Fri, 25 Jun 2021

The sad state of "drumbeat journalism"

Packers
14 May 2021, 18:12 GMT+10

Packers are well-stocked thanks to Thompson and Gutekunst Cliff Christl

Randy from Tyler, Texas

As a lifelong rabid, no-holds-barred Packer fan, "Christl's History" is one of my go-to sites for the Packers. It's just so superior to anything else. The results of all your work in getting the stories and facts out about the Packers is just outstanding. Two questions. Have your feelings or your journalistic approach changed from when you were a sportswriter as opposed to how you approach your articles as the official historian? For the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, you frequently pointed out you were not a Packer fan in your approach, which I believed from the content of your articles. It was just straightforward facts and if pointing out something negative about a player's performance or the Packer team, it was reported but never personal and vice versa. On a pure personal level, I always wondered how you could maintain that given your lifelong interactions with players and the team growing up. You seemed to have so much personal knowledge of the team and players that you could only know by personal contacts along the way. Now as the historian and being completely immersed in the inner workings of the team, do you still approach your articles as a pure historian and not a diehard fan like me and the rest of Packer Nation? Next question is: Do you have plans to do more of the Packer oral histories? I really like getting the players' or Packer organization people's views, where they just honestly lay it out there. I am very hopeful you will be doing more of those. Loved the Bob Schnelker interview a lot.

Thought-provoking questions, so I granted you the floor, partly because I'm not sure where to start. First, thank you for being a longtime loyal reader, and I probably should thank you, too, for those chat questions you used to fire at me like torpedoes when I was working at the Journal Sentinel. In truth, your no-holds-barred questions probably helped build my readership during a seminal period in the newspaper business as we transitioned from typewriters to computers and all that resulted from it.

First, I don't feel like I've had to compromise my journalistic principles as Packers historian. I understand there are certain topics best avoided on occasion at our website, but that doesn't affect me much because I'm writing about history. Nobody is taking a carving knife to my copy, either, and telling me I can't write about this or that, or that a subject is too controversial or whatever. My immediate bosses have been more than supportive about that, and Mark Murphy has never wavered in his commitment to getting our history right nor has he ever micro-managed anything I've done. I've never talked to him specifically about this, but I sense he believes as I do: How could our history be accurately portrayed if it was cast only in a positive light? What's more, if I didn't tell the bad with the good, why would any of you believe anything I wrote?

More to the point, my objective as team historian is no different than what it was as a sportswriter: To do my job to the best of my ability by writing informative, fair, accurate and unvarnished stories. My approach to reporting hasn't changed either. I try to gain as much knowledge as possible through study, observation and interviews, and then impart to the readers. Also, I should note that in my position as historian, I'm anything but completely immersed with the team. In fact, I don't go into the locker room. I don't attend interview sessions. I don't watch games from the press box. Those are working areas and I don't belong there if I'm not actually working a game or whatever. That's why I tell people, I used to know far more inside stuff on the Packers when I was a sportswriter than I do now as an employee.

Am I a fan now? I'm not sure if I know what a fan is. Does that mean when I'm watching a game I have to act like I'm at a WWE event? Even as a kid, I don't remember investing myself emotionally in many games. I watched games to learn about players and gain insight into teams even before I was a teenager and that's basically the approach I still take today. When I sit around thinking about games and teams that I watched in the 1950s and '60s, I don't relive memories of big wins or big plays. I'm more inclined to think about the names of, say, the 22 starters on the Bears on Stadium Dedication Day in 1957, or for the Cardinals in their last year in Chicago, or maybe the starters on the Houston Oilers and Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers in the first two AFL championship games in 1960 and '61. Just recently, I was watching my grandson having a good afternoon playing for his high school baseball team when my wife poked me and said, "This isn't a press box, you can cheer and clap."

Hopefully, at some point, I'll resume the oral histories. I have a number of interviews I haven't posted yet, but some are with obscure players that weren't great interviews or they're really short interviews that wouldn't make for a good post. And because of the book, I don't have the time now to conduct and transcribe more interviews.

One last point I'd like to make is that someone in my early years as a sportswriter suggested that I try to surprise people every time I wrote a story. I consider it one of the best pieces of advice that I was ever given. Every day of my career, and especially if there was a major story that everybody was going to be writing about, I tried to find an angle that nobody else would likely take.

