Before the start of the season, Tony Simmons said he and the Barcelona Dragons were headed to the World Bowl.
That prediction becomes truth Saturday when the Dragons and Berlin Thunder do battle in the Amsterdam Arena. In addition to showing the ability to predict the future, Simmons also earned All-NFL Europe League teams honors.
At times during the season he dominated opposing secondaries, recording three multiple-touchdown and 100-yard games. While he had the speed to simply run past defenders on deep patterns, Simmons often turned short passes into long gains with crisp routes and solid reads of the field.
As his All-League honors would indicate, Simmons had a strong season for Barcelona. He started all 10 games and had 32 catches for 538 yards and seven touchdowns, one more than he put up in his first three seasons with New England. The thing about Simmons is that the numbers don't concern him.
"I could have nine catches for 200 yards, but we could still lose," Simmons said. "The purpose of the game is to win, and for me it's a matter of doing whatever it takes to do that. If I catch one pass for 12 yards, and we win and that catch got us a first down, my numbers won't matter to me. If I always looked at my stats, then I am no longer playing as part of a team. My thought should not be 'Just throw me the ball.' I want them to throw the ball to whomever it should be thrown to."
Simmons came to Europe with the hopes of recharging his career through NFL Europe much the same way that Chicago Bears receiver Marcus Robinson did. All the physical tools have been there in his time with the Patriots, but his tremendous potential has not been reached. He's confident that this summer will change that next fall.
"This experience has been the best I've had in a long time, especially as far as playing football," Simmons said. "I know I've taught myself a lot of things. I can go back with a better attitude and have a better feel for myself confidence-wise. I need to be more of the Tony who got drafted [in the second round of the 1998 draft]."
Since he was a highly touted prospect out of Wisconsin, Simmons has struggled to maintain his self-confidence. As a rookie he felt a step behind, and the following year he put too much pressure on himself to produce. Every mistake he made was magnified by the stress caused by worrying too much about individual aspects of the game. Last season he said he struggled to learn to new offensive scheme.
The year with the Dragons has changed Simmons attitude. He is a much more studious player and his knowledge of the game has improved. He also doesn't let individual plays eat away at him, instead choosing to move on and learn from it.
"When I would watch film with the Patriots last year, I didn't realize what I was watching sometimes," Simmons said. "I would know what technique a guy was going to use against me, but I didn't understand why he used that technique. Now I understand a guy is doing something because that is what he has to do, otherwise he will be alone on an island. Most teams obviously don't want their guy left alone, so it's really a set up for the receiver, and now I understand those things."
He also understood that his route running skills needed to be sharpened this summer. This has been the biggest area of concern for him on the field.
"Getting in and out of my breaks has been one of my biggest things that I have worked on," Simmons said. "After a while, people started realizing what I was doing, and I had to change things up again. I am changing things up more often to make it tougher for the defense to pick things up by watching film on me. Now I have more than one plan for getting to my routes, and that allows me to run the routes better."
Dragons Head Coach Jack Bicknell firmly believes Simmons made the most of his time in NFL Europe. Unlike some veterans who don't think they should be in the league, Simmons put in a total effort, and the hard work paid off.
"I didn't have to worry about him," Bicknell said. "He was happy to be here; he was anxious to be here and he couldn't wait to be coached. His position coach, [Dragons offensive coordinator] Sam Rutigliano, who has been an NFL head coach, says Tony has just listened to everything Sam has said. I'm really proud of the way he has approached things."
That approach wasn't always as strong for Simmons, who admits that he probably wasn't as prepared for life in professional football as he should have been. Before this summer, he didn't have a planned course for himself. He was playing football without giving thought to such details as how long he wanted to play, what type of receiver he needed to be and what he needed to do to make himself a better player.
Part of being an all-around player is being a dependable teammate. Fellow wide receiver Bryan Gilmore admired the leadership and experience Simmons brought to the Dragons.
"It helps to see someone who has been in the league," Gilmore said. "We see how he plays the game and it motivates all of us to have a veteran on the team who comes to play every week."
Simmons has the title game to play, and then it's back to the United States. Forgive him if he can't wait to get home. After all, he is getting married July 14 to fiance Blythe Coleman, whom he met in New England. The couple will wed in Chicago just two weeks after he returns, and less than two weeks before he must report for training camp with the Patriots.
"The first day I'm just going to be happy to be home and I will eat some American food," Simmons said. "I'm getting married on the 14th, so I have to make sure all of that's in order before anything else."
Simmons also put out a final request.
"Tell Blythe I love her and I want to come home and see her."
Rawlings joins Simmons on All-NFL Europe team
New England tackle Josh Rawlings joined Simmons on the All-NFL Europe League team, as decided by media and fan voting on NFLeurope.com. Rawlings, who started every game at left tackle for Frankfurt, was one of just two Galaxy players named to the team. The other was linebacker Gary Stills.
Simmons was one of eight Barcelona players on the squad. Also honored were running back Mike Green (also the league's offensive MVP); wide receiver Trevor Insley; guards Donnie Young and Steve Herndon; tackle John Feugill; defensive tackle Tim Englehardt and cornerback Anthony Malbrough.
Amsterdam's Roshaun Matthews, who had a cup of tea with the Patriots last offseason, was the league's defensive MVP after tying for the league-lead with 9.5 sacks. Matthews was an undrafted rookie signing by New England last summer, but he did not make it to training camp.
Bicknell was named the Coach of the Year after guiding the Dragons to their fourth appearance in the title game. It was the first such honor for Bicknell, who has led Barcelona since play began in 1991.
Morey a national
Cornerback Sean Morey did not make the All-League team, but he was counted as an honorary member of the national player squad on the Dragons.
National players are non-Americans who play in NFL Europe. Morey, who speaks fluent Spanish and has been with Barcelona for the last two seasons, is very close with the foreign players on the squad. While the nationals were gathering for a group photograph during media day, Morey was included in the shot.
The Dragons have eight national players and one coach. They are: safety Samyr Hamoudi (France); linebacker Phillip Sissener; tight end Vincenc Rodriguez (Spain); wide receiver Marco Martos (Spain); wide receiver Carlos Rosado (Spain); Marcus Schuster (Germany); linebacker Mikhail Slutsky (linebacker); kicker Jesus Angoy (kicker) and running backs coach Marcos Guirles.