ESPN conducted a media conference call today with Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman and commentators Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and Lisa Salters to discuss the 2013 NFL season. ESPN kicks off the 44th year of MNF on September 9 with a doubleheader: Philadelphia Eagles vs. Washington Redskins (7 p.m. ET) and Houston Texans vs. San Diego Chargers (10:15 p.m.). Full audio replay; MNF TV schedule and photos). Transcript:
JAY ROTHMAN: Hello, everybody. We’re extremely excited to kick off the 44th season of Monday Night Football. Also, (we’re) very excited to kick off our second year of the team of Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and Lisa Salters. They had a terrific first year together, and we’re only looking to improve on our success from last year. It’s a group that works extremely hard, extremely passionate, love what we do, and we work hard to be the best NFL watch every week.
We don’t get to play in the postseason, so every week is the Super Bowl for us regardless of the match‑up on paper. This group gives it all we have until the end of the fourth quarter, and (we’re) really proud of what we did last year, and as I said, looking to get better this year.
A couple of new exciting things for us: Producing MNF will be in brand new state‑of‑the‑art mobile units, so any of you that might be coming to a MNF game, please let Bill or myself know. We’d be happy to give you a tour. They are unbelievable, state‑of‑the‑art. The country’s largest mobile unit, technically advanced like no other, and just tremendous working conditions for us to do our jobs in and bring MNF to fans each and every Monday night, so we’re excited about that.
We also have a new open this year. We’ve been working for seven months with Hollywood director Peter Berg, who has directed Friday Night Lights among other films, a terrific talent, and have collaborated with him to present a new open for Monday night, which we’re excited about. It’s a departure from any musical videos that we’ve done or any other networks have done for that matter, and it’s really a celebration of the 44‑year history of Monday night with pop culture and all of the legendary broadcasters that have brought you the game. We’re excited about that to open up our coverage.
We have a handful of dynamic innovations in our game coverage this year, which I won’t bore everybody with. You’ll get to see it. It’s a big toolbox that we have that we’re excited about. Maybe one of the things I’m most excited about in the spirit of doing the right thing is we have a little segment we kicked off last year called the Gruden Grinder. It’s a lot of fun we have with Jon in terms of the off‑the‑field player of the game. It’s a segment that gained a lot of traction last year with fans.
One in particular who we met along the way happened to be on Veterans Day last year in Pittsburgh when we did a game, we met a 23‑year‑old Marine sergeant who was blown up in Afghanistan, spent a year in Walter Reed and almost lost his life, and we had him speak to our team the morning of the game on Veterans Day to help us deliver some meaning to Veterans Day, and it wasn’t just another check‑the‑box initiative, if you will. Zach (Stinson) touched us like no one has. In speaking with our group at the same time, one of the things that he shared with us was what a fan of the Gruden Grinder he was and how passionate he was, so one of the things we’re doing this year is we’ve recruited Zach to help us each and every week with our candidates. He’s a great young man, a 23‑year‑old man, married with a small child, and as I said, disabled. He’s from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, so he’s going to be our little behind‑the‑scenes guy to help us out each and every week.
We have, as I said, a handful of innovations we’re excited about along with solid, great coverage, and a great talent in Mike, Jon and Lisa, and we’re fired up to kick off the season with the Eagles and Redskins.
MIKE TIRICO: Good morning, everybody. I’ll be brief so you can get to Jon and any of us with any questions you all might have. It’s hard to believe this is year eight for me and for us on this project. There is still nothing like it. There is still a special chill that you get when you hear that Monday Night Football music as you’re waiting to go on the air. I have been lucky enough to see that open that Jay was talking about that Peter Berg directed, and it really is a timeline of the lives of a lot of us who are in our 30s or 40s or even 50s who have grown up with MNF. It’s exciting to be a part of something in a day and age where it’s a microwave generation and things seem to change every five minutes. It’s so nice to be a part of a place a lot of American sports fans have come to week in, week out in the fall for four and a half decades.
Year five with Jon; we talk all the time; I’ve said it before, I’m blessed to work with some of the best people as analysts in the business, and there is no one the equal of Jon in terms of preparing the rest of our group, and I don’t just mean announcers. I mean everyone from the people in the tape room to our camera operators, to our production assistants, and it helps make us better. It’s a privilege to be on a team that Jon has coached now for his fifth season along with Lisa who’s been a great friend and worked NBA with me for many years, as well. We’re all excited to be with Jay and Chip and everybody else and look forward to the schedule and look forward to helping you out with any questions along the way, whether it’s today or somewhere down the line this year.
JON GRUDEN: I’d like to echo a lot of the same things that Mike said. I appreciate the nice comments. Mike is the all‑time Gruden Grinder. I’m really glad it’s football season. I’m proud to be with this MNF team, Lisa and Mike, two real pros that obviously help me tremendously. I think we have some interesting match‑ups we’re excited to get to. Thank you very much for being on the phone with us today.
