You can’t underestimate the lasting impact that the late Steve Sabol had on the NFL.
Sabol, who died Tuesday at 69, was president and co-founder (with his father) of NFL Films, whose depiction of the game is one of the biggest reasons the sport ascended to the top of the American sports landscape, as colleague Chris Gasper eloquently pointed out in his column Friday.
Every NFL team benefitted from the work done by Sabol and his hundreds of employees at NFL Films. The Patriots are no exception. Years from now, when the Robert Kraft-Bill Belichick-Tom Brady dynasty is long over, a choice few NFL Films productions will serve as time capsules for an extended era of excellence.
The first are the “America’s Game” documentaries about each Super Bowl winner, including the three-time champion Patriots.
Then there are the two most important pieces of Patriots history, “A Football Life: Bill Belichick,” and “Year of the Quarterback: The Brady 6.”
In “A Football Life,” Belichick wore a microphone for the entire 2009 season and the drama played out over two lengthy episodes.
While walking out to practice Friday, Belichick told the story about how it came about.
“I never even told Steve this,” Belichick said.
Sabol came to Belichick in Foxborough to pitch the idea. Sabol had an elaborate sales pitch set up and went through the whole thing. But he didn’t have to.
“I mean, it would be hard for me to say no to Steve Sabol or David Halberstam [the late author who penned ‘The Education of a Coach’ about Belichick],” Belichick said. “I mean, those guys are geniuses at what they did.
“So Steve comes in with the big presentation, going on about, ‘Hey, I did this with Lombardi and this and that.’ He’s going on and on and on, and I’m sitting there thinking to myself, ‘Well, I’m going to do this.’
“But he sort of never really asked me about it. He started the whole presentation and went through it before he finally asked the question, maybe 10 minutes later of telling me all the things he did, and how I should trust him and how he would . . . all the things that were part of it.
“So after about 10 minutes he said, ‘So, what do you think?’ I thought the whole time, I knew I was going to do it. But I said, ‘Yeah, it’s good.’ [He said], ‘Great.’
“I’m sure he felt like it was his sales pitch that did it, but I was sold before he even tried to make the sale.”
In 2002, Sabol told the godfather of this space, Will McDonough, that he once read a questionnaire Belichick filled out that asked what his favorite movie was.
“Anything by NFL Films,” was Belichick’s answer.
“I thought that was great,” Sabol said then.
The programs had a huge influence on Belichick growing up. “I think anytime there was an NFL Films presentation or show on, I found a way to watch it,” Belichick said. “That was back before the VCR days and all that.
“But the Football Follies, the stuff on Lombardi and Landry, the Ice Bowl and all those games . . . yeah. He certainly opened a lot of doors from an entertainment and appreciation of football standpoint . . . slow motion. I mean, the guy puts a spiral to music and you’re spellbound by it. A lot of talent there.”
“The Brady 6” chronicled the rise of Brady from marginal college quarterback at Michigan to Super Bowl champion and NFL MVP. Sabol did it within the context of the six quarterbacks drafted before Brady in 2000.
“I didn’t know him real well,” Brady said. “I was lucky enough to be interviewed by him a few times.
“I kind of agreed to do it when he asked because of him. I always felt with the documentation that NFL Films has done over the years, it’s hard when Steve Sabol asks you to do something to say no.
“He was obviously a pioneer and I really was lucky enough to get a chance to spend some time with him.”
Brady was reluctant to do the project at first because he worried about how things might be portrayed, considering he was still playing. But in the end, Sabol found the perfect mix of telling an interesting story without fawning over Brady.
“He did, no question,” Brady said. “But that’s what made him so great. He always found the story within the story. And I think that’s why people watch all those NFL Films stuff like they do.”
Kraft said it really struck him — as a fan, before he bought the team in 1994 — how the NFL Films highlight videos could make even fans of the 1-15 1990 Patriots team feel good. “To me, he was a visionary, an entrepreneur, a historian, but in the end he was really an artist,” Kraft said. “He could bring artistry to football fans. It’s something that’s a dying breed. He just had that gift and skill knowing how to touch the fan base. But some things, it’s just artistry.”
