By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Rain fell on the Washington Redskins during practice Thursday afternoon, when players trudged through the least glamorous portion of a week that culminates with tonight's game against the Dallas Cowboys, the NFL's featured matchup. During those hours the Redskins toiled, a voice thundered through the radios in the cars of sports fans throughout the region.
"This is a pivotal week," Rick "Doc" Walker said into the microphone. "For all that we've invested in, they've invested in, it comes down to the next three weeks. For all that pressure, someone's got to have the game of their life."
The game of Walker's life, whatever it was, came at least two decades ago, back when he actually was a member of the Redskins and not a radio host offering commentary on his old team on ESPN 980, an outlet purchased by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder in June. In the hours that followed Walker, former Redskin Brian Mitchell appeared in his own regular slot, alongside former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, helping interview former Cowboys star Tony Dorsett. Mitchell's last year as a Redskin was 1999, his last in pro football 2003.
"When I first got to the Redskins," Mitchell said during his conversation with Dorsett, speaking about team leaders, "it was the guys who had been here, the guys who had done it."
The list of former Redskins whose voices float through the airwaves or into TV sets during a typical week of the football season -- recalling the good ol' days while critiquing the current team -- includes Hall of Famers (Sam Huff, Sonny Jurgensen, John Riggins), kick returners (Mitchell), first-round draft picks (LaVar Arrington), general managers (Charley Casserly) and, of all things, long snappers (Trevor Matich).
Toss in a stray appearance from Joe Theismann or Dexter Manley or Ken Harvey or Charles Mann, and the current players have almost no escape from the analysis of the guys who used to wear burgundy and gold.
"It's kind of weird, especially if it's a guy you played against or with," Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot said. "You expect most of the time for them to kind of have a better understanding of what you're going through, maybe give you a little more sympathy than somebody that never played the game.
"You start wondering, 'Was he made to say that, or did he just say it himself?' . . . That can start bitter relationships."
It is hardly unusual for former players to transition into post-retirement roles as analysts. Indeed, the current Cowboys are scrutinized each week by Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, who hosts a radio show in Dallas, and their games are called on the radio by Babe Laufenburg, a former quarterback. But the environment in Washington, the nation's ninth-largest media market, is particularly intense for a variety of reasons, ranging from the number of voices to the popularity of the team, which is unrivaled among local franchises. And at any Redskins game, amid the jerseys fans wear to support the current players, there are a few No. 44s for Riggins, a few No. 9s for Jurgensen. The past colors the present each Sunday at the stadium, and each week over the airwaves.
"Their criticism is somewhat based in the fact that they still have a fondness for that uniform and that team," said Bruce Gilbert, the chief executive of Red Zebra Broadcasting, Snyder's media arm. "They really want them to win. They're harder on the player than that average Joe would be.
"To me, there's value in that. It creates -- at all times, 24/7 -- factual-based opinions that are polarizing. That is, after all, what we're trying to be: polarizing."
That, then, matches the results in the NFL. In no American pro sport does each game mean as much. Win, and the chatter for a full week is generally positive. Lose, and the next game becomes Armageddon.
So at the end of one sunny Sunday afternoon in October, Pete Kendall stood in front of his locker stall at FedEx Field, game pants still on, thigh pads still in, a hush all around. Kendall awaited the inevitable assault, and it came hard and heavy.
"Time sort of stands still," Kendall said, and thus he began the process of explaining -- again and again -- how a 6-foot-5, 292-pound NFL lineman could see a ball batted into the air, catch it, then decide to run forward. Kendall made those choices earlier that afternoon, only to fumble the ball, allowing a St. Louis defender to scoop it up and sprint the other way for a touchdown. The play turned around what became a 19-17 loss to the Rams. In Kendall's estimation, "It cost us the ballgame."
Kendall entered the NFL in 1996, and has played in four distinctly different markets -- Seattle, Phoenix, New York and Washington. At each stop, he and his teammates have been subject to scrutiny from former players. He said he has "always thought it was a difficult position for any former player to be in.
"The one thing you know with certainty as a player is nobody else knows exactly what's going on in those meeting rooms," Kendall said. "But sometimes, people in the media are encouraged to take a stand and draw a line in the sand, even if they don't have all the facts.
