As we enter the home stretch of the NFL regular season, I thought it would be a good time to empanel five respected NFL media members for a roundtable discussion on a number of NFL-related topics.
Mike Freeman, NFL national lead writer, Bleacher Report
Jason Reid, Washington Post sports columnist and former Redskins Post beat reporter
Adam Schefter, NFL insider for ESPN and ESPN.com
Ed Werder, NFL insider for ESPN and ESPN.com.
The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity. Part 2 will run tomorrow.
SI.com: How often are you lied to by someone you cover?
Freeman: I'm lied to all the time by players and coaches about injury stuff. I mean, all the time. In the NFL, if someone says he twisted an ankle, I assume he was decapitated. I have a rule about concussions: Whatever number of concussions a team or player admits to, triple it. The lying about injuries has been going on forever but is worse now than ever before. Quick story: One of the nicest guys I've ever known, Phil Simms, was the quarterback on the Giants when I was covering the beat in 1993 for the New York Times. (Damn, I'm old.) I get a call from Dave Anderson, who won a Pulitzer Prize and was a longtime Times columnist. He tells me Phil has a badly injured shoulder. I ask Phil: “No Mike, I'm fine, that's nonsense.”
That was Friday. After the game, Phil pulled me aside. He admitted he had a shoulder injury and apologized for misleading me. His reason for refuting my information was because players target injured areas. I was never mad at Phil for doing that. Totally understood. That's a big reason why players lie about injuries. Lying about injuries is also more common now because safety concerns have intensified (rightfully so). The NFL is trying to cut back on seriously injured players trying to play while hurt. While the NFL itself is a problem (scheduling teams that played on Sunday to then play on Thursday), players can also be their own worst enemies. Instead of just shoulders or legs, they lie now more about concussions.
Hill: Can I say every day? As my mom used to say, there is "the sin of commission and there is the sin of omission."
I get blatantly lied to often covering the Cowboys. My favorite motto on the beat: “How do you know they are lying? Their lips are moving.” And even Jerry Jones will cop to the line, "Just cause I said it doesn't make it so."
Those are the outright lies. But then there are the countless times we are purposely led or not told complete truths. That was certainly the case when questions were asked regarding Tony Romo's fractured back, which was initially reported as a bruise. That initial diagnosis was never corrected or clarified by Romo or the Cowboys despite a number of direct questions about the specific nature of the injury and whether anything had changed after the CT Scan.
Reid: If you cover the NFL, each day you work.
Schefter: I might be naïve, but I don’t think I’m lied to very often at all. If someone can’t be honest, they just don’t respond. Like last Sunday (Nov. 9), I sent out texts to a few different Cardinals people on Carson Palmer. Two didn’t respond and one wrote back, “Mum in the locker room after the game — no official word.” Now look at that last sentence. That’s probably all true. Mum in the locker room, no official word — true, true, true. He didn’t lie; but he also wasn’t entirely forthcoming. They knew it was torn, and it was up to the reporter to read between the lines, which you become pretty proficient at over time. Even though the one Cardinals source who did respond didn’t confirm the torn ACL, it was not hard to figure that’s what it was. Usually when it’s not bad, people will respond, “He’s OK,” or “It’s not too bad”, or “He’ll be back.” But when two of the three people don’t respond, and the third sends the text he does, that also tells you a lot without telling you anything.
Werder: That's a tough question. I certainly don't think the truth in certain situations is, shall we say, easily accessible? I think you have to ask a lot of questions to find it sometimes. I think reporting it nearly always requires granting anonymity, which is unfortunate because it undermines the credibility of the report in the mind of the public. The worst is during the NFL draft because everybody does it and nobody has a conscience about it.
SI.com: What will be the biggest story of the second half of the NFL season and why?
Freeman: It will be off the field again. The big thing we'll be talking about is the conclusion of the investigation into what Roger Goodell knew about the second Ray Rice tape (why such an investigation takes so long is stunning to me). I'm alone in this thinking, but I think former FBI director Robert Mueller might actually find some culpability on the part of the commissioner. J.J. Watt will also be a huge topic. He was on the cover of SI with the question, “Can he win the MVP?” I think he has a serious shot. I would not have said that a few weeks ago, but he's gotten so dominant and there may be Peyton Manning and Tom Brady MVP fatigue. Maybe Aaron Rodgers will win it, but what if we had a Brian Hoyer-Watt MVP debate? (Somewhere Don Coryell just threw up in his mouth.)
