Greg Cosell: The Wizard Behind the Curtain
It’s a February afternoon in Indianapolis. Former Auburn quarterback and Heisman winner Cam Newton is under his first NFL microscope. On live national television, in front of some 200 reporters at Podium C in the NFL Scouting Combine media center, Newton is fielding (fending off) rapid-fire questions about expectations for the NFL, his character, his level of “football focus,” his baggage.
Each of his answers manages to hit the same key points: football is the top priority; he’s just looking to take care of business; he’s eager to learn; has something to prove – you get the idea.
Fourteen minutes and roughly 100 photogenic smiles later, an NFL public relations staffer ends the interrogation. As Newton exits the room, a gangly middle-aged man with short brown hair and prominent facial features turns to those around him and sums up the news conference in one sentence: “Newton did exactly what he needed to do: say nothing, really well.”
With that, Greg Cosell has fast-forwarded through the laborious post-press conference chatter and arrived at the same conclusion that all the reporters-turned-psychologists in the room are still 10 or 15 minutes away from reaching. This leaves only Cam Newton The Football Player to discuss, which is why Cosell is now orating and attracting a small audience. “The running plays at Auburn are irrelevant, completely irrelevant,” he answers one person in a matter-of-fact tone that’s somehow both humble and haughty. “To me, an apt comparison might be Josh Freeman, only in that case, we get into slight differences in terms of mechanics and arm strength.”
Though known – and accurately so – as a scouting convention, the Combine is really more of a week-long NFL conference. Every front office executive and coach is around, and because of that, so is every licensed player agent, personal trainer and accredited member of the media. The Combine scene is the Super Bowl scene minus the hoopla. It’s the purest annual football-centric gathering in America. Which makes it Shangri-La for Cosell.
After 15 minutes, Cosell still has a small audience. By now, he has covered all his baseline beliefs about NFL quarterbacking: arm strength matters; decision-making is a major factor – in the presnap phase as much as the post-snap phase; mobility is no big deal unless you’re talking about pocket mobility, in which case it’s critical because it pertains to the element that most distinguishes big-time quarterbacks from average quarterbacks: the ability to make throws with bodies around you. Cosell will sermonize about any position. Every word he utters is like an NFL play-call: deliberately selected, deriving from thorough research and carrying a distinct intention. Hyperbole and presumption are nowhere to be found. “It’s not about Newton’s production in college, it’s about how certain attributes can be expected to translate to the pro game,” he tells the group.
Any first-time combine attendee will inevitably notice Cosell at some point and wonder, Who is this guy? This year, he could be seen in the Lucas Oil Stadium lobby chatting for hours with George Whitfield Jr., Newton’s personal quarterback coach. Every time Cosell entered the media work room, he was approached by multiple writers and broadcasters, including Combine godfather Gil Brandt. A television crew stopped and interviewed him. During the skill position player drills, he was spotted visiting with Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, Saints head coach Sean Payton, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and renowned coordinators like the Bengals’ Mike Zimmer and the Lions’ Scott Linehan, to name a few. These heavy-hitters were absorbing his every word.
“Greg is just a brilliant man when it comes to” the strategic and personnel facets of the league, Raiders offensive coordinator Al Saunders says. “Tremendous insight, a tremendous knowledge of personnel, a great command of the intricacies of the game from a strategic standpoint.”
“For a guy who isn’t a coach, isn’t a general manager, and was never a player,” says NFL.com senior writer Vic Carucci, “the depth of his knowledge and his ability to explain it is as strong as anything I’ve come across. And I like to think I’ve been around some of the brightest football people in the modern era.”
The business card answer to Who is this guy? says “Greg Cosell: senior producer, NFL Films.” But business cards also say things like “Grigori Rasputin: religious counselor” or “Karl Rove: political consultant.” In other words, titles can be understating.
To NFL insiders, Cosell is a treasure trove of information. Pro football writers and broadcasters regularly hit him up privately for analysis. General managers ask for his assessment of draft prospects. Coaches are curious about his methods of breaking down film. “I got to know Greg from taking trips down to NFL Films over the last 15 or 20 years,” Sports Illustrated’s Peter King says. “He was always sort of the wizard behind the curtain. I always respected his opinion because you could tell he watches every game. He watches all the players. And it isn’t about who has the best stats, it’s about the best players.”
Cosell, a 55-year-old father of two girls, grew up as the only child in a middle class apartment in Flushing, about 10 minutes from Shea Stadium. He was all-city in basketball and baseball at Francis Lewis High School and was known by many as the nephew of iconic broadcaster Howard Cosell.
“When you grow up in a family and there’s a famous person, to you that’s just your family,” he says. “When Howard was in his prime, I didn’t see him very often simply because the nature of his business took him on the road. Our families lived far enough away from one another that we didn’t necessarily get together on a regular basis. So he was doing his thing, I was a junior high or high school student, then college student, doing my thing.”
