Boston's Most Cerebral Football Columnist
Following the NFL, even a team as good as the Patriots, is often a miserable pursuit. The league’s endless stream of minutiae and the media’s excessive mid-week coverage rarely enrich our lives. As a friend recently put it: “The NFL is only good on Sundays.”
Thankfully, there’s at least one Boston football writer whose stuff is consistently enjoyable. His name is Greg A. Bedard, and he writes the Globe’s “On Football” column. He doesn’t typically break salacious stories—these are the Patriots, not the Red Sox, after all—but he does provide the kind of analysis you won’t find anywhere else. After every game, Bedard breaks down film and details his findings in his weekly review.
He also wrote the NFL season’s best story so far, a practical dissertation on the Patriots’ innovative version of the no-huddle offense. He even got Bill Belichick and Tom Brady to talk about it—on the record. This week, Bedard kindly took time out from film study to answer a few of our questions.
You started at the Globe in 2010, correct? How’d you end up in Boston?
I came to the Globe around Halloween 2010. I covered Brett Favre’s final game at Lambeau Field, as a Viking, and then the next Sunday I saw Favre and the Vikings lose to the Patriots at Gillette.
The rest is a long story. The cliffs notes: always loved sports, went to Rutgers to play baseball, injuries got the best of me so I decided to walk into the student newspaper. Loved it immediately. After school, I worked my way up from the very bottom of the newspaper business—an agate clerk in sports. I slowly worked my way up at the Palm Beach Post, but tried a few times to leave the business because it just wasn’t happening for me. My big break came with the 2003 East Boynton Beach Little League team, which was part of my area of coverage for the Globe West-like section of the PB Post. It didn’t take long to recognize there was something special about that team, and they kept winning and winning. When they advanced to the Southeast regional, the editors initially wanted to send a stringer. I told them, in colorful language, that I had come too far to let the competition into the story, I was going (slept on my sister-in-law’s floor on an inflatable mattress), and to put my stuff in the paper. Good decision. I cornered what turned out to be arguably the biggest story in South Florida sports that year—maybe even bigger than the Marlins winning the World Series. After that the Post hired me on full-time. Did some high schools, some Marlins road trips and then was named the Dolphins backup. (I had contributed coverage, mostly at home games, since 1999.) I covered the end of Dave Wannstedt, the Nick Saban era, and the hiring of Cam Cameron, before we moved to Green Bay to cover the Packers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Covered Favre’s final season and his departure, before leaving for the Globe.
What’s your football background? Have you played? Coached? You seem to have a keen eye for the game.
Played a little bit of high school football in Florida before we moved back to Massachusetts prior to my sophomore year at Lincoln-Sudbury. Golf was in the fall up here, and I was a pretty good junior golfer—and I like my knees. But I’ve always loved the game. My father was a very good high school [football] player at Athol HS and had a college scholarship, and he passed his knowledge of the game onto me. We’d constantly talk about strategy, what made certain players good and things like that.
But most of my knowledge—it’s very limited, to be honest—comes from asking a lot of questions during my career. The Dolphins and, especially, the Packers—players and coaches—were terrific about explaining things to me. You’d be amazed how much players and coaches like to talk about the game when you ask them specific questions. I’ve had coaches and players sit with me and watch film. I’ve watched film for two straight days in a room with Greg Cosell, Ron Jaworski and former Patriots coach Rod Rust at NFL Films (and done a few other days with just Cosell). I’ve attended college coaching clinics. I read anything I can get my hands on … Basically, each and every avenue where I can learn about the game, I’m trying it. I would absolutely love to watch film with Bill Belichick at some point, which he actually used to do with media in Cleveland, believe it or not.
Did you learn film study from anybody in particular?
Well, the game breakdowns I write on Wednesday are a direct descendant—if not a copy—of the work that Bob McGinn at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been doing for years. I never knew that stuff was even possible before I went there. It completely opened my eyes. I knew that was the kind of thing I wanted to do if I moved on from Milwaukee. Bob explained to me how he did things, and I’ve put my own spin on it, mostly from the analytical aspect. The great thing about covering the Packers is that you can see something on film, and then go ask the coaches and players specifically about the play and they’ll tell you—off the record—what/who went right or wrong (though I’ve heard the access has changed for the worse). That was huge. You build up a decent knowledge base just from that.
How do you go about doing your weekly recap/player ratings?
On Monday I’ll start inputting the basic data onto a spreadsheet (I have dreams of becoming more automated through a database at some point, but haven’t found the time) like down, distance, yard line, the player who was targeted, the gain/loss, penalties, etc.
Before NFL Game Rewind made the coaches film available (only for 1 p.m. games when I’m doing the bulk of my study on Tuesday), I would watch the TV copy of the film on my TV on the wall in my office off the DirecTV feed. Sometimes the coaches film is available and I’ll watch that on my second computer screen, or on the iPad. Usually I’m watching the TV copy on the TV, and both the spreadsheet and a Word file are open on the second computer screen. I’ll make notes in Word as I go to help speed along the final story.
