Word of Muth breaks down film of Alex Gibbs coaching and speaking over a cut-up tape. Find out the secrets of the man who's built big seasons for everyone from Terrell Davis to Warrick Dunn.
09 Nov 2007
by Mike Tanier
I don't normally keep a diary or a journal. But when Aaron finalized plans to visit the Philadelphia area on a kind of whirlwind tour, I thought it would be interesting to write about events as they happened, or at least immediately after, then assemble them into a Too Deep Zone. I did a little revising on Thursday night to correct spelling, clear up the diagrams, and fix the incoherent parts. Otherwise, I wanted to keep things a little spontaneous.
Aaron arrives at Philadelphia International Airport tomorrow. Our itinerary is stacked. We're in the press box for Eagles-Cowboys on Sunday night. On Tuesday morning, we go to NFL Films for another powwow with Ron Jaworski and Greg Cosell. On Wednesday night, we take part in the Football Fanatics event at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
In between, Aaron must calculate DVOA, write Quick Reads and several other articles for various outlets, and manage the site, mostly from a hotel room. I just have to write Rundown. And teach high school on Monday and Wednesday. And spend some time with my wife and two children. And write Too Deep Zone, which is why I am starting now.
I'm a professional sportswriter, but I am also still a fanboy. I rarely do the things other sportswriters do. I'm not in the press box for games very often. I rarely interview athletes or coaches. I don't hobnob. The next four days represent a rare opportunity to learn, to network, to scarf down free catering, and to soak up some of the perks and thrills that come with writing for Football Outsiders, FOXSports.com, Maxim, and so on. For the typical sportswriter, trips to the press box, the locker room, and the NFL Network offices are old-hat. They are just workplaces. For the fanboy, they are hallowed ground, the threshold between the living room and the playing field. For the next four days I will be busy as hell, but I plan to take time to savor the opportunity to do things that many fans dream of doing.
But that is all in the future. Tonight, I am writing this intro while taking notes for Rundown. Rundown notes on a Saturday? Of course. I jotted down some storylines for teams on bye: Bob Babich on the hot seat in Chicago, John Beck warming up in Miami. I reviewed the play-by-play of that wild Bengals-Ravens game from early in the year, because that game will figure prominently in the rematch this week. I put the games in order: Cowboys first, Dolphins last. An hour tonight saves me an hour on Tuesday night, when the deadline is looming. I also front-loaded my weekend with family activities, including a Saturday hayride, so I could disappear for a few days without hearing "Cats in the Cradle" in continuous loop inside my head.
My wife and I are walking the Ben Franklin Bridge tomorrow as part of some charity event before I pick up Aaron. I better get some sleep. And learn to schedule better.
Walked the bridge, showered, met Aaron at the airport, then headed to Center City for coffee and brownies a stone's throw from Independence Hall. At 1:15 p.m., we arrived in South Philly and found two seats at the bar in Chickie and Pete's, a landmark pub near the Linc.
C&P's is huge, and it's a relatively old sports bar that hasn't updated all of its televisions. There's a two-story liquor cabinet behind the main bar, with bottles rising to the ceiling that are only accessible by extension ladders. Order a Malibu and Coke and you can watch the bartender recreate a scene from Vertigo.
The giant cabinet limits the quality and quantity of available televisions. Packers-Chiefs played on a jumbo projection set with a washed-out picture. Falcons-Niners was on a good-looking plasma set to our left. Vikings-Chargers and Jets-Redskins played on old tube sets that would look right at home in my family room. And Bengals-Bills played on a postage stamp. Seriously, one of the cubbyholes in the liquor cabinet contained a set so small that it looks like someone stuck an iPod on the wall. Figure 1 shows what a typical Bengals-Bills play looked like.