LISA SALTERS: This will be my second season of MNF, and I can honestly say that I have never missed an assignment and a group of colleagues as much as I did in the off‑season. Like Jay said, we don’t have postseason, and it was eight months before we got to see each other again, and I just couldn’t wait to be with Jon, who’s a great teacher. I tell everybody all the time when we’re sitting in a room and going over highlights, it’s like we’re on his team; we’re getting ready for a game week. And Mike, I’ve been working with Mike for many years, and I still think he’s the best announcer in the business. Jay and Chip, the best production team, producer/director out there, and I can’t wait to get it going for year two.
Q. For Jon, the opener, Redskins‑Eagles figures to feature two of the more intriguing offenses this year, and offenses that are probably pretty reflective of what’s going on in college football. I wonder if the trickle‑off that we’re seeing where college football is influencing the NFL is something you think is here to stay, or is it a faddish thing, because it seems like the river is flowing the other way now and college football is influencing the pros.
GRUDEN: That’s the million‑dollar question. I don’t think college football is penetrating the NFL, I think college football is in the NFL, and I think it’s here to stay. I see a lot of high school football. The game of high school football is different. Players are playing it differently, wide open, no huddle, spread systems, and that’s what’s in college football. That’s how we’re training coaches and players. It’s a big part of the National Football League.
When you watch RG3 and the Washington Redskins, you’re going to see some similarities to what RG3 did at Baylor, and when you watch Michael Vick play with Chip Kelly, you’re going to see a lot of things we saw at Oregon in the last four or five years. But I think it’s here to stay. I’m not saying it really excites me as maybe it does some other people because I like the conventional way of moving the football, throwing it in a traditional style of offense, but some of these quarterbacks can really make it happen, and it’ll be fun to watch.
Q. Jon, as you look at what Chip was able to do at Oregon, Chip Kelly with the Eagles, looking forward to that Monday night match‑up with the Redskins, how much do you think he’s going to be able to translate and adapt that to the NFL game, and more specifically what about the pace of the game and how far do you think the officials are going to let them push that without giving the defense an honest chance to rearrange themselves?
GRUDEN: Well, you know, let’s just start with this isn’t going to be the first no‑huddle offense the NFL has ever seen. Chip Kelly is a great coach, and he’s a no‑huddle guru, spread system master. But this isn’t the first time that an offense has gone with a no‑huddle offense. He’s going to mix his tempos and certainly put his spin on things for the entire length of football games.
I don’t know how the officials are going to do it any differently than they’ve done it for the New England Patriots or any other teams that feature the no‑huddle offense. I think what’s going to be interesting is if you go no‑huddle and play up tempo the whole game, what’s the conditioning level of your players? You’re only allowed to have 47 men play on Sunday, and some of these are kickers and punters and some of these guys play defense, so I’d like to see how it works with just 23 or 24 offensive players for potentially 85 and 90 snaps a game. I think conditioning and what it’s going to look like in week 9 or 10 or 13 when players can’t practice because they’re injured, I’m just anxious to see how the preparation works with the length of an NFL season with all these plays and tempo.
Q. For Jon: for yourself and other coaches who have gone into broadcasting and stayed in broadcasting even though there may be opportunities to return to coaching, what are some of the big reasons that keep you and other guys in broadcasting?
GRUDEN: Well, first of all, you’re very close to the game. It’s not like you put football away. You have access to things you’ve never seen before, seeing teams practice, seeing their facilities. You still get to study the tape. You see the game from a different angle. So that helps. You don’t miss the game like some people think because you’re so very close to it. And I’ll be honest with you; this is a fun profession. I really enjoy studying two teams and being with the people that I’m with. The lifestyle obviously is a little bit different, which is a great change for me. But those are the primary reasons, I think.
Q. What are some of the things that maybe you never even knew were part of broadcasting or that you never even knew existed?
GRUDEN: I never knew there were this many people on a crew. I never knew we had this many camera angles. I’m not kidding you. I am so intrigued with the video I have access to, I can’t even begin to tell you, this high definition isolation camera, the spidercam that’s shot behind the quarterbacks, I spend most of my days in here looking at network video, and my wife thinks I’ve lost my mind, but it’s probably the most excitement that I’ve had in a long time watching these tapes that I have access to now.
Q. I’m curious what you think about the whole RG3 progression of news here with the process of going about who’s clearing him, whether he should be cleared, whether this has been sort of a distraction for the team and whether this has gone in a manner that you did not expect? And for Lisa, you reported a couple weeks ago on MNF that Dan Snyder told you that James Andrews was going to have the final say on this. Dan Snyder then said he didn’t recall telling you that and then Adam Schefter reported yesterday that he basically had already been cleared, and I guess I’m curious what’s happened to that conversation between you and Dan Snyder?
