I’m a kid in a candy store this week. I get to share with you my conversations with NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell. One of the few people who not only has access to coaching tape, but also a guy who can call up a coach and talk shop. In Part I of our phone conversation from Cosell’s office at NFL Films headquarters in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, Cosell allowed me to toss what seemed like an endlessly random array of player names for him to give his takes. In Part II, Cosell participates in a more standard Q&A. In Part III, he agrees once again to indulge my inner football child.
Waldman: Let’s play another game. I name two players and you tell me which one you want and give me a reason why. It could be about physical talent, skill, or the fit within your fictional use for them. Whatever.
Waldman: Joe Greene or Reggie White?
Cosell: Wow…that’s a really hard question. One guy played defensive tackle and one guy mostly played defensive end. My guess is that Joe Green could have played defensive end. He was physically gifted enough to do so, but he played on a team that had Dwight White and LC Greenwood. You know, I’d probably have to take Joe Greene, honestly.
And I’m nitpicking. I don’t know if it is a function of my formative years. We tend to like the music that we grew up with than the music of today because that is what we grew up with. We were more impressionable then. Maybe that’s why I like Joe Greene.
Waldman: Joe Montana or John Elway?
Cosell: Totally different players. Montana was your classic quarterback who was manipulated by his coach to perfection. It was the perfect fit of the system and a scheme because Montana’s strengths where that he was incredibly light on his feet, he had a real quick, compact delivery, he was incredibly accurate. Incredibly accurate. It is the most overlooked part of Joe Montana. Everybody immediately says that he’s a winner, which is one of the most meaningless phrases I’ve ever heard, but incredibly, incredibly accurate and great timing and anticipation.
Elway was the exact opposite. He was not a timing and anticipation player. Elway was a physical talent. Elway had a power arm and he could make any throw from any position from anywhere on the field. Probably not as consistent a player. Elway was more of an individual-play, player, whose individual plays could often just be remarkable because his physical talent was off the charts.
Waldman: Tony Boselli, Anthony Munoz, or Jonathan Ogden?
Cosell: I would go Munoz, Boselli, and Ogden in that order. I thought Tony Boselli was great and it was a disappointment to me that he ended up being injured and really couldn’t play. I thought he could have been absolutely special. Truly elite, Hall of Fame special.
Waldman: Bruce Matthews or John Hannah?
Cosell: (A long pause punctuated with an audible sigh). I’d probably say John Hannah if you’re just talking about physical skill set for the position. And again, that could be a function of all the shots I’ve seen here at [NFL] Films over the years. Not coaching tape shots, but we have some great shots of him. Maybe that’s what’s sticking in my mind.
Waldman: Mike Haynes or Darrelle Revis?
Cosell: Again, totally different in style. Haynes was long, lanky, and smooth. Not that he couldn’t be physical but his movements weren’t that way. You don’t look at Revis and think smooth is the first word that comes to mind.
It’s like the difference between 100-yard/meter runners. Some guys look like they are working at it when they run and some are smooth. Like Bob Hayes when he ran the hundred. He did not look smooth and fluid running. He was followed by Jimmy Hines who looked like he was running on air.
Revis looks more like Bob Hayes. He’s obviously a phenomenal, phenomenal player, but I think Haynes and Revis move totally differently. Therefore it’s tough for me to compare them even though they play the same position because it’s tough for me to see them the same way.
Waldman: Ray Lewis or Dick Butkus?
Cosell: You know, in some ways I think they are similar given their eras. Butkus played in an era where it was totally okay to maul guys without regard for their body or another’s body. Ray Lewis plays with a similar mindset and the same way, but he just plays in an era where certain things can’t be done because there will be penalties or it will lead to suspensions. But I think in many ways they are kindred spirits.
Waldman: Ronnie Lott or Troy Polamalu?
Cosell: Different players. I don’t think Lott’s strength was to necessarily go from Points A to B in a heartbeat. I think Polamalu at his best gets from A-B faster than any safety in the last 15 years. Obviously Polamalu is physical and he plays the game physically, but he’s nowhere near as strong or as powerful as Ronnie Lott.
Ronnie Lott was a man. There was a physical presence to Ronnie Lott that as remarkable. Polamalu was a physical player, but his physicality comes from his energy. Not from his pure strength.
Waldman: Is there a situation where you would want one over the other?
Cosell: Polamalu has more range so I guess you could say if you really wanted someone to cover the deep part of the field I think that he might be that guy. But you know, Lott played in that era before they changed some of the rules and physicality, intimidation, and punishment were much more acceptable. I think that was a significant part of his game. He was a physical specimen and he hurt you.