Hours passed as we enjoyed wings, soda, and beer, and took copious notes, including the notes that became this blog entry. Aaron and I didn't risk our laptops in the crowded pub, but the High Roller to my right did. A hardcore gambler, he kept play-by-play tabs on some games with his Wi-Fi connection while monitoring others on a high-end cell phone. Aaron and I talked plays and players (and stats), he talked parlays and overs and teases. I took a liking to High Roller, in part because he was winning and it made him bubbly. On a different day, he might have been a different man.
Four p.m. arrived, and all of the televisions, even Stamp-o-Vision, were tuned in to Colts-Pats, except for one lonely tube set consigned to Texans-Raiders. Sure enough, High Roller had action, real action, on Texans-Raiders as well as Colts-Pats. All of us were glued to the big game, but High Roller kept me alert to Texans-Raiders developments. When a stray Cowboys fan jawed at Roller, he offered a $3,000 wager. He wasn't blowing smoke. I could see what he was typing into his laptop. Some numbers had four digits and no decimal points.
As a touchdown was scored in the Colts-Pats game on one television, Ron Dayne scored a touchdown on another. Roller and I cheered, me for the kid who would drink milk by the quart in my homeroom, Roller for the Texans plus three. Aaron wrung his hands and furrowed his brow at the Patriots' early stumbles. Everyone around us was wearing a Brian Dawkins jersey except the guy in the light blue Jaworski throwback, but the crowd was equally divided between Colts and Patriots fans. On a cool autumn afternoon in November, a Philly bar swelled and ebbed to the rhythms of an out-of-conference football game a half-continent away.
Late in the game, we were all tense. The Patriots were trailing, and Aaron was sweating. We had to walk over a mile to retrieve our laptops and reach the stadium, so I wanted Colts-Patriots to end so we wouldn't miss Eagles kickoff. High Roller was worried about all of the late games. When Andre Davis caught a bomb for a touchdown in the Texans game, Roller leapt and celebrated. "I think he just won a Porsche," Aaron speculated.
I'm glad High Roller won. I'm glad he didn't place a $3,000 bet on the Eagles. Most of all, I am glad that I didn't peek over his shoulder and see him reading Rundown to make his selections. I work hard on Rundown, but I write it on Monday and Tuesday nights, long before I have an injury or weather report. And of course, while I take my picks seriously, I'm writing a general column with picks, not a pick column with general comments. If I thought some dude were making four-digit bets based on my Tuesday night musings, I wouldn't be right for a week.
I am in the press box at Lincoln Financial Field. Aaron is to my left. He is downloading stats and starting the DVOA process. I am typing this sentence. Brett Celek just caught a six-yard pass. Third-and-4. Swing to Brian Westbrook. No gain. Penalty. Facemask on the Cowboys, new lease on life.
This is my fourth trip to the press box for an NFL game. The first time was five years ago, when I worked for another site. I was wide-eyed, and I still am. My first trip, I saw Cris Collinsworth in the elevator and I almost peed myself. I'm not quite as green now, but I still feel like a stargazer, though most of the stars are in Indy tonight.
The press box is like a standard office, but instead of facing cubicle walls we all stare out a window at a football field. All around me are the sounds of muttered conversation and the pat-pat of laptop keyboards. Everyone is online, everyone is working. It's clinical, detached, and removed from the fan experience. Directly below, the Philly Phaithful sit despondent; T.O. just caught a pair of long passes before the two minute warning. I've been among that crowd, feeling rage, feeling frustration. Here, I don't feel as much. That's a good thing when the score is 14-7 and the Cowboys are driving, But I've seen Eagles victories from the press box, close games and blowouts, and I can never muster the same passion when I am surrounded by people who are punching a clock.
Interception, Lito Sheppard!
Today has been very long. Aaron and I watched the early games and Colts-Pats, then hoofed it the mile or so through South Philly to grab my laptop and pass through customs at the media entrance. Later, we will probably stop in the locker room for some interviews, then maybe the press conference. Will write about that tomorrow.