SALTERS: Well, just to clarify, I never reported that Dan Snyder told me; I said he told us, and by us that means ESPN. So Dan Snyder had had a conversation with a member of our crew, and I was told about the conversation and that I should be able to use that information for the broadcast, which is a normal ‑‑ it happens a lot. We all are a team, just like the teams out there on the field. We all work together. We share information. Same way Adam Schefter shares information with us, I would share information with Adam or Jon or Mike or anybody else.
ROTHMAN: I’ll jump in here real quick because it was me who approached Dan on the field flat out before the game to say, Dan, this is a huge topic of conversation in this preseason game that we’re doing. I would like to accurately report if Robert feels 100 percent, and if Coach Shanahan feels that Robert is 100 percent and you feel Robert is 100 percent but Dr. James Andrews feels he’s not 100 percent, who has the final say because I would like us to accurately report on the air what the situation is, and Dan Snyder said to me, flat out, that it’s Dr. James Andrews who has the ultimate call whether Robert plays or not. And I asked Dan if that was good for me to use on the air, and he said absolutely.
And I shared that with Lisa in pregame because I thought that was big news, given all that we’ve read, all that we’ve heard, and it’s still feeling a little gray, and we wanted to be crystal clear in our reporting.
Q. That’s interesting because obviously he said that he’s going to see James Andrews today and that he has not been cleared yet, and Adam reported yesterday that he has been cleared, I guess.
ROTHMAN: Yeah, I can’t speak to Adam, I just know what I asked Dan straight up.
Q. I am curious what you think about this whole process, if you think this could have been done in a more straightforward simple manner or is this the way things happen?
GRUDEN: Robert Griffin is such a popular figure, everybody wants to know if he’s playing, when he’s playing. Personally I know Robert Griffin and I’ve anticipated him being the opening‑day starter for quite some time. So I really don’t pay attention; no disrespect to a lot of the reports, whether it be Twitter or texts or TV reports or radio. Just knowing Robert Griffin and the work he’s put in, I expected him all along to be the opening‑day starter. I’d be surprised if he isn’t. Fortunately for the Redskins, they have a contingency plan ready to roll in Kirk Cousins. But I try not to get overwhelmed with all this reporting on when or if he’s going to play. I have a confidence that he will.
Q. Mike, I’m just kind of curious just as you’re a guy who follows the sports landscape and you’re seeing what’s going on with everyone doing four‑, five‑, six‑hour pregame shows and so much programming going on during the week with the NFL, I just wonder is it even possible to reach such a critical mass with this coverage of the NFL? Is there kind of no end as far as where this thing is going?
TIRICO: You know, I think the fact that fans are so emotionally involved in their team, plus they’re involved in their fantasy football teams, which I think really adds a significant part, and then there’s the third extent of, legal or otherwise, people who wager on games. I think that keeps this thing going.
I’ve said before, perhaps on this call over the years, that I think football fits the lifestyle of the fan because if you have five or six hours a week to devote to it, which is the equivalent of two Major League Baseball games, those six hours can have you as a pseudo‑expert on your team. You watch them play for three hours, watch a couple hours of pregame, listen to some talk during the week, get online and read whatever you need to get your fantasy team ready. So when people want to access the information it’s available to them and in a variety of methods of delivery, with personalities and approaches on all those pregame shows.
I would assume at this point if we added up all the hours of pregame programming with so many people doing daily shows, it might equal the hours of actual football played during the week in the NFL.
But at some point, as with everything, the fans will speak. If people stop watching these shows and the ratings erode, then people will have to find an alternative of something that they’ll watch more than pregame or postgame NFL conversation. I think while that appetite is still there, and that shows in the business world in terms of advertisers, but the fans ‑‑ I’m walking around the US Open and people are asking me, hey, I’ve got my fantasy draft tomorrow, who do you think I should draft as my second quarterback. People are hungry for it, the anticipation for the college season I don’t remember ever being this high.
Football has become America’s sport, and much like when you’re over in England covering any event and you’re talking about the English Premier League, the Barclays Premier League in soccer, there’s saturation and constant talk about a two‑hour game, and we are just mirroring that here in the U.S. Until people say, you know what, I don’t want to hear about it anymore, we’re going to get more pregame shows. It’s good because the competition, I think, raises the level of discussion and the information available to fans as they watch.
Q. Jon, can I get your opinion on what’s going on with the Bears and how they’ll be with (Marc) Trestman, and do you have any concerns about this Brandon Marshall situation, what’s going on with him?
GRUDEN: Well, first of all, I have a lot of confidence that Marc Trestman will do an excellent job because I have worked with him in the past and I know how meticulous he is. I really like the coaching staff that he hired. I think that’s a real challenge for any first‑year head coach is acquiring the right staff. Very impressed with (Jon) Bostic, the young linebacker they drafted out of Florida. I was always wondering who would replace the great Brian Urlacher, but it looks like they have some options with DJ Williams and Bostic.
