From One Football to Another (Part 1: NFC West)

I love Football, and depending on which side of the Atlantic you are from, this statement may well paint a contrasting picture. Football, Soccer, Gridiron, NFL….whatever it is labelled, both Footballs are tremendous and, in my humble opinion, two of the best sports on the planet; few other sports test the variety of physical and mental attributes vital for success or command such a vast and wide-ranging audience.

The purpose of the “From One Football to Another” series is to make the NFL more accessible for the casual or even potential fan. One of the things that make sports so fascinating is the stories and narratives it can create. Knowledge and understanding of these narratives make even the tamest of encounters more enjoyable. However, the NFL vernacular is testing, and the game is complex for a newcomer. It takes some groundwork to prosper. 

The objective of these articles is to create a gateway for fans of Football (Soccer) by relating and collaborating the vocabulary of both sports whilst providing comparisons to help paint the picture and tell the story. Once the penny drops, your Sunday nights will never be the same again.

NFC West

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San Francisco 49ers

There is an emergence of great young minds and intelligent students of the game who are sweeping across both Football’s at present, and Kyle Shanahan is one of the standard-bearers for the Football academic. Alongside his acumen, he has a supremely talented squad of players who two years ago were a play away from Super Bowl glory. They just managed to bring in a potential star in Trey Lance during the 2021 draft, which is all the more intriguing given what they had to give up to get him. As long as injuries don’t riddle them like last season, you can expect big things. If Marcelo Bielsa is Mike Shanahan (Kyle’s Dad), Kyle could well be Pep Guardiola. With the combination of the head coach’s talent and the many brilliant players on their roster, the 49ers are probably the team most like the current Man City team in the English Premier League. 

Star Man – George Kittle

Injured for most of last season, Kittle is a tight end who is just unplayable on his day. His famous 39-yard catch and run against the Saints in 2019 is still one of the best phases of play I have ever seen. He’s Benzema; A brutal, prolific and graceful nightmare who needs two defenders to keep him at bay and even then, it is sometimes not enough. 

One to Watch – Kyle Juszczyk

This squad is full of star players, but I love watching “Juice” play. He is a Harvard graduate who uses his brain as well as his braun to contribute on the pitch. His role is selfless and requires him to do a lot of the dirty work, particularly while blocking in the run game. His role for the 49ers can be compared to that of a defensive midfielder. Man City did not look as effective without Fernandinho at the heart of their midfield during the 2020/21 season. His understated role is one you tend to appreciate more when he is not there. Much like the Brazilian, Juszczyk plays in a position where he is not necessarily expected to score. However, the Fullback will find himself in the endzone with the ball in his hands from time to time, similar to how Fernandanho will pop up with a goal once or twice a season.  

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Seattle Seahawks

Things are stagnating in the North West state of Washington at present. The Seahawks were treading water for the second half of the season and struggled to get over the line in their most important games. They still have one of the top 5 Quarterbacks in the league in Russell Wilson, but it feels like the rest of the NFC west managed to grow stronger over the previous seasons, whereas the Seahawks plateaued. It is a little bit like the current Arsenal team; they win the odd FA cup or do well in the Europa League, but they lack the consistency and squad depth to challenge for the biggest prize. 

Star Player – Russell Wilson

Wilson has consistently played at a very high level since being drafted by the Seahawks in 2012. There is no doubt that the Ohio-born superstar is an elite talent. He is athletic, reads the game well and often produces top-level execution under pressure, most notably when he led his team to a Super Bowl victory in 2014. Yet, despite his undeniable talent, he has never won an MVP award during his career. This is a similar situation to Xavi or Andres Iniesta during their Barcelona careers. Both midfield maestros were considered two of the best in their positions each year but never won a Ballon d’Or. 

One to Watch – Tyler Lockett 

While DK Metcalf gets more attention for his Peter Crouch-like “great athleticism for a big guy”, Tyler Lockett is a fabulous Wide Receiver who just continues to produce. His pace, agility and finishing ability allows for easy comparison to Leicester City’s hitman Jamie Vardy. Much like the English striker consistently reaching 20 goals a season in the Premier League, Lockett has managed to gain over 1,000 receiving yards in his previous two seasons in the NFL. If given the right service, both men will be sure to convert chances into points. 

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Los Angeles Rams

The next coach of the Shanahan (Bielsa) coaching tree is Sean McVay, who has taken some significant strides towards Super Bowl success since he came into the league. His Rams’ high flying offence reached the big game in 2019. However, they came crashing down to earth against the Patriots in Atlanta, Georgia, with Belichick’s men holding them to just 3 points. In an attempt to bolster their attacking threat, they decided to move on from Jared Goff at Quarterback during the 2021 trade (transfer) window and bring in one they believe can take them to the ‘next level’. 