Ugh. McNabb threw a pick. I've never heard the Linc or the Vet this quiet. I've never seen a press box this empty. A local writer I recognize is starting to compose leads in the chair in front of me. She's assuming an Eagles loss. It's not yet halftime. I fear she is right.
I'm very groggy, and I only have about 45 minutes to write this before homeroom. I dropped Aaron off at the hotel at about 12:30 a.m., got home just before 1 a.m. It took me an hour to get to sleep. You saw the Eagles-Cowboys game. It was brutal, and we were there until the end, then went to Andy Reid's press conference, then to the locker room.
Anyone who thinks that football players don't care about losing, that they are paycheck guys who hop into Escalades and chuckle at fans who live and die by the scoreboard, needs to stand in the losing locker room after a 38-17 loss for about five minutes. There's a thick silence in the air, the palpable sense that 50 men are quietly seething. Players huddle around their lockers, muttering and whispering about the game, their frustrations, their futures. Cameras roll, and the experienced players gather themselves and provide predictable, "one-game-at-a-time" bromides. In a winning locker room, players chatter and laugh, slap high-fives and gab with well-wishers in the tunnel. After a loss, they quickly pack duffle bags and disappear into the November chill.
When I returned home, the house was dark, my children tucked in, safe and warm. The house was peaceful. I looked in on my four-year-old, and I pitied Andy Reid, going home to a fractured home, ghosts of doubt and insecurity in every corner. He looked so old and defeated last night. I feared and worried for every father who risks sacrificing family for career, who struggles daily to find the right balance between financial demands, professional ambitions, and the needs of his wife and children, then discovers that the scales never perfectly align. Including myself.
Just back from the NFL Network skull session with Ron Jaworski and Greg Cosell.
Today's film festival was truncated. Jaws got in from Pittsburgh late and had to leave early. The NFL Matchup team is a well-oiled machine. They unspooled Seahawks-Niners from Week 4 in the morning and Cowboys-Eagles in the afternoon. Yes, I was subjected to that Cowboys game yet again. Alkaline in the open wounds.
Jaws is enjoying the Monday Night Football gig. He loved seeing the Steelers Hall of Famers and talking to Terry Bradshaw, though he wasn't too thrilled by the game itself ("I was going to ask Terry to do the fourth quarter so I could leave early," he joked). Both Jaws and Cosell are pushing hard to add more film-study type content to the NFL Network slate, though higher-ups are pushing in a different direction.
We watched the Seahawks offense. I am eager to hear Jaws' comments about Shaun Alexander on Monday night. His opinions of Alexander's running style weren't very charitable. "Soft" was a four-letter word he used frequently. There were others. Jaws and Cosell were critical of Nate Clements, who appears to be slowed down by the weight of his wallet, and were lukewarm on Patrick Willis, who made some fundamentally-sound tackles but didn't blitz well and made rookie mistakes in coverage. We didn't watch the Niners offense. Halloween was last week.
The Cowboys tape was more interesting. One thing that none of us can see clearly without coach's film is interior line play. A few weeks ago in Audibles, I suggested that Eagles tackle Broderick Bunkley was having a pretty good season based on several plays where he got into the backfield. From behind the quarterback, I saw Bunkley manhandled on play after play. I saw his blockers peel off him to block linebackers. Overall, the Eagles defense just got out-muscled. The Cowboys used a toss sweep right to Marion Barber several times during the game (Figure 2). Anthony Fasano (80) put Jevon Kearse (93) on his butt. Jason Witten (82) hooked and handled Chris Gocong (47). Right tackle Marc Colombo (75) pulled and took out safeties. Fullback Deon Anderson (34) plowed the force defender. It was domination.
