With the NFL season officially over, we put commentators Louis Riddick, Reggie Bush, Bill Cowher and Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer through a series of "exit interviews."

By Jacob Feldman
February 06, 2019

Last week, the football world focused its attention on Atlanta, where the New England dynasty rolled on in Super Bowl LIII. Sports Illustrated took the opportunity of American sports' largest spectacle to go a bit broader, talking with an ex-player, a former coach, a longtime executive, and two pioneering broadcasters about the state of the league. 

Across a round table near the NFL Experience, CBS' Bill Cowher discussed the health of the coaching pipeline. A day later, NFL Network's Reggie Bush considered the most intriguing offseason storylines. From Radio Row, Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer shared stories from their first season calling Thursday night games for Amazon. And in a 21st floor office overlooking the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, ESPN analyst Louis Riddick explained how the league managed to produce a new set of stars.

At the end of each season, players across the league face staff members and the media for a series of exit interviews before heading off for vacations. This year, we turned the tables a bit. Here's what the commentators had to say.

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Louis Riddick

On the health of the league...

Viewership numbers are up—they always tell you how people perceive the league to be doing. Despite how much they want to whine and complain, if you're still watching then there's obviously still something going on as far as the quality of the product on the field. And I think a lot of that has to do with what are going to be the next generation of superstars. When you see guys like Pat Mahomes and you see Jared Goff and you see Andrew Luck is back now and he looks healthy, that's exciting for viewers. That's exciting for the league because we know how important that position is. I think people love offensive explosiveness. We saw a ton of that this year. You know what that does as far as the fantasy football market, what it does from the legalized betting market.

Now obviously there's certain things that they need to clean up. You can't have situations like what happened in the Saints game. You have to address those things, although I would say those things are probably more of the exception, even though we all like to b**** about refereeing and officiating. You don't see that happen very often, something that egregious, but it is something that they have to get ahold of and make sure that it doesn't become more commonplace, because that changes the whole complexion of this game. So you want to make sure you don't have too many of those things happen to where people start having reason to start questioning the integrity of the game. You don't ever want that surrounding the league.

But otherwise, what is there really to complain about? There's a lot of young stars. There's a lot of scoring. Social media has guys engaging with fans at this ridiculous rate. Right now, people can't get enough of the NFL. They just can't.

On prior concern about the league's ability to create the next generation of stars....

Well there was at one time and when you say 'next generation of stars' obviously you're talking about quarterback because that's what people associate with the term ‘stars.’ The league came to us. We had a meeting, back in August. The league wanted to know who those guys were. When we identify them, when we really feel strongly about a certain person, let's start pushing it because the league wants that. They want the people to know. For me it was Pat Mahomes, going all the way back to last spring. That's a good thing.

I think you're gonna see more and more of that kind of real aggressive push-out and roll-out of these young guys. And I think because of the way offenses are changing now, I think guys like Kyler Murray were, maybe 10 years ago, people would say, He can't play quarterback. That's not what we're looking for. Now, people are going, ‘Yeah, bring him in here. Let's see what he can do compared to Baker Mayfield, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees.’ Now at the number one position, we're taking all body types. We can take the stoic Tom Brady type. We can take the Kyler Murray type. We don't care because everybody's eating it up. So yeah, they're in a great spot.

On remembering the 2018 season...

You'll remember it as the year where you knew offensive numbers were going to explode. You'll remember it for guys like Pat Mahomes—when you can throw 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in your first full season as a starter, you'll remember that always.

But I think you also remember it as, when it came down to it, the two teams that many people thought really would be here, people thought New England would be here, many people thought the Rams were the preseason favorite in the NFC. As high-flying as these teams can be, throwing the football over the place, the game is still about blocking and tackling, running the football, stopping the run, which no one really wants to believe anymore. Everybody thinks it's just throw the ball all over the place, but it's not. These two teams play physical, downhill, run the football, and they try to play physical, aggressive, up-in-your-face defense.

I don't care how much the game changes, unless they take pads off and make the NFL into a flag league, it's always going to be that and it's funny how it all circled back to that now at the very end. I think people who really watch the game will realize that.

Next five years, more Super Bowls: Rams or Patriots?

It depends. Who will be in the Super Bowl more? I would probably say it'll be, as long as Bill [Belichick] and Tom [Brady] are there, it will be [the Patriots]. They just have the formula. They just do. They are the most economically driven football team in the NFL.

They don't need to go out and find stars and buy stars. They create stars by virtue of their system. That's not to say Sean [McVay] can't build a program like that, that kind of is similar to theirs. They brought in a lot of players this year specifically to get them over the hump and get them here. Dante Fowler, Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters.

