OXNARD, Calif. — “Life,’’ Jason Garrett told his team Saturday afternoon, pacing in front of his 90 players, “is about opportunities. The NFL! The Dallas Cowboys! Are you kidding me? Since we were this high we wanted to be here.”
I find myself this morning feeling the same as Garrett. Only I’ve got a different team. It’s called The MMQB, a site under the Sports Illustrated umbrella devoted to all things football, using all the means of modern media to disseminate that football prose and information. Unlike Garrett, I haven’t made a speech to fire up the troops. I don’t have much Lombardi in me anyway, and we’ve been too busy working to bring you a new era of football coverage beginning today. I’ll get back to what you can expect from our newfangled website in a bit.
First things first: I’m excited about our first post. I’ve always been intrigued with the speeches coaches make to teams at the start of training camp, in part because I once heard a 1973 tape of Paul Brown’s to his Cincinnati Bengals. I wrote about that speech a year ago. The rules, the expectations, the mundane, the inspirational. In the spring, I knew we’d be kicking off this new site around the start of NFL camps, and I went in search of a team that might let us not only write about a coach’s first speech of the season to his team, but show video of it. In our business today, we’ve all got to get wise to video. So after some convincing, Dallas owner Jerry Jones gave his blessing, along with coach Jason Garrett. And so, on Saturday, in his team meeting room a few long spirals from the Pacific Ocean, Garrett stepped to the front and laid out his hopes, plans, expectations and rules for the new season. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t believe a head coach’s full training-camp speech, the words and video, has ever seen the light of day … until today, in the first post in The MMQB history. We’re proud to bring it to you.
The full 35-minute video can be found here. If you want the short-attention-span four-minute version with some highlights, it’s right here.
Three things I found compelling about Garrett’s presentation:
• Notice how silent it is in the room? Never a peep in 36 minutes, and there was a sensitive microphone at work in the room. You notice it especially when the vague topic of leadership surfaces, and Garrett gets animated. “We want guys who are leaders. Leaders!’’ Garrett said, eyes wide. “Step up and be a leader. Lead this football team. LEAD IT! It’s time! It’s time to lead this football team! It’s your time!’’ When he’d pause, you’d hear nothing—not even a cough. It’s hard to read the mood and feelings of 90 men, of course. But the players’ focus is a sign, to me, that Garrett’s still got the attention of his team, after back-to-back disappointing 8-8 years.
• The son of a coach talks like a coach, paces like a coach and warns that players had better be able to take coaching. “The coaches I hate—that I had a visceral reaction to—were the guys who told me, ‘You’re doing a great job.’ … And allowing me to be as mediocre as mediocre could be,” Garrett said. “None of us need help being mediocre—especially me. Coach my ass! … You been to the Pro Bowl eight times? You’re getting your ass coached. You just got here 15 minutes ago? You’re getting your ass coached. First-round picks, free agents who signed for nothing—everybody’s getting coached.” I should hope so.
• Ever notice the NFL’s getting more and more careful with every utterance? Garrett wants to keep it that way. With the media, Garrett said, players should be “respectful, brief, boring and humble … Distinguish yourself with your play, not what you say.” My favorite thing of everything Garrett said is about tuning out the distractions that flood every NFL locker room. “Don’t listen to the noise,” he said. “Think Einstein listened to the noise? Think Martin Luther King listened to the noise? Be strong enough mentally, be strong enough physically” to tune the distractions out.
“We’re gonna establish an identity that lasts forever,” Garrett told his players. “That starts today.”
My aim is the same at The MMQB.
Our site, and football America, owe Jones and Garrett (and Cowboys PR VP Rich Dalrymple) a debt of thanks for educating fans on the hidden ritual that, this morning, is no longer hidden. Let me know what you thought of it.
Today’s a new day for all of us at The MMQB.
So … where to begin. Let’s start with what The MMQB won’t be. We’re not going to cover contracts very much, or day-to-day beat coverage of teams, or things you should continue to read and watch in your local papers and websites. We’ll break some but not a lot of news; too many people do too good a job of that right now, and with a staff of three new full-time writers, I thought we could spend our time to better interpret and enlighten you about the news. We’ll do fantasy football, but not in the kind of exhaustive way that you’d say, “Hey, let’s read King so we can set our lineups this week.”
