I’m a huge NFL fan from London and my love for the game just grows with every passing year since they first started weekly TV coverage in the UK back in 1984. There is nothing better than NFL Sunday where I can just kick back and watch Redzone with Scott Hanson doing his thing and then wait for the late game which is usually a cracker but doesn’t start until around 1.30am UK time which will ultimately mean my eyes only making through to half-time.

It just doesn’t get any better - especially that last half an hour of the early games and they go a triple or a quad box where you are watching multiple games play out to thrilling finishes. It is must-see television. There is so much to love about the National Football League, but this season for the first time that I can remember, I’ve found myself questioning the quality of the product out on the field.

I have to admit there have been times this term where I have been distinctly underwhelmed by what I have been watching.

Don’t get me wrong, there have still been some great games and some sensational performances but for me, I’ve always been a fan of great play and players. I’m a fan of the New York Giants, for my sins, but for the most part, I gravitate to the stars. Over the years there have been too many to mention but if I had to pick my favorites, they would be Bo Jackson, Lawrence Taylor and John Elway.

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NFL

Too many big names out injured and it’s hurting the game

Of the current crop, my number one player to watch is Green Bay Packers quarterback, Aaron Rodgers and therein lies my frustration. He is injured and probably out for the year along with a ridiculous amount of other star players who have succumbed to injury this season.

Rodgers had led to the Packers to a 4-1 record and they were looking great to make a push for the playoffs and indeed they were my pick to win the SuperBowl primarily because of the great man.

He went out in week 6 and the ‘CheeseHeads’ have failed to win a game ever since.

In my opinion, Rodgers is the single most talented player I’ve ever seen play at the quarterback position. His strength of arm, the accuracy, the ability to make plays on the run and the poise in the clutch. He is such a big miss not just for the Packers but for any fan of the game, you have to love watching the guy play.

Then there’s Odell Beckham Jnr, the Giants star wide receiver out for the season with a fractured ankle which occurred in week 5. Look what has happened to New York since his demise. Admittedly they were 0-4 going into that game but he did miss week 1 with the same injury and they have had no offense at all in a season where they currently sit at a horrible 2-9.

The Houston Texans have suffered horribly with injuries in 2017 firstly with season-ender to star defensive end JJ Watt.

It looked like he was a player reborn after coming back from a series of injuries over the past two season but the jinx struck this time with a foot injury. Remember this is a guy that is a three-time AP Defensive Player of the Year. He is a huge loss and you just wonder whether he will be the same player again.

Now the one demise that really got to me was the one to Watt’s teammate and rookie QB sensation, Deshaun Watson. This guy is something special. I watched him in his first couple of games and saw him throw for multiple TDs but I just thought he’d be a fad and the defenses would catch up with him but no, he just would get better and better.

This would culminate in the best game I’ve seen this season when Watson went head-to-head with Russell Wilson in Seattle where both would throw for 400+yards and 4 TDs apiece with the Seahawks just coming out on top 41-38.

Watson was incredible and to do that in his rookie year against Seattle’s feared ‘Legion of Boom’ was something to behold. He had thrown 18 touchdown passes in his first seven appearances which is a record for a rookie after that amount of games.

In Seattle he came of age as an NFL QB and just above everyone involved in the game was eulogising about him and then bang.....three days later he suffers a non-contact injury in training tearing his ACL and just like that his season was done. Those seven games were an unbelievable ride and I just hope he comes back even better next year.

Among the list of other notables who have gone down are Carson Palmer, Julian Edelman, Brandon Marshall, Eric Berry, Donta Hightower, Darren Sproles, I mean the list just goes on and on. We all know you are always going to get injuries in such a violent sport but I cannot remember a time where so many high-profile names have gone down lame and it hurts the sport.

Now player discipline or lack thereof can rear its ugly head at any given moment but the absence of Dallas Cowboys running-back Ezekiel Elliott has deprived audiences of arguably the best exponent at his position in the game. He is now halfway through his six-game ban for domestic violence allegations which were never proven but his previous misdemeanors meant the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was put in a position where he probably had to take action.

It is an episode that has split opinion, but whatever side of the fence you are on, this is yet another premier performer out of the game and if there was any doubt as to just how important Elliott is to ‘America’s Team’, the fact that they have lost all three games in his absence says it all.

Anthem protests

It’s not just the injuries and suspensions that have hurt the NFL this year. Probably the biggest issue that has affected the league has been the controversy around standing for the flag during the pre-match playing of the National Anthem. Now sitting on the other side of the pond I can only watch from afar but I do sympathize with the players that have sat during the anthem but I also understand how such an act will anger a lot of people in the States.