Sadly, what I call "drumbeat journalism" seems to have overtaken today's sports coverage and I think the Packers have become recent victims. Because they are so popular and have been so good for close to three decades, they're a favorite subject of talking heads, ex-jocks and others who clearly have no real insight into the team. Case in point: All the mindless babbling of late about how the Packers lack talent on offense. Considering they have had only two draft picks higher than 20th in the last 12 years and none higher than 12th, I believe Ted Thompson and Brian Gutekunst have done a remarkable job assembling talent on that side of the ball, starting with Aaron Rodgers, Thompson's first draft pick and one of the three best quarterbacks of the past 15 years, along with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. But also look at the rest of the offense compared to other NFL teams. The Packers had one of the best offensive lines in the league last season until David Bakhtiari got hurt, and it was still solid in the playoffs even without its best player. They had a top-five, maybe top-three wide receiver in Davante Adams. In addition, Marquez Valdes-Scantling led the NFL with a 20.9-yard average per catch, more than 2 yards better than any other receiver in the league. Even on the days he might drop two of five, no defense can ignore his threat any time he takes a snap. Allen Lazard might not be Adam Thielen or Cole Beasley, at least at this point, but he wouldn't rank too far down the list of what could be classified as more self-made receivers. The Packers also had a top-seven, maybe even a top-five running back in Aaron Jones. Plus, last year, they had as deep a set of runners as any team in the league with Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon behind Jones. At tight end, Robert Tonyan scored 11 touchdowns, tying Kansas City's Travis Kelce for most in the league at that position and two more than Las Vegas' Darren Waller. Granted, Kelce and Waller are exceptional talents at that position, but how many other teams had a better pass-catching tight end than Tonyan? Of the top 13 receivers at tight end in terms of catches, only Kelce at 13.5, Baltimore's Mark Andrews at 12.1 and Miami's Mike Gesicki at 13.3 had a better average per catch than Tonyan's 11.3. Not even Waller beat Tonyan's average. How many other teams in the league had better offensive personnel than the Packers last year, counting Rodgers and not counting him?

Let's look back to 2007, when the Packers lost to the Giants in the NFC championship and just three years after Mike Sherman's last draft as GM. In Pro Football Weekly's annual preseason rankings by position based on feedback from NFL executives, coaches and scouts, the Packers didn't have a player ranked better than 10th. Donald Driver, after his 92-catch 2006 season, the best of his career, was ranked 12th at wide receiver. And that was a big jump from the previous year when he was ranked 27th after back-to-back 80-catch seasons. Even when he was the Packers' No 1 receiver many scouts still considered him more of a No. 2. Back to 2007: Besides Driver, no other Packer receiver was ranked among the league's top 32. At tight end, no Packer was listed among the top 15. At running back, no Packer was ranked among the top 30. At tackle, Chad Clifton was ranked 10th and Mark Tauscher 23rd. No Packer was rated among the top 19 guards or among the best 21 centers. Obviously, the disparity in talent between the 2007 and 2020 Packers was huge even though both teams ended their seasons in the NFC title game.

Plus, on defense, at what are the two most valued positions in the NFL outside of quarterback and arguably the two toughest to fill, the Packers have drafted two of the best in the league in the last five years: Kenny Clark is a rare dominant defensive lineman, and Jaire Alexander is one of the league's premier cornerbacks.

I've got news for the networks, websites and newspapers that keep preaching their poppycock about the Packers' lack of talent. It would be a lot cheaper to hire a mynah bird to do their talking if that's all the insight they have to offer.

Randy from Tyler, Texas

You once wrote a story for the Journal Sentinel where you pulled no punches on Randy Wright. I really appreciated what you wrote. No question about it. You weren't a fan of him in the least. He had to cross a big threshold for you to be blatantly honest about how you felt. When I was in my early 20s, I thought Wright was going to be the big-time answer for the Packers at QB. Hence, I don't consider myself much for accurately judging talent anymore. Wright was clearly not the answer, but I am really curious as to what made you think he was a lousy QB. And I'm really curious about your feelings on Wright.

I appreciate the thought behind your questions, so I'm going to make an exception here and give you two cracks at it this week.

Maybe my favorite player to interview all-time was Gale Gillingham. He'd routinely yell across the locker room at me, "You poison-pen mother (obscenity)." Yet, if you let him hold court in front of his fellow offensive linemen and gave him time to put on his act about being an intimidating presence in the locker room - which he was even among teammates - he was a great interview. Honest. Candid. Insightful. And one of the few players that could rip his own coaches on the record and get away with it because he was that good. Sterling Sharpe not speaking to the media never bothered me, either. When I was on the beat, there were a lot of players I never talked to because it quickly became clear that they weren't worth my time. And at that stage in his life, Sharpe would have fallen into that category. My thinking was: He's no more obligated talk to me than I am to him.

Wright was the first player I encountered who tried to use the media to gain favorable coverage. Write nice things about him, he'd be a source for you. Criticize him and he'd give you curt and worthless answers to your questions. Rather than play his game, I decided to write the story that begged to be told halfway into the 1988 season. Wright had started the first five games and the Packers not only lost them all, but were outscored 95-40. Don Majkowski started the next two and the Packers won both by a combined 79-17 score over two good teams: Minnesota, which would finish 11-5, and New England, which would finish 9-7.