In ’75, that thing was playing basketball and majoring in American history and political science at Amherst College. After graduating, Cosell moved to Michigan to teach. After one year, he left and, with no concrete plan, resumed his initial journey into the real world. One of the many applications he filled out was for a job at NFL Films; in ’79 he interviewed with the founder Ed Sabol at the company’s Mt. Laurel, N.J., headquarters and was quickly hired as a producer.
After Cosell spent four years learning the art of television, Ed’s son and freshly minted NFL Films president Steve Sabol approached him with the radical idea of doing a show that presented football in an in-depth X-and-O format. “I played sports and I always thought the games,” Cosell says. “It just came naturally to me. I think Steve Sabol recognized the way I was.”
The two discussed logistics for a show. As Cosell explains, “the general consensus was fans would not go for this.” Fortunately, Sabol, an art major at Colorado College and aficionado of all things football, did not subscribe to conventional wisdom. He saw a matchup show as an opportunity to create pregame content for ABC’s “Monday Night Football.” At the time, NFL Films did not have access to coach’s tape, which was (and still is) game footage that captures the action through camera angles showing all 22 players on the field. So Sabol sent camera crews to games of upcoming Monday night participants and instructed them to film the action through wide angles.
ESPN broadcast the first episode of Monday Night Matchup on Sept. 3, 1984. Chris Berman was the host; Sabol and the former Giants head coach Allie Sherman served as analysts. The show’s in-depth breakdowns resonated with a cult of hardcore fans and paved the way for many of the strategic breakdowns that are now hallmarks of NFL broadcasts (think Madden’s telestrator).
When ESPN decided to produce its own pregame show for Monday Night Football in ’94, Cosell’s show became Edge NFL Matchup, moving to its still-standing Sunday morning slot and covering the entire league. Just as significant in ’94 was the NFL’s decision to make NFL Films the dubbing center for all coach’s tape. This gave Matchup – and its ever-curious producer – access to the “all-22″ camera angles, something the league does not allow any outsiders to have.
“I’d already worked for NFL Films for 14, 15 years, and I really thought I knew and understood football,” Cosell says. “When you put the coaching tape on, you find out real fast that you really don’t know very much.”
The revealing camera angles heightened his thirst for X’s and O’s to a level bordering on obsession. “I loved it. I always thought that football was the ultimate schematic chess match sport. So therefore, my immediate response to football was not ‘knock the other guy in the dirt’, I saw it as an intellectual and academic exercise. Seeing 22 moving parts on every play in a finite area. And how do you move those pieces around most effectively? And what happens if one guy doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do?”
When discussing things like this, it’s not uncommon for Cosell to interrupt himself and say, “No, I’m serious.” It’s a reflexive reaction to the smiles that leak from the faces of his amused listeners. Forgive those listeners – they’re not accustomed to having someone speak to them with such directness and enthusiasm. And they’re not used to hearing colorful expressions verbalized as if they’re century-old axioms. It’s hard not to smile.
“Greg is a creative wordsmith with a rare capacity to phrase old clichés in new ways,” says Steve Sabol. “Because of his extensive tape and film study, he understands the latest trends and tactics, but he imparts his vast knowledge with concision and brevity.”
It’s this passion and knowledge that has earned Cosell the respect of his peers – something that isn’t easy for a television producer whose job centers on the nuances of football and whose peers are former players.
“When you go to NFL Films and you sit in and watch how they do their work at NFL Matchup,” says King, “it’d be easy for (current analysts) Ron Jaworski, who knows everything, and Merril Hoge, who knows everything, to basically look down their nose at Greg and say, ‘What do you know?’ But they know he’s credible.
“You can just tell in how they just treat him and how they look at him and how they talk to him. Former players who are really good at analyzing games look at Greg as a peer, not as an assistant.”
And not just former players. When he was the defensive coordinator for the Giants, Broncos head coach John Fox would occasionally make the short trip from Rutherford, N.J., to Mt. Laurel. “I have great respect for Greg because he works hard at what he does,” Fox says. “He’s approached it more from the coaching aspect and the design of what’s happened on the field.”
Al Saunders, who has known Cosell for over 20 years, says, “He might be one of the premier resources of football knowledge in the country. His insight and knowledge of the people and the game itself is unparalleled.” Asked if he would go so far as to say that Cosell could be an NFL general manager, Saunders replies, “Without question. With-out question. And he would be a tremendously successful one.”