The good thing is this whole saga does appear to be quieting down but it has not been a good look for the NFL. I have been trying to think about if a similar situation would happen here in the UK and what the reverberations would be. I remember the days when black footballers used to be booed and openly racially abused on the pitch. It still happens but nowhere near as overt and vicious as it was in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Of course, there is no national anthem played before domestic football matches in the UK. This only happens during the international games but you do wonder if it was to happen here. The anthem issue is an extremely emotive one in the US. From the outside looking in, there is no middle ground. You are either for the protests or against them and that’s it.

It’s not all bad

It’s not all doom and gloom in the NFL though, as there are a lot of great stories around the league. One of the more intriguing ones has been the rebirth of the Los Angeles Rams under fledging head coach Sean McVay who is just 31 years of age. They were a running joke last year having brought in Jared Goff at quarterback as the first overall pick in the draft and he stunk the place out looking like ‘a deer in headlights’ as the Rams finished 4-12 for the year.

Fast forward to this year and the transformation has been nothing short of incredible. Goff looks like a Pro Bowler, running-back Todd Gurley is finally and consistently showing the brilliance everyone knew he was capable of. The defense led by Aaron Donald has been suffocating and McVey could end up being Coach of the Year.

These Rams are no joke and they showed the character of potential conference amp ions by bouncing back from their horror show against the Minnesota Vikings by destroying the New Orleans Saints on Sunday to snap their eight-game winning streak and move to 8-3 on the season one game ahead of the Seahawks in the NFC West division.

Of course, the team setting the pace with the best record in the entire NFL is the Philadelphia Eagles. Could this be their year at long last? They’re playing well enough to do so but it’s all about the playoffs. Their 10-1 record has them five games clear atop the NFC East and one more win would guarantee them a playoff spot.

Second-year quarterback Carson Wentz has been a revelation having thrown 28 touchdown passes with just five interceptions. He looks like he’s been in the NFL for a decade and his stellar play mixed with a ferocious defensive unit and tremendous special teams play make them the favorite to come out of the NFC.

If I had to pick right now I would say, Philly, the Rams, Vikings, Saints and the Carolina Panthers are all in the hunt but don’t count out the Atlanta Falcons. They seem to have found their mojo after a shaky start to the year winning their last three games and if that offense continues to improve, look out! Star receiver Julio Jones caught 12 balls for 253 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Heaven help the rest of the league if he keeps up that sort of pace.

There’s a much less frenetic feel to proceedings in the AFC. It’s already looking like a two-horse race yet again between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both teams had uncertain starts but are now clearly the two powerhouses of the AFC and there really isn’t anyone else that I can see disrupting their paths through to the conference game in January.

I wait to be proved wrong and if I had to pick a team that could possibly shock either, it would be the Baltimore Ravens but Joe Flacco would have to step it up. Their defense as always is stout but it’s not as if Flacco hasn’t played this game before of looking ordinary in the regular season and then looking like Superman in the playoffs. Remember the 2013 postseason when he beat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in successive games before beating the 49ers in the Super Bowl. Lightning could strike twice! If Deshaun Watson was still fit I would have given the Texans a chance as well. That offense under him can put up points on anyone. Such a shame. Would have been a great story.

I still believe that the NFL is and will continue to be a great product. The fact that there are four games a season in my hometown of London shows how much the game is growing in its worldwide appeal. A big part of me would love to see an actual franchise in London but the other part believes a foreign franchise would devalue the game somewhat, but I suppose we won’t know unless it actually was to happen. The NFL is going through perhaps it’s most trying season bar the player strikes of yesteryear .But the way I see it the product is just too strong, the game is still too popular and the behemoth that is the National Football League will just keep getting bigger and bigger.

Having said all of that I believe the biggest threat to the future prosperity and popularity of the NFL comes from none of the aforementioned but from something that is far more sinister and that is the growing CTE scandal. This is a story that I think is still in its infancy.

For those that don’t know, a growing number of players have come forward over the years with serious concussions citing the many hits they took during their NFL careers. There have also been numerous deaths of ex-players where the autopsies have cited CTE as the cause. On top of that, there is the ongoing investigation into whether there was a cover-up by the NFL over the years regarding the dangers of CTE.

The NFL did settle out-of-court with a number of the ex-players to the tune of around $750million and the upshot of all this has been that the league has really tightened up on player safety in recent years. As I said earlier I still feel that we are just at the tip of the iceberg and is a story that will run and run.

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