But I think Mark Trestman will do an excellent job with Jay Cutler, and they desperately need Brandon Marshall to not only play but be healthy when he plays because he’s the most targeted wide receiver, I think, in football, and he’s Jay Cutler’s favorite go‑to guy. That’ll be critical in how healthy he is. It’s going to have a lot to say with how good this offense is.
Q. Jon and Mike, the Bengals kind of seem to be the dark horse pick for the Super Bowl this year, just observing them in the preseason opener, and with [offensive coordinator] Jay (Gruden), do you think this offense can take that next step? And for Mike, how eager are you guys for that week two match‑up and how much do you think James Harrison facing his former team will be part of the story line?
GRUDEN: I think the Bengals are a legitimate dark horse. James Harrison obviously has to prove that he can play a different position, and they have to prove that he can function in a different role in their nickel package. He’s been a right defensive end rushing the passer and doing it extremely well, but Michael Johnson played right defensive end, and he’s a franchise player, so how they utilize Harrison will be interesting, who the safeties are going to be, who plays opposite Reggie Nelson. That will be, I think, an interesting subject.
And also I think they have a chance to be better. They’re just very young. It’s easy to say Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard are going to come in and make a lot of plays, but they haven’t done it yet in an NFL game. They have to prove they can do that for 16 weeks, and is (Andrew) Whitworth healthy? I haven’t seen Whitworth play in the preseason. And is Andre Smith healthy? He was inactive at the start of training camp. I saw him get hurt the other night in the Dallas Cowboys game, so what kind of tackle player are they going to have? What are the health of their two tackles? You’ve got to have those men to win big in the NFL.
TIRICO: And on the Cincinnati side, it has been a while since we’ve been there, so it’s nice to go back. I think when teams are anticipated of having a good season, it’s always fun to be able to go visit. The city seems to turn out. And if my memory serves me right, November of 2010 was the last time we had a Monday night game there, and it was Pittsburgh, as well. So that’ll be interesting.
I also like the buzz around the franchise and how this franchise has really turned around. It’s not just the off‑field and the incidents. You look at the decisions made in the front office and the drastic talent that has been brought in, and Jon’s brother Jay has done such a good job with the offensive talent here over the last couple years, getting to the playoffs these first two seasons. The entirety of what Cincinnati is doing has a good vibe to it. So I’m excited to get into Cincinnati week two, division game.
The Harrison story line will set itself up because of his long history with the Steelers, what happens in game one, how James looks in that game, and more importantly James Harrison has feasted on other quarterbacks for a decade and tried to get the ball back to Ben Roethlisberger. Now if both are healthy, he’ll be trying to get to Ben Roethlisberger and get the ball back to Andy Dalton, so that’ll be interesting bi‑play to watch between the two of them as the night goes on.
Q. Jon, you’re entering your fifth season. How has calling games the past couple years changed for you at all, be it because of the rise of social media, or as you were referencing earlier some of these new camera angles. I’m wondering how has calling games changed for you if at all the past few years?
GRUDEN: Well, calling games has changed because the game itself has changed; the no‑huddle offenses, the option football becoming prevalent in pro football. You’re not studying pass rushers, you’re studying the read and the mesh of the quarterback. You’re looking at different things, you’re anticipating different situations now because of the nature of the game.
And very importantly with the rule changes in regards to player safety, you’ve got to really be careful that you see the video before you comment because it is a very controversial matter right now, players and how they tackle, et cetera.
I think those are the big changes. I’ve tried to get a little bit better as a listener, tried to take some tips from my friend Mike Tirico and the people that I work for, the director, the producer of the show to try to take the preparation to the broadcast a little bit better, but I still have plenty of improving to do.
Q. In terms of player safety, how do you view the question of whether concussions and head injuries in general are getting enough in‑game attention by analysts such as yourself today?
GRUDEN: Well, that’s a good question. Try not to turn the football game into a player safety matter. I think when you have a live football game, let’s report the game itself. We try to cover as many different players in the game that we can. It’s a great honor to be in this league and play on MNF. It’s the only game going, so we try to stick to the game as much as possible, and I think that’s the best approach to have.
Q. Jon, just looking at this batch of young quarterbacks, Andrew Luck, RG3, Russell Wilson and also including Colin Kaepernick in that group because he broke out at basically the same time they did, what is your outlook for those guys? Do you think the league is going to catch up to them at all, or do you think they’re going to continue an upward trajectory?
GRUDEN: You know, I think if they can stay healthy, they can have dominant careers. Now, the style in which they play concerns me because I’m not accustomed to seeing quarterbacks take the kind of hits and as many hits as these men take. The quarterbacks that just got paid a lot of money, if you just look at the contracts of Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Tony Romo, they just got $100 million deals. Yes, they’re talented but they’re healthy.
We already have seen Robert Griffin get injured, unfortunately, and I’m concerned with any quarterback that runs the ball and plays the position recklessly because as far as I know, the quarterback is the only guy that can’t play on Sunday if he has a sore passing shoulder. That’s my only concern. I love watching them play. I love the style of offense that they play. The combination of drop‑back passing and option football is just downright nasty to a defense to defend, but can they sustain that style of play deep into their careers and eventually become $100 million quarterbacks, as well?
