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Masks Up, Ratings Down

“The NFL’s first COVID-19 crisis raises doubt about the efficacy of protocols and whether the pro and college seasons can be completed, while Jimmy Butler smack-talks LeBron in an NBA Finals that needs viewers.”

Jay Mariotti

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Call it Coronakarma. In the same week COVID-19 hospitalized President Trump — just hours after he mocked the size of Joe Biden’s mask, said “the end of the pandemic is in sight’’ and continued a year-long delusional dance challenged in U.S. presidential history only by Frank Underwood in “House Of Cards’’ (and he wasn’t real) — how fitting to see the NFL slammed by its own virus crisis.     

A coincidence, it is not. In the league’s hellbent quest to snag as much of a $17 billion pot as possible this season, commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners embraced Trump’s urging that major sports play on through the pandemic, even if some of those owners loathe the president. As COVID continues to rage for a ninth month in America, what did all of these men gain from an abundance of hubris, ignorance and hypocrisy?

Grim answer: A place in medical limbo and potential American infamy, with the most powerful person in the free world and the most prominent sports enterprise in the Western Hemisphere weakened because neither treated the pandemic with appropriate concern. Trump has been tethered to his room in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, at the mercy of antibody cocktails, experimental treatments, steroids and whatever else they pump into his 74-year-old, somewhat obese body.

The NFL? Goodell has the freedom to apply common epidemiological sense and call an immediate timeout on the season, which would allow the league and its franchises to reassess protocols and make sure they know what they’re doing while risking the health of thousands. But that’s not how football people roll, even as players and coaches eschew masks, violate policies and make a daily mockery of a virus that has killed almost 210,000 Americans. The league marches on, despite evidence that sports playing inside restrictive environments — NBA, NHL — can avoid COVID-disruptions and complete seasons, while football on the professional and college levels is encountering the same perils outside a Bubble that pummeled Major League Baseball. The college game recklessly marches on, too, as fans foolishly allowed into stadiums on COVID-ravaged campuses are clustering without masks and social distancing, forcing SMU police to clear the entire student section Saturday and the SEC to ponder an autumn of outbreaks in the stands, which conceivably could spread to players.

People still don’t get it.

Until, you know, they GET it.

The sports model on how to survive in a pandemic has been authored, for the most part, by none other than LeBron James. Assuming Game 3 was a momentary and embarrassing snooze and not a sign of more lethargy ahead, the Lakers remain comfortably positioned to win the NBA Finals, though they’ve allowed a hungry badass named Jimmy Butler a crack in the concrete door. Disgusted as he left the court before the buzzer — the loss to the undermanned Heat means two more days in the Bubble — James can’t allow himself to commit eight turnovers and let various teammates, including Anthony Davis, be no-shows again in Game 4. Otherwise, the “LeBron legacy’’ questions become loud and persistent; the Heat, after all, are without Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, leaving Butler to carry the night and mouth “trouble’’ to his Miami teammates in the closing seconds. As in, the Lakers are in trouble. They aren’t in trouble yet, but it makes for a more watchable series.

Butler, for instance, admitted to telling James, “You’re in trouble,’’ not long before James exited the court with 10 seconds left — not a good look, and one we’ve seen before in failure. Butler said he simply was responding to what LeBron told him earlier in the game. Observe how far Butler has come from humble beginnings, in life and basketball: He’s mouthing off to the King. “First of all, we’re not going to act like I’m just out there talking trash, because I’m not,’’ Butler said. “LeBron said it to me at the end of the first. That’s what happened. I just said it to him in the fourth quarter.’’

James took the high road, describing Butler as one of the game’s great competitors and someone he’ll miss when he retires from the sport. “I don’t feel like we’re concerned,’’ James said about a Lakers performance he deemed as “poor’’ Sunday night. “We know we can play a lot better. We have an opportunity to take a commanding lead Tuesday night.’’

And if they do, he’ll be one victory from an achievement more sweeping and impressive than finally claiming a title for Cleveland in 2016. For more than three months, James has stayed true to Bubble life, followed all the protocols, vigilantly fought racial injustice and police brutality, urged people to vote and vowed to win in Kobe Bryant’s memory while aiming for his fourth title. Shouldn’t everyone be taking notes in America, in sports?

Much of the country still refuses to grasp what’s happening, whether it’s a president who will return from the hospital and claim COVID really is the common flu or a league boss determined to navigate a season out of greed when Vegas odds don’t favor him. “We’re continuing to be vigilant, flexible and adaptable,’’ said Goodell, trotting out words he used in July when October demands much more urgency. In the space of days, the Tennessee Titans were shut down by a COVID outbreak of 20 cases while Cam Newton — one of the NFL’s biggest stories so far and a self-described “Superman’’ —  also tested positive for the virus. That quickly, the league was blindsided by an inescapable 2020 truth: Its expectation of completing the season, through the Super Bowl in February, can shrink to utter folly at any moment.