Last thing: We might be talking a lot about the Niners. If they fail to make the playoffs, a distinct possibility, look for the Jim Harbaugh-to-Raiders talk to heat up.
Hill: The battle for MVP among Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck and DeMarco Murray, and can Murray surpass Eric Dickerson's single season rushing record of 2,105. He is currently off the pace, projected to finish at 1,973. But four of the final six games are on the road and all are in cold weather locations. The Cowboys will ride Murray to the finish.
Reid: What could be bigger than the Mueller report? The NFL is still reeling from its handling of the Ray Rice situation — so many unanswered questions. And then factor in the clear conflict of interest surrounding the investigation. Mueller is a partner in a firm that negotiated a television contract on behalf of the league. The report will be big news for many reasons.
Schefter: Big stories are tough to predict, even when you’re tipped off to them. This summer, [ESPN’s] Chris Mortensen and I were tipped off to a big story that was about to go down in the state of Texas. Cannot even tell you how much time we spent investigating various Cowboys and Texans, thinking something big was coming with them. And then, the first Friday of the season, the Adrian Peterson story unfolded … in Texas. There was that big story. Even when we knew there was a big story coming from Texas, we struggled to pin it down. Big stories are tough to predict, even with knowledge they’re coming. Saying that, it’s hard to look past two of the NFL’s marquee franchises, the Niners and Cowboys, and the major questions they have surrounding their head coaches. Few people believe that Jim Harbaugh will be back in San Francisco next season, and Jason Garrett is in the last year of his contract. So these are two major head-coaching situations, with two major questions, with the stories still to be written.
Werder: There's not much doubt but there's going to be significant interest in the resolution of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson situations. Peterson is still regarded around the league as an elite player while Rice most definitely is not. I think the majority of the public believes that Peterson didn't commit an egregious act and that he's been adequately punished. My sense is the league considers it horrific and that's why it has refused to reinstate him as many expected and to consider the eight games he's missed to be time served. There is sentiment in the league office to vigorously defend the 4-year-old victim. Beyond that, I think the ultimate success of the Cowboys is a compelling story. After so many years of overestimating them, it seems we've badly underestimated them. Whether coincidence or masterstroke, Jerry Jones has allowed many prominent Cowboys — from head coach Jason Garrett to Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray — to perform this season in the final year of their contracts, forcing them to prove their value and they've all so far responded with the best seasons of their careers.
SI.com: In no particular order, who are some current players who would be successful as radio or television analysts after their career ends and why?
Freeman: The problem with this generation of players is they are coached, more than any other generation, to say nothing interesting. Teams and players are terrified of becoming a meme. A lot of people would pick Peyton Manning, but he's a robot. Tom Brady would actually be really good. He'll say some interesting things. He would also automatically have the best hair on TV. A few other names: Mike Tomlin because he wouldn't be afraid to speak truthfully. Larry Fitzgerald for the same reason. I'm going to give you a name seemingly out of nowhere: John Fox, coach of the Broncos. Hilarious guy who would be great once he retires from football.
Hill: Peyton Manning: Clearly he knows the game but he also has personality and humor that would serve him well. Tony Romo: I know Jerry Jones said Romo has already expressed interest in being an NFL offensive coordinator one day. But Romo has personality and a unique perspective that would serve him well. Ryan Clark: He already works for ESPN. He is a natural. Larry Fitzgerald: Again, he is a natural. His dad is a journalist. He is smart. He is funny. He has personality. He knows the game. J.J. Watt: This big man won't be just a sideshow like Tony Siragusa. He’s self aware, knows the game, genuine. Arian Foster: This is a curve ball because he doesn't talk with the media in Houston. But he wouldn't be the first player to go from anti-media to part of the profession. (Hello, Sterling Sharpe.) Foster is very smart and thought-provoking. He would be a good analyst. Aaron Rodgers: The discount double check guy and the notorious photo bomber would be perfect.
Reid: Peyton Manning: just check him out on Saturday Night Live clips or any of his commercials. Russell Wilson: For a guy so polished at such a young age, it's only a matter of time before he's making big money in a booth. Ryan Clark: Very bright, and on the 2015 Bristol Express.