Waldman: One of my favorite plays involving lot actually has nothing to do with Lott making a good play, but his legend lends to uplifting the legend of another, which is running back William Andrews…
Cosell: Oh, he was a great player!
Waldman: He was one of my favorite backs growing up. It was a preseason game [author’s note: I was wrong it happened in December of that year during the regular season] and Lott comes charging up the right flat to hit Andrews who just caught a swing pass from the backfield. He lowers his pads into Andrews and Andrews lowers his pads just a little more.
The Falcons back runs over Lott, knocking the safety out, and turns it into something like a 70-yard score. They have to help Lott off the field.
Waldman: Whenever anyone asks me about Andrews, I feel compelled to tell that story. He also shared it with Sports Illustrated. It was early in Lott’s career, but he was known as a hitter and it’s just unbelievable to think that someone knocked him out.
Cosell: William Andrews was a great, great back who was probably a little bit of ahead of his time because he was a great pass receiver out of the backfield, too. For those 4-5 years in Atlanta he was terrific. No one talks about him anymore, but I thought he was terrific.
Waldman: Yeah, I remember reading an article in Sport where Walter Payton was asked if were willing to play fullback for another NFL back who would it be? His answer was William Andrews.
Cosell: Yeah, he was that kind of runner.
Waldman: Bo Jackson or Eric Dickerson?
Cosell: You know, Dickerson was really a different kind of runner because he was a big man who ran straight-up. Because of his size he had power to him, but I wouldn’t call him naturally powerful, you know what I mean? Yeah, he was a fluid guy. Yeah! He was a fluid guy, but because he was 225-228 lbs. with that kind of size made him at times powerful.
But Bo Jackson was a far stronger more naturally powerful runner. I always got the impression that with Bo he could hurt you when he was running. I didn’t see Dickerson that way even though he was a big man.
Waldman: What if I compared Bo Jackson with Jim Brown?
Cosell: You know with Bo you’re talking about physical attributes because he got hurt and he didn’t play long enough where you have a track record. Arguably, Bo Jackson just based on physical attributes could have been a top tow or three runner of all time. But it’s hard to say that because he didn’t play. He’s faster than Jim Brown. He’s more purely explosive than Jim Brown. Jim Brown was probably stronger. Just naturally country stronger than Jackson.
Waldman: It’s a tough one.
Cosell: Jackson was just so damn fast and he was not small.
Waldman: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio where Brown is revered, but the closest I got to witness a player of that quality was Bo Jackson.
Cosell: I could see that. I can understand you feeling that way.
Waldman: The two guys I could watch film over and over again were Brown and Sayers. I could watch that sixth touchdown in a game off the punt return on that muddy field against the 49ers all day.
One more…Michael Irvin or Larry Fitzgerald?
Cosell: Wow! I think they are similar. I know Michael Irvin very well and I’ve talked receiving with him a lot. He’s an amazing guy to talk to because when it comes to football – he’s nothing like his public persona – he’s passionate, but he was an amazing student and technician of the game. He was one of those guys.
Waldman: I’ve soaked up so much from watching him teach others on tape. It’s unbelievable. I love watching him instruct.
Cosell: Well you know it’s funny because he came to Films many years ago when we did a piece on him and he sat down with Steve Sabol for an interview during the season while I was watching film with Jaws. So he sat with us for a while and then he would demonstrate stuff using me as the defensive back.
Now we’ve never met in person, but I’m 6’4” 205 lbs. Now I’m going to be 55 years-old, but he was here 8-9 years ago so I was in my mid-40s. I was not in shape the way I was years ago when I played college sports, but I’m not a fat and out of shape guy. I go to the gym and all that.
But when he put his hand on me to show me what he would do with a defensive back and I’m telling you that his hand was so strong. When he demonstrated technique I couldn’t believe it! I thought he was going to lift me like I was a grapefruit.
I think Irvin at his core is a more physical player than Larry Fitzgerald even though Fitzgerald is big and I’ve been around Larry interviewing him this summer for something. But I think Irvin was a more naturally physical player. He played the position more physically. I think Fitzgerald is physical at the point of the catch, but he’s not as physical of a route runner as Irvin.
Irvin almost encouraged the physicality so he could beat the shit out of you. I don’t think Fitzgerald runs routes like that. I think at the point of the catch Fitzgerald is physical, but not overall like Irvin is. But I think Fitzgerald has better hands. Irvin had good hands, but Fitzgerald has unbelievable hands.
Waldman: He has the ball tracking ability that is really special.
Cosell: I guess the phrase that he uses that has become a part of our lexicon is “high-pointing the ball.” He’s phenomenal at that.