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31 Dec 2003

Football Outsiders Interview: Tom Curran

interviewed by Aaron Schatz

Tom Curran has been covering the New England Patriots for the Providence Journal-Bulletin for only two years, but this year he's really broken out as one of the top reporters covering the team.  He broke the story that the Pats would sign Roosevelt Colvin before any of the better-known Boston writers.  As the season has gone on, he's emerged (along with Michael "I'm not the guy who writes for Football Outsiders" Smith of the Boston Globe) as a fresh young voice unhindered by the prejudices held by many of the writers who date back to the acrimonious departure of Bill Parcells seven years ago.

Perhaps the best indication that Curran brings a new voice to covering football in New England is his recent appearance on the KFFL message boards.  An article about "The Teflon Donahoe," questioning the personnel decisions of Buffalo's Tom Donahoe, contained a factual error.  He stated that Donahoe "skates, even after signing fat Sam Adams to a $32-million contract in the offseason.

The error was pointed out on the KFFL Patriots board, and Curran himself responded and corrected himself:

...You're right, I screwed the Adams thin (sic) up bad...he signed an 11.7M deal...Spikes signed for 32M and that obviously was the # kicking around my head... it certainly doesn't do a whole lot to advance my argument when i'm off by 21M and I'll get that correction in...(I stand by the fact he's fat -- and the other points in the column, though) ... one clarification, when I said "he has his defense carping about his offense" i didn't mean he asked them to do that, i meant that it has come to pass...probably could have
worded it better.

As our man Bruce Allen wrote over on Boston Sports Media Watch: "Refreshing to see a guy say he messed it up... publicly.  He also made the correction in his notebook today.  Other writers would instead whine about 'irresponsible websites' and the like."  This is a reference to the strange goings on in Red Sox land, where it seemed that the standard sports media was battling with Internet message boards like Sons of Sam Horn over who would break the stories related to the ARod trade debacle.  Many local sportswriters here in New England have spent the past two weeks belittling the Internet and demeaning those who hang out on Web message boards as get-a-lifers, partly out of anger that pitcher Curt Schilling and owner John Henry have been going over the heads of the writers to communicate with fans through the Internet.  Since Tom clearly feels differently -- this was not the first time he had posted to a KFFL discussion of one of his articles -- I thought he was the perfect person for our first Football Outsiders interview.

The questions were composed by me (and run by Bruce Allen, who added a couple of things) and touch on the success of the best team in football, what fans of other teams should know about the assistants who might be head coaches for their teams next year, and what the future holds for football journalism in the Internet age.

-- Aaron Schatz

Football Outsiders: After the first week, and the blowout by Buffalo, I think everyone felt the Patriots were in for a tough season. How did they manage to overcome that loss and the whole Lawyer Milloy controversy?

Curran: One telling quote on how they came to grips with Lawyer's departure came from Rodney Harrison and it was to the effect of, "We saw Lawyer over on the Buffalo sideline and knew he was having fun and enjoying himself. If he was going to be all right, why should we be worrying about him?"

To expound a little more, some players (or employees in any field) look for reasons to not do their jobs well. When they find a reason, they mail it in and always have a convenient excuse for their lack of performance. Self-starting, self-motivated, disciplined employees who like doing well are willing to do more, overcome more and tolerate more because they don't just hope to do a good job, they are committed to it. The Patriots get enormous participation in their offseason programs etc. For people (myself included) to think they'd allow all the work and commitment they'd already given to be for naught because Lawyer Milloy was gone was shortsighted.

Football Outsiders: What is the best lesson from the current three-year run of the Patriots that can be learned by teams around the league?

Curran: That the most important thing to have is every oar in the water pulling in unison. Get the right players (talented but also disciplined, selfless, smart and coachable) and you can beat more talented teams with splintered ideas of what success is. That the Patriots have no Pro Bowl players on offense and really only one (Brady) that came close is testament to that.