Schefter: One of them already works at ESPN: Redskins safety Ryan Clark. He comes in thoroughly prepared, takes it seriously, and cares so much. Anytime anyone cares that much about something is a sign he or she will be able to succeed in that job. Clark’s job with the Redskins is almost a side job. TV is just waiting for him. As for players, Peyton Manning would be tremendous on TV if that were something he wanted to do. He is just so smart that there’s not a person out there who wouldn’t want to here what he had to say. Same is true of Tom Brady, though word is his wife has a side job, and Tom doesn’t have to work if he doesn’t want to…These jobs always are a combination of the biggest names and the smartest thinkers and best talkers. The best combines those traits in one person as is the case with Cris Carter.
Werder: Drew Brees: Very engaging, totally human, deep understanding of the game, willingness to be honest, ability to get to the point. Brandon Marshall: I think you can see that from his contribution to Inside the NFL. He has a personality, a sense of humor, a willingness to be controversial, a broad knowledge of the game. Richard Sherman: You mad, Bro?
SI.com: Roughly how many phone numbers related to your job do you have in your cell phone or blackberry or wherever your contact list is?
Freeman: A little over 1,000. Though I bet Schefter has 1.2 billion numbers. Jay Glazer probably has Obama's cell.
Hill: Since I rarely delete numbers and I have been covering the Cowboys since 1997, I would say 500 or more. Of course, that also accounts for the frequent times players change their number. I may have had seven different numbers for DeMarcus Ware during his time in Dallas.
Reid: I would guess around 500. But it's probably a lot more.
Schefter: Don’t know exact and don’t count. But know the last time I changed PDA’s at ESPN and they had to download my contact list, the IT man told me I had over 6,000. But, please understand that I was single for 20-plus years. A lot of those numbers are women I once dated.
Werder: Hundreds but probably not as many as some of those I work with and compete against. It’s also never enough and sometimes not the one I need the most at the moment! I've come up with a line that has been very productive with team executives and head coaches: "I know you can't succeed in this business making bad trades, but here's one I'd like you to consider: My cell number for yours?" It's important to have a huge collection of phone numbers and that's one of the reasons I still cover games in addition to being an Insider is to have direct access to players and coaches to build my contact list weekly. But the most important thing is to have access to people who are trustworthy and willing to be reliable in terms of responding when you need them.
SI.com: During your career has there been one unit that has produced the best quotes and why?
Freeman: Wide receivers, easy. One once threatened to punch me in the face (long story) and then after his threat his quotes to me about his thoughts on punching me in the face were superb. Also, all you need to know about wide receiver quotes is the infamous one from Randy Moss. After Moss was fined $10,000 for simulating pulling his pants down and relieving himself (it was a simulated No. 2, I believe), Moss was asked how he'd pay the fine and he answered, "Straight cash, homey." Maybe the best sports quote of the 20th century. Right up there with Lou Gehrig's speech. Wide receivers are huge personalities. I don't think it's an accident that to me the best analyst in football right now is Cris Carter. Just recently Brandon Marshall on Twitter challenged some Detroit Lions fan to a fight. (Though the way Jay Cutler is playing maybe Marshall needs to challenge his quarterback.) But I will say best quote I ever came across — best personality, quickest wit, best storyteller — was Michael Strahan. Hands down. Covered Strahan his entire NFL career. Not shocked he's so successful now.
Reid: Cornerbacks. Gotta be bold to live on an island.
Schefter: Offensive line. And I wouldn’t be the first to have found that to be the case. SI’s Dr. Z, Paul Zimmerman, one of the forefathers of the football reporting that is done today, gravitated to the offensive linemen and knew that they provided some of the most insightful answers. Back when I spent 16 years covering the Broncos, I spent as much or more time around the offensive line than any other unit on the team. There were times they taped me to the goalpost, or pinned me down on the locker room floor in wrestling matches, but I loved hearing insights from guys like Mark Schlereth, who went into television, David Diaz-Infante, who went into television, Tom Nalen, who went into radio and Brian Habib, Dan Neil and Tony Jones, who could have gone into television. Gary Zimmerman was smart enough and funny enough to do TV, except he hated the media so much he never would go into it. But he liked the media way more than he let on. One recent summer in Canton, and Zimmerman probably will be furious with me for revealing this, we spent a good hour talking about life. He always wanted everyone to know he had no use for the media. But deep down, he liked us.
Werder: I have a different answer, I think, than anybody else might submit based on my unique experience. So based entirely on my proximity to, and history with, Jerry Jones, I'm going to say the best quotes come from ownership.
SI.com: How would you rate how the NFL has handled domestic violence issues since the Roger Goodell presser in September?