Are they going to be able to retain all those guys? No. Can they replace them with people who are maybe lesser talent but they can coach 'em up to be just as good? Who knows. We don't know if Sean is Bill. So I'll bet on Bill.

On the most interesting offseason storyline...

Did Le'Veon Bell make the right move? Is he going to cash in? Is there that one team that's going to give him the Todd Gurley-plus contract, or did he make a mistake? That's probably the one.

On the coaching pipeline...

I don't want to talk too negatively about guys like Matt LeFleur in particular. Let's just use him for example, because I don't really know him. I don't know what his true coaching acumen is. I've never been around him. I've never listened to him install an offense. I've never listened to him correct a guy on the field. But I will say that I'm very skeptical of the people who are doing the hiring. Let's put it that way. It's a flip of the coin on how some of these coaches pan out, because we don't know how good they are, one, if you haven't been around them, and two, the people who are picking them, I know they don't know. And that's a problem.

And I think that speaks to just why there's so much coaching turnover in the first place. A lot of these owners are going off of word-of-mouth, looking at a stat sheet saying well, you know what, Sean is doing good in L.A., let's just pick somebody who's been around, and that's true. They do that stuff. You know why, because it's not their area of expertise. If you aren't out on the practice field, watching these coaches coach, or sitting in the meeting room, or you don't have the training to know what to listen for when you're interviewing these guys, you don't know. And that's why I think going forward, who the hell knows how successful some of these guys are going to be.

Now because you've seen some teams go worst to first very quickly, there's not very much patience on the part of owners. And that's why they're just going to chase whatever someone else was doing that did have like the Matt Nagy-type of success. So that's why. Eric Bieniemy, it's too bad he didn't get a job but he's going to get one. The guy, who's the quarterback coach in Kansas City, Mike Kafka, he's going to get a head coaching job here too because people are going to try and copy what Matt has done, copy what Doug Pederson did.

So that's the league. The league is not, at the highest level sometimes, they are not very innovative. They're kind of like followers. That's what you know, to speak about Bill and Sean. Bill has never copied anyone. He's always at the forefront of everything. People copy him. When he's done, when he decides to walk away, I don't know who they're going to copy. Who knows, maybe it is Sean.

How would you grade Roger Goodell and NFL leadership this year, on a scale of 1-to-10?

They've got a tough job. I understand what they're trying to do and it's not always perfect. The one thing they could do much better of is kind of getting out ahead of stuff instead of always being so reactionary. So let's just say I'll give them—I'll give them a five. I'll give him right down the middle.

I'll take the easy way out because they really did need to be much more progressive and have a plan for stuff instead of, I think we have a plan, let's just throw this out there, see how people react. Oh, maybe that's not the best plan. Enough of that. Whether it be personal conduct policy, whether it be player safety, whether it be the replay system now, it's always seemed like they're trying to catch up and that's annoying.

On the hitting-with-helmet rule...

We had a whole spiel from the head of officiating, Al Riveron, about the fact that the powers that be wanted it to be emphasized and want it to be a priority about protecting players. Take the head out of the game, take the head out of the game, take the head out of the game.

We heard it over and over and over and the most talked about, one of the biggest plays of the season with the Super Bowl on the line, forget the pass interference, it's clear helmet to helmet. Where in the preseason, they would have thrown that flag, you would have saw all the refs throw the flag, you would have saw a yellow flag parade on that play.

This one you have two guys five yards from the play, coning the play. Two referees looking right at it. Nothing. Incomplete. How the hell is that? That's a problem.

On the rookie QBs, compared to expectations...

I think its kind of par for the course. Baker [Mayfield] did the kind of thing as far as lifting the team the same way he did at Oklahoma. Josh Allen struggled with the same things in Buffalo he struggled with at Wyoming. Sam [Darnold], same thing. There's not enough weaponry around him.

The one guy who I thought would be a little bit better but the team was just abysmal was Josh Rosen. His offensive line, man, is just, it's scary. It's like assault what's happening out there to him. And Lamar [Jackson] did what Lamar would do. He's not a real good thrower right now but he's a tremendous athlete. I think they were all just what you thought.  

2018 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images

Reggie Bush

On the state of the NFL...

The health of the league, wow. That's such a broad question. I think it's good. I think it could be better. I think there are things about our league that can improve in all different areas.

On remembering 2018...

Well, I'm gonna remember the no call from the Saints game. Definitely going to remember that. I'm going to remember young guys stepping into the spotlight and embracing it and playing extremely well. Guys like Patrick Mahomes, guys like Baker Mayfield, guys like Saquon Barkely, guys like Jared Goff. The future of the NFL is in good hands because we've got great young players who are quickly becoming superstars in this league and who have quickly taken the league by storm.

