Senior Vice President of Football Operations for the Detroit Lions, Cedric Saunders, spoke to A Head For The Game at the Grove Hotel in Watford ahead of the Lions match against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Wembley Stadium – the 14th edition of the NFL’s International Series matches in London.
The Lions come into the game 1-6 for the season but London could again prove to be a lucky charm following their heroics last season in the UK capital when Matt Prater’s last-second field goal sealed an unlikely 22-21 win against the Atlanta Falcons after they were 21-0 down at half time.
Last week the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have played in London since 2013, and usually arrive in London on the Monday before game day, decided to switch it up, arriving 48 hours before the match – and won for the first time in London, but Saunders himself confirmed the Lions were more than happy to continue with their schedule from last year.
“We just stuck with the routine we had last year,” said the former receiver for Ohio State University. “It worked for us; we came out with a victory.
“Our guys have had the chance to adjust to the time change and practice and try out some different things on the field, the surfaces and those sorts of things.
“We wanted to stick to that same deal, it worked for us last year so if it works, why change it?
“It’s going pretty well for us,” continued Saunders. “The accommodation and staff here have been great for us – they’ve been doing everything that we need to get done out here.
“The weather hasn’t cooperated just as much this time, but the field has been pretty good for us so we’re pretty happy with the results.”
Moving a franchise for a week
Promoted at the beginning of the season to his new position by Martin Mayhew, General Manager of the Lions, and former team mate of Saunders’ at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Florida native talked through the work needed to bring an entire franchise to London for a week, unlike their Kansas City Chiefs opponents, who flew in 48 hours before kick-off.
“It’s a lot of extra work and a big undertaking when you’re talking about moving an entire franchise many miles away,” said the 43-year-old, who arrived in London with the Lions on Monday.
“For example, take the food service; we’ve shipped some of our own condiments and we brought our own chef over here. We’ve got additional staff to help out with equipment, additional staff to help out with some of the set-up, like the video stuff for example.
“Our I.T. guys who don’t normally travel with us [in the United States] travel with us here because we’ve got all of our laptops, Surface tablets, our monitors and they’ve got to do all of that stuff – the games consoles too.
“Those are some of the things you don’t have to do in the United States because there you’re not travelling with your whole organisation and all of your equipment.”
A four-year starter at Ohio State University as a receiver, Saunders moved into the NFL as a tight end and had a three-season spell with the Buccaneers (1994-96) before moving to the Scottish Claymores in early 1997 to play in NFL Europe.
After retiring from playing he joined the Kansas City Chiefs as Area Scout in 1999 and then moved to the Bucs in 2001 as Director of Player Development in before joining the Lions in 2006.
Celebrating his 10-year anniversary with the Lions next year, his role now in Michigan includes coordinating the year-round football calendar as well as overseeing the player development department, video department, equipment operations, athletic training staff, strength and conditioning, cafeteria operations, security department and human resources.
If that was not enough he also manages the annual budgets for the coaching staff, coaching support staff and player personnel department as well as assisting with player personnel, including the development of the team’s roster, college scouting, on-campus visits, pro talent evaluation, coordination of team’s free agency and draft agenda, and assisting with contract negotiations.
Plus there is the little matter of the responsibility of team travel and everything associated with that – such as shipping 2,359kg (5,200lbs) of equipment in the summer and flying over another 7,257kg (16,000lbs) with the team on Sunday night – but Saunders would not have it any other way.
“I’ve got a little bit more to do now but I’ve got more people I can delegate to,” said Saunders about his new position in relation to the International Series work.
“I got more duties that have been given to me outside of the football stuff; the personnel stuff – so I can delegate more of the operations stuff to the guys who work for me.
“This trip ultimately is about the result on the field but away from that we have plenty of meetings from day-to-day; offensive staff, defensive staff, special teams – we’re running this thing exactly like we’re running it back in the United States.
“With all of that there are a lot of different set-ups and you want to be as close to what you have back home to here – whatever you can replicate here works much better.
“It’s a challenge definitely,” continued Saunders with a knowing smile when asked about the responsibility of ‘team travel’, buried in amongst other duties in his position amongst his biography on DetroitLions.com, and the challenges it presents him like customs duties and different time zones.
“When we came over last year it was a bigger challenge for us because there were things we didn’t do correctly, but we fixed them this year and they were corrected so it’s been a little bit of a smoother transition for us.
“It’s a lot of work but we faced it head on I think the guys – the players – are pretty happy with the stay here. Accommodation has been just as good as when we stayed at Pennyhill Park last year if not better – we’re enjoying it.”
With the Jacksonville Jaguars signing up to play games in London until at least 2020, Premier League football side Tottenham Hotspur announcing a 10-year deal to host two NFL games a year in their new stadium and the NFL Head Office in New York openly discussing a further expansion of the International Series, there will be plenty more staff at other NFL franchises in Cedric’s position, planning for an International Series trip, so is there one piece of advice he would have for them?
“For the most part I would say the usual advice; make sure you have communications with all of those involved and that nothing slips under the rug.
“I.T. was probably the toughest thing we didn’t foresee last year with things going wrong and having a quick fix for it. You’re talking about your server with all of your film work on it working correctly and having the parts to fix it if something does go wrong so you’re not having to travel to get them.
“This year we knew what to expect and had some back-up plans in place so I would say make sure you know exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it, but you’ve got to communicate it – that’s the only real barrier.
“Sometimes the folks over here – perfectly understandably – don’t know how we like to do it in the United States so you need to make sure that you explain what you need clearly to make sure there are no mistakes.”