Russell Wilson’s No Jon Gruden, and That’s the Plan

In ESPN’s replacement for ‘Gruden‘s QB Camp,’ Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson isn’t so much dissecting draft prospects’ on-field strengths and weaknesses as probing their football psyche and character. So don’t go looking for that Chucky moment
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Russell Wilson’s busy offseason continues as the Seahawks quarterback makes his television debut Tuesday night as host of ESPN’s “QB2QB,” the network’s first attempt to fill the pre-draft programming hole left by Jon Gruden’s return to the NFL.

The MMQB got a sneak preview for one of the show tapings, attending Wilson’s session with Baker Mayfield in Los Angeles last month (Wilson also sat down with QBs Mason Rudolph of Oklahoma State and J.T. Barrett of Ohio State, as well as Penn State running back Saquon Barkley—that episode is titled “QB2RB”). Before tuning in, know this: Wilson’s show is nothing like Gruden’s and wasn’t intended to be.

For ESPN, the program represents a big leap, stylistically-speaking, from the show Gruden and producer Jay Rothman cultivated over the last eight years. “QB2QB” is billed in ESPN’s press releases as a sequel to “Gruden’s QB Camp,” and yet, there are key differences. There’s the time commitment: Gruden took months putting together film cut-ups, while Wilson parachuted onto UCLA’s campus for two days of shooting. And there’s the guest list: By the end of its run, “QB Camp” had every draft eligible quarterback begging to be featured, while Wilson’s debut was a harder sell to 2018’s draft-eligible passers. (Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen all turned the show down.)

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But here’s the biggest difference: “QB Camp” was about X’s and O’s, with Gruden sweating the game film and the prospects. “QB2QB” is about the psychology of life in the NFL, with a less-critical host. “We had about 50 hours of programming all set for ‘QB Camp,’ had it all booked, then Jon went to the Raiders,” Rothman says. “We thought about trying to do it with other ESPN personalities, and no offense to them, but I was looking for the wow, and Russell’s a special human being—he’s just magnetic. The hope is that we can create the next brand with Russell.”

The magic of the Gruden brand came in those awkward moments that peppered his tensest interactions with players, when the former coach laid bare their biggest football insecurities. For Blaine Gabbert in 2012 it was his lack of experience under center, with Gruden showing side-by-side video of himself under center at Mizzou’s pro pay and practice film of Peyton Manning doing the same, but with far greater urgency. Said Gruden: “When I watch Manning working his butt off—what is he 36, 37 years old? And then I watch this young Tiger out of Missouri … Are you really exploding out of there? What do you think?” Gabbert’s response: “No.”

Saquon Barkley and Wilson. 

Saquon Barkley and Wilson. 

Gruden was a natural at the on-camera grilling, but only when the subject matter was football. Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and every other quarterback with a smudge on his off-field résumé got a pass. Wilson’s show, on the other hand, twice has Mayfield discussing his 2017 arrest for running from the police in Arkansas, and even shows clips and stills of Mayfield’s flight and aftermath.

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“You’ve gone through adversity,” Wilson posits. “How do you overcome some of the bad decisions?” says Mayfield: “A lot of that, even if it is self-inflicted, or it is something I’ve been dealt, it’s all about how you deal with it. I’ve always said the most important play is the next one. So for me it’s about focusing on the next thing.” Wilson presses: “What have you learned from that? Says Mayfield: “A lot of it is keeping your inner circle tight, and making sure you’re surrounding yourself with the right people who are pushing you to be the best you.”

The two quarterbacks get into the pre-draft knocks on their height, Mayfield’s aspirations (he aims to be “one of the greatest to ever play”), and how to handle failure and change—Wilson briefly touches on moving on from narrow defeat in Super Bowl XLIX and his evolving leadership role as the Seahawks transition from a handful of longtime defensive leaders.

One thing you’ll notice right off the bat: Wilson is present. He’s leaning forward, pressing for answers and eager to share his own stories and perspective. Producers offering notes on his first episode taping with Mayfield advised Wilson to ease back and let the interviewee finish his thought before jumping in. A significant portion of the taping featured Wilson’s personal mental coach, Trevor Moawad, and their shared recipe for success, including headers like “The Value of Engaging in Neutral Thinking” and “Embracing the Power of Non-Negativity.” Most of that session hit the cutting room floor.

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Whether the first four episodes are the beginning of a new franchise to rival “QB Camp” or a flicker in the diversifying portfolio of one of football’s most prolific entrepreneurs is anyone’s guess, and likely up to the viewer. Just don’t go into it with expectations of pregnant pauses and cock-eyed glares, or you’ll be disappointed. “Part of the thing with Jon was the Chucky factor,” Rothman says. “Everybody watched for Jon. They were waiting for the next Spider 2 Y Banana. This is going to be different. We’re not looking for the zaniness. We’re just trying to tell a good story.”

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