“I bumped into Greg years ago at the combine,” says Rams general manager Billy Devaney. “There was a bunch of us just around talking football. Greg was there and every once in a while he’d jump in. I didn’t know him before then. We all were arguing, just a bunch of us talking football and players and position value and so forth, and every once in a while this guy would pipe in. And I’d find myself thinking, ‘Hmm, yeah that makes sense, that’s pretty good.’ When he started talking that night, you could tell immediately that he was an intelligent guy and really passionate about that stuff.”
Asked if Cosell could be a GM, Devaney says, “Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s no question. Especially on the pro side, he spends most of his time – well, I shouldn’t say ‘most of his time’ because he’s up on the college stuff, too. He could easily be a college or pro director tomorrow for some team. And because of his work ethic and intelligence, he certainly has the ability to advance beyond that.”
It’s not just Cosell’s knowledge that impresses people, it’s his ability to articulate it, and as viewers of Matchup see every Sunday, his ability to use the eye in the sky to diagram it. As USA Today NFL reporter Jim Corbett says, “Howard Cosell was known for telling like it is. I think Greg Cosell should be known league-wide as peerless for showing it like it is.”
It’s more than a little curious that someone who works in television can gain widespread acclaim throughout the NFL yet remain unknown to a vast majority of fans. “Greg’s somebody who probably deserves more exposure than he gets for his knowledge of the game,” says former NFL general manager and current CBS league insider Charley Casserly.
Longtime 49ers beat reporter Matt Maiocco says, “He’s one of the few guys who, when I hear he’s coming up on the radio, I’ll sit in my car and listen. His insight is just off the charts.”
Cosell’s radio appearances are fairly frequent – he’s a regular on Sirius and several shows in the Philadelphia area – and he has provided content for Sporting News and Comcast Sports over the years. But the typical sports bar patron, upon hearing his name, would probably respond with something like, You mean Howard – Howard Cosell.
“I think that Greg’s been very comfortable being the background guy,” says Carucci, echoing the sentiment of many others who were asked about Cosell. “I don’t know that he’s wanted to be in front of the camera.”
But in talking to Cosell, one senses that he’s willing – maybe even eager – for that opportunity. Problem is, he doesn’t know how to scream from the rooftops. Or bang his fists on tables and rhapsodize. Or share insider secrets that others would gladly trumpet as “breaking news.” And much of his value is dependent upon that one golden resource. “I’m very fortunate, I’m able to see the coach’s tape,” he acknowledges. “Because I see the tape, I have information that other people don’t have. I’m just fortunate.”
King, who has established himself as one of the industry’s household names, thanks in part to his on-air reporting during prime-time NFL telecasts, says putting Cosell in front of the camera “will require someone taking a leap of faith; somebody will have to really believe in him and trust him.” Expert analysis requires an expert, and most people think of experts as former players and coaches. As an on-air talent, it’s often not what you know, but what you’ve done. In this case, an understated business card can be a deal-breaker.
It’s just after 7:30 p.m. when Cosell checks his watch for the umpteenth time. Unaccustomed to leaving the office “early” on an October Thursday night, he’s nervous about forgetting the time. On this night, he and the author David Plaut are speaking at a New Jersey community center about Games That Changed the Game, a book they wrote with Ron Jaworski about the history of prominent NFL strategies.
This week’s Matchup show is all but complete. But still, there are a few tapes that haven’t been watched. On the screen is the Bucs-Falcons from Week 9.
“Now see, this is terrible,” Cosell says, pausing the tape. “This is terrible. He’s literally running to get tackled. See how he stops his feet and braces for contact?”
Cosell rewinds the tape and lets it roll. Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount takes a handoff, runs off the outside hip of left tackle Donald Penn and, two yards later, is wrapped up by Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton. Cosell rewinds again and lets it roll. Then again. And again. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth take, it becomes apparent to the untrained eye that Blount is indeed planting his feet just before Lofton makes contact. Equally as revealing was how Blount failed to hit several holes with proper timing and authority earlier in the tape. If reporters could see these subtle flaws, they wouldn’t be championing the undrafted Blount as a rookie of the year candidate.
A few plays later, Cosell points out that Blount, before running his route into the flat, fails to properly deliver an effective chip block on a blitzing linebacker. It’s suggested to Cosell that this play proves Blount is an awful pass blocker. “Perhaps,” he says. “But keep in mind, we don’t know how Blount is taught to execute this particular assignment or even what his exact assignment really is. Only the player and his coach know that. So maybe he has a reason for his actions here.”
This is the type of thinking that kills a story line. Gone is the freedom to simply declare that LeGarrette Blount stinks. Still, it’s suggested to Cosell – in a slightly firmer tone – that a fair assumption would be that a veteran like, say, former Bucs running back Warrick Dunn, would not have failed on this type of chip-blocking assignment…right?
“I don’t know that,” he replies. “I’m not seeing Warrick Dunn on the tape right now.”