After the advent of the NFL Network in 2003, Sabol often sought out Kraft, who was chairman of the league’s broadcast committee, for counsel in dealing with the transition.
“He flew up to see me, I think, in 2005,” Kraft said. “We had started the NFL Network and the dynamics changed when you’re a talented, artist kind of guy. He was very concerned and responsible. And he came up and we spent a couple of hours trying to help him balance the business and the politics of a new organization.”
With Sabol gone, many are wondering who is going to speak for NFL Films. So much has changed, since the network now looks at the bottom line and wants to run quick and cheap programming like Top 10 lists and Top 100 players. Sabol always fought for artistry, for meaningful programs.
Patriots fans and history are better for it. It would be a shame for others not to get the same benefit. Maybe someone like Kraft, who shares the same vision of quality as Sabol, can be that champion.
“I thought one of the hidden assets that was carried on the balance sheet for everyone at zero but was worth a fortune, was NFL Films,” Kraft said. “Really because of what he and his dad created, and they did it in a quality way. They stressed quality. They do things in depth. They do it as students of the game.”
Hopefully, somebody else will.
LEADER OF THE PACK
Don’t misread quarterback
Despite delivering a much-needed win over the Bears Sept. 13, the Packers were embroiled in a mini-controversy last week concerning the leadership skills of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
This came about after Rodgers was seen screaming at receiver James Jones following an interception on which Jones read the play differently than Rodgers.
Blake Baratz, the agent for Packers tight end Jermichael Finley and linebacker Desmond Bishop, tweeted after the game, “ARod is a great QB he isn’t a great leader. There’s a major difference. Leaders take the blame & make every1 better. He doesn’t.”
And that got things going.
Let’s just get one thing out of the way: Rodgers is a great leader. He led the Packers out of the fog of the Brett Favre debacle to become Super Bowl champions. That wasn’t by accident. It was due to the leadership of Rodgers, among others. He set the tone for that team, and he continues to.
Rodgers, however, does have a blame problem from time to time. In 2009, after a road loss to the winless Buccaneers dropped the Packers to 4-4 (10-14 since Rodgers took over as the starter), a team meeting was held in which Rodgers was called on the carpet by teammates for holding onto the ball and taking too many sacks (37 through eight games).
Rodgers had said all the right things in public up to that point, about how he had to do his part to clean things up, but he didn’t really believe it. He thought the problems were with the offensive line.
It didn’t help Rodgers that some in the media and on the coaching staff enabled him (Rodgers couldn’t be the problem or else they would be ripped for trading Favre).
But after being put on notice by his teammates, Rodgers straightened up. And so did the team. He was sacked just 13 times in the final eight games as the Packers went 7-1 down the stretch and made the playoffs. The Packers have gone 33-9 in the regular season since that “Come to Jesus” meeting.
Rodgers learned a valuable lesson three seasons ago, and what we saw against the Bears was not a recurrence. Rodgers wasn’t deflecting his failures on others. He was just holding a veteran receiver to a higher standard, which all of the top quarterbacks do. Does Rodgers need to learn how to do that more subtly so the TV cameras don’t pick it up? Yes, and Rodgers acknowledged that. But no one should question his leadership skills. He has the ring to prove his worth.
A dream TD for Mulligan
Rams tight end Matthew Mulligan had the kind of sequence last Sunday against the Redskins that one dreams about as a kid.
The 27-year-old native of Enfield, Maine, blocked a punt late in the third quarter. Five plays later, he caught his first career touchdown pass, which turned out to be the game-winner in the Rams’ 31-28 victory.
“As far as the catches go, it’s obviously No. 1,” Mulligan said.
Mulligan entered the game with six career receptions in three seasons with the Jets. His only touchdown reception was in the preseason in 2010 against the Browns.
Not surprisingly, Mulligan’s touchdown catch set off a kid-like celebration from the 6-foot-4-inch, 265-pounder. To say he was exuberant jumping up and down in the end zone would be an understatement
Mulligan has traveled an interesting road to the NFL.
