They say the NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” kind of business. One week an individual player or team can be at its peak performance, winning a game and having everyone behind you. The next is a blowout loss, the fans demand changes and the season feels lost.
Well, our Maple League in Finland has certain qualities to that. An unforgiving league where each week is met with unique challenges from a talented opponent.
What outsiders don’t normally see, is the process within the player and team to fix or limit those narratives.
For us, this started week two, on the road against the Helsinki Wolverines. The Wolverines were new to the Maple League after winning the Finnish Division I league the year before and being promoted for 2019. Along with its promotion, the team added talented Finnish players and an ample amount of American dual-passport athletes (players who are citizens of the European Union, therefore do not count as one of the three American players each team is limited to).
Not to mention they had yet to play a game, which meant we had zero film to study and prepare for going into the game. Which meant we were approaching the game like old-school football. Going in blindly, worrying only about your own execution and how we were going to play.
The game started with a bang. Our kickoff return team contains three of our imports as our deep returners. Receiving the ball first, the offense and I remained on the sidelines as we watched our French defensive back take the opening kickoff to the end zone, 7-0.
As the Wolverine offense took the field, you quickly saw the talent they had and respected its many weapons. But our defense hung in tough, giving the offense plenty of opportunities to continue pushing the lead and keeping the game within reach. Just before halftime we held a 21-20 lead before they hit a big play for a touchdown.
Coming out with the ball in the second half, they scored first and pushed the lead to 34-21. This, unfortunately, was the story of the second half. The defense gave us some chances to fight back, while the offense failed to convert red zone opportunities. We scored only one more touchdown late in the game, losing 47-29.
It was a long ride home after the game. The four-hour journey seemed to linger on as I sat there thinking of ways to improve the offense moving forward. I knew we were nowhere close to our full potential, but the challenge became finding out how to reach it.
Our offensive coordinator, Joni Mäkelä, and I sat down the following day and worked through each personnel, player and play in our offense. Both of us understanding this was the week to finally have it all figured out. What was the best plan of action for this offense moving forward and trusting it 100 percent. Let’s just say we left feeling very confident in what we discovered and decided on.
The urgency was real, as next up we traveled to Porvoo, a city even further east of Helsinki. The Butchers notched an impressive win the week before, upsetting the Kuopio Steelers who finished second in the league last year.
Understanding they came in with some momentum, we knew as an offense it was our job to put up some points early and often to allow our defense some comfort, as well as reminding ourselves how good we are and how confident we should be.
Receiving the opening kickoff, I was wanting the Butchers to make a play. It was time for our offense to show up. We took the ball down the field with confidence and precision on the opening drive. Within the first five minutes of the game, we had our first touchdown, a pass up the seam to one of our British receivers, Spencer Cutlan, 7-0.
Our defense came out and responded with a huge goal-line stand, giving us the ball back inside our own 10-yard line. Another welcomed challenge. We went right back to work, driving the ball and changing field position. Using a great combination of run and pass we ended the possession with a field goal by Cutlan, adding to our lead, 10-0.
Understanding that momentum was on our side, we aimed to keep it that way. Unlike against the Wolverines, we stayed aggressive throughout. After another stop from our defense, our next drive only needed one play. It was a post-route over the top by our British receiver, Patrick Wilson, who outraced the secondary for more than 50 yards and to the end zone, extending our lead, 17-0.
Our offense was feeling good and in control. We knew what we wanted to do, and went out and executed it. After some scoring back and forth, we found ourselves with the ball inside our own 20-yard line. We had less than two minutes before halftime to try and score and knew this was another great opportunity to show our improvement from the week before.
We hit some nice completions moving the ball before I found our American running back, Christian Powell, running free behind the linebackers. He was inside the red zone, making a cut when a Butcher defender punched the ball out from behind, launching the ball into the end zone. Watching the play unfold from 40 yards away, I caught a glimpse of green and white. Wilson sprinted off his route and dove head first on the football just before a Butcher defensive back beat him to it, ending the half with hustle, heart, more points and added momentum.
In the second half, we continued our success, moving the ball with accuracy and efficiency. Our French receiver, Stéphane Fortes, was another big playmaker for the offense on the day, as he took a one-play drive roughly 50 yards for a touchdown. Further exciting the offense, and disappointing our defense by not giving them more time to rest on the sideline (oh, well).
Our final possession of the game may have been our most important and defining one for the entire day. With less than four minutes to play, we led 44-28 with the ball on our own 8-yard line. Coming out onto the field, we knew this was their chance to keep us pinned deep and give them the ball back quickly. That is why we decided to keep the pedal down. As the ball was snapped I knew we had what we wanted. A quick passing concept against man coverage and two blitzing linebackers. I noticed immediately that one of the linebackers heading for me should have been responsible for Powell.
I quickly turned to see Powell, swinging into the flat, all by himself. The easy thing to say is he went 92 yards for our final and game clinching touchdown. In reality he ran 15 to 20 yards, ran over a defender, ran 10 more yards before side stepping another, and using a wall of Crocodiles to finish the final 60 yards and outrunning everyone else.
The final was 51-40, with the passing game putting up over 450 yards and seven touchdowns. The offense was all smiles, while the defense felt they could have brought a better performance. I reminded them of our offensive failures the week before, and to keep its head down and continue to work. “What have you done for me lately?” One week can change everything.
Happy, but not satisfied, we head back to work for an even bigger challenge. The Helsinki Roosters come to town. Winners of the Maple League Championship for the last, (1-2-3-4…), however many years. A home game to continue momentum heading into a much needed three-week mid-summer break.
Kickoff for the game is scheduled for Friday, June 14th at 10:30 a.m. CST.
You are able to watch these games online, live and anytime on demand by visiting https:/ruutu.fi/. Visit my personal website for help logging in and how to watch by going to http://jbtheqb.com/watch/.
This game proves to be a big matchup for both us and the Roosters. The season is still young and I am excited to continue our journey, because “lately” is not what we focus on, but instead what is in front of us.
Until next time, Go Crocs!