We’ll be the thinking person’s site for pro football. If you follow us this season, visit TheMMQB.com three or four times a day between now and the Super Bowl, read our stories, watch our videos and listen to our podcasts … and if after doing that you don’t think you’ve been enlightened about the sport America loves, well, then I should be fired.
The NFL is a hard league to cover, if you’re in the enlightenment business. Just listen to Jason Garrett: The less you say the better. The media explosion (the league credentialed 841 media people to cover the Scouting Combine—the Scouting Combine!—this year) has cut down and homogenized the information that does get out. Good for the league, bad for us. So when SI bosses Paul Fichtenbaum and Chris Stone gave me the go-ahead to start site-planning last winter, with the ability to hire three writers, I looked for youth, aggressiveness, diversity, the ability to tell stories insightfully, and a love of football.
I’m happy to say our three staff writers—Greg Bedard from the Boston Globe, Jenny Vrentas from the Newark Star-Ledger, Robert Klemko from USA Today—have brought the imagination and insight I’d hoped. Bedard this week will take you inside the coaching offices at Stanford, where NFL teams—surprise—have spent time this offseason studying how to stop the read-option offense. Vrentas reports from Michigan, beginning a season-long series on The Undrafted Free-Agent. Eight hundred of them go to training camps in the NFL every year, and most disappear forever on Labor Day weekend. We’ll chronicle what happens to running back Zach Line, who will fight for a special-teams and running-back job on the Vikings, all season. Vrentas, too, will be a valuable player for us because of her science background—she majored in biochemistry at Penn State, which could be the strangest career path of any football writer around. She’ll write on health and player welfare, topics key today because of the long-term health effects so many retired players have experienced. Klemko has a bold look at one of the hot offseason topics—when will a gay active player come out?—by telling the painful and unvarnished stories of two former NFL players who came out after retiring. All three writers will have lots more in the coming days and weeks—and those who got to know Bedard from his video dissection in New England will be pleased to know he’ll be doing the same kind of video work with us weekly.
I’m pleased with our correspondents. You’ll read either weekly, regularly or occasionally a wide swath of smart NFL followers, players and authorities. Andrew Brandt, the best football business columnist there is, debuts with insights on what the Patriots are going through inside the front office post-Hernandez. Andy Benoit’s our analytics guy, and check back often to see his series of 2,500-word scouting reports on all 32 teams; his Washington report is out today. Richard Deitsch, SI’s prescient media columnist, checks in with Ray Lewis’ first extended interview about his ESPN analyst gig today. How, Deitsch wonders, will Lewis react if asked to comment on TV about Aaron Hernandez’s arrest, seeing as how Lewis got arrested for a similarly serious crime in 2000? Said Lewis: “Through the things I have been through, what I learned from that is everybody has something they want to say, and 80 percent of them are illiterate.” SI’s Jim Trotter will have an oft-West Coast-focused column, and his first contains a strong warning for those who want to put Manti Te’o in Junior Seau’s league before Te’o ever plays an NFL snap. My good friend Don Banks will spice up the scene; he’ll check in with a column we’ll call “The Conscience,” in which everyone in the game (Week 1: Roger Goodell) will be subject to Judge Banks’ rulings. College football guru Andy Staples of SI will file, starting next week, a week-by-week NFL Draft Top 50 (I think we can come up with a kitschier name than that), which will run through next May’s draft.
We’ll write some long pieces, three of them this week. One of the smartest people I know, SI senior writer David Epstein, dissects the complicated and maddening debate over HGH testing in the NFL on Friday. I’ll take you on a trip back to Colin Kaepernick’s hometown on Tuesday (you’ll get a kick out of him ducking into Little Caesar’s for a large pepperoni pie) but it’s during the trip back to the Bay Area when the sudden star really opens up.