I’ll watch all the offensive, defensive and special teams plays in sequence (with the sound off). I’ll usually watch a play 6-12 times, more for very successful or unsuccessful plays, trying to figure out why a play was or wasn’t successful. I’ll make tabulations in certain spreadsheet categories as I go along (defensive/offensive alignments, player participation, pass release times, pass rushers, missed tackles, etc). I also have a plus and minus category for things not in a category. That’s where I note where, in my opinion, a player exceeded his duty on the play to make an above average play, or where he was not successful.
After that, I have a sheet of paper divided into the different player groupings, and I’ll tabulate all the standout or “negative” plays for each player, and that gives me a rough idea of how successful they were in that game. If something standouts out on the sheet, good or bad, it often sends me back into the film to recheck things.
It takes me six to ten hours to watch a game, and another four to six hours to write the story, depending on how much number crunching I have to do.
Has the availability of the all-22 film [the coaches film includes views of all 22 players on the field] made things easier on you?
Yes, when it’s available. If it’s not available on Tuesday (usually the case for 4 p.m. or later games) then I do my story off the TV copy, but then I have to make time to go back and watch the coaches film again to make sure my assessment was accurate for the future.
There’s no question it helps, especially in regards to assessing the play of the receivers, defensive backs and line play. You couldn’t really see coverages previously, and you certainly couldn’t assess how, say, safeties were reacting. And the coaches film definitely helps with the play of both lines. You get a much better view of the subtle angles and techniques the linemen are using. You also get a better sense of what the quarterback is dealing with in the pocket, and whether a rusher is truly affecting him (that’s how I measure quarterback hurries).
I realize he’s pretty deadpan and purposely dry, but do you think a guy like Belichick appreciates dealing with someone who puts in a lot of effort to try to understand the Xs and Os?
I think so. He knows what’s going on with the beat and I think he’s familiar with my work. I’ve gotten the feeling that he respects what I do, or at least the effort I put in and that I try to respect the game. A few of the assistant coaches were complimentary at the Super Bowl, which was nice to hear. I told Belichick and Brady when I came here that, in the job I envisioned doing, all I wanted to do was concentrate on what was happening on the field, and anything they could do to help me fairly and accurately do that, it would be greatly appreciated. I’ve come to learn covering football that if you stick to the game and study the film, then it’s hard to go wrong. I’m not saying I’m always going to be right or draw the right conclusions in my assessments, but I’m going to try very hard to be fair and as accurate as possible. And sticking to the film and tabulating as much as you can gives you more facts. I’ve had players disagree with something I’ve written, and I always hear them out and explain why I wrote what I did. If you can lay out the reasoning, the player usually respects that and agrees with it. But I also learn a lot from those interactions. Look, what I do is far from a finished product. I’m always open to tweaking how I do things.
Your story about the no-huddle offense. I loved it. You really seemed to get both Belichick and Brady to open up. Was that a tough sell to them?
Thanks. It was one of my favorite stories to research and write. It was actually supposed to run the Sunday morning of the Broncos game, where they ended up using the turbo no-huddle, but it held for space, which happens. It was going to run days later, but once I heard Phil Simms talk about Chip Kelly on the telecast, I and sports editor Joe Sullivan knew it needed to run ASAP, and Joe made it happen.
The origins of that story came in the offseason when someone said something in passing about one-word no huddle, [University of Oregon coach] Chip Kelly, and the Patriots. It jumped out to me immediately as being unusual and unique. It actually made me sit up in my chair. I sort of filed it away, did some background on it and started chipping away at it as I came across some coaches, players and scouts over the course of the summer and fall. Then I just needed to find time to write it, and talk to Belichick and Brady.
I know how secretive the Patriots are, but I figured if I wasn’t asking for specifics on how they do things on a micro level (the kind of information that an opponent could use against them) and stayed on the outer edges and with the big-picture pieces of the puzzle, they would be willing to talk in general terms. And that’s what happened. Of course, I wasn’t sure how either was going to react—they could have easily shut me down—but I think there was a level of trust there that I would write a good story without giving away state secrets, which I think I did. I have no interest, ever, in hurting any competitive advantage the Patriots might have. They have a job to do, to win games, and I would never want to get in the way of that. I think there’s a happy middle ground where the Patriots, especially Belichick, can share some of the unique aspects of the game to enhance the enjoyment and understanding of the fans, without giving away any competitive advantage or come across as, “We’re smarter than you are.” I love those kinds of stories, and from the reaction I got, fans do as well. It was easier to write those stories covering the Packers, but I’m hoping to do more on the Patriots. Hopefully I’m establishing myself as a guy who’s here for the long haul, one who’s not looking to make a name for myself at the expense of the team. I just want to report on the game fairly and accurately so fans can understand the game and team more.