Thus, at that point in the season, I interviewed numerous Packers coaches and players, as well as opposing scouts, to draw comparisons between the two quarterbacks for a long Sunday story. The biggest difference, according to many of my sources, was their leadership traits. "In the old days, he probably would have been some kind of pirate," offensive assistant Joe Clark said of Majkowski. "He's got that confident air about him. He's got that charisma that seems to zero in on everybody." Clark didn't want to talk about Wright, but he didn't have to. One of the Packers players told me, "It's like comparing Roger Staubach and Danny White." That wasn't long after Dallas receiver Pete Gent had made the comparison between Dallas' most recent QBs, saying of White, "The guy has a year's supply of dried food in his basement. He's got phone numbers to call when Armageddon arrives. That's the kind of guy you want quarterbacking your team down 17 points with time running down?" Packers offensive lineman Keith Uecker gushed about a confrontation Majkowski had with one of the Vikings' defenders a week earlier and compared the Packers' second-year quarterback to one of the league's young superstars. "He was dog-cussin'," Uecker said of Majkowski. "He was giving them a piece of his mind. I loved it. It reminded me of what John Elway used to do." Bill McPeak, New England's director of pro scouting, told me it was a blow to the Patriots, when Wright was injured the week before they played the Packers. "I gave our coaching staff a glowing report on Majkowski," McPeak told me. Three weeks before that game and the week before the Packers played Miami, writers covering the Dolphins requested Wright for a conference call and the Packers' own PR department told them they were making a bad choice. Wright could be pouty and spit nothing but terse answers if pressed by reporters about his struggles. I also wrote about how a number of players suspected Wright was the "Deep Throat" of their locker room. That to coddle favors with at most a handful of reporters, he'd feed them inside information and criticize teammates (rather than them) off the record. "He's a big baby," one player told me. Earlier, one player had balked at providing information from the team's salary survey, but then disclosed it, explaining, "I don't feel comfortable doing something like that, but I know Randy Wright is going to give it (out), so I guess it doesn't make any difference."

As a result of my story, Lindy Infante asked to speak with me one-on-one. He didn't challenge the veracity of what I wrote. He didn't question my sources. All he did was tell me that my story had cost him a quarterback, that there was no way that he could go back to Wright as his starter. Although Wright made two more starts late in the season when Majkowski injured his right shoulder, he was cut at the end of camp in 1989 and never appeared in another NFL game.

Matt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

In 1961, when I was 8 years old, my grandpa from De Pere gave me a white football with black stripes. He told me it came from a Packers night game when they used a white football. Cliff, could you please provide clarification as to the validity of the white football and its use in night games? Obviously, I was born a Packer fan but the gesture of my grandfather before his passing locked it in for life.

Thanks for sharing. Neat story about how your grandfather played a part in you becoming a Packers fan. Yes, white footballs with black stripes were used by the NFL through 1955. The league decided to discard the white ball at a league meeting in early January 1956. In 1955, The Official Playing Rules of the NFL stated: "For night games, a white ball or other contrasting colored ball may be used by agreement between both teams." I have rule books going back to 1937 and found the same "Supplemental Note" that year and every year after through 1955.

In 1999, in "The Coffin Corner," a publication of the Pro Football Researchers Association, a story by Alan Ross stated the first documented use of a white football in an NFL game was on Nov. 7, 1929, when the Chicago Cardinals played the Providence Steam Roller. Ross also wrote that it was the first night game in NFL history. I can't tell you how often the Packers used a white ball, but I can tell you that from 1950, following the NFL's merger with the All-America Football Conference, that the Packers played seven regular-season, Saturday night games through 1955. The dates and opponents were: Oct. 18, 1952, at the Dallas Texans; Oct. 24, 1953, at Pittsburgh; Oct. 31, 1953, at the Baltimore Colts; Oct. 30, 1954, at Philadelphia; Nov. 13, 1954, vs. the Colts at Milwaukee County Stadium; Oct. 8, 1955, vs. the Colts at County Stadium; and Oct. 29, 1955, at Colts. They also played Friday night games in 1948 at the Boston Yanks and in 1949 at the New York Bulldogs. In addition, the Packers played night exhibition games and intra-squad games at Green Bay's old City Stadium going back to the 1940s, and also in Milwaukee. My assumption is that they used a white football for most of those games.

Barry from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Appreciate your work with the Packers' website and the "Legacy" DVD collection. Any idea when your new book will go on sale?

Thanks for your interest. Lou of Kohler, Wis., and Dean of Green Bay were among others who recently asked. The book is written. Currently, we are working on photo selection, captions and layout for the last several chapters. We'll also need to do some final reads and fact-checking. We are committed to publishing as early into the season as possible.

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