Since returning back to his Boston roots two years ago, Greg A. Bedard has found his niche in the Boston sports media market and has emerged as one of the best Patriots reporters in the area. His Wednesday columns in the Globe where he analyzes the past weeks game has become a must read and is heavily discussed amongst other media members and on sports radio. Boston Sports Media Watch had the chance to catch up with Bedard and get his thoughts on his past football reporting, as well as what it’s been like returning home and becoming a member of the Boston media.
Part of the reason I chose Rutgers was because of baseball. I was a decent first base prospect at Lincoln-Sudbury and wanted to stay in the Northeast. Rutgers and Seton Hall were the top two programs in the region at the time, and that’s what my decision came down to after my visits.
In school, I knew I wanted to do something with sports and the media, I just didn’t know what exactly. SportsCenter was kind of a big deal at that time, so I started on a communications track. After I quit baseball because of injuries, I started looking more towards the print side. Rutgers had a very good daily student newspaper, so I answered one of the ads looking for new writers. My first article was on the women’s golf team (fun fact: my future wife’s name appeared in it), and I volunteered to cover the softball team. I was instantly hooked. I covered them like they were the Red Sox – I’d skip classes to cover road games (like I needed an excuse) – and I knew I found my calling.
While I was the beat writer for Terry Shea’s first football team in 1996, that I wound up covering football was very much by accident. Baseball was always my sport, and probably still is. The Palm Beach Post very easily could have named me backup Marlins writer in 2004. Thank goodness they decided on the Dolphins. Covering the NFL is a much easier life if you want to have a family. I don’t know how the baseball guys do it. But if the Globe asked me to cover golf tomorrow, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I’m not one of these guys that’s married to a team or sport. The work is what’s important to me. The shape of the ball doesn’t really matter.
Assistant coach access under Dave Wannstedt, and then with the Packers was awesome. With Wannstedt you could grab anybody you wanted coming off the field. The Packers had assistant coach access three days a week – about 30 minutes with all of them in a hallway, so you could get individual face-to-face time often – and you could talk to the three coordinators after games. That was absolutely invaluable to my development as a football writer. After a while you developed a rapport with the assistants and you could ask them about why certain plays did or didn’t work, and which players screwed up and why. You didn’t quote them, but at least you were getting accurate information to relay to the fans.
I learned more about the game in those 3.5 years in Green Bay than any other time in my career. Between the players always being available, to the assistant coaches, I could ask real questions about the game and learn about it.
Trying to learn about the game of football while covering the Patriots is like trying to get water out of a rock. I don’t have a problem with how they do things – it’s within the rules – but I’m certainly glad that I was able to work in other markets before coming here.
I’d say the biggest difference that I have noticed is in the percentage of fans that are critical of the team, or that want debate about the team and the decisions it makes. And I think it’s directly tied into the length of time since the last championship.
Dolphins fans had a very low level of trust for what the organization did, for good reason, so they questioned everything. In Green Bay, which hadn’t won a title since 1996, I’d say about 20 percent of the fans didn’t want to hear anything bad about the team. The rest expect excellence year in and year out, because they feel the Lombardi Trophy and NFL championships are their birthright. They want perfection out of their team. In New England, I’d say it was closer to 75 percent when I got here in 2010, and it has slowly declined slightly. Again, it’s directly tied into the time since the last championship. And it will take another step when Tom Brady is no longer here, especially if they don’t win another Super Bowl before then.
My perception, and I don’t know if it’s reality, is that the pressure on the media here is very intense. Everything is scrutinized. People are keeping track of what you say, how you say it and they keep score. Consumers also love to put you in a box. You’re either this kind of reporter, or you’re that kind of reporter. Nuance is a foreign concept. It’s funny that fans accuse the media of being lazy and guilty of stereotyping, when they do the exact same thing to the media.
In regards to the media itself, I think the relationships are a mixed bag. In South Florida, we all tried to beat the crap out of each other during the day in a highly competitive market, but we had no problem having a beer afterwards. In Green Bay there were hard feelings between the media outlets, specifically the Green Bay Press Gazette towards the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I never understood that. There’s plenty of coverage to go around, and we didn’t even compete for print readers.
It has been fine here; no real issues. The one thing I don’t have a lot of respect for, in any place I’ve been, is media-on-media crime and/or trying to shoot down other people’s reports. I don’t really understand that either. If you have something to report, then report it. Don’t just use somebody else’s report as a jumping off point. Twitter does make things tougher, but I just try to worry about what I can report and proceed like I’m in a vacuum. That’s easier said than done sometimes.
I knew nothing about this kind of journalism until I went to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and saw that Bob McGinn was doing it, and had been doing it for like 20 years. But as soon as I did, it was like I was awake for the first time — “Why didn’t I ever think of doing this? This is where it’s at.” Studying film, trying to quantify certain things that aren’t officially tabulated (pressures, knockdowns, etc), and then explaining things simply for readers goes to heart of journalism, especially in the televised sports era. Everyone has seen the game. Many have heard the sound bytes from press conferences, but what fans really want to know is why? Why did the Patriots struggle offensively for a half? Why did they lose? Why couldn’t they defend this route? Etc.
