What’s life like for the NFL’s top news-breaker on his biggest day of the year? We went behind the scenes with ESPN’s Adam Schefter for the whirlwind first day of 2017 free agency as he chased scoops—and those precious Markman points
The MMQB begins a series of inside-inside, multimedia football stories for the 2017 season with a view into the life of ESPN NFL information czar Adam Schefter on his busiest day of the year: the kickoff day to NFL free agency, March 9. In the series, we’ll spend a full day with an important person in the football world. We’ll have players, coaches and other figures integral to how the game is played and consumed. Give us feedback—and ideas for future 24 Hours subjects—at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Schefter, 50, has been with ESPN for eight years, and has become the gold standard in the increasingly competitive 24/7 business of NFL news. In December he signed a five-year, multimillion-dollar contract extension that is thought to make him the highest-paid information man in the business and will keep him with ESPN through 2021. His influence is wide-ranging. As The MMQB’s Tim Rohan followed Schefter through the first day of free agency, one source of Schefter’s said when stories get hot, “I don’t call the team; I call Schefter. The first call is to Adam Schefter. I mean, it’s like, weird.” But it’s real, and it’s become a critical part of the NFL landscape.
* * *
Thursday, March 9
On the morning NFL free agency officially begins, Adam Schefter wakes up in a hotel room, his heart pounding. He’s had a fitful night of sleep, tossing and turning, his mind racing, anticipating the day ahead. He’s so loaded with adrenaline that a sizable blotch has broken out on his neck. No use lying in bed any longer, he figures.
Schefter gets up and starts working, firing off texts to sources around the league: general managers, agents, front-office people and coaches with whom he has developed relationships over his 27 years covering the NFL. He’s been working the phones for months leading up to this day.
The start of free agency. Christmas morning. The busiest day of his calendar year.
A number of high-profile players will be changing teams today, and each one will count as a major story. Dozens of reporters from around the country will be chasing those stories, and Schefter, ESPN’s lead NFL insider, will be expected to break them first.
All of them.
Over the next hour or so, Schefter sends out 31 texts, checking in on a number of teams and players. At around 5:30 he heads down to the hotel gym. It’s empty. He climbs onto an elliptical machine, watching SportsCenter and monitoring his phone. Already he has broken two stories—kicker Stephen Hauschka likely to sign with Buffalo; tackle Matt Kalil with Carolina—and he’s beginning to hear back from more sources.
“Let’s see who’s going to call back,” Schefter says, going hard on the elliptical, working up a sweat. “Someone is going to call back. Usually the people that are calling back, they want answers, because they’re involved in something. So now you’re involved in something.”
This will continue all day, Schefter texting and calling his sources, gossiping and trading information, building his own stockpile until he has enough to break a story. Then Schefter will send the news to his 6 million Twitter followers, or announce it on TV or radio or any of the other ESPN outlets he’ll appear on throughout the day. The majority of the league will get the news all at once, straight from Schefter’s mouth or from his Twitter account.
At 6:08 a.m., an NFL head coach calls. The coach and Schefter chat for about eight minutes, mostly about teams and players in the cornerback and offensive line markets. As the conversation ends, Schefter gives the coach a reminder that he will repeat to a number of his sources all day: “I’ll keep you posted if I hear anything — and please do the same.”
* * *
Schefter emerges from his hotel room wearing a dark blue suit, light blue tie and dress shirt with his initials embroidered in red on the cuff. Outside the hotel, a large SUV, with a driver and an ESPN security team, is waiting to take him to work—even though his Doubletree Hotel is practically across the street from ESPN.
A few years ago, Seth Markman, the senior coordinating producer who oversees ESPN’s NFL coverage, decided that Schefter shouldn’t drive anymore. Markman thought his reporter should be freed up to call and text at all times, so he could break more stories and avoid the hazard of texting while driving. Schefter’s so locked into his phone that producers have had to warn him at times when he’s approaching a staircase. Whenever Schefter travels to Bristol from his home in the New York City area, either he hires a driver or Markman dispatches a member of the ESPN security team to pick him up. Like today.
