What better way to kick off the 2013 season than with the launch of a mold-shattering NFL website, staffed by the sport's ultimate insiders
AT THE NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in 2000, Michigan State wide receiver Plaxico Burress and I sat down to lunch in the restaurant of the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, where all the players were staying. The interview lasted about two hours. When it was over, Burress, who would be a first-round pick, walked out into a mostly empty lobby. Reporters in attendance: about 15.
At the 2013 combine in Indy the media were no longer allowed in the players' hotel, so a huge lounge at Lucas Oil Stadium was turned into a pressroom. Sometimes more than 400 reporters and camera people filled the space. After USC quarterback Matt Barkley walked out one afternoon, 15 or 20 reporters trailed him, trying to squeeze in one last question. It looked like a pack of paparazzi chasing Lindsay Lohan outside a bar in West Hollywood ... for a fourth-round draft choice, as it turned out. Credentialed media at February's combine: 841.
Interest in the NFL is going up and up—but so is the competition for access. Sounds like a great time to launch a pro-football-centered website promising an insider's insight, huh? Actually, I believe it is, which is why I'm expanding Monday Morning Quarterback, a column I began writing in 1997 for SI.com, into The MMQB, a new stand-alone site under the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED umbrella.
I believe there's room for a thinking fan's site that emphasizes imagination, expertise and analysis, without all the blah locker room quotes that fill space but don't enhance an understanding of what's really going on. Log on to TheMMQB.com this week and you'll find SI-quality storytelling—buttressed, significantly, by video—all with a massive presence on social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google Plus. If, by the end of the season you haven't seen a new day in NFL coverage, then I will have failed.
TheMMQB.com aims to show the new, tell the new, write the new. One of the most riveting stories I've read in a while will be featured on the site this week: What is it like to be cut by an NFL team? Austen Lane, a fourth-year defensive end out of Murray State, wrote it while the wounds were still fresh from his June 13 whacking by Jaguars general manager David Caldwell. (Lane got picked up a day later by the Chiefs.) He describes walking into Caldwell's office and seeing the young G.M.'s face.
I've seen Walmart greeters that have worked a double shift with happier looks on their face. "Austen," the general manager says, looking me in the eyes. "We are releasing you." Cue numbness. A verbal lobotomy. That's what the words We are releasing you feel like. I just sit, nodding my head like a human vegetable, saying nothing. Some sentences seep into my consciousness.
"You're a great player."
"We just can't see you fitting the system."
"You'll get a shot on another team."
The rest ... gibberish.
I hope you have a long NFL career, Austen. Otherwise, you'll take my job way too soon.
The MMQB will analyze the biggest news and developing trends rather than chase which teams made the latest signings and who just tore a hamstring. Want an idea of what we consider important? The three sidebars here are excerpted from the site, where you will find these stories as well:
Former New England beat writer Greg Bedard, now a featured writer for TheMMQB.com, gets a tutorial from one of the NFL's go-to guys, Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason, on how to defend the new offensive gimmick known as the read-option. The Cardinal excel at executing a pro-style, two-gapping 3--4 defense that should make NFL offensive coordinators think twice about letting their QBs run wild this season. You'll feel as if you're in a Stanford classroom with Bedard, watching Mason diagram schemes.
Robert Klemko has a riveting profile of two gay NFL players who came out after they retired. Journeymen Esera Tuaolo and Wade Davis wrote letters to their younger selves, sharing advice on what they wish they had known at various life stages as they kept their sexuality a secret because of the culture of football. And I take you on a trip with Colin Kaepernick back to his home in Turlock, Calif., where, in between bites of a large pepperoni pie, this increasingly outspoken 25-year-old gives his take on tattoos, the ill-fated final minutes of Super Bowl XLVII and the birth mother he doesn't want in his life.
Think video (you'll love Austen Lane's story), think photo galleries, think social media in all its forms, think podcasts—think any and every way there is to tell a story, and TheMMQB.com will try it.
Most days at 10 a.m. ET, we'll post 10 Things I Think I Think, and many will be written by NFL personalities such as Falcons running back Steven Jackson, Jets coach Rex Ryan and Steelers safety Ryan Clark. The site will also have a daily interview with some of the biggest names in the game; Joe Namath, Tom Brady, Charles Woodson and Maurice Jones-Drew are first up. And writer Jenny Vrentas will spend the entire season following the life of Zach Line, an undrafted running back from Southern Methodist who landed in Vikings camp. If Line gets cut and winds up working at a CVS to pay the bills while going to in-season tryouts for practice-squad spots, we're still going to write about his quest to make it in pro football.
People have asked me, "How will you measure the success of the new site?" My bosses at SI, Time Inc. Sports Group editor Paul Fichtenbaum and managing editor Chris Stone, haven't once mentioned "clicks" or "unique visitors" or any of those webby terms digital executives like to use. They just want me to put out a product that will entertain and educate people about the real NFL. That's what I want, too. So give TheMMQB.com a test drive. Give us the season. And let us know when we're good and when we stink. We're listening.
The new site will take you to places you've never been before—like the inner sanctum of America's Team. To see the raw footage of coach Jason Garrett addressing the Cowboys, go to TheMMQB.com
Photograph by JAMES D. SMITH/DALLAS COWBOYS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
ONE DIRECTION All eyes were fixed on coach Jason Garrett as he addressed the Cowboys on the first day of training camp in Oxnard, Calif.
JAMES D. SMITH/DALLAS COWBOYS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GARRETT)