You’ll read real stuff from players here. Rising-star cornerback Richard Sherman, who will be more thoughtful than loud for us, relates the story of who made him a tough football player. Ever wonder what it’s like—I mean, really like—to be cut from an NFL team? We’ve got the best piece I’ve ever read on it coming Thursday, from ex-Jag and current Chief Austen Lane. Last month, outside the last Jacksonville defensive meeting before summer vacation, Lane heard a strange voice call his name. He writes:
It’s an unrecognizable voice. I can’t explain exactly why, but I feel a moment of panic rush over me. I turn around to see one of our scouts. I start to slowly walk as he waves me over. Before I get the chance to say hi, the scout quietly says, ‘Dave needs to see you.’
Dave. David Caldwell, the general manager. Oh my God.
That’s at the heart of what we’ll do—take you places you can’t go, but wished you could.
And did I mention Rex Ryan is doing “Ten Things I Think I Think” on Wednesday?
We’ll have regular “Ten Things” from players and NFL folk, as well as a quick three-question interview with people who have something to say (Joe Namath today, Tom Brady tomorrow). We’ll cover camps, players and teams with SI quality.
We’ll have the kind of modern touches NFL mavens demand today. Watch staff videographer John DePetro’s video looks inside the worlds of Zach Line and Austen Lane accompanying their stories this week; DePetro knows good stories. Veteran SI photographer and videographer extraordinaire Bill Frakes and aide Laura Heald was with me in Oxnard, and his work from there is beautiful. Podcasts will follow in August. We’ll blast you with regular stuff on social-media platforms, including tweets of short “Ten Things’’ entries, with links back to the full column. Hey, just trying to stave off old age.
Inside our shop are three invaluable editors: my right-hand man, Mark Mravic, who has edited my copy at the magazine for the past decade; associate editor Matt Gagne, who will edit, produce and brainstorm ideas; and the versatile techno-editor, senior web producer and staff conscience Tom Mantzouranis. Mravic does a good job telling me when I’m an idiot and keeping the place on track. Gagne and Mantzouranis are the ace utility players who have gotten this train rolling. I’m indebted also to the bright minds of SI art director Chris Hercik and SI.com managing editor Matt Bean, who helped get this project rolling. On the technical side, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jim DeLorenzo and Chris Gibbons, as well as Jason Purdy and his development and production team. They never said how tough the job was going to be. They just got it done.
In the preseason, we’ll have a few new posts a day, including weekends. During the season, it’ll be mostly the same—except we’re still thinking about how to handle weekend coverage. More on that as we know it, including a plan for fantasy football. We’re still deciding how to cover games, which seems odd. But we’re questioning everything. Most weeks, I’ll be in the NBC Studios on Sundays for Football Night in America duties (and I am indebted to my NBC bosses Mark Lazarus and Sam Flood for many things, including their kindness in allowing me to take a couple of Sunday road trips this year), while the rest of the staff will be … well, we’ll see.
Today’s a different day; most of the stories that will hit our front page are already in our “river of copy,” below the main story. We’ll alternate them atop the site. Most days, we’ll post new stories in the main new spot on the front page of the site at 8 am Eastern, 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.—along with fresh video and the “Ten Things’’ and “3Q” three-question interviews. The site’s quite user-friendly. Play with it for a few minutes, and you’ll see how easy it is to find recent and old posts, both by topic and by writer’s name.
One last point: This venture never would have happened without the faith and vision of my editorial bosses at the mag, Fichtenbaum and Stone; or without SI publisher Frank Wall and his dedicated sales team. I went on sales trips to 19 companies or agencies with Wall and his ace sales people to see Ad America. A great education, to say the least, and I mean that. The three flagship sponsors who have signed on—Bose, Gillette Deodorant and Microsoft—have been fabulous to work with. It’s a reality of today’s media that when you start a new venture, you need financial help. Those three companies are going to let me be me, with full editorial freedom (obviously) for my team. I’m grateful to have Bose, Gillette Deodorant and Microsoft along for the ride on the first leg of this mysterious adventure.
I say mysterious because I don’t know where it’ll lead. You—the readers, viewers and listeners—will decide that. All I know is we’re going to give it our best shot. Get back to me, okay?