Q. My other question is kind of a follow‑up to something Jon said about being careful about commenting on a hit before you see the video. There was that play involving Jon Bostic on the Thursday night game that you guys had where it was a huge hit on (Mike) Willie and everybody celebrated it, not just you guys but across Twitter and the internet, and it turned out that it was a fineable offense. I’m wondering from Mike and Jay if the rule changes have altered or will alter your approach at all to hits like that.
TIRICO: I can’t speak to the Bostic hit. That was the one preseason game that our group didn’t do. Jay didn’t produce that game, Jon and I weren’t calling it, so I can’t speak directly to what was said at that moment in that play. But I know in general and I can tell you, and Jay and Jon and Lisa are witnesses of this every week, and we have Gerry Austin, who was the referee in two Super Bowls, if you were in our meetings, there is at least 20 to 30 minutes of conversation about rules, implications of rules, what a team does as Jon or I watch during the week in preparation, or Jay and Lisa, as well, that may be a rules impact to the game. And as these things change, we’re staying as up to date as possible on them.
It’s not our responsibility to say this is going to be fined by the league office; it’s to explain what the rule is so you understand the application at that moment, as best as we can interpret how the officials have called it on the field. And we are not going to be perfect, just like the players are going to throw incompletions and the league office will say there was a flag thrown that shouldn’t have been thrown in a certain instance. We do our best; we’re very cognizant of the larger issue.
If you watched the preseason games, I thought Jon did a couple of brilliant things to educate fans on football and where it’s going right now: The quarterback things he’s talking about and when they can be hit and not be hit; he called it playing with fire; modern‑day decision making for what safeties do when a ball is lofted over the middle compared to what was done five or six years ago.
We’re very conscious of it, very aware of it. We can’t let it dominate the telecast because the next play happens, you want to keep moving on, but we certainly know the climate that we’re in, certainly know that player safety is priority one from the National Football League office level, and try to explain to folks at home who don’t have all week to understand why this is being flagged or what they’re looking for, here’s why the flag was thrown, here’s the likely explanation, and often times I’ll say here’s the definition, you decide. Did he lead with the crown of his helmet, did he do these things.
To be honest, sometimes you’ll look at a replay and say that’s a clean hit, and the league office will come back with a fine. We’ll do our best to get it as close to possible ‑‑ correct as possible I should say, but the ultimate answer lies on Park Avenue with the league office every week.
ROTHMAN: Yeah, I think it’s a case‑by‑case basis in terms of coverage. In the case of the Chicago game, I think the player that was hit bounced right back up. I was in the truck observing the hit, and I actually thought it was a clean hit at the time, and I think we just need to be careful. Obviously if there’s a hit that is a head‑to‑head kind of thing and a player is down and not moving, we’re certainly sensitive to that. We’re not looking to celebrate injury. Document, yes, but not celebrate injury. So I really think it’s a case‑by‑case basis. That’s really it.
Q. Lisa, did you want to add anything to that in terms of your reporting?
SALTERS: No, I mean, the one thing I remember, I watched on the sidelines for that game, and the one thing I do recall is doing a sideline interview with one of Bostic’s teammates. I think it was ‑‑ I’m trying to remember who it was with, but he was just saying that the hit looked good, that it looked good for Bostic, it set a tone, and that the player that he hit kind of got up out of pride. I think that was the one thing that resonated with me, like Jay said. The player got right back up. It’s not like he was hurt on the field. So as far as we knew at the time, it was a legal hit. I take my cue from the guys, from Jay, Jon and Mike.
Q. My question is about the Bucs. Jon, are they one of those teams that can go 10‑6 or 6‑10, depending on the breaks? How do you see this playing out with Tampa this year?
GRUDEN: I think this is the year for Tampa to win the division and return to the playoffs. They have a quarterback that has played well in this system. They have two great receivers, Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson. Their offensive line appears to be getting healthy; if (Carl) Nicks returns with Davin Joseph, I think that combination is as good as there is in football. And the left tackle is a Pro Bowler in Donald Penn. They have a running back that no one talks enough about. What a phenomenal rookie year he had. Defensively, I think we were signing defensive backs at the Pepin distributorship when I was coaching the Bucs. When you bring in Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson, you immediately become formidable in the secondary. So I have a lot of confidence that Tampa is going to be a very good football team this year.
Q. There’s a lot of scrutiny on guys down here about No. 5, Josh Freeman. He’s taking his lumps. Fran Tarkenton weighed in last week that the guy has proven in talking to him that he can’t play in this league. He’s in his last year of his contract. How do you think this is all going to end for Josh Freeman here?
