Following the 2003 NFL Europe Training Camp in Tampa last month, Andreas Renner and Nick Halling sat down to discuss the upcoming season. Though they may have disagreed on "Who is hot" and "Who is not", they both agreed that the 2003 season should be one to remember.
The following is a transcript of their conversation including observations from camp and their predictions for the World Bowl XI.
Andreas Renner and Nick Halling are two of the most knowledgeable authorities on the NFL and NFLEL in Europe. Both will contribute their knowledge and insight to Nfleurope.com throughout the 2003 season.
Andreas Renner: No matter whom you talked to in training camp, everybody agreed that the Scottish Claymores had left the best impression. They have the talent, but there still is the unwritten law that the best team in training camp never wins the World Bowl. For that, you need more than talent.
"You do not become a team until you're on the plane to Europe", says Berlin Head Coach Peter Vaas.
He should know, having coached the last two World Bowl champions. To come together as a team, you need players with character. Frankfurt's Head Coach Doug Graber openly admits that some of his players from last year were missing this all-important quality: "This time I placed more emphasis on the character of my players." A few bad apples spoil the whole crop.
Nick Halling: My old friend Andreas knows NFL Europe as well as anyone, and he's so right when he says that you never judge an NFL Europe team until you've seen them in real action. The England Monarchs of 1998, for example, swaggered out of Atlanta training camp bristling with self-belief. That lasted precisely two plays into the season-opener against Frankfurt. Never has a team melted down in such a short space of time.
Peter Vaas is also being a little optimistic. At this moment, he's just another coach hoping his guys are on the right lines. Right now, you have six coaching staffs around Europe saying the same thing. "I think we're OK, but until I see these guys play, we're just not sure." Or, to steal a line from Barcelona's coaching guru Sam Rutligliano: "You think you've got Tarzan, but he ends up playing like Jane."
So on that basis, who will be this year's Kings of the European jungle?
Andreas: The following is a look at the six teams (with one apology: because the last day of scrimmages was rained out, I did not get a further look at the Admirals and the Dragons. Most people I talked to did not place these two teams in the upper half of training camp performers.)
Andreas: Head Coach Bart Andrus specializes in the short, controlled passing game. Last season, it took awhile before the Admirals discovered how strong their Running Back Rafael Cooper was. Maybe they will find more balance earlier on this year. Quarterback Shaun Hill of the Minnesota Vikings is highly regarded by some league observers. Receiver Matt Hatchette, who has the most NFL experience of all NFL Europe players this season, has to become his big play weapon. Hatchette is fighting for his last chance to get back to the NFL.
Nick: Oh dear. I've said this every year since 1995, and have still to be proved right. But here goes once again...the Amsterdam Admirals have a championship look about them. Matthew Hatchette and Justin Skaggs have the talent to be the best receiver combo in the League. Do they have someone who can throw them the football? I like the poise of Shaun Hill, and if he can generate some chemistry with his receivers, things could look good.
Defensively they are loaded with veterans who have played in NFLE before and know what it is all about. Guys like Scott Pospisil, Jonathan Brown, Than Merrill, Tony Ortiz, Dwan Epps and Mawuko Tugbenyoh will provide a steady nucleus. As with all NFLE teams, we have no idea what Amsterdam's specials teams will do until we actually see them play, but on the evidence thus far, there's some real promise here. A World Bowl title at last, perhaps?
Andreas: Of all the teams in training camp, the Dragons looked the least impressive. But Head Coach Jack Bicknell sure knows what he is doing. His philosophy to go easy on the players in practice so they are fresh on game day has produced good results year in and out. Two things we can assume: the Dragons will improve each week and as they showed last season, they will not go in the tank if they are not as successful as hoped for. The defense should easily be better than last year's edition (no tough task, really). On offense, Running Back Jeff Chaney made a strong mark.
Nick: Tough to get too excited about Bicknell's boys on the evidence of Tampa. Offensive coordinator Vince Martino will have been working overtime with an offensive line that needs help. Kerwin Cooks looks a useful possession-type receiver, while Sean Morey's speed commands respect. Jack will throw the football, but QB Seth Burford had an up-and-down camp, and remains a question mark.
As Andreas says, the Dragons can only get better defensively. DE Jabari Issa really caught my eye as a pass rusher, while Samyr Hamoudi will continue to talk up a storm in the secondary. The Dragons historically do best in odd-numbered years, so hopefully 2003 will bring an improvement on last year's misery.
Andreas: Just like the last two years, Thunder looked solid, but not exceptional in training camp. Berlin did improve every week during the season, though. If they can do the same this year, another title defense is not out of the question. Quarterback Henry Burris received a lot of NFL playing time last season for his Chicago Bears. But he needs some more work. Spending a season with quarterback guru Peter Vaas should be exactly the right thing for him.
Running Back Sedrick Irvin has the moves that make a good running back, even if he is lacking top speed. Berlin's receivers were extremely inconsistent in camp. But when they were good, they were great. Sean Scott was especially impressive in a scrimmage against the Claymores when he held onto a high pass while being crushed by a bone-rattling Rowelle Blenman hit. On defense, tackle Salem Simon and linebacker Josh Symonette appear to be the outstanding forces. National safety Lelan Brickus has a chance to become an every-down starter.