The Rams are superbly coached and remind me of the Tottenham team under Mauricio Pochettino; Well organised, entertaining, can be dogged, and so nearly won the big one. They are another team to be taken very seriously this year.

Star Player – Aaron Donald 

Donald is, without a doubt, one of the best players in the entire NFL. He never gives an opponent’s offence an easy day. His fantastic pass-rushing efforts typically require two offensive linemen to mark him. This allows his teammates to be successful, or he just beats the two defenders himself and makes the play anyway. Virgil Van Dijk and Donald have many similarities, but most notable is that they can carry a team on their shoulders when they are on top form.

One to Watch – Matthew Stafford

It is unoriginal, but it has to be the new QB. For so long, Stafford has been a superb quarterback, consistently top 10 in the NFL, but always had the excuse that he plays for a poor Detroit Lions team to fall back on for not being successful. He will no longer have that safety net this year, and though I expect him to perform well, this is finally his chance to achieve something special. It is the equivalent of when Teddy Sheringham signed for Man Utd after years at Tottenham. Nottingham Forrest and Milwall. Sherringham won everything there was to win as a Red Devil, and Stafford will be hoping for a similar trophy haul in California. 

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Arizona Cardinals 

The Cardinals have an exciting team but one you just do not fully trust to make the playoffs. They have made a splash in this trade window, bringing in elite Edge Rusher JJ Watt from the Texans to put more pressure on the Quarterback and AJ Green to bolster the Wide Receiving group already containing Deandre Hopkins and Christian Kirk. The return of Chandler Jones from injury and the development of Isaiah Simmons also bolsters the team’s chances of success. The Cardinals are in a tough division and will likely be a middle of the road team despite playing out some exciting and often high scoring matches. They compare well to the 2000 West Ham Squad, which featured Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Paulo Di Canio, Micheal Carrick, Jermaine Defoe and Frank Lampard. They undeniably possessed a lot of talent and, on their day, are very exciting to watch but never really put it all together to have a run at winning something.

Star Player  – Kyler Murray

Murray is an electric dual-threat Quarterback who can pass and run. English football does not use that particular phrase, but I suppose it’s the equivalent of a midfielder who plays in a box to box role, is physical, quick, wins tackles and is also a creative goal threat. In my mind, Michael Essien would be the closest player match here.

One to Watch – Budda Baker

Alongside having one of the best names in Football, he is a truly talented defender. He is the type of player referred to as a ‘Ball Hawk’, a player who is exceptional at reading a Quarterback and limiting their throwing options. If a receiver manages to catch the ball, he is all over them like a rash. Baker’s outstanding performances last season, which included two interceptions, saw him selected in the NFL Team of the Year. He reminds me a lot of a man who certainly could be described as ‘Ball Hawk’, N’Golo Kante; superb at reading the opposition, possesses top-level anticipation and Duracell bunny-like energy.

Three Key Terms You Should Know:

Edge Rusher

An Edge Rusher is a player on the Defence whose job is to put pressure on the Quarterback. Their goal is to prevent him from executing an accurate pass or tackle them before the ball is released for a loss of yards, also known as a sack. Usually, they have to break through a blocker on the offensive line to do so. They are typically built like Papa Bouba Diop but have the pace of Kyle Walker.

Coaching Tree

NFL coaches tend to have a coaching style, similar to coaches in the Premier League. In both sports, the styles can be drastically different from each other. For example, in Football (soccer), you can have a style like Thomas Tuchel’s double pivot at Chelsea, who like to focus on possession-based Football or Tony Pulis’ kick and rush (Or hoofball as it has been dubbed). 

Marcelo Bielsa, who Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino cite as their role model, and Arrigo Sacchi, who pioneered a style used by Fabio Capello and Rafa Benitez amongst others, are two of the most notable names in this regard. In the NFL, Mike Shanahan and Bill Parcells have carved a similar niche, and their disciples continue to have sustained success across the league. The term Coaching tree seems particularly in vogue at present, especially with Shanahan and his pals introducing some novel concepts that strike timely similarities to Klopp, Tuchel and Pep’s work across the pond.

Dual Threat

 In a nutshell, the term is given to a Quarterback who can be successful at both running the ball and throwing it. Fast and agile Quarterbacks’s have existed throughout NFL history. However, in the last five years, they seem to be growing in numbers. Lamar Jackson (Ravens) and Kyler Murray (Cardinals) have shown what is possible when a team commits to a dual-threat playbook.