"In fact, almost all the times when they talk about X's and O's, even the most knowledgeable guys are still basing their analysis on certain assumptions that may or may not be true. So it could be frustrating, particularly if you're the guy getting wrongfully blamed or accused."
On the Tuesday before the St. Louis game, as Kendall picked up his kids from school, ESPN 980 -- and the voice of Redskins running back Clinton Portis -- pumped through the speakers of his car. Portis, who has a weekly appearance on "The John Thompson Show," began to argue vehemently with Mitchell, who had been critical of Portis the previous week. "We got some haters," Portis said, "and there's one on this show."
The conversation deteriorated from there.
"You think that I'm gonna back down?" Portis asked Mitchell. "I ain't gonna back down."
"If you ever want to go to that area, that'll be the wrong thing you do," Mitchell responded. "Believe that."
The confrontation became something of a national story, media outlets picking up on the exchange between the star running back of the current Redskins and the respected, record-setting return man from years gone by. Portis was forced to answer questions about the fracas from the two dozen media members who assemble each day at Redskins Park. He apologized to Thompson for bringing the matter to his show.
Mitchell, though, believes part of the reason for the conflict came because he used to play. As veteran tackle Jon Jansen said, "I definitely think there's a line, and that line gets moved when you're not playing anymore."
"I think players seem to take offense to it because they feel, 'Man, you're a former player,' " Mitchell said. "The whole thing about it is, now I'm a guy that works in the media. Now I have to do my job. Sometimes you're going to say things that [tick] them off. I don't try to say stuff in a way that's going to [tick] them off, but they know, for the most part, people are going to believe what I say. They're going to say: 'He played in the NFL. He knows what he's talking about.' That can bother them."
Walker, a former tight end who has been involved in various media in Washington since his playing career ended in 1985, still speaks passionately about the Redskins. During Dallas week, he playfully hangs up on callers who support the Cowboys. Like Mitchell, he is of the belief that his history -- even if it is grounded in years before some Redskins were born -- adds weight to his words.
"I'm all for them," Walker said. "But if they don't prepare properly, I know what's expected of them. I know what's an acceptable level of effort. I know the difference between them not getting the job done and someone being better than them. If they got a problem with that, then honestly, to hell with them. My job's not to coddle. I'm not a babysitter."
Gilbert said he wants neither babysitters nor coddlers. When Snyder bought the former SportsTalk 980 in June, Gilbert -- who had run a sports radio station in Dallas and later worked at ESPN -- met with his new charges and told them not to expect interference from Snyder.
"We told them, 'We think you're good at what you do. We're all going to be under a tighter level of scrutiny,' " Gilbert said. " 'All we ask is you be fair.' "
So when the station announced Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operations, would have his regular show, two of the mainstays in the market -- longtime hosts Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin -- criticized him harshly on the air, analysis that Gilbert called "totally in-bounds." Both Walker and Mitchell, the two former players who play the most regular role in the market -- Mitchell is also on Comcast SportsNet's pre- and post-game shows -- said they would not change the way they approach their jobs. "That would be an insult to me," Walker said.
The players, too, can't promise to change their reactions. It is rote locker room speak to say they don't listen to the opinions, don't read the papers, don't get caught up in the coverage. It is, several players said, easier to dismiss the comments of journalists who never played. The Portis-Mitchell confrontation, though, is just one example of how the words of ex-players can sting.
"I could see that one coming," said Smoot, who had heard Portis stew about Mitchell's comments. "It was overdue. B-Mitch has been real critical of Clinton. It's one thing to be critical of somebody, but it's another thing to always [have] something negative to say. Never nothing good. I knew it would happen. I just didn't know when."
But the ex-players said there's no way they'll change their approach, regardless of the players' feelings, regardless of who owns the station on which they broadcast. "A lot of these players," said Mitchell, who also played in New York and Philadelphia, "they couldn't make it in other markets."
For now, though, they have to make it in Washington. That means dealing with the shadows of men who used to wear the uniforms they wear now.
"I think as a player, you have to understand the environment we live in now," Kendall said. "We're going to have a lot of media types, and potentially, a lot of those media types are going to be former players, and people are going to be making some bold, loud statements without the benefit of all the information. Sometimes they're right, and sometimes they're wrong."