In the short ride to the ESPN campus, Schefter receives a call from his daughter Dylan, 8. Schefter’s wife, Sharri, is driving their daughter to school. Dad tries to sneak in these calls as much as he can, in between his calls to sources. “How’re you doing, Dyl?” he asks.
“I’m doing gooood,” she says. “Anything happening with Romo today?”
Even Adam Schefter’s daughter loves a scoop.
* * *
Schefter stops at the Starbucks inside ESPN, orders “the usual”— soy chai latte, extra hot, no foam—and settles in at table to make some calls. He takes out his notes, pages and pages on the top free agents, picking out and carefully examining two sheets in particular. It’s a numbered list of 50 NFL players. The Markman 50 — a list of the top free agents and trade targets that Markman wants Schefter to focus on.
This year’s top 10:
1. Tony Romo
2. Alshon Jeffery
3. Adrian Peterson
4. A.J. Bouye
5. Brandon Marshall
6. DeSean Jackson
7. Dont’a Hightower
8. Jamaal Charles
9. Stephon Gilmore
10. Terrelle Pryor
Markman started the list a few years ago simply to give Schefter some guidance, but since then they’ve turned it into the focus of a game. Each player has a point value assigned to him, inversely related to his ranking—the number one player is worth 50 points, number two 49, and so on—and Markman awards Schefter points if he breaks the news on that player. If Schefter doesn’t, Markman tallies those points, too, awarding them to the reporter who did break the news. Bonus points are in play for anyone who breaks news about a unforeseen trade.
Markman then keeps a running scoreboard of every reporter’s points, ESPN employees and outsiders as well, and e-mails Schefter the score throughout the free agency period. Markman also passes the scoreboard around internally so others can see where ESPN’s reporters stand. Last year Schefter amassed 616 points. The second-place finisher had 155.
There is no prize, Markman says; no motivation, other than Schefter satisfying his own competitive nature. “Adam doesn’t need motivation, but Seth knows how to push his buttons,” says Ashoka Moore, an ESPN producer who used to work alongside Schefter during free agency. “It’s like telling a kid: If you get straight A’s, you can go on summer vacation.”
* * *
Schefter heads down a hallway to get makeup for his first TV appearance of the day, a spot on Mike & Mike at 8:30. At his side is Megan Casey, an ESPN associate producer whose sole job today will be to ferry Schefter to and from his various ESPN on-air assignments—and ensure that he makes it down the stairs safely. On his way, Schefter is on the phone discussing the cornerback free-agent market when his source mentions that a deal will be coming soon for the Bills’ Stephon Gilmore. Schefter’s voice rises. That’d be 42 Markman points.
“Really? … What time do we have liftoff? … And it’s not going to get out? Because these things get out, man, I’m just telling you. … Okay, okay, I trust you. … I’ve got you. Loud and clear. I’m not looking. I’m not calling. I’m waiting. I’m just waiting. So when should I check back in with you? … Okay, no problem. Call me back in an hour.”
Schefter dials up another source, who has knowledge of a looming deal involving DeSean Jackson (45 Markman points). Schefter is still on the phone when he enters the makeup room. “I need some concealer,” he says, conscious of his outbreak. He continues talking to the source as two makeup artists go to work, one standing behind him getting his hair in place, the other in front, brushing his face. After a few minutes the source finally agrees to let Schefter report the news—that Jackson will sign with the Buccaneers. Schefter calls another source for confirmation and says he’ll wait to break the news on Mike & Mike, in 13 minutes.
Schefter hangs up and starts pacing, sipping his coffee and pre-writing the Jackson tweet, watching the clock and hoping no one will scoop him before the show. “Now my heart’s racing again,” he says. “Whenever you get anything, it’s like your heart just starts pounding. When that stops, I guess it’s time to leave the business.”
* * *
Schefter arrives on the set of Mike & Mike, telling host Mike Greenberg that he has breaking news. Schefter announces the DeSean Jackson deal on air—no one has scooped him—and stays about 20 minutes longer, talking free agency with Greenberg and analysts Herm Edwards and Ryan Clark.