I think Baker Mayfield has done an extremely tremendous job at just changing the direction of that organization. So now when you talk about the Cleveland Browns, they're no longer the laughing stock of the league. Now you have to respect them because they have great players and they've proven that. This draft class for the Cleveland Browns probably reminds me a lot of our draft class with the New Orleans Saints, because every one of their players has gone on to be a starter.

On the rookie QBs, compared to expectations...

I think I like what I've seen from them so far. We saw some good, some bad. But again, I think the future is bright for the NFL, with players like the guys we just named, like the five quarterbacks who have come into this league.

They've done a great job really and it's tough to be in that position, you know, especially when you are going to teams—Sam Darnold went to the Jets, the Jets haven't been that great in a long time. Josh Allen went to Buffalo. They haven't been that great in a long time. Same thing with Baker Mayfield. Same thing, you know, with the Arizona Cardinals and Josh Rosen.

So they've all gone into tough positions, into situations where they are kind of looked at as the savior for the organization and for the team. That's a tough position to be in and it's a lot of pressure. And so I applaud those guys for the job they've done so far.

On the most interesting offseason storyline...

I want to see we're Le'Veon Bell ends up. I want to see if Antonio Brown is going to stay in Pittsburgh. Those are the two biggest things that jumped out to me. I also want to see: What does Patrick Mahomes do for an encore? What is he gonna do next year? Because the year that he had was just exciting to watch, from beginning to end, start to finish, even in the last game where they lost it was just exciting to watch it.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Bill Cowher

On the state of the NFL...

I think the league is as popular as ever. I think the commissioner in my opinion has done a very good job of still putting safety at the forefront of a lot of the decisions being made in regards to rules and how the game's being played and how the game's being taught and I think at this point it really hasn't hindered how entertaining the game still is. You see that as evident by the ratings that it gets every week and, you know, you're constantly trying to improve the game, as we all are, but I think the biggest thing again is that I think the game has evolved.

The game is safer, and we're still trying to encourage mothers. I guess that's who we're trying to touch because they're the ones to allow their kids to play the game. I think the benefits of it far outweigh the risks.

On remembering 2018...

Yeah, this season to me was just great storylines. I think the four best teams made it to the final and you could make an argument for each one. Then all of the sudden you have two championship games that go into overtime. For the first time in five years the two road teams won. It just to me epitomized everything. 

On the rookie QBs...

I think they all played very well. There's a lot to be said for that. I think the league is in good hands going forward developing these guys. I think Baker, what he did certainly I think was well documented. I think he's still a very, very special player. No question about it. You can just see his presence on the field and he's kind of fun to watch.

Next five years, more Super Bowls: Rams or Patriots?

Listen, we'll all keep picking against the Patriots and all they do is keep defying the odds. I think you look at the younger team. You'd like to think that the younger team has a chance so I'll probably have to go with the Rams for the next five years.

How do you feel about the health of the coaching pipeline?

It's good. I think I'd like to see more diversity having opportunities and I think that we've got to do a better job of putting them in positions where they can be recognized. We have to do a good job of getting these guys in positions, maybe increase the internships that they do from the summer, make it a yearlong process.

Let those guys spend a whole year with the team as opposed to just a summer.

On Jon Gruden...

You've got to give that some time. What he inherited and what he had to do with some of the players in terms of, we saw what he did with Khalil Mack. Rest assured that wasn't a financial decision. I think the jury is still out. I'm still waiting to see. I'm not ready to pass judgment.

How would you grade Roger Goodell and NFL leadership this year, on a scale of 1-to-10?

I think eight. I would say that. I think you're always pushing to do little things better.

But I think with everything being said and done, I think this year, the popularity has never been better, the storylines are there. I think they worked through some of the safety issues with quarterbacks, with helmet-to-helmet hits, trying to touch on that at the beginning of the season. But then as the game went on, I thought you allow the players to play and I think they adapted somewhat so I thought it was a very successful year.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer

On the state of the NFL...

AK: If you think about a year ago, and the discussion points that you had, the play on the field has silenced some of them. I'm disappointed that you had a weekend of championship games, which were two overtime games, absolutely incredible performances, that was marred by officiating inconsistencies. And I will not just look at the no-call. It was way more than that. It was the general inconsistency of the officiating in both games.

The NFL's got to worry about that. But from an NFL standpoint, if you're concerned about the health of the NFL, all the naysayers were saying the ratings were down. Well ratings were great. Very entertaining product. Great product.

HS: Yes, thank you. Thank you, Chiefs. Thank you, Rams. Thank you, Saints. Very entertaining.

What have you learned this year? What's different about you two now compared to when it started?

