By Joel Keller
This story is inspired by Antrel Rolle.
No, it's not because the New York Giants safety is having one of his better seasons despite the fact that his team is having its worst season in a decade. It's because it seems like every week, there's a headline with Rolle's name attached to it. And, even though Rolle has been an outspoken player his entire career, it seems that the vast majority of the headlines have not come from a reporters' scrum either after the game or during practice, but rather from his weekly radio interview with Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts on WFAN.
Just this season, Rolle has generated headlines by predicting that the G-men would win the rest of their games after an 0-4 start, as well as saying that Jonathan Martin was just as much to blame in the Dolphins' bullying controversy as Richie Incognito. And after New York's playoff-eliminating loss to the Chargers, when the hosts asked Rolle who he thought was going to win the NFC East, he came right out and said, "I don't care."
Rolle is one of the legions of NFL players who are paid to be interviewed once a week by their team's local sports radio station, whether the team is going well or not, whether they're active or hurt, or whether they're personally playing well or not.
This interview can take a couple of different forms, depending on the market. In some markets, the player is interviewed by phone for anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, usually as they're going from one place to another (Ben Roethlisberger, for instance, did a recent weekly spot while he was on his way to get a Christmas tree for his family). In other markets, though, the player sits behind a studio mike for an hour, with the ability to goof around with the timeslot's hosts after the requisite grilling about that week's game.
Unfortunately, after listening to more than a dozen of these kinds of interviews around the country -- some markets don't have a weekly call-in from a local player -- much of what I heard wasn't nearly as interesting as what I heard from Rolle. There was lots of praise for the other team, noncommittal answers when it came to the player's performance or the performance of his teammates, enough jargon to make Jon Gruden sound like John Madden by comparison, and just a general sense that players are there to collect some extra spending money more than trying to foster a post-retirement media career.
Here are some tips I've come up with to help differentiate the good NFL call-ins and studio shows from the bad ones.
Don't Be Boring
Does Rolle bloviate and self-aggrandize in order to generate headlines? Of course. I'm amazed at how the media seems to take Rolle's bait every single week. But all you have to do is listen to one of his teammates talk on the very same station to understand why what Rolle does is so refreshing.
Every Monday (or Tuesday if the game is a Monday nighter), Eli Manning gets on the phone with Mike Francesca and does his Eli Manning thing: Provides a wall of words that don't say anything that sticks with a listener. He basically uses his locker room patter during fifteen or so mind-numbing minutes, praising the other team and never implicating his teammates. He doesn't show any public anger at himself, calling his frequent poor performances this season "disappointments" but never letting us think he won't rebound the next week. Most answers are long monologues that rarely get above a certain voice level.
The Falcons' Matt Ryan is the opposite of Manning. Even though his team has been a crushing disappointment this season, you'd have no idea by listening to his interviews on Atlanta's 680 The Fan. Choose any random week and the guy sounds like the team is headed for the playoffs instead of a top draft pick; even though I can't remember a word he said when I listened, at least his chipper tone kept me from browsing Facebook while listening to his weekly spot.
Take Listeners Inside the Game
Even though Roethlisberger was getting that Christmas tree when he called into Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan the week I was listening, I was taken by how engaged he was with hosts Vinnie and Cook. He didn't reach Rolle levels of controversy, but he had no problem telling the hosts that he was upset at how poorly the Steelers were playing. And he gives little details about what went on during a particular game that draws a listener in. For example, after the loss to the Patriots in November, he told the hosts that he thinks that a critical fumble was caused by blue paint from the field being all over his hand and the ball. I've never heard Manning being that honest, or that detailed.
Give the Game As Much Energy As Every Other Topic
In many cases, especially during the hour-long studio shows, the player comes alive when the topic of conversation is anything but the game. When ESPN Chicago hosts Tom Waddle and Marc Silverman questioned the injured Jay Cutler about a controversial kicking decision during a Bears win over the Browns earlier this month, the quarterback mumbled his way through the segment, often saying "I'm not going to answer that" instead of criticizing his coaches or teammates.
But once the subject of the game was exhausted, Cutler's elocution level rose, and he goofed with the hosts like he was one of the guys. They even had him read a couple of ads. We know Cutler is angling for a media career after he retires, but it would help if he could have that level of enthusiasm when it comes to hard questions about his team, not just about the steaks the guys were eating in the middle of the show.
Show Up To the Call, Even If You've Been Benched
Say what you will about Michael Vick -- despite being hurt and then riding the bench behind Nick Foles, the Eagles QB still gets on the phone with Anthony Gargano of WIP and is excited about his surging team's chances, even going so far as to say last month that Foles should stay the starter, whether he was ready to play or not.
Don't Be the Starting QB
One thing that stuck out to me: The starting quarterback generally can't win when he calls in every week. Tom Brady gets grilled by WEEI hosts Dennis and Callahan whether the team wins or loses, and when he answers he sounds like he'd rather be getting a root canal; after the game where Rob Gronkowski was lost for the season, he had to remind the depressed hosts that "We are 10-3, for God's sake." Even enthusiastic participants, like the aforementioned Matt Ryan get pelted with questions about his team's latest loss, mainly because in a lot of ways, the starting quarterback is the face of the team.
But Steelers backup QB Brad Gradkowski? All he's doing is wearing a baseball cap and a headset, so he can go on Pittsburgh's The Fan every week and just have fun with the host and talk about the goings on around the league, as do his teammates Ryan Clark and Larry Foote. Jonathan Babineaux of the Falcons gets more questions about whether he'll stay with the team next season than about the previous game.
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There's really no perfect formula for an NFL call-in, but at the very least, they should be entertaining. A combination of Roethlisberger's energy, the buddy-buddy vibe of the Colts' Reggie Wayne on WNDE and the bold pronouncements of Antrel Rolle would be ideal, but it's hard to imagine most players would dare to be that controversial while they still have a locker room of teammates to deal with on a daily basis. Rolle seems to get away with it due to the leadership position he's taken with the Giants, but even huge stars like Brady know where their bread is buttered.
But that person may be out there; this was by no means a comprehensive list of shows. Feel free to recommend an NFL player I haven't mentioned here.
Or I can just keep listening to Antrel Rolle. The guy's a blowhard, but at least he's an interesting blowhard.
Joel Keller is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Parade.com, TheAtlantic.com, Fast Company Co.Create, Vulture, The A.V. Club and elsewhere. He is also the co-founder of Antenna Free TV.