When he was interviewed by Jerome Holtzman for No Cheering in the Press Box in 1973, former Chicago Tribune sportswriter Ed Prell said, "The sportswriters today depend too much on quotes from the dressing rooms. They've become nothing more than messenger boys."
Thirty-one years later, they're still messenger boys. Unfortunately, that's what sports journalism demands. Today's sportswriter isn't even a narrator providing expertise. He's the guy sewing quotes together with a kit of transitional phrases.
When I covered the Buffalo Bills for Shout!, my editor always wanted more voices in the article, even when they lacked insight. I'd write a game story, using my observations and quotes from about five interviews, and he'd later add quotes from the sterile quote sheets the team provides, sticking them in there like candles in a cake. It annoyed me, but it was indicative of sports journalism's infatuation with quotes, as if everyone's Muhammad Ali.
Let's look at the valuable insights the Bills are providing us these days. Apparently, they'll succeed because Mike Mularkey says he's building a mentally tough football team that makes no mistakes, plays to the whistle, and remains physically tough for four quarters or longer. He says he's operating a grueling training camp during which players will hit more. Eric Moulds says he's seen Mularkey get in guys' faces. He's also observed the offensive line getting nasty. Trey Teague says the spring practices were even harder than they had been in the past.
That sounds similar to what was said when Gregg Williams took over for Wade Phillips, whose teams were so soft and undisciplined, they made the playoffs twice during his three-year run.
Mentioning toughness and nastiness is meaningless football rhetoric. The sport is among the most brutal. I can't understand how a person who plays a lifetime of football, and survives through it, might somehow be lacking in toughness and nastiness. What else does he need to do? Drive nails through his skull and run around like Pinhead from Hellraiser?
Williams often discussed how his players need an attitude, even suggesting when they're in the tackle pile, they do things to opponents that would provide a competitive advantage, but might not be considered sporting. He wasn't talking about Abu Ghraib types of things. After all, there isn't enough time between plays to take pictures of a guy smoking a cigarette while pointing at some other guy's pecker.
No, he was alluding to a random knee or ankle twist, perhaps a scrotal squeeze --- things that would cause obvious discomfort for the opponent as he ran back to the huddle.
Still, many fans buy into that toughness talk, prompting fantasies that the coach is a mix of Vince Lombardi, a sadomasochist, and the stern father on The Wonder Years.
If Mike Mularkey is creative, intelligent, and bold, the Bills have a good chance of winning under him. There are things they still need to improve, such as the offensive and defensive lines. But, generally, flexibility is the key to being successful in today's NFL, and it's imperative Mularkey communicates a flexible plan so his players can execute it each week. The Patriots' Bill Belichick, for instance, is extremely flexible, and he effectively orchestrates complete style changes to his offense and defense almost weekly. That approach keeps opponents off balance.
Granted, a team might win with ironclad systems when it has optimal talent that fits. However, it's easier to develop a winning program with flexibility, which takes cleverness and a certain willingness to do things quirkily. The media and fans will accuse the team of lacking an identity during a losing streak, but they'll praise a coach's beautiful mind if things go well. They might even call him a genius. And in football, there is no higher praise.
Mularkey must have the courage to forge his own way with the players Tom Donahoe gives him, which should put him light years ahead of Gregg Williams in just Week 1.
But he won't win because the Bills are tougher and nastier than their opponents. That's merely locker-room drivel from the messenger boys.