GRUDEN: I’ve got a lot of respect for Fran Tarkenton, but I don’t necessarily agree with his comment on Josh Freeman. I live in Tampa. I’ve lived here for 13 years and I have studied Tampa carefully for a lot of reasons. If you don’t think Josh Freeman can play, I think you’re making a huge mistake. He broke franchise records for passing. I’ve seen him do it at a high level. And if I’ve seen him do it at a high level, that means I know he can do it again. You know, look, not everybody agrees. I’m accused of being too positive and liking everybody, but I do like Freeman. I wish I had Josh Freeman, I’ll just say it like that.
Q. Jon, the last two seasons Green Bay has won the division in the NFC North. I wondered coming into this season between Detroit and Minnesota and Chicago, which one of those teams do you consider the strongest to unseat Green Bay from the division title?
GRUDEN: Boy, that’s a good question. I think the Lions are a lot better football team than 4‑12. I never saw that coming. The addition of Reggie Bush is going to take a lot of pressure, I think, off of that passing game, and if they can improve a bit in the secondary, they’ll be a better football team. I think that division is up for grabs. I still have Green Bay as the favorite.
If there was one team I would be leery of, it would be the Chicago Bears because they won 10 games last year. I think they’re going to be much improved offensively with Marc Trestman there, and they can still generate turnovers. Can Green Bay overcome the loss of (Donald) Driver, Greg Jennings, (Bryan) Bulaga? We’ll see. Their defense has to play better.
Q. Jon, what kind of expectations do you think are realistic for RG3, not only considering he’s coming off of the knee but everybody has game film on him now after last season, and then secondly what do you think of the job that Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen have done in constructing that roster?
GRUDEN: Well, in regards to the Shanahans, I think they’ve done an excellent job adjusting their system to Robert Griffin, as a rookie allowing him to do some things that he was familiar with, and continuing to develop him as a drop‑back passer. I still think Robert Griffin is going to have some Steve Young‑like qualities as a pocket passer and as a guy that can really explode out of there if you take some of these routes away.
But I give the Shanahans a lot of credit. I like their drafts. Trent Williams is a Pro Bowl left tackle; Griffin was the Rookie of the Year; who thought Alfred Morris was going to run for 1,600 yards. I didn’t. They did a nice job assembling a receiver corps that is very good despite the lack of numbers. I love (Leonard) Hankerson, I like the way they’ve gone out and got Pierre Garçon in free agency. It’s a well‑constructed roster. (Ryan) Kerrigan has really come through, and if (Brian) Orakpo comes back they have an outstanding 1‑2 combination rushing the passer.
As far as Robert Griffin’s expectations, I think they’re very, very high. Everybody expects more. The better you play, the more that’s expected of you, and to be a great football player you have to deliver. That’s what Brady did, that’s what the great quarterbacks do. Aaron Rodgers does it every year, sees Peyton Manning continues to do it, and if Robert Griffin is clear and ready to roll like I think he is, I expect more of the same from him.
Q. Jon, I know you guys were in Baltimore last week to see the Panthers, got the Offensive Rookie of the Year from two years ago and then Kuechly in last year’s defensive group. How unusual is that and how critical is it for roster growth, and any tandems like that in recent history come to mind, young guys that you can kind of build around?
GRUDEN: Well, I think you made a great point. I don’t ever remember that happening. To have Cam Newton, he’s just a kid, he’s still just getting started, and the performance that Luke Kuechly laid down on our national broadcast was phenomenal. I can only imagine having two young leaders at critical positions and what that does for the Carolina fan base. It’s an exceptional job by their organization, there’s no question, and a little bit of good luck, good fortune, too. It’s nice when you have the No. 1 pick and there’s a great quarterback in the draft.
Q. Jon, two quickies: opening day is not a glamorous game, but Kansas City and Jacksonville is the No. 1 overall pick and the No. 2 overall pick will be on the field, both playing right tackle. Can you talk about what can be expected of two rookie offensive tackles, and how long did it take those guys to become worthy of that pick?
GRUDEN: Well, you never hear of tackles getting drafted 1 and 2 in the draft, and let alone playing right tackle. And if you look at Lane Johnson, Philadelphia’s tackle who was picked in the top five, as well, all these men are picked high, you would think they’d be opening day starters at left tackle, but they’re playing right tackle, which is really an amazing sidebar to this game. But both young, excellent prospects. I think their home is going to be on the left side in the future, but it looked like in the preseason they both have had some growing pains, yet you can still see the upside and the athleticism that they possess.
Q. Does that worry you as a head coach, to have a rookie tackle?
GRUDEN: Well, I’ve been a lot more worried because I never really had prospects at tackles that had this type of ability. You don’t want to start a whole lot of rookies, but you do not have as much of a problem sending guys out there like these two. (Luke) Joeckel and (Eric) Fisher are tremendous athletes, they can recover, they’re smart, and I think they’ve picked up their system and improved throughout the preseason, so I don’t think there’s much concern there.
