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NFL Europe: Getting Out Of The Blocks


Packers-allocated DT Doug Sims and the Rhein Fire will look to open the season with a win at Amsterdam Saturday.

A quick start is just as important for teams as it is for receivers, defensive ends and running backs. Especially in NFL Europe, where the 10-game season can leave a team almost out of the running by the halfway point.

Unless of course that team is coached by Peter Vaas. In 2001, his Berlin Thunder became the first team to lose its season opener and go on to win the World Bowl. Quarterback Jonathan Quinn led the team to back-to-back must-win victories over Amsterdam in Weeks 9 and 10, and then a startling upset win over a Barcelona team that had crushed the Thunder twice in the regular season.

In 2002, Vaas went two steps better. The Thunder started the season losing its first three games (by a total of 12 points) and its best receiver. At 0-3, Vaas insisted publicly that the team would still make the World Bowl. Sure enough, it did, and again staged a major upset by beating Rhein and holding league MVP Jamal Robertson to 7 yards on five carries. Rams WR Dane Looker stepped up as Todd Husak 's go-to receiver and wound up as the World Bowl MVP with 11 catches for two touchdowns.

So far, Vaas hasn't been able to repeat that success in Cologne, but he says he'd much prefer a quick start. "Who wouldn't?" he laughed. "But sometimes it takes those extra weeks for your team to gel, especially your offense."

Hamburg's Jack Bicknell agrees. "Usually, defenses are ahead of offenses in the early weeks, but there's a caveat. Sometimes, if you hit one or two big plays against a team relying on its 'D,' you can leave them in a position where they can't catch up."

Bicknell points to the success his Barcelona teams often had against Rhein early in the year. "We had hardly hit to that point and Rhein were always ready to play, under Galen Hall or Pete Kuharcek. But they'd make one or two early-season mistakes, we'd take advantage, and hang on for the win."

More often, however, the teams that succeed early in Europe are the ones who have put together a strong running game. Last year, it was Frankfurt with Skip Hicks and Leonard Henry (before Henry's season-ending injury). In 2003, the Scottish Claymores scored 62 points on opening day behind Ken Simonton and San Francisco's Maurice Hicks. It was Jamal Robertson for Rhein in 2002, and Mike Green in Barcelona in 2001.

Oddly enough, the teams with the strong starts haven't always been able to deliver at the finish, and that goes all the way back to 1995, when the 9-1 Amsterdam Admirals lost to the 6-4 Frankfurt Galaxy, with Paul Justin at quarterback.

Amsterdam coach Al Luginbill would have to wait for the one season of the XFL to finally lift a trophy.

In 1997, the 5-5 Dragons beat the 7-3 Fire in the championship, behind Jon Kitna's passing. The '99 Galaxy stopped Lawrence Phillips, Brian Finneran and Todd Bouman's Dragons. And the 2001 Dragons, with Green in the Phillips role as the league's leading rusher and MVP, were beaten by Quinn's Thunder.

It could be called late-season syndrome. In the NFL, if you start the season 0-8 but then go 8-0, you'll get a contract extension. But if you start 8-0, then go 0-8 and miss the postseason, you'll get fired. Both teams finished 8-8, but momentum is everything.

And that's true in the big games too. A team that has had steady success all season long is more likely to get caught in a pattern, to be reliant on the things that worked all season. We all know that even the most successful system can be stopped in a single game by a combination of big plays, a smart game plan, or just plain luck. So it's really no surprise that teams that dominate the regular season often get beaten by the team that has peaked at just the right time. Particularly because it's easier to seem dominant in a 10-game season, than over the course of 16 games in 17 weeks. It's more a drag race, than the Indy 500. So which is better, clinching early or coming on strong late? Just ask Vaas: "I'd rather get there 10-0 and have fewer gray hairs."

The season starts with three games on Saturday, April 2.

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