One of the biggest principles I try to follow in life is avoiding speaking for or questioning someone or some group of people whose shoes I've never walked in. Obviously, I've never been a professional football reporter or writer. I can bet there are countless aspects to their jobs that outsiders, like myself, fail to account for when criticizing their output and opinions. However, a recent development in the media's coverage of Titans rookie camp felt somewhat egregious, so I was compelled to speak up about it.
A contingent of Nashville sports media has taken issue with first-year head coach Mike Vrabel effectively blocking access to the Titans' current class of UDFAs, believing that he—in Whisenhunt-esque fashion—is displaying a rigidity that is an omen of bad things to come. The general projection being made is that, based on his staunch approach on this small of an issue so early on, Vrabel is appearing likely to take other stands on minor details which will alienate players, other coaches, and the fanbase in the future.
Those reporters have every right to hold their own beliefs on coaching approach and to form their own opinions on the job Vrabel is doing. What puts me off more so is that many of these reporters seem to easily lose sight of what the proverbial modern sports fan (a large portion of their readers) cares about and what media content they care to consume.
I have to ask: In what way would access to these UDFAs improve the content these reporters are producing this off-season? As I've listened to press conferences and interviews of the Titans 2018 drafted rookies so far, one thing has stood out: these same reporters asking, for the most part, the same mundane, repetitive questions over and over and over and over and over ... and over again. "What does it feel like to be a pro?" "Are you going to work hard?" "What are your goals for your rookie season?" "Tell me about the time Vince Young called you Honor, Harold."
Contemporary sports media in general complains about players who tow the company line or give generic answers in interviews. What exactly do they expect when they ask the same surface-level, rhetorical questions reporters have been asking every other rookie, player, etc. for the last 20 or more years? Most of the time the questions presume the answers. The fact they need to be asked (of the same player) multiple times is even more baffling.
As a fan, I'll tell you what my 2018 off-season doesn't need: Another story about player X, who grew up just outside of city Y, didn't receive any offers (or respect) from major colleges, but who gave it his all and against all odds made it onto an NFL roster as (likely) a camp body or practice-squad signee. That's not meant as disrespect to any athlete getting a crack at their dream. At this point, though, that story has been told hundreds, if not thousands, of times. It's cliche. Save it for the one-in-a-million that actually makes the roster and turns into a great pro player, and write it once they've established themselves. It will forever be interesting to hear about the unusual path of a guy like Antonio Brown, but that same plot lacks a climax without the success he's attained.
Maybe in a different off-season none of this would have struck me the same way. What I think serves as the tipping point is the fact that there are sooooo many more, better topics to cover this time around. We have a new coaching staff with notable backgrounds and pedigrees. Specifically, we have an OC in Matt LaFleur who is set to install a "new-age" offense the year after similar offenses produced a Super Bowl victory for the Eagles, a huge turnaround season for the Rams, and an undefeated end to 2017 for Jimmy G and the 49ers. We have the enigma that is Marcus Mariota, after he turned in a lackluster statistical season despite maintaining many fans' and analysts' conviction that he is a certified franchise quarterback. Then there's Jack Conklin's rehab, notable additions in Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis, any number of topics Taylor Lewan could provide his own brand of insight on within interviews, Delanie Walker's point on his career arc, the potent-oil riddled 2017 draft class, Tajae Sharpe's return, dare I say Kevin Dodd. The list goes on.
We have many great amateur content creators here at MCM, and elsewhere on the Titans interwebz, who do their best to provide in-depth analysis ranging from player and scheme breakdowns to news coverage and opinion. They do this without being paid, on top of working their day jobs, and without real access to the team. Yet, some of those who do get paid, don't have separate careers, and DO have real access see fit to complain when they can't ask a roster long shot the same five questions they'd ask every other roster long shot, so that they can write the same story, one that has a minimal shelf life, that they've written every off-season for the entirety of their careers. I'm finding it hard to have sympathy. Sorry. The fact they're using this point to discredit a coach who hasn't coached a game, despite a tendency to pump the brakes on fans who form opinions without real, on-field evidence, further demonstrates how off-base their point of view is.
I expect one counter argument I'd receive from those I'm lambasting is that the average fan simply doesn't have the interest in the same sort of in-depth analysis I do. I call Mularkey on two levels: 1) The majority of sports fans I know, especially those who follow teams closely enough to stay up-to-date with media reports, DO want this level of content. I know this because the discussions I have with them and the topics which get the most buzz on fan sites cater to this sort of in-depth analysis. Modern sports fans aren't gleaning their info from side columns in the newspaper or game broadcasts. We're seeking out the good stuff where we can get it. More educated fans also means a greater quantity of and more interesting topics to cover for reporters, so there's a mutual benefit. 2) Those "average" fans that might not care about a particular in-game defensive adjustment or inventive route concept aren't the ones that will keep contemporary reporters employed. They might buy merchandise, keep seats filled and drive Nielsen ratings, but they aren't the ones churning repeated page visits, tuning into press conferences, or paying for "insider" site subscriptions.
Too many professional sports reporters nowadays seem to seek a continued living serving up bland gruel to brainless readers/viewers. Maybe that's not their intent, but that's how it often comes across. That some of them are complaining that the gruel mix factory is slowing production really sticks in my craw. Get in touch with your customers. Anticipate the future of your profession. If you don't, be ready to be replaced. The rise of sites like PFF, Football Outsiders, etc., the explosion of fantasy sports and sports gambling, and the popularity of Twitter sports analysts should tell these reporters and their parent entities all they need to know about modern sports fans. Stop reading me the same old bedtime story. I'm already asleep.
With rant over, here’s a closing thought on this whole Vrabel UDFA policy: Instead of viewing it from the perspective of the media, how about viewing it from the perspective of a coach trying to help his potential players? Vrabel, a former player, knows how much hard work it takes for any player, let alone an undrafted one, to stick on an NFL roster. Perhaps he’s insisting on his UDFAs not talking to reporters because he doesn’t want them distracted by their own feel-good story. He might want them zeroed in and focused on the real task at hand—making the roster—because he knows their chances are slim even at that point. I can guarantee you if any of these UDFAs do make the roster, they’re not going to care that they didn’t get to spill the beans at rookie camp—they’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so during the season. I can also guarantee you that those UDFAs who don’t make the roster won’t end up looking back years later exclaiming, “Man. If only I could’ve talked to those reporters.”