Q. And Alex Smith, is he a product of Jim Harbaugh, or is he the real deal?
GRUDEN: Alex Smith is a product of about 10 different coordinators. I think no one really knows much about Alex Smith. He’s been in some horrific situations from the standpoint that he’s never had a chance to settle in and really flourish in any system for an extended period of time, so by hooking up with Andy Reid, who does an excellent job with quarterbacks and being in a West Coast system, a progression passing offense, I think we’ll see the best of Alex Smith, and I know Andy Reid will have a few tricks up his sleeve to utilize Smith’s athletic ability. But I think he’s in the right spot now, and I think a lot of people are going to look at the Chiefs curiously to see how good Alex Smith really is.
Q. Jon, Chip Kelly’s offense is going to be very tight end centric. He could end up keeping as many as four tight ends on his roster, and he’s regularly played two and even three tight end sets most of the preseason. What kind of match‑up problems is that going to present for a defense?
GRUDEN: Well, it depends on if the tight ends are any good.
Q. Well, just assume they are.
GRUDEN: Well, you can use them as a jokers, really. They’re good in any type of formation because you can create ‑‑ you can use a tight end as a classic, on the line of scrimmage tight end; you can put a tight end in the backfield and create a two‑back set, you can line up in a no‑back set, use them as wide receivers. You get tremendous pre‑snap looks when you put a tight end outside of wide receiver in terms of is it man or is it zone. You get bigger blockers on the perimeter when you throw these bubble screens and quick screens. You probably want to throw the quick screen to DeSean Jackson and have a tight end block. So you get size on the edge where Chip Kelly likes to get the ball, and you just have men that can do a lot of different things. We know (Zach) Ertz can catch. We know (Brent) Celek can catch. Clay Harbor has done some excellent things, and the guy that they signed from the Houston Texans is a jack‑of‑all‑trades. I’ve seen (James) Casey play fullback, I’ve seen him do it all. I’m with you; I’m excited to see how it pulls it off and utilizes these tight ends. With the absence of (Jeremy) Maclin I know they’ll have to lean on them.
Q. I wanted to get your take on the progression of Brandon Weeden, if you’ve seen him in the preseason, and also just your thoughts on Norv Turner as an offensive coordinator; can he help Weeden get to the next level.
GRUDEN: Well, Brandon Weeden is a guy that we had here for the quarterback camp. Look, he has a huge arm. He’s got a tremendous live arm, and I thought he made more tight‑window throws than almost any of the other college quarterbacks that came out that year. I think he’s on a football team that doesn’t have tremendous skill around him. I don’t think that his wide receiving corps is a polished group yet. But I do think he is developing. I like what he did against St. Louis, really like some of the things he did against Detroit. None of them played very well against Indianapolis. Weeden and the rest of the offense didn’t play very good. That was a setback and somewhat of a disappointment.
But Norv Turner as an offensive coach, you’d be lucky to have him running your offense if you ask me because he’s gotten it done wherever he’s been. He’s developed quarterbacks, and he just has a very good temperament, a vast amount of knowledge, creativity, and I think he has guts to call plays in certain situations on game day that most people don’t.
Q. Do you think this is a make‑or‑break season for Weeden as far as if he doesn’t have a good season that they will go a different direction next year?
GRUDEN: Well, that’s a tough one there. I don’t know what direction Cleveland would go. It’s easy to say it’s make or break, but who are you going with next year? I mean, they’ve changed quarterbacks more than any team in NFL history in the last 20 years since they’ve been back in Cleveland. What’s the alternative? I think they have to try to build around Weeden, maybe improving the receiving corps, let him work himself through this new offense. I’m confident he’s going to be a good pro quarterback. But if it doesn’t work out, coaches and quarterbacks don’t last long, I know that.
Q. Jon, I’m curious where you felt Robert Griffin needed to develop most as a passer, and going from year one to year two for quarterbacks, what are some of the things that they kind of take a big jump on as far as their ability in the pocket?
GRUDEN: Well, you know, a lot of the passes that Washington throws are play action bootlegs. Some of them are what I call one‑and‑done, where you fake the ball and you throw the ball behind the linebackers, and if the receiver isn’t open, the quarterback runs or throws it away. I think where Robert is going to grow tremendously is he’s going to be asked to execute more conventional drop‑back passing plays, different route concepts, three‑step, five‑step play action passes where he’s going to read a progression. Here’s the primary, here’s the secondary receiver, here’s your outlet, and use your legs only if you have to, but we would like to throw the ball to our tight end. He’s back, he’s not hurt this year. We want to get Garçon some more catches so he can impact the game more. We want to use maybe more three‑wide sets, more empty backfield sets like Shanahan used with (John) Elway in Denver. I think he’s got to continue to improve his protection awareness, who the hot receiver is, when and when not to audible, and continue to grow up as a conventional drop‑back passer.
Q. For week one is there a bigger challenge not having played any preseason games or really getting a ton of time in the off‑season?
