Margins of victory widen in Week Two, as ELF weathers first major controversy

The European League of Football made a promising debut a week ago but, to paraphrase the old saying, Rome wasn’t built in a single weekend of good football.

With three games on offer, expectations were high for Week Two to build off the league’s premiere as newly formed franchises came into their own. The result was high-flying offensive football and an apparent defensive hiatus across the league, but much wider margins of victory than the tightly contested opening weekend.

Early title contenders were established and league stars solidified, but an unfortunate controversy arising from the final contest threatens to be the league’s first off-the-field test. Here are my takeaways from each matchup.

Game 1 – Wroclaw Panthers 54:28 Leipzig Kings

I must admit, I have a soft spot for the Leipzig Kings. I’ve loved their particularly multi-national approach to roster building and believe they have the offensive weaponry to compete for a championship. In my recap last week, I said they were my choice to win it all.

In doing so, I underestimated just how good the Wroclaw Panthers really are. It’s a mistake I will not be making again.

The team from Poland just looks different than the rest of the ELF right now, partly due to the fact that it was the only team plucked wholesale from another league. While their opponents have built rosters from scratch, Wroclaw simply enhanced what they already had with access to more imports than ever before. Back-to-back weeks with more than 50 points scored speaks for itself, as does the fan support. 4,200 were in attendance in Week One, 2,600 more than the second most well-attended game, and it sounded louder this week, though sadly the broadcast cameras only capture the empty side of the stadium.

Defensively, the Panthers are solid but hardly a shutdown unit. Offensively, they verge on spectacular. Lukas O’Connor, who stepped in as a replacement late in the pre-season, looks like a star in the making at quarterback and hardly seemed to break a sweat again on Saturday, picking apart the soft zones afforded by the Leipzig defense with patience and timing. His receiving corps, while each individually talented, is even better than the sum of its parts and their selfless approach to offense is apparent.

Wroclaw Panthers defensive unit smothering Leipzig Kings ball carrier Photo: Łukasz Skwiot

The Kings may have more gamebreakers in their receiving corps, but they have not yet mastered how to use them as effectively. There were flashes of brilliance when quarterback Michael Birdsong was able to step up and out of the pocket, but the rhythm isn’t there yet and I was left wanting more from stars like Anthony Dable-Wolf and Yoshihito Omi.

That chemistry will come with time, but it won’t matter if Leipzig can’t square away its defense. The secondary suffered mightily with Dutchman Roedion Henrique out injured and Spaniard Daniel Docal had an outing he’d rather forget at corner, but their coverage woes were overshadowed by their complete inability to tackle. Mark Herndon and Damian Kwiatkowski each made them look silly at times and Frenchman Phileas Pasqualini might as well have been covered in grease as he slid past arm tackle after arm tackle.

Frankly, it was an embarrassing display of football fundamentals and no one was without blame. Even Alpha Jalloh, whose second return touchdown in as many weeks electrified fans, was guilty of letting up on a block on a Timothy Knuettel fumble recovery that should have resulted in a touchdown. The team is still recovering from the late delivery of their equipment, but they’ll need to sort it out quickly or risk getting left behind in a tough North Division.

Game 2 – Cologne Centurions 40:12 Barcelona Dragons

As a new league, the ELF needed stars to emerge to put them on the map. Even in Patrick Esume’s wildest dreams, I doubt he imagined finding a player like Madre London.

London was spectacular in Week One but the Centurions‘ loss to the Panthers overshadowed the fact he rushed for 269 yards and three touchdowns. There will be no overlooking what he did to Barcelona on Sunday, breaking loose for a mind-blowing 352 yards and four touchdowns on his way to being named the MVP of the week.

For all intents and purposes, London has locked up the league’s rushing title in just two weeks, so long as he simply remains healthy and moderately productive. His rare combination of speed and balance have been a major factor in his 621 yard and seven touchdown introduction to the league, but so has his offensive line. Every big run was accompanied by some ‘wow’ blocks up front, perfectly executed pulls, traps and double teams that are enough to make a line coach cry. They’ll chant London’s name in Cologne all season but don’t forget Jan-Niclas Dalbeck, Hannes Darley, Fabian Kratz, Frederick Weinreich or Nick Wiens, and spare some love for tight end Florian Eichorn and fullback Patrick Poetsch as well.

Cologne Centurions RB Madre London scoring on of this 4 TDs Photo: Cologne Centurions

The Centurions‘ ground game was the difference, but the Dragons hung around like a bad smell and this game felt much closer than it was for most of the afternoon. Clearly a well-coached group running an offense perfect for the strengths of quarterback Zach Edwards and receiver Jean Constant, they were able to move the ball with a few key mistakes taking points off the board. Even the offensive line, much-maligned in Week One, looked improved, though Chris Ezeala had a predictable impact off the edge.

What is clear is the Dragons will have a hard time matching up defensively against the run due to size and strength. That’s the predictable weakness of any Spanish team in the international arena, but Cologne provided a clear blue-print for how to bully the team from Reus. Figuring out how to plug those holes schematically will be the true test for Adam Rita’s staff.

Game 3 – Stuttgart Surge 20:42 Frankfurt Galaxy

Though ironically this game had the slimmest margin of any this week, it felt like the biggest separation in talent between two opponents.

The Galaxy looked more like the powerhouse GFL squad from which they drew their roster than they did in Week One and simply blew the doors off of Stuttgart. Jakeb Sullivan and Gennadiy Adams led an offensive team performance that had few blemishes, and Frankfurt coasted through the second half after taking a 27-0 lead into the break. The Surge scored a few in garbage time, but this was a butt-kicking of the old-fashioned variety.

Unfortunately for the teams involved, the play on the field will not be the story of this game. Late in the second quarter, Surge quarterback Jacob Wright was engaged in an altercation with Frankfurt linebacker Kadel King and words were exchanged. According to King, Wright called him a “black p***y” and the referee on hand issued an ejection for the use of a racial slur. After the Stuttgart coaches petitioned this decision during the intermission, the call was reversed and Wright allowed to return. The incident did not end however, as Galaxy players refused to shake Wright’s hand after the game and the quarterback allegedly uttered more slurs, though this took place after the broadcast had ended.

While Wright’s questionable choice of expletives already has certain sexist overtones, his decision to include an unnecessary racial descriptor is extremely troublesome, regardless of intent. The incident has understandably sparked controversy online, with many calling for transparency on the referees’ decision-making process and added punishment for Wright. Some teammates have come to their quarterbacks defense, but no one has disputed that the words in question were uttered.

In terms of the call on the field, you can see where the confusion may arise. Rather than using an overt racial pejorative, a violation likely to be clearly outlined in the rulebook, the utterance added a racial descriptor to distasteful language that wouldn’t normally result in ejection. It was a gut reaction call by the officials, and in my estimation, the right one, but overturning the decision in the face of pressure from the Surge undermines the referees. It intensified a toxic situation and created a dangerous ones for the players. Wright, whose scrambling ability was perhaps the lone bright spot for Stuttgart, took his share of late shots as Frankfurt players attempted to exact the vigilante punishment that the officials failed to offer.

In the aftermath, the ELF now faces its first true test as a league. With tempers inflamed, Patrick Esume will have to determine fair punishment for Wright, set precedent for how the league handles on-field racism that can be clearly followed in the future, and restore the damaged faith in league officiating. An Instagram post condemning racism, which the league issued post-game, will not be enough, but that is the pressure that comes with building a professional brand.

A stumble here will set the league back. A fair investigation and clear delivery of punishment will legitimize it more than any prime-time game.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.