Within days of resigning as the general manager of the Houston Texans in 2006, Charley Casserly was fielding calls from a handful of new prospective employers: the TV networks. “I had been in the game for a long time, and they knew I could explain the game on TV,” Casserly said on a recent morning.
By that fall, he was an NFL insider on CBS.
The switch is a common one in every sport, with former coaches and executives swapping team ID cards for media credentials and transitioning from feeding the news to reporters to seeking, analyzing and vivisecting it themselves.
Perhaps never is that ecosystem of information exchange on greater display than in the lead-up to the NFL draft — a silly season of leaks, head fakes and misdirection from teams and executives meant to disguise their true intentions come draft night. And Casserly, 70, was the star of this year’s most dramatic intelligence brouhaha.
In early March, a few days after the NFL combine, Casserly ventured onto NFL Network and dropped a report — citing anonymous sources — about top quarterback prospect Kyler Murray and how his interviews with teams had gone in Indianapolis.
“These were the worst comments I ever got on a high-rated quarterback, and I’ve been doing this a long time.” Casserly said. “Leadership — not good. Study habits — not good. The board work — below not good. Not good at all in any of those areas, raising major concerns about what this guy is going to do.”
The comments fed a news cycle and prompted energetic rebuttals from Murray’s college coach and his agent, Erik Burkhardt, who told Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio that Casserly was an “agenda-driven ‘analyst,’ ” that the report was “disgusting and embarrassing” and that “Casserly should be ashamed of himself.” But beyond the outrage, Casserly’s reporting raised myriad follow-up questions: Where was the former executive hearing this from? Why weren’t other reporters dishing the same gossip? Who stood to benefit from these particular rumors? And had the former GM moved from NFL analyst to NFL reporter?
The questions soon became more personal. Reporters noted that Casserly, in addition to his TV job, coaches prospects on how to prepare for pre-draft interviews. Which meant his criticism of Murray could be seen as a giant advertisement — for himself.
“The comments troubled me initially because it’s well known that pre-draft opinions about prospects routinely are influenced by deliberate efforts to manipulate the board, with teams that like a player spreading negative information,” Florio wrote in an email. “Only after it came to light that Casserly trains prospects for their Combine interviews did the concern shift to Casserly having a clear and obvious conflict of interest.
Florio added, “Put simply, if Murray were one of Casserly's clients, Casserly wouldn't have criticized Murray.”
With his matted brown hair and thin-rimmed glasses, Casserly looks more like an IRS bureaucrat than an NFL insider. Seated in the booth of a diner in the D.C. exurbs near his home on a recent Saturday, Casserly wore an old Georgetown sweatshirt and dad jeans and picked at a plate of eggs.
“I had A+ sources on the Murray thing,” Casserly said. “They said he didn’t do well in the interview. You build relationships over the years and you have sources. That’s how it works."
Casserly is an NFL lifer. In the 1970s, while working as a high school football coach in Massachusetts, he wrote letters to every NFL team looking for a job and landed an interview with Washington. (He still has the responses he received from the likes of Don Shula and Tom Landry.)
With the Redskins, Casserly started as an intern — one of his tasks was telling players they were cut during training camp — and climbed the organizational ladder from scout all the way to general manager by 1989. He also met his wife, an accountant for the team, while on the job.
Casserly has been on the boom and bust side of drafts — he was part of the Washington brain trust that drafted Heath Shuler but was also involved in perhaps the most famous draft-day trade in NFL history in 1999, when Washington netted a boatload of picks from Mike Ditka and the New Orleans Saints in exchange for the right to select running back Ricky Williams.
As an executive, Casserly said, he liked dealing with the press.
“There were reporters who knew things in their mock drafts, so I’d talk to them,” he said. “I always wanted to be accessible, to have open lines of communications. Reporting was better when reporters knew where you were coming from.”
More than a decade after he left the Texans, Casserly is ubiquitous on TV. He appears on NFL Network several times a week and daily in the heat of the draft season, and he does work for NBC Sports Washington. Casserly’s NFL Network biography describes him as an analyst, and he said he does not consider himself a journalist.
But when he has information, he said, he delivers it. And so when he heard reports from three people he trusted about Murray — all of whom were in the interview rooms, he said — he told his bosses at NFL Network what he heard and from whom he heard it.
“I want to know who says the information is wrong,” Casserly said. “I’m telling you it’s right, so trust my credibility.”
The veracity of the information is only part of the equation, though. For the past several years, Casserly has worked for a company called Exos, training players on how to ace their interviews with teams. (“Never lie” is his first piece of advice). So even if his reporting on Murray was rock solid, the temptation to favor clients vs. non-clients — or to tout the importance of the interview prep — appears obvious.
Whenever Casserly goes on TV, he said, he compartmentalizes his different jobs. “A long time ago, I said, ‘Who’s paying you?’ ” he said. “And when I’m on TV, the NFL Network is paying me.”
Asked whether Exos is paying him, Casserly explained, “But when I’m on the air, I’m NFL Network. I’m not going to talk about something that’s confidential from the interview. Most of what I do with these guys is not confidential, anyway. It’s how you present yourself to the teams.”
He continued, “I tell players when I train them, ‘I’m going to report on you, but I’m here to train you today.’ But I’m only reporting on them if there’s something that’s public knowledge; then I talk about it. But it’s got to be from a different source or public knowledge.”
What kind of source?
“Not from our meeting.”
Is it hard to separate the competing interests?
“No, not really.”
Casserly does not disclose the names of clients but said that this draft season he was critical of one prospect he coached to the point where the player’s agent called him and said, “I thought I was paying you.”
“But that’s the deal,” Casserly said. “He was paying me. Then NFL Network was paying me.”
He added, “Look, I don’t need the business. I work for Exos; they get the guys. I just come in and talk to them. I get paid a flat fee; doesn’t matter if 100 show up or 50 show up. And it’s not a lot of money in the big picture.”
Casserly, of course, isn’t the only analyst on TV with ties to teams and players. FOX Sports NFL insider Jay Glazer trains players in the offseason. Former players report on TV about their friendships with current players. Sometimes, and seemingly more frequently than ever, they use those contacts to break news.
But if the lines are going to be so blurred, particularly when it comes to business relationships, should viewers be made aware of the professional ties of TV analysts? Casserly punted, saying that was a matter for NFL Network to decide.
The network has had discussions about biography boxes for contributors that would also serve as disclosures. “It’s something that has been discussed among our editorial team and we’re continuing to evaluate it,” NFL Network spokesman Alex Riethmiller said while also noting the network has policies in place for anonymous sourcing. “Whenever someone goes on the air with news that is from anonymous sources, they have shared that sourcing with our editors and there is a comfort level there from a news perspective.”
As for Murray, Casserly has a prediction for draft night: “I think he goes No. 1.”
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