Freeman: They haven't done anything. They did issue a new policy, but without union backing (which they don't yet have) the policy is almost meaningless. They hired several women in key positions. That's good, but again the new policy is the key. The NFL needs a set standard on how to discipline players. Without that, all of the other stuff means very little.
Reid: Since the presser, the league has acted swiftly and decisively in handling domestic violence issues. Apparently, the specter of losing the public's confidence — and potentially a whole lot of money — provided an effective catalyst for change.
Schefter: Since the presser, the issues and attentions surrounding them have quieted some. There haven’t been many tests for the NFL. It feels as if everyone is waiting to hear how Judge Barbara S. Jones rules, and what Robert Mueller comes back with in his report. But the culture still has shifted and changed, for the better. The NFL still hasn’t been put to the test.
Werder: You can only say "We got it wrong'' so many times without losing the public trust. So I think we're seeing evidence that Roger Goodell has seriously addressed this issue, perhaps belatedly. The league is certainly handling the situations with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson differently. There have been new hires with an emphasis on the failures in this area, a public relations campaign and, with the Peterson discipline, a chance for real proof. The league is making an attempt to update the Personal Conduct Policy, although I've had people make the point that domestic violence is punished (Rice), so is alleged child abuse (Peterson), and yet a player (Josh Brent) drinks and drives and is responsible for an accident that kills his teammate and he plays again.
SI.com: Will your job exist 20 years from now? If yes, why? If no, why?
Freeman: It better exist. My daughter's college won't pay for itself. In all seriousness, my job will exist in some form, but I do believe the most important challenge my business will face is the real possibility that the NFL will be dramatically different in 20 years. I don't think it will be the dominant sport it is now. In 20 years it might be behind the NBA in terms of popularity. There is going to be some effect from all of this horrible news hitting the league now. You cannot have this large a constellation of degenerate and stupid and not have a drag on ratings. That effect isn't being felt now, but it's a slow burn.
Reid: Yes. Although wounded, the NFL is strong. I figure it will be around in 20 years, and so will the people who cover it. At least those who cover it digitally.
Schefter: My job, yes. Me in this business, who knows? Don’t know what else I could do — not much. So I’m kind of stuck doing this as long as ESPN will allow me to do it. But what form it takes is going to be fascinating. There’s a whole new generation of people getting their news and information from their PDAs and tablets and not glued to ESPN the way so many other young adults, and adults, have been for the past 30 or so years. Times are changing. At one time, the Sunday pregame show was the end all be all, and it’s still a great show. So many people put so much time into just that one show, that it’s always going to be highly entertaining. But now there are other options. There’s Insiders from 3-4 on Monday through Friday. There’s NFL Live from 4-5 Monday through Friday. There’s games on Mondays and Thursdays and next month, Saturdays. There’s so much of everything that it begins to blend together. I don’t know how the job will evolve, it already looks different than it did a decade ago, pre Twitter and Facebook. But the one thing that I’m counting on is that there always be a premium on information. Hopefully that doesn’t change.
Werder: Yes, and my fear is that I will still be doing it! Seriously, I think sports journalism will exist but I'm not intelligent enough to know in exactly what form. It is forever evolving. There's more demand for NFL content than ever before, inspiring greater competition and the development of new platforms for reporting. It’s an endless news cycle where the big story can be redefined, and focus shifted, through somebody's next tweet.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories.
1. Fox Sports 1 released its college basketball commentator lineup last week and network execs deserve praise for building a quality group in less than two years. The main team of Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery returns for a second season as the lead team and among the notable additions are Tim Brando, Kevin Burkhardt (who will also work in the studio) and Joe Davis. Also calling games are Eric Collins, Aaron Goldsmith, Kevin Kugler, Justin Kutcher, Cory Provus, Dick Stockton and the excellent Brian Anderson. That’s a deep roster of game-callers. Rob Stone will anchor the studio coverage and the most notable addition is former UCLA and Pitt coach Ben Howland. Austin Croshere, Donny Marshall and Kevin O’Neill return as studio analysts.
1a. ESPN released its commentator lineup for the college basketball season and of note, Jay Bilas replaces Dick Vitale on the Saturday Primetime broadcast with game-caller Dan Shulman and reporter Shannon Spake. Seth Greenberg and Jay Williams have been added to College GameDay while Shane Battier makes his analyst debut alongside Sean McDonough and reporter Allison Williams on the ACC Big Monday package. Former coaches Craig Robinson and Stan Heath — and longtime NASCAR analyst and former North Carolina and NBA star Brad Daugherty — will debut on ESPNU games as analysts.