When I came here, I thought two things: that it would go over well here because the Patriots aren’t going to tell you what they did well, and they certainly aren’t going to point out what they did poorly. If I could take what I knew about the game, and relay that to the fans by explaining what went right and what went wrong in each game, then I thought it would be successful. And I also promised myself when I came here, knowing the market like I do, that I wouldn’t just offer up opinions on a whim. I would try like hell to quantify everything I could. You can’t just write, “Tom Brady is struggling,” and not have any real evidence outside of statistics, which often lie in football and are certainly no way to measure about 80 percent of the game.
As far as the process itself, it takes me about eight to 10 hours to get through a game. Having the coaches film (some of the time) certainly helps. Having watched film with NFL coaches, college coaches and analysts like Greg Cosell at NFL Films, I have a decent size depth of knowledge – but it’s not even close to the actual players and coaches.
I try to be as clinical and try to mimic the coaches as much as possible. Even with the TV copy, I watch with the sound off. And I watch all the offensive, defensive and special teams plays in succession. This is why I sometimes reach different opinions than fans, especially about individual players. There are about 70 plays for the offense and defense in each game. Why should the 68th play matter than the fourth? Devin McCourty gets a pass interference penalty late in the game, but should that wipe out the 95 percent of plays in which he performed his duty well? NFL coaches grade out a player for the entire game, so why should I be any different?
I watch each play about 10-12 times, trying to determine whether each player, within reason, has performed their duty. I have a spreadsheet with about 35 different categories that I use on each play. Then afterwards I tabulate the positive and negative plays for each player (basically, did they exceed or fail at what I think they were supposed to do), and that gives me a rough idea about how they played. What I see on that paper and on my spreadsheet leads me to write in one direction or another. I usually have a vague idea about what I might want to write about, but it can easily and often changes (much to chagrin of copy desk in all likelihood). I try to be as much of a blank slate as possible and let the data take me one way or another. Every single game is unique. I try to identify what that is for the reader.
For example, last year after I had done my tabulations for the Chargers game, I noticed that Albert Haynesworth, after a very strong opening game in Miami, had zero plus or minus plays on my sheet. That was unusual. Why was that? That led me to watch all of his plays over again, and to the lede of my column where I wrote the Patriots were going to need better and more consistent play from Haynesworth.
Players are going to challenge some of your conclusions – and that’s something I welcome because it helps me get better – but if there’s one thing I’ve learned covering the league it’s if you rely on the film and facts gleaned from it, then it’s very hard to go wrong, and for players or coaches to take much issue with your work. Your knowledge of the game and the team will be very accurate. The film never lies. In my opinion, you absolutely must study film if you’re covering an NFL team. Luckily, the Globe gives me the time to do that. Not all media outlets do. And it’s difficult to find the time as a beat writer. I’m lucky that Shalise Manza Young does her job so well, because it allows me the immense time it takes to do mine. It’s a similar setup to what we had at the MJS – Tom Silverstein and I did the beat, which allowed Bob to do his analyzing. I’m very grateful to Shalise and the paper for that.
Two very good questions. I’m not sure I have the answers, but I probably need to figure them out to determine my future, whatever that might be.
I wouldn’t call this a dream job to me at this point in my life, but it was certainly very desirable. Sports editor Joe Sullivan, when we talked about the job, said, “You’d be a direct descendant of Will McDonough,” I mean, what person who grew up around here wouldn’t be completely floored hearing that? I can tell you that on the other end of the phone, I had a huge smile on my face. Still, it was far from a done deal that I was going to take this job. There were two big factors, which continue to be the driving forces in my career: the ability to do good, meaningful journalism – not just feeding the beast based on a timetable (though every outlet has to do some of that; I just didn’t want that to be me) – and to be a good husband and father. I would give up money and success to have adequate time with my family. The Globe was able to hit on both of those factors, and coming “home” (though my parents and brothers are elsewhere) was an added bonus. But it was incredibly tough to leave Green Bay. In the end, all things were equal and “Mama” (the Globe) called. It’s hard to say no to Mama. It was the right job, at the right place, at the right time. If it were the Patriots’ beat writing job, I wouldn’t have taken it. I don’t need to ram my head against the wall repeatedly.
As for where I go from here, if anywhere, I don’t know. I’ve never felt a huge draw to a TV gig (I know, with my looks, this is very surprising). I know I don’t want to be traveling every week and at the whim of some producer (poor Albert Breer, but he’s young and childless so more power to him). Sure, some sort of national job where I didn’t have to move would be enticing. But, like in Green Bay, I could see myself staying here forever. I guess, in a perfect world, I’d do something similar to what Willie did – have the Globe as a base and add some steady television work that fits into that. I’d certainly like to expand on the radio work I do on WEEI. I’d love to spend two hours on the radio getting into deep discussions about the Patriots with smart hosts and callers.
But it’s not something that I think about very much. I’ve got a good gig doing meaningful work for readers that seem to appreciate it for the most part, and I’m able to balance my family about as well as you can in today’s media age. Would I like to get paid more? Sure, who wouldn’t? But so far, so good.