As the others speak, Schefter keeps checking his phone, fidgeting in his chair. A call comes. “I’m on the air. Can I call you back in five minutes?” As the show wears on, Schefter only grows more anxious, fidgeting more, biting his fingers and kicking his chair. This is the hardest part of the job: fulfilling his TV obligations while trying to break news.
Around 8:50 a.m. his phone rings again: It’s the source on the Stephon Gilmore story, the one he’s been waiting to hear from. It hasn’t been an hour. Something is up. Schefter excuses himself and rushes to the corner of the studio as Greenberg cheers him on, on air. “So what can I say?” Schefter ask, and starts pacing. “Oh my God, wow.”
Schefter bolts out of the studio and down the hallway, calling a second source to confirm the news he’s just heard. He has one phone pinned to his ear while he types on a second phone.
“Is it a one-year deal? No? Multiyear. How long is the deal—I don’t care about that right now. … I’m just going to say: ‘Bills free agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore ...’ … I’m typing as we go. … ‘expects to sign with … New England … barring any final snags … per sources.’ Okay? … I just posted. There we go. … Thank you very much. Okay, bye.”
Schefter hangs up and lets out a yell — “How’s that for a bomb? Wooo!” — and then he practically skips down the hall to his next TV hit, on SportsCenter.
* * *
After announcing the Gilmore news on SportsCenter, Schefter retreats to Studio W, where ESPN shoots its NFL shows (and which was recently named after Chris Berman and Tom Jackson). Schefter has a desk there, next to the control room. Since he has some free time before his next TV spot, he sets up shop, spreading out his notes, pulling up Twitter on the computer, plugging in one of his two phones.
This, Schefter explains, is why he has two devices. If one dies he always has the other. If one has bad cell reception he always has the other—they’re on different providers, AT&T and Verizon. And they both have all the same contact numbers, so he can text and tweet while still talking to a source, which helps him break news that much faster.
Just then, a source calls asking about a potential Jets trade involving a quarterback.
“That’s the first I’ve heard of it,” Schefter says. “That doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
Still, the source wants an answer, and he knows Schefter will eventually have one.
“You’re going to look into it?” the source asks. “Keep me posted. Very interested.”
* * *
More calls. More texts. More gossip. Schefter checks in on linebacker Dont’a Hightower, guard Kevin Zeitler and cornerback A.J. Bouye. He investigates a potential Malcolm Butler-for-Brandin Cooks trade between the Patriots and Saints.
Then someone from the camp of a headline free agent calls, asking Schefter for advice. The player has whittled his choice down to two teams: one that has a winning culture and one that was offering more money. Schefter dissects the decision from both sides, laying out the pros and cons. He even looks up the state income taxes and calculates the difference with each team. “He wants to win; he wants to play, right?” Schefter asks. “What’s most important to your guy?” As they hang up, the caller agrees to let Schefter know when the player will sign.
Schefter consults his notes again, scanning the Markman 50 list, looking for another call to make. “Zeitler to the Browns is going to get done,” he says. Zeitler is 35 points.
How does Schefter know? “I can tell,” he says. “You’ve been living this for a month. You take little notes. Like, I have the teams [interested], and I know Cleveland’s coming on hard, and I know Cleveland’s got over $100 million cap space, and I just—they’re desperate, they’re going to pay him through the roof.”
Will he check in on that now? “Well,” he says, “you’ve got to know the teams, you’ve got to know the personalities. You’ve got to know how to do this, navigate it. You also have to show restraint. You can’t be annoying. And so I reached out on Zeitler at 9:30, and I haven’t gotten anything back. … The trick is, you’ve got to know when to throw your lifeline. Like, okay, I’ve got one chance to call this guy. If you get them on the phone, you’ve got ’em.”
* * *
In the middle of Schefter’s flurry of calls, Alshon Jeffery (49 Markman points) rings him, wanting to know how much money the other free-agent receivers are making. Players sometimes contact Schefter with questions like this because he likely has that information even if he hasn’t reported it, as is the case here. Indeed, as they talk Schefter receives a text saying that Torrey Smith will be signing with the Eagles.