Football Outsiders: Which team do you think is the Pats' biggest challenge in making it to the Super Bowl, and why? What team do you think they will face in the Super Bowl, and why?

Curran: I think Tennessee will be the biggest challenge. They are almost as mentally tough as the Patriots, they are playoff-tested (and playoff successful), they play good defense and resourceful offense. I think Green Bay will be the NFC representative because of the Eagles injury problems and the fact that the rest of the NFC teams don't seem to have the belly for this time of year quite yet.

Football Outsiders: Much of the interest that fans in other cities will have in the Patriots is due to the fact that both Romeo Crenel and Charlie Weis are big-time coaching candidates. Do you think both these men will get head coaching jobs? What do you think they bring to the table? What should fans of teams with coaching openings know about these guys? Where do you think they will end up?

Curran: First, just given the law of averages, it does seem likely that both men will get a job coaching a team of their very own. From the looks of it, both men bring sizable appetites to the table. In terms of coaching, Romeo is a very resourceful communicator who would probably be best off coaching a veteran team. He relies a great deal on player input. Working with Belichick, he has to have a semblance of the organizational attention to detail necessary (i.e. practice time, film time, teaching time, etc.). The tough part for both of these guys is they are unproven in terms of the business side of the NFL. Now maybe they've picked the brains of Scott Pioli and have a good understanding of caps and LTBE incentives, paragraph 5 rules and all the other stuff you HAVE to know to succeed and it won't be an issue. Maybe it will. I have no idea.  As for Weis, he's imaginative, very smart, a good teacher, uses player input well and can be a good motivator. The thing to watch for with Charlie is he does not take criticism well and can be abrasive and condescending. He'd be best off with a younger team.

Football Outsiders: In the past few years, a strange dynamic has occurred where it seems like nearly all local football writers have "taken sides," either pro-Belichick or anti-Belichick. This doesn't seem to have happened with you, based in Providence. Does this "taking sides" dynamic seem as clear to you as it does to fans? How have you managed to stay objective and balanced?

Curran: I'm kind of pro-Belichick, although most of that is traceable to the fact that it's hard to argue with success. You are right, though, there is coverage that does seem to have dubious intentions. I do appreciate you noting that I try to play it down the middle. It is a conscious effort to do so because, quite frankly, I admire the way Belichick does his work and, given that I listen to him speak for 20-25 minutes five days a week from July 23 through January, I understand his aims and philosophies after covering the team for four years. With that in mind, when he does something that doesn't work or makes a questionable decision, I try to lay it out the way it's perceived but I ALWAYS attempt to get in touch with him for further clarification on something that seems lamebrained. I want his side because that's the fair way to do it. If he doesn't adequately explain the decision then (because he chooses not to, not because he can't) then it's clear he's ready to take a beating on whatever issue it is. But you have to give him the chance to explain it.

Football Outsiders: What's your background? How long have you been writing for the ProJo, and about the Patriots? Is football the sport you would most like to cover?

Curran: I grew up in Massachusetts, graduated HS in 1985 (Silver Lake), college (Saint Anselm in '89 -- English major) and then put my degree to good use by selling home security systems then taking care of lawns for a company on the Cape for 2.5 years. Then I got a job in 92 with a weekly on the Cape, in 94 with a daily in New Hampshire, in 95 with a 5-day paper in Waltham, in 97 with a daily in Framingham, then 2002 with the ProJo. I've wanted to cover football since I realized I wasn't going to make it in the NFL. That realization came in high school when one of my key responsibilities was getting the tee off the field after kickoffs.

Football Outsiders: With the recent ARod debacle, and the appearances of Curt Schilling and John Henry on Internet message boards, baseball writers seem to have taken a very strong stance against Internet message boards and journalists. Does the same anti-Internet feeling exist among football writers? Obviously, you are comfortable with the Internet, even posting on KFFL boards. If you are the rare football writer who is comfortable with the Internet, why do you think you feel differently than others?