He didn’t play football at Penobscot Valley High School because there was no program, but he went out for the team at Husson University after playing a year of basketball.
Mulligan sat out a year after transferring to the University of Maine. After catching just 13 passes for 147 yards as a senior, he was signed as an undrafted free agent with the Dolphins.
Mulligan likely got a shot there because Dolphins assistant general manager Brian Gaine had been a tight end for the Black Bears himself who spent two years on NFL practice squads before heading toward the front office.
Welker may be on the way out
The Aaron Hernandez injury may very well have changed things (you’d like to think so), but the feeling here and with a few NFL personnel executives I talked to this week was that the Patriots seem to be headed toward trading Wes Welker.
Bill Belichick isn’t the sort of guy just to tinker with something as major as making Julian Edelman the No. 2 receiver. Sub-package rushers, nickel back, sure, he’ll mix and match to see what works. But not the direction of the passing offense. Belichick usually makes a decision and goes with it.
While I may disagree with his thinking, he’s entitled to run his team how he sees fit. How the season ends will be the judgment on the move.
It has to be mighty tempting for Belichick to think about putting the balance of Welker’s $9.515 million ($559,706 each week) back onto the team’s approximately $8 million remaining in cap space. With that kind of savings, Belichick might not even want that high of a pick in return.
The problem is, there really are only four teams that have the cap space to think about such a trade: the Titans, Chiefs, Jaguars, and Eagles. And they’d probably like to have some knowledge that Welker would be open to a contract extension, and wouldn’t just leave in free agency (perhaps a conditional pick).
The Chiefs would make perfect sense, but general manager Scott Pioli is losing the juice to pull off that deal every week his team loses.
Tipping point near for refs
The NFL and locked-out referees met Thursday and Friday in New York. While several reports said that the sides remain far apart and there may not be further talks, two NFL sources conveyed optimism that a deal could be struck as early as this week. That may have to do with the fact that if common ground isn’t found this week, the lockout might last the season. What the deal comes down to is the pension plan. The NFL wants to convert the referees from a defined pension plan to a 401(k), as it has for a majority of full-time employees. This is something that has happened to many American workers over the past decade. So part-time officials think they should be getting a better pension plan than most of the country? Sorry if I’m not banging a tin cup for a bunch of part-time employees who work 20 games a year or so. Now, if they were teachers or the like, that might be different. We’re coming to a tipping point. If the officials don’t strike a deal this week, we could be looking at a scenario where the NFL moves away from this current group of officials and starts hiring a new crop as soon as the college season ends.
1. I’m not big fan of these Thursday night games because of player safety issues. There is not enough recovery time after Sunday games. I wondered what was wrong with Friday nights. It turns out the NFL is prohibited from staging games on Friday or Saturday (until the college regular season is over) by the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961. Yes, it’s a real thing.
2. It sure didn’t look like Giants safety Antrel Rolle was wearing knee pads (or any pads of consequence) when he crashed into a cameraman Thursday night and cut his knee. If you remember, the Players Association balked at the NFL passing mandatory pad rules.
3. The 0-2 Chiefs had better turn things around quickly for the sake of former Patriots Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel. Kansas City Star columnist Kent Babb took Pioli to the woodshed in last Monday’s paper: “The Chiefs will never win big while Pioli is this team’s boss. His priorities are too misguided, his insecurities and denial too immense to allow Kansas City’s favorite team to win the Super Bowl that he was brought here to claim.” Yikes.
4. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was seen sulking on the sideline during his team’s 36-7 shellacking by the Giants Thursday night, then gave a ridiculous postgame press conference in which his eyes were closed for a good portion of it. I don’t expect him to feel good about a loss, but show a little dignity, Cam.
5. Didn’t love the Buccaneers going after Eli Manning on the final kneel-down last Sunday, but it is football. Here’s my problem with it: Greg Schiano should have told Tom Coughlin, “Look, I respect you but I’m trying to change a culture over here. Just to give you a heads-up, my guys will be playing to every whistle. So tell your guys to be ready.” Unless, of course, Schiano doesn’t care.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.