Schefter goes through the contract numbers on Smith, Jackson and Pierre Garçon, slowly, so Jeffery can apparently write them down. “It’s all about the guarantee, Alshon,” Schefter says. “It’s all about the guarantee … Your average per year could be $100 million. It doesn’t matter. If they’re going to guarantee you the majority of the contract, that’s what you want.”
Schefter asks where Jeffery is going. Jeffery doesn’t have an answer yet. Schefter asks that Jeffery notify him when he does make a decision and leaves the conversation at that.
After he hangs up, Schefter explains that he helps players like that “hoping that they reciprocate. Some people do, and some people don’t. And we’re going to find out.”
* * *
After Schefter breaks the news of wide receiver Robert Woods’ signing with the Rams, he heads down another hallway on his way to his 11:30 First Take appearance. He’s talking to another source when he suddenly spins around with a panicked look on his face. “I need my computer! I can’t go on [TV] now!”
Back in the NFL studio, Schefter had left his e-mail open on his computer for anyone to see, and cameraman, technicians and other reporters were all coming to start their workdays. All morning, in between calls, Schefter had been updating a draft e-mail with various stories that he expects to break. With each story, he needs to notify his editors by e-mail. Usually it’ll be just one sentence—Player X is expected to sign with Team Y. But at the bottom of his draft e-mail Schefter had a giant block of text for one particular story he’d been working. He’d been going over the text all morning, declining to discuss what the story was.
“I’m working on a big one,” he’d said. “Something unprecedented.”
Casey, his producer, convinces him that he doesn’t have time to retrieve the laptop, so Schefter asks Bill Hofheimer, an ESPN public relations rep, to go back and minimize his e-mail. Hofheimer takes off, but still Schefter paces nervously, waiting backstage to go on First Take, half-thinking this was worth going back himself.
* * *
Back on SportsCenter for another hit, Schefter is checking his phone and fidgeting in his chair again when his microphone falls off. A producer notices and instructs an assistant to get into position to fix it. This seems to happen fairly often. As the TV feed cuts to B-roll of Kirk Cousins, the assistant sprints onto the set, reattaches the microphone to Schefter’s tie and sprints back before the video ends. Off-stage, the producer offers the assistant some advice for next time: give Schefter some slack on his microphone cord. “He moves around a lot,” the producer explains.
* * *
At his desk, Schefter makes more calls. He talks about Adrian Peterson, A.J. Bouye and corner Logan Ryan. He breaks the news that Cowboys guard Ronald Leary will sign with the Broncos. He receives the numbers on the Stephon Gilmore deal, to be reported later.
A text comes in. “Call me,” it says.
“Oh, boy, here we go!” Schefter yelps.
He calls this source from the landline at his desk, cupping his mouth over the phone and speaking in a near whisper. “I’m nervous, man. I’m just telling you, these things move … And we’re already at 1 o’clock basically, so … Okay, what do we got?” Schefter pulls up that draft e-mail and makes an adjustment to the big paragraph he’s been keeping secret.
“I got it all. … Just keep me posted. I’m like hyperventilating over here. … Yeah, so, it could happen in the next hour, next two hours, right? Are you going to send me, like, ‘Go?’ … Okay, I’m on the lookout. Thanksbuhbye.”
* * *
As Schefter continues working, he receives an e-mail from Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo!’s NBA insider, who, like Schefter, is known for breaking news.
“Go get em!” Wojnarowski writes in the subject line.
“You know how much we love these days,” Schefter writes back. “Stay tuned. Some fun coming.”
* * *
The NFL studio begins filling up and getting louder, as the cast of reporters prepares for the afternoon extravaganza. They’ll be on screen for most of the next four hours, starting with a Free Agency Countdown show live-streamed, and then transitioning to cable once the early college basketball games have ended. For the first time, a special camera will be trained on Schefter, following him as he works his phones and frantically types. They’re calling it Schefter Cam.
Schefter eats his lunch—tuna sandwich and pretzels—with his phone pinned to his ear, oblivious to the commotion. Trey Wingo, Tedy Bruschi and Herm Edwards chat with people. Staffers hustle around. Suzy Kolber looks for a lost a shoe.
At one point, Schefter looks up and breaks some news to the room. “Hey! The Bears are releasing Jay Cutler!”