Curran: OK, here comes a dissertation.

The Schilling thing was eye-opening. I don't know if these writers are "against" message boards. I think they are more specifically taking exception to Schilling, Henry, etc. bypassing them to go directly to the fans. Objectively, I can see why these subjects would want to do so. To get an unfiltered message across without fear of spin or quote manipulation or whatever else they think lurks in the black hearts of writers.

But I also know that a reporter's job is to get information, relay it to the public and provide context. That's why we are paid, not to be popular on websites or get radio gigs or have the head coach know our first names or get to see games for free or any of that. So if something that affects our beat happens or there is information from key sources being disseminated -- especially in a public forum -- we are obligated to go get it.

From a fan's perspective, this is the golden age of sports information. You now have the subjects coming to you. Can you ask for a better deal? That's tremendous. What we as reporters need to do to stay relevant is to provide the perspective to whatever Schilling or Henry offers (basically, hold their comments up to the light and see if they are solid by talking to other sources or fact-checking and holding them to what they say) and by asking the very hard questions when necessary.

As far as using the Internet, every reporter does right now. I would say the majority of reporters I deal with check sites like KFFL and the message boards. They may not post as I occasionally do, but they look.

The reason for that is that these message boards are a resource. Take 100 passionate Pats fans, all of whom are trolling the internet for all things Patriots, and someone is bound to uncover a link or quote or statistic or trend or nugget that is relevant to my beat.

I have twice this season cited message board posters in my stories because, without them, I would not have had the information I used. Which, of course, bring us to the Next Big Journalistic Scandal -- when some writer lifts stuff something that was written by a poster and uses it without citing the source because he wouldn't be caught dead using something unearthed or observed by a lowly "fan."

Football Outsiders: Do you feel that we will ever have sportswriters who work independently, just having their own websites (somewhat like bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan)?

Curran: Only the ones with unique voices or abilities. We are almost at critical mass already in terms of stuff we have to read, aren't we (meaning the media and the fans as sports observers)?

Football Outsiders: A few years ago, newspaper journalists looked negatively upon
radio and television. Now newspaper journalists appear regularly on radio and television, and all sides have benefited from this arrangement. What do you think the constant appearances on television and radio have meant for the careers of newspaper reporters -- and how they cover their teams?

Curran: Benefits:

  1. Increases our paper's visibility in ways immeasurable.
  2. Helps our visibility and relevance with players, management, etc since they
    understand we speak to large audiences not just in our paper but on TV or radio.
  3. Gives us entree to more contacts and sources.
  4. Allows us to make extra money in a field that is not usually classified as
    "high paying."

Detriments:

  1. If you're talking, you ain't writing...
  2. The danger of scooping yourself by revealing information on radio or TV that
    hasn't yet appeared in the paper.

Overall, I think it helps us cover the team better because -- as I said -- players sometimes see or hear these shows and get to know the writer and his perspectives a little better than he may have previously.

Football Outsiders: Do you think that the day will come where Internet commentators (like us at Outsiders, or baseball folks like Baseball Prospectus and Boston Dirt Dogs) are working with newspaper and TV/radio as well?

Curran: Yes. Bill Simmons already has.

Football Outsiders: Jim Schwartz of the Tennessee Titans (a former Belichick assistant, I believe) uses statistical analysis similar to what we do at Football Outsiders to guide some of his decisions as defensive coordinator. Does Belichick, or Paoli, or any of their assistants use this kind of Bill James- ian objective statistical analysis to go with regular scouting in making decisions?

Curran: You're right, they did work together. The Pats have vast stores of stats that they refer to. Belichick relies heavily on percentages and he knows for instance, that if the Bills face third-and-4 and come out with trips right, they will most likely throw a slant to Eric Moulds while Josh Reed runs a complementary pattern in the flat and Bobby Shaw runs a fly.  

It's insane how much information they have. And how much we don't get.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 31 Dec 2003

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