Nick: Nobody wins the World Bowl three times in a row, and I don't care how well coached the Thunder are right across the board. You heard it here first: there will be no Three-peat in 2003. QB Henry Burris has potential, but the real star could be RB Sedrick Irvin. This guy was an NFL starter, remember, until a knee injury put him on the sidelines. If he's fully healthy, watch out. Enough with all this talk of Sean Scott. Sure, he might be terrific, but one big play in training camp doesn't make him Jerry Rice.
They have a real star on defense in Roshaun Matthews. I fell in love with the guy when I first saw him two years ago, and but for injury, he could be an NFL starter today. Andreas is spot-on about Lelan Brickus, easily the most improved European player over the last two seasons. My old mate Michael Lang, Berlin's GM, will probably thank me for this: no World Bowl in 2003 for these guys.
Andreas: Frankfurt Galaxy showed well-known strengths in camp. The defense, coordinated by Bob Valesente, was very good, as usual. The middle of the line dominated in some scrimmages. Tackle Luis Almanzar collected one sack after another. If he keeps this up when it counts, watch out! Returning linebacker Jody Littleton leads a solid linebacking corps. As usual, the Galaxy expects their defensive backs to play more man to man-coverage than every other team in the league. But Valesente has the players to make it work. They are certainly not lacking for aggressiveness. The offense was not quite as impressive. Robert Baker and Marc Lester are strong receivers, but their quarterbacks were struggling to get them the ball. Quinn Gray has a strong arm, but he tends to spray his passes. James
Brown, last year a backup with the Claymores, is an exceptional athlete, but not as consistent as desired. Brown seems to have beaten out Gray for the starting job. But Head Coach Doug Graber is keeping his eyes open to find an alternative. The running game, however, looks good. Fullback Corey McIntyre and all three running backs were very impressive.
Nick: Yikes! This is another very well coached team, so why did they struggle last year, and why did they look slow-burners in camp? Maybe Doug Graber is keeping his cards close to his chest, because little was revealed in camp. RB Robert Gillespie looked a real shifty-type, and might be worth watching. TE Werner Hippler's crunching blocks are always worth watching! A good ground game will certainly help the passing attack, where James Brown finally gets a chance to show what he can do after a year sitting on the bench in Scotland.
Strong in the secondary (and on special teams) with Rashidi Barnes and Chris Cummings, and DT Daniel Benetka could surprise people. The Galaxy look solid defensively, and they might need to be. Great to see old warhorse Ralf Kleinmann back where he belongs.
Andreas: Fire fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The quarterback struggles of the past two years appear to be over. Chris Greisen is favored to start because of his experience. But Nick Rolovich also left a strong impression. But they have help, too, in receivers Kendall Newson and Emmett Johnson. Both are big play weapons. Don't forget Tight End Chad Mustard, whose 6'6" frame astonished league observers. On top of that, Fire has two promising running backs in Autry Denson and Frank Moreau.
On defense, Courtney Ledyard caused a sensation. "The fastest linebacker I ever saw", more than one of his teammates called him. Head Coach Pete Kuharchek worries about his defensive line, though: "Our tackles are still young and inexperienced." Overall, Rhein Fire looked to be the second strongest team of camp, after the Claymores.
Nick: We all know what Pete Kuharchek is going to do. On offense, he will look to establish the run. Defensively he will sit back and wait for opponents to make their mistakes. It is a formula that has never failed him, and there is no reason to suppose things will be any different in 2003. Autry Denson looks the featured back, unless there's another sleeper in there, like Jamal Robertson last year. None of the QB's had a standout camp, so I am expecting a lot of passes to running backs and the awesome Mustard.
No stars on defense, and no weaknesses either. There never are with this well coached unit. But how about special teams? Can a rookie kicker adapt to the new game quick enough? It's one of the question marks that make me think the Fire might just come up a little short this time around.
Andreas: Of all six teams, the Claymores were easily the most impressive. Quarterback Craig Nall has the arm strength and the size, and the running back position is in good hands with Ken Simonton. College Football fans know Simonton well from his days at Oregon State. This year, the Claymores will go back to more two-back formations with a fullback.
On the other side of the ball, they showed a 3-4 defense which causes problems for the opposition, simply because it is something extra to prepare for. That the defensive line, coached by Jim Tomsula, looked especially strong and almost goes without saying. If Gene Dahlquist can keep his players together, the Claymores could be home for the World Bowl.
Nick: Ah yes, the "best-team-in-camp" award goes to the Scottish Claymores. And that usually translates into a 4-6 season! Maybe not this time, though. QB Craig Nall has developed well, although I still like the look of the steadier Shane Stafford. WR's Edell Shepherd and Anthony Bright caught the eye, and RB Maurice Hicks has the ability to be another Aaron Stecker.
Ray Woodard's defense boasts great speed and aggressiveness and once again looks capable of being dominant. This time they may have an offense to complement their D. But the biggest surprise has been coach Dahlquist himself: he almost seems a different person. Is it a case of no more Mr. Nice Guy and hello Mean Gene? Home field advantage in the World Bowl beckons....
It's a long time since we had no German involvement in the championship game. But that ends now. Scotland to play Amsterdam for World Bowl XI!
Andreas: All those observations do not necessarily mean much. We have learned in the past that only the team that combines talent with the right chemistry can win the World Bowl.