* * *
The Countdown show starts with Chris Mortensen calling in, reporting that the Cowboys intended to trade—not release—Tony Romo, which sets off a round of debate and discussion. (This is perhaps the only thing on which Schefter errs during the free-agency process. He’d tweeted that Romo would be released.) It also sets off Schefter’s phone, and he has to leave the set to take a call from a source wanting to know more. This is a dance Schefter will do all afternoon: constantly running off screen to take a call or do a live cut-in on the basketball broadcast. All the while, he’s tapping out tweets and texts on his phone.
High above the table, ESPN has a countdown clock ticking down to 4 p.m., when free agency will actually begin and these deals will start becoming official. As the deadline approaches, it seems, more and more sources started feeding Schefter info. All those texts he’d been sending out throughout the day are being returned, one at a time.
He reports that the Titans are signing Jacksonville safety Johnathan Cyprien to a deal, and that the Jaguars are signing defensive end Calais Campbell, and that the Browns are signing Zeitler, all within 29 minutes. But his colleague Dianna Russini beats him on the Campbell story and she tweets the Zeitler news three seconds before him, so she wins Zeitler’s 35 Markman points outright. Later, Schefter would plea that they should split the points, but Markman holds firm.
* * *
About an hour in, Markman comes to check on things. Off screen, Schefter finally shows him the big story he’s been working on all day. Markman’s eyes widen. Schefter wants to know how many Markman points it’ll earn him. Forty, Markman says. Schefter is incredulous: Really? He thinks this is bigger than Alshon Jeffery, at No. 2.
“It’s going to be any moment,” Schefter says, then runs back to the roundtable in the middle of a live shot.
* * *
Finally Schefter gets the ‘Go’ on his big story. He signals to Kolber, who gives him the floor. Schefter starts reading from that paragraph on his phone. The Texans are trading quarterback Brock Osweiller and a second-round pick to the Browns in what amounts to a salary dump. It’s the type of trade that happens all the time in the NBA but has never occurred in the modern NFL.
As Schefter had said, this is unprecedented.
The nine other NFL experts look on slack-jawed, eyes wide, stunned, as Schefter continues reading. Edwards stares at Schefter, an eyebrow cocked in disbelief. Wingo can’t stop blinking. Louis Riddick looks like he’s seen a ghost. After Schefter finishes, he leaves the set to do another live TV hit for the basketball broadcast. Then he gets a call: Safety Reshad Jones is getting a $60 million extension from the Dolphins. Then another call: A source wants clarification on the Osweiler trade. These calls will keep coming the rest of the day. “Have you ever heard of a trade like this?” Schefter says into the phone. “Ever? Never, right?”
* * *
Sitting in a chair at the other end of the studio, preparing for another live TV hit, Schefter is getting anxious again. Once free agency officially started, six minutes earlier, the calls picked up. Now they’re coming in rapidly, the news breaking all at once. He’s going back and forth between his two phones, taking a call with one and typing on the other. A few seconds before his live shot, his phone rings.
“I gotta go. What do ya got? Oh! Okay, Igotit. Okay, gotitthanks.”
“Hey, ready?” he says to the producer in his ear.
“I’ve got a story!” he announces to the room. “A.J. Bouye to the Jaguars.”
Schefter taps out a tweet as the producer keeps talking in his ear. Again he’s fidgeting in his chair. “I’ve got to get up. I can’t be doing this. God!” He shakes his head.
“And this guy is calling me, too?”
“Can I skip this [TV hit]?” he asks, turning, and is apparently told no.
Schefter answers the phone. All day long he’s been trying to confirm if Riley Reiff will be signing with the Vikings, and this is a source on that story. “I just want to know that. And I’m going to call you right back … Okay, got it.” Schefter starts typing the tweet to break the news and is still typing as the camera turns on him, live.
“Well, we’ve got a lot going on right now, if you don’t mind me not looking up, right now, very sorry ...” Schefter keeps talking to the camera with his head down, announcing the Bouye and Reiff news to the world while typing to break the news on Twitter at the same time.