1b. The SEC Network will televise 118 men’s games in its inaugural season featuring analysts Dane Bradshaw, Barry Booker, Joe Dean, Jr., Tony Delk, Daymeon Fishback, Darrin Horn, Jon Sundvold and Will Perdue, and play-by-play commentators Dave Neal, Tom Hart and Dave Baker.
1c. ESPN has hired former UConn and current Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird to work as an analyst for the 2014-15 women's college basketball season. Here’s the complete commentator roster for ESPN’s women’s basketball coverage.
2. Monster get: Fox NFL reporter Jay Glazer procured exclusive video of Tennessee tight end Chase Coffman blind-siding a Ravens assistant coach on the sideline during an interception return last week. Said Glazer: “The Ravens were furious about this and Ken Whisenhunt, the head coach of the Titans, called John Harbaugh to say look, ‘It wasn’t intentional,’ and the Ravens didn’t really buy that. I’m told the NFL has only fined him $30,000.This coach is lucky he wasn’t seriously injured. This could be the cheap shot of the year."
3. ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman signed a new eight-year contract with ESPN last week after a contemplating a similar deal with Fox Sports (which would have made him its top analyst for the World Cup).
4. Sports pieces of note:
• A crack baby, his two gay dads and West Point. This S.L. Price piece may be the best feature SI has done this year.
•The Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont profiles UMass basketball player Derrick Gordon, the only openly gay player in Division I basketball.
•SI’s Chris Ballard profiled Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson on dealing with the suicide of his girlfriend. Poignant, thoughtful work.
•Sensational work by Brendan F. Quinn of MLive.com with this longform profile of Michigan basketball coach John Beilein.
•Via Outside Magazine, a disturbing read about sexual abuse in American sports.
•The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur on Connor McDavid, the Leafs, the Bruins and fights.
• Sixteen years after the Oregon State football gang-rape allegation, Brenda Tracy steps from the shadows. A must-read piece by The Oregonian’s John Canzano.
•Great final column from Gary Shelton, who is leaving the Tampa Bay Times after a quarter-century to start his own Tampa Bay-based sports website.
•Call me Jeezy Hamilton, flying down Campbellton. Washington Post writer Rick Maese profiles Jay Bilas.
•In an op-ed for the New York Times, NBA commissioner Adam Silver argued for the legalization of sports betting.
•SI Video produced a mini-doc on a football team located 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Non-sports pieces of note:
•Via The Washington Post: Here are the gross things coworkers do in the bathroom stall next to you.
• John J. Lennon, who is serving 28 years to life for second-degree murder at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York, writes for The Marshall Project on dying in prison.
•This piece is so, so good. NYT writer Brooks Barnes on the Palm restaurant and celebrity egos.
•Via Slate: "This Is What Happens When No One Proofreads an Academic Paper."
•Dutch filmmaker Frans Hofmeester filmed his daughter’s growth from birth to age 14 in 15-second installments shot weekly and spliced together in a 4-minute time-lapse narrative. Very poignant.
5. The University of Florida paid ESPN personality $tephen A. $mith $26,500 to speak on campus.
5a. TSN’s Michael Farber profiled Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray’s battle with colon cancer.
5b. As I’ve previously written, shows on ESPN2 tend to draw 50 to 60 percent less than what they would on ESPN. For example, the excellent Outside The Lines special on domestic violence last Tuesday drew just 200,000 viewers last week. It easily doubles that on ESPN. Shame.
5c. The Mexico-Netherlands friendly on UniMás drew 1.2 million viewers to rank as the most-viewed weekday daytime friendly on Univision Networks since August 11, 2010.
5d. ESPN MLB analyst Curt Schilling debated evolution on Twitter for a solid four hours last week on Twitter.
5d. Comedy Central’s Daniel Tosh destroyed ESPN for what he claimed was stealing "Web Redemption" segment.
5e. On that same note: Fox’s Jay Glazer, who has experienced ESPN’s silly use of the phrase “media reports” instead of naming the actual outlet that broke news, chimed in with support for Tosh.
5f. AOL is looking for a host for its new sports show.
5g. The Pac-12 Network has hired former Arizona State wrestler Anthony Robles as a wrestling analyst. Robles, who was born without his right leg, won the 2011 NCAA title in the 125-pound weight class.
5h. Awful Announcing's Matt Yoder examined the viewership of Fox Sports Live.
5i. As always, congrats to the ESPN executives who enable this stuff. I know you are better than this.