If there’s one certainty about this mindbleep of an infectious disease, it’s that anyone who thinks it’s a bunch of hooey soon will have his head or ass pressed against a toilet for days. The virus likely is determining the future leadership of this country. On a much lesser scale, it already has shot holes in the almighty NFL shield. Or, more to the point, COVID has popped at least four of Goodell’s “32 separate bubbles’’ before the regular season is a month old. When Newton’s positive test coincided with another positive test at the Chiefs facility, the league shifted Sunday’s hyped Chiefs-Patriots matchup to Monday night in Kansas City — assuming more tests don’t turn up positive. Cold reality is, the NFL schedule no longer can be written in anything but pencil. The two games postponed Sunday could be four games next week. Or seven next month.

Wrote Newton in a somber-faced Instagram selfie, which shows a mask worn improperly on his neck: “I will never question God’s reasoning; just will always respond with `Yes Lord!!’’’ I appreciate all the love, support, and WELL WISHES!! I will take this time to get healthy and self reflect on the other AMAZING THINGS THAT I SHOULD BE GRATEFUL FOR!!!’’

Brady, after throwing five touchdown passes Sunday to outduel Chargers rookie Justin Herbert, didn’t comment about the health status of his New England successor. It’s best he said nothing; Brady was the one flouting protocols by practicing without a mask at a Tampa public park. “We were told during training camp that this could happen, if you’re not diligent, you’re not careful,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I’m home-schooling my kids, we’re not having guests over at the house. You have to do those things if you want to play the games on Sundays.”

Sounding much like commissioner Rob Manfred when MLB was reeling from outbreaks, the NFL is pointing fingers. The problem, the league says, isn’t with the protocols; the failure lies in the protocols not being followed, which the league expects to find as representatives scour the Nashville landscape for clues. This as the league conducted a conference call with all teams concerning COVID “accountability, learnings and requirements.’’ What Goodell won’t admit, like Manfred, is that the NFL didn’t communicate COVID evils strongly enough from the season’s outset. Seven head coaches have failed to wear face masks on the sidelines, including two (Jon Gruden and Sean Payton) who contracted the virus, setting a poor example for the league and the U.S. population. Ravens coach John Harbaugh lowered his mask to argue with an official, spraying saliva droplets in the poor guy’s face. Last week, several Raiders players weren’t wearing masks or socially distancing during a charity event in Nevada. No amount of fines or threats of suspensions and docked draft picks seems to faze the men in uniform when in the heat of battle.

Leave us alone, they say. We’re busy.

“I understand that we’re all chasing perfection,” Harbaugh said. “We try to be as perfect as we can. It’s a pretty hard standard to hold other people to. But you try the best you can. That’s all I really have to say about it.”

Perfection? We’ll accept mask mediocrity at this stage.

All of which throws America into a deeper daze as it searches, in vain, for any semblance of normalcy in sports. Distracted by Trump’s illness and the many news channels smothering it, sports fans have tuned out the NBA Finals; Game 1 was the lowest-rated Finals game since 1994, when millions were busy watching O.J. Simpson in a white Bronco. At least baseball is playing its postseason in its customary month, but if viewership has taken a beating in previous autumns, how many will watch now? Ratings are undeniably down throughout the industry. And it’s not hard to explain.

The scope and grandeur of sports simply isn’t the same. It’s difficult to wrap oneself into a game when your team, even the Lakers or Stanley Cup champion Lightning, is in a Bubble with no fans or pomp. Or when you have no idea if a game will be postponed or how many missing players will dilute the experience. Or when the NFL’s biggest stories are Josh Allen and the 4-0 Bills, the Kevin Stefanski-revived Browns and the dismal Cowboys, who are worse under Mike McCarthy than they were under Jason Garrett. Or when college football actually is moving forward with a four-team playoff when ACC teams are playing 11 games, the SEC and Big 12 are playing 10 games, the Big Ten is playing nine and the Pac-12 is playing seven. At some point, the joy of having sports is interrupted by the jolt that sports is still very messed up and disjointed without fans in the arena and disposable energy across America. Even when Russell Wilson throws 16 TD passes in four games and leaves the stage to Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, a delectable treat is shrouded in the 2020 haze.     

Though only a few realists wanted to hear it, football is the sport most vulnerable to the coronavirus. As I’ve said and written, ad nauseam, dozens of players and personnel on each team are perpetually in close contact — on lines of scrimmage during games and practices, at facilities, in locker rooms, on road trips in planes and hotels and dining rooms. The NFL has been administering daily COVID tests — and an outbreak happened anyway, with the Titans reporting positive tests for 10 players and 10 personnel members. That should sound alarms that the worst could be ahead. Exposed to the outside world every day, NFL and college teams are required