GRUDEN: I think so, I really do. I know a lot of these quarterbacks don’t play extensively in the preseason, but he hasn’t taken a live snap since Seattle. I don’t believe a quarterback has done this since Tom Brady came back from his injury. I can’t be sure on that, but I can’t remember a quarterback opening day starter not taking one snap in a preseason game. It’ll be challenging for him, that’s for sure.
Q. Jon, you guys were obviously in Baltimore last week for that preseason game. I was curious as a whole your take on Baltimore and what you saw from them.
GRUDEN: Well, obviously the turnovers I was shocked by. They turned the ball over too many times in the preseason. I think they’re finding their way as a football team, not only inserting new players but adapting to a new culture without Ed Reed and Ray Lewis obviously and some of the leaders they’ve had there. But I think they’re going to really have to adapt to not having Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta working the middle of the field.
I felt Tandon Doss didn’t look for the ball against the blitz, interception for a touchdown. Some of these things can be corrected, but you don’t see these things happen very often to championship‑caliber teams. I’m really interested to see how Dallas Clark and (Brandon) Stokley come in and service the Ravens between the numbers as viable receivers because they have to replace two great players.
Q. Like you said, the Ravens are in the process of replacing Anquan Boldin and also in the process of replacing Dennis Pitta. I’m sure there’s an acclimation period that comes along with that as far as Joe Flacco and just building a rapport with some of these other weapons, but what have you seen from Joe throughout the course of this preseason?
GRUDEN: Well, look, he’s become not only the face of the franchise, but he is the leader of that football team. His personality isn’t like Ray Lewis’s obviously, but he’s still a very effective well‑respected leader in the clubhouse. Uncommon that a man has 11 touchdowns, no interceptions in the playoffs and throws four, maybe five interceptions in just a handful of snaps in the preseason. That was alarming and concerning to me, and I think he is struggling right now figuring out who his go‑to guys are because Pitta and Boldin weren’t good, they were great.
Q. Jon, we’re talking about Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher going into retirement, two guys with speed and athleticism that they brought to the middle linebacker position. Can you just speak to what today’s offenses with the spread and everything that RG3 and Kaepernick and these kind of guys bring to the quarterback position, how that’s going to affect the continuing evolution of the middle linebacker position? What do the middle linebackers have to look like and be like going forward?
GRUDEN: Well, middle linebackers, first of all, they’d better be in shape and they’d better be athletic, because these spread offenses, they can wear you out physically, running east and west, defending sideline to sideline potentially 80, 87, 92 snaps a game, and when you’re a 235‑ or 250‑pound man and you have to do that, that’s very difficult, so it’ll really tax these defenders, these linebackers physically, and mentally they get worn out because now these linebackers have to call defenses by themselves. The defensive coordinator doesn’t even have time to signal a play, these offenses are up and at you so often.
These linebackers have to be very aware. They’ve got to be sharp. They have to be great communicators, leaders, and they have to be able to play sideline to sideline and do a lot of different things. That’s why like Luke Kuechly in Carolina, everybody is looking for every‑down hybrid‑type linebackers that can do a lot of different things.
Q. Jon, the commissioner has talked a lot about changing the culture when it comes to some of the violent hits, the way we respond to head injuries, and the league is working with youth leagues on tackling techniques. I wonder how difficult it is to change the culture, and how urgent is it that that’s addressed?
GRUDEN: I think it’s always ‑‑ look, I think it’s always been the primary focus. I used to coach and I used to play, and my dad coached and my dad played. Player safety has always been a focus. I know that there’s a lot of lawsuits and some well‑documented cases that are very public right now, but I’ve always felt that teaching the proper fundamentals and playing the game with a specific etiquette is important.
You know, again, I used to coach in this league, and I believe our coaches felt the same way, and so did our players. I’m glad that we’re emphasizing proper tackling techniques, proper etiquette, but we all have to remember that football is live, full‑speed tackling. There’s concussions, there’s concussions in soccer, there’s concussions any time there’s a ball bouncing around. I’m just glad that it’s being emphasized. Anything we can do to improve safety I think is a good thing.
Q. And just a quick follow‑up, with the rule changes and de‑emphasizing some of the hard hits, any concern from you at all about the nature of the game being watered down on any level?
GRUDEN: You know, sometimes you wonder what you tell a defender. Mike talked about it a little bit earlier. To me sometimes the quarterback, if you’re going to fine somebody, you should fine the quarterback, because he telegraphed a throw, he threw it into a crowd and something bad is going to happen. But the more we throw the football, the more we throw the football, the more collisions and big collisions are potential. 700 passing attempts for some teams, there’s going to be 700 more opportunities for big collisions.
Look, I don’t know what else to say. It is frustrating to a degree. I don’t know what you tell a defender on certain occasions. But I do think that the NFL certainly has put a lot of time and thought into making this game safer and trying to eliminate some of the potential head injuries. It’s a tough process.
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