angry with their performance so far, replied that "I don’t know if we’re angry. We’re not happy. I think there’s intensity, there’s urgency, we’re not happy with how we’ve played and we understand we need to play a bit better, but I don’t think that throwing things or saying outlandish things is going to change anything. It’s a matter of how we handle ourselves day to day, it’s a matter of how we prepare, and that’s ultimately what’s going to win this game."
The Jets’ defense do present a difficult challenge for any team, and Tannehill knows Miami are no excpetion. "It’s going to be a challenge for us to play how we want to play, I think we expect to see great secondary play from those guys, two veteran corners who do an excellent job, especially in man coverage, and a really good front as well."
The Dolphins just lost to a similarly tough front in the Bills, but the QB says that "I thought the offensive line did a really good job, that was a really good front we played last week and they kept me off the ground for most of the day." Tannehill said that after that game, "we looked back Sunday and Monday, and took an honest look at ourselves, what did we do well, what plays were my fault that I didn’t play up to standard, and what wasn’t in my control, but you learn from it, then you file away and move on."
The Dolphins will certainly want to move on before they face their division rivals. All eleven teams that have lost at Wembley ended up having a losing season – something which Tannehill, when that fact was brought up, dismissed as ‘coincidence’. Similarly, Wembley has becoming something of a ‘graveyard of head coaches’, with a large proportion of non-first year head coaches to have lost at Wembley (and even one who won) to end up out of a job by the following season. In any case, the Dolphins will certainly be hoping that the similarities last year will extend to getting away with a ‘W’.