Cosell asked Jaws who was better: Tony Romo or Ben Roethlisberger. That prompted a lengthy think-aloud. After some debate, Jaws indicated that Romo is better in the pocket and more likely to go through his progression, but that the two were close. Jaws highlighted a play against the Eagles where Romo made a slight adjustment in the pocket, stepping to his right to avoid the rush and open a passing lane to Terrell Owens (Figure 3). It wasn't a highlight-reel scramble, but it was a veteran move. Jaws also noted the simple effectiveness of Jason Garrett's scheme, which makes the most of the talent available. The completion to Owens came on a simple "levels" play. Witten ran a drag underneath the zone coverage, while Owens ran a similar drag just beyond the defenders. The two routes were staggered. so Witten passed through just before Owens. The underneath defenders reacted to Witten, leaving Owens open. Romo's adjustment in the pocket gave him the lane he needed to reach Owens.
I'm more vocal in the film sessions than I was when we first went two years ago. Back then, before I started diagramming plays, I was afraid to speak up, even when I thought my interpretation of a play was correct. Now I ask more questions, knowing that my instincts are good enough that I won't be asking something obvious. One lesson that I re-learn each year is that Jaws and Cosell check with the coaches to verify their interpretations of key plays. Today, Cosell got a call during the session that corrected and clarified their position. If Jaws and Cosell can get plays wrong, imagine the mistakes I could make in Too Deep Zone, with no coach's film or address book full of offensive coordinators. Still, I know from watching Jaws in action that my diagrams are always close to the truth, and I also know what I don't know. I'll never bullspit my way through a play that I don't understand.
Gonna put my oldest to bed, watch Shortcuts, and finish Rundown, which is due in a few hours. Then, I may read Ray Didinger's book a little. Tomorrow evening, I meet the most respected sportswriter in the city, and the preeminent Eagles historian in the world. Oh, and a Hall of Fame wide receiver. I'm already nervous.
What a day. School from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., a few precious hours with the boys, then off to pick up Aaron. Dinner, then off to the JCC.
Ray Didinger's latest book is called One Last Read: The Collected Works of the World's Slowest Sportswriter. It's a collection of his articles from the Philadelphia Daily News and other outlets over the past 30 years. It's a series of mini-masterpieces, snippets of local sports history delivered as they happened, perfectly-crafted 18-column-inch stories of legends like Vince Papale, Moses Malone, and Bernie Parent. Through Didinger's eyes, we meet Wilbert Montgomery in 1978, Ron Hextall in 1986, Mike Lieberthal in 1990. We also see the downside, because Philly sports is full of downsides: Parent after an eye injury, Dick Vermeil talking about burnout, Steve Carlton struggling to locate his slider in the mid-1980s.
Tommy McDonald is one of the greatest receivers in NFL history, but his exploits were nearly forgotten before Didinger launched a successful campaign to get McDonald a plaque in Canton. He caught 84 touchdown passes in 152 games in the 1950s and 1960s, 46 from 1959 to 1962. He was the star receiver on the Eagles last championship team in 1960. Now 73, he's a popular speaker and personality in the Delaware Valley, a sprightly pepperpot who's loved in the same way Richie Ashburn was for many decades.
Aaron shared the stage with Didinger and McDonald. He admitted that he felt a little out of place. The presenters described him as a "next-generation Internet journalist," which sounds about right, and Aaron played the part, talking about how statistics and technology can be used to shed light not just on the current NFL, but on the game McDonald played. Didinger said some wonderful things about Pro Football Prospectus, then captivated the audience with tales of Eagles glories past and sober assessments of the current team. McDonald, as always, was animated, passionate, and a little goofy, conjuring anecdotes of the 1960 Eagles that were fuzzy on the edges but still packed an emotional punch for the greybeards in the audience.
The trio engaged in a long Q&A after speaking. Aaron covered questions about the Patriots, Adrian Peterson, and the teams to beat this year. McDonald relived his first trip to New York, a wide-eyed Maxwell award winner traveling to the Ed Sullivan Show with his Oklahoma teammates. Didinger, an unflappable pro, bridged the gap between Aaron's information-age analysis and McDonald's colorful saws.