* * *
The pace has slowed after the initial rush, but Schefter keeps working his phones for the next two hours. He reports the teams that wideout Terrelle Pryor, defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard, guard T.J. Lang and running back Latavius Murray will be visiting. He breaks the news that the Seahawks are signing guard Luke Joeckel, the disappointing former second overall pick of the Jaguars, and that the Lions are signing Chicago defensive end Cornelius Washington. Small scoops, but scoops all the same.
Alshon Jeffery, he of 49 Markman points, never calls Schefter back. Instead, the wideout calls Schefter’s colleague Josina Anderson to announce he’ll be signing with the Eagles.
When the NFL show ends at 6 p.m., Schefter retreats to his desk. He reaches under his arm: He’s sweating through his dress shirt. One by one, producers and colleagues stop by to chat on their way out, recapping the day. With the rush now over, Schefter seems more at ease, laughing and carrying on. He even takes a few minutes to chat about his fantasy basketball team with Ashoka Moore, his former producer. “This is my smoke break,” Schefter jokes.
A few minutes later, the cameramen, analysts and producers have all cleared out, headed home for the night, leaving Schefter alone at his desk. He sits back in his chair, kicks up his feet and calls a source. Producer Megan Casey phones in a dinner order—a beef brisket sandwich (“lean, please”) for Schefter. He still has several more hours of work ahead.
* * *
The news has slowed to a trickle over the last few hours, but Schefter stays at his desk working the phones, gossiping with executives and coaches from around the league. He breaks one final big news story: The Ravens are re-signing run-stuffing defensive tackle Brandon Williams. Thirty-seven more Markman points.
Earlier, while on the phone with another source, Schefter had seen the Washington Post report that Washington was firing its general manager, Scot McCloughan. “You know, it’s funny,” Schefter had said into the phone. “I was called this weekend. I was told he was let go. By a very good source. [Washington] denied it. But clearly that was the case. I think he was fired two days ago, and it just got out now. So, we’ll see how that goes. … Anything else?”
* * *
An ESPN security driver takes Schefter back to the hotel. He eats some dark chocolate and checks his fantasy basketball team again. He will lose that week to Mark Dominik, an NFL general manager-turned-ESPN analyst, which will keep Schefter out of the fantasy basketball playoffs. He decides he needed some rest and falls asleep at 11:30 p.m.
Nineteen hours after the free-agency world began spinning, Schefter is physically and emotionally spent.
* * *
Friday, March 10
Schefter wakes up to a missed text from 11:34 p.m.: New England cornerback Logan Ryan is signing with the Titans.
Jonathan Feinsod and Neil Schwartz, the agents for Ryan, had actually tweeted the news at 11:32 p.m. So in a highly unusual bit of Markman scoring, no one gets the credit for Ryan. Schefter misses out on 29 Markman points—but at least they aren’t going to a competitor.
Kicking himself nonetheless, Schefter decides to stay up and start working. He sends a few texts, checking in on stories. In the day ahead, he will break news that Pryor is signing with Washington, that the Patriots are trading for Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy, and that Mike Mayock, the NFL Network analyst, is a candidate to become the next general manager in Washington.
Before all that, though, a little after 4 a.m., an odd post appears on the Instagram account of Jimmy Garoppolo, in which the Patriots’ backup quarterback says goodbye to Boston. This suggests that Garoppolo, the subject of trade speculation all off-season, is being dealt. The NFL’s 24/7 news cycle kicks into high gear again—in the middle of the night—as national reporters around the country jolt out of bed and start tweeting the story, poking fun at the never-ending aspect of their jobs.
Schefter takes a different approach. A week earlier he’d reported that the Patriots would not be trading Garoppolo. During all the craziness on Thursday, too, a league source had texted him reiterating that point. So while the Garoppolo Instagram post sends his competitors into a tizzy, Schefter does … nothing. No calls, no texts. He is that confident in his reporting, that sure of his sources. He has other stories to chase, more Markman points to win. And another day of NFL newsbreaking ahead of him.
* * *
After the first 24 hours of NFL free agency, a familiar name sits atop the Markman points leaderboard. Schefter has 471.5 points; the second-place reporter, 89.5.
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