HS: I think that was a pretty steep learning curve. Just the pacing of the week, because it's very similar to what the teams go through. They play on Sunday and we are full steam ahead to prep for Thursday. So, a lot of information. I think we were pretty creative, too, about a lot of the people that we talk to, outside of the obvious, outside of the players and the coaches.

AK: Ed McCaffrey, Archie Manning, Oliver Luck, Connie Watt, Larry Fitzgerald Sr. We also had Eddie George. Before we did the Chiefs game—this to me typifies a lot of what we try to approach—Patrick Mahomes, at this point the presumptive MVP. It's a huge game going into the Chargers.

He's been on the cover of every magazine. Who can we talk to that's a little bit different? So we talked to Magic Johnson, about the no-look pass. We talked to Alex Rodriguez who knew him as a child but we talked to him about the idea of playing shortstop and the skills that are required there and side-arming and having different angles and things like that just to try to bring a different perspective to our game coverage. So we tried to do that while never forgetting the game's the thing. But if Patrick Mahomes goes off, we have a different way to talk about it.

HS: She mentioned Eddie George before. That was actually before the Titans game and you know, he had kind of mentored Derrick Henry and then Derrick Henry has this magical night with that 99-yard touchdown run, a historic night. And we kind of had that conversation in our back pockets. We've had a lot of fun and I think we learned that those were pretty valuable conversations. Sometimes you use them and then sometimes maybe you don't, but if you don't have the conversation then you're definitely not going to have that added element.

AK: One of the things I think we're proud of is that our broadcast reflected our background as journalists and reporters. So for example, we knew that C.J. Beathard was about 50/50 to start for the Niners against the Raiders. We get word two hours before that it's going to be Nick Mullens making his first start, rookie out of Southern Miss. So we sort of launched into reporter mode. We tracked down his high school coach. We tracked down his college coach. We talked to John Lynch, the general manager of the 49ers.

HS: Everybody was laughing like, Well, why didn't you get the nurse who was in the delivery room when he was born.

AK:  But it all paid off, because first of all, you had a great game. But as it progressed, as opposed to keep saying Nick Mullens, the rookie, we were able to inject a lot of people's assessments of him in there.

HS: We had a lot of different stories. Also before the Mahomes game we talked to Kliff Kingsbury, remember? Now, here he is. Little did we know at the time that he would be a head coach, which is crazy.

You talked before the season about the potential impact and reaction. How did that compare to what you were expecting?

AK: One of the biggest things, the overall reaction, from the most important people was from Amazon, and their customers, Prime customers. And their actions speak first by re-signing us six months early. Any time the season ends, you're like, We don't have a game next week!? And they had already resigned us, which was just a great feeling of validation. And then on a personal level, Hannah and I consistently heard from players and coaches. We get on our production calls and they'd be, like, 'Oh we're so proud of you, we're so proud of what you're doing, and, Oh by the way, we have daughters. They listen. This is really important.’

HS: Yeah randomly, I would run into, like this executive for TD Ameritrade, and he was like, 'Yeah, great broadcast.' And I was like, 'Wow, you listen? You heard it?' He was like, 'Oh, yeah. I have two daughters and they're like, Daddy we want to watch the girls talk about football.' And I thought that was really cool.

HS: But actually we are broadcasting in over 200 countries. The cool thing I think is that for a lot of people, their first exposure to NFL football is having two women call a game, which is really nice. Then I think that Andrea does a great job of not just assuming that everybody understands all the terminology and knows it. So she's not just like, oh RPO, Jet Sweep, blah, blah, blah. She'll fold in like what are we talking about here, not dumbing it down, but in a very sort of graceful, informative way so that if you're not a big football fan—because who knows people listening in other countries, they're not growing up with American football—you'll enjoy it more because you'll have a better understanding of what the heck we're talking about.

Andrea certainly could show off her encyclopedic football knowledge. She doesn't do that. The three of us are sitting on a couch right now, and we hope that, somebody who is watching just kind of feels like they're sitting on a couch with us, as enthusiastic about it as we are, because we love the sport.

AK: As we know from being seasoned broadcasters, if the chemistry comes off as the broadcasters having fun, the audience is right there along with you. I think that we're really grateful that we did it with each other. I know there's nobody else I would have wanted to work with. That makes it all pretty special too.

We had what I call our small and mighty team. We have two producers. They happen to be women. It's just this wonderful opportunity. As you get a little bit more experienced and later in your career, where you want to work with the people you want to work with, and you want to be able to do what you want to do. To Amazon's credit, they have never put any parameters on, you gotta do this, you gotta say this, you can't do that. So we get to do what we want to do and that is worth its weight in gold. It's amazing.

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