(Ed. note: Interestingly, the clearest difference in the generation gap had nothing to do with statistics; it came when an older fan asked about cleaning up all the taunting and celebrations. Didinger despises the taunting and feels the one-man celebrations promote ego over teamwork. I said that if I was commissioner, the first thing I would do was get rid of the taunting penalties and just let these guys be themselves. -- Aaron)
I sat in the audience with friend and sometime FO writer Jeff Bathurst. There were only three chairs on the stage -- big comfy ones, supplied by a new sponsor. No room for me. It was just as well. With Aaron talking about Football Outsiders and Didinger talking Eagles history, what would I do? McDonald even had the tipsy humor angle covered. I was free to be a fanboy.
Before the program, I got to meet McDonald and Didinger. McDonald always brings two rings to public engagements: his 1960 Championship ring and his Hall of Fame ring. I got to hold both, but I examined the championship ring more closely. There was a small diamond in the middle, four green stones around it. It was old and tarnished, but beautiful. It looked more like a big high school class ring than a modern Super Bowl ring, a reminder that the NFL was very different in McDonald's day. I thought about putting it on -- many of the VIPs in the pre-program meet-n-greet did. But I couldn't. Someday, the Eagles will win a Super Bowl. By then, I'll have enough contacts in the field to ask a player to slip one on on my finger for a moment. I'm not sure which player. Hell, by then it will probably be Kevin Kolb III.
As for Didinger, he is everything I aspire to be as a sportswriter: not just gifted as a storyteller and analyst, but polite, reserved, fair, even-mannered, a paragon of honesty and diplomacy. In One Last Read, Didinger writes that McDonald was his boyhood hero. I had many sports heroes as a child, most notably Pete Rose, but as a young teen I came to admire sportswriters like Didinger, Bill Conlin, Jayson Stark, and others for their ability to bring me games that were blacked out on television or ended after bedtime.
By sponsoring McDonald for the Hall of Fame, Didinger embraced his hero worship, made it part of his professional career. Tonight, I did the same. During the book signing, Didinger and McDonald were swamped, while Aaron had a much smaller line. He joked that he felt as if he were in Boston sitting next to Bob Ryan and Doug Flutie. I told him the analogy was perfect, then left the table to stand in line behind everyone else and wait for Didinger's autograph.
My fanboy odyssey is over. Aaron is on a plane back to Boston. There's no school today, so I have time to clean up the play diagrams, edit all of these ramblings, and reflect a little.
In One Last Read, Didinger quotes Robert Duvall's character in The Paper. "The people we cover, we move in their world. But it's their world." It's a sobering reminder of the chasm between writers and athletes. For the past few days, I moved through the world of the conventional sportswriter and broadcaster. It was their world, not mine. I could stand next to Sheldon Brown's locker while Comcast reporters asked questions, eat the reuben chowder at NFL Films, and swap Eagles war stories with fans waiting to speak to Tommy McDonald. Like the people around me, I write football stories and get paid for them. But I don't quite belong. Six years in this field, and I'm still a kid at the edge of the ocean, testing the water with my toe.
Perhaps it's for the best. Very little about this gig has grown mundane in the past six years. A trip to the game is never just a day at the office. I get to learn from heroes like Jaworski and Didinger without having to deal with their daily hassles: late-night flights after boring games, appearances on lame talk shows, endless public engagements that become much more a chore than a thrill. Somehow, Didinger kept his inner fan alive, and Jaworski has remained true to his vision of how to present football to the masses. But even in my brief toe-dips I've met dozens of jaded cynics, their love of the sport dead, walking through a world which is not theirs and from which they no longer draw any joy. I could easily aspire to be Didinger but instead become one of them. It's not a risk I want to take.
I don't know how long I will be a sportswriter. I want to stay a fanboy forever.
49 comments, Last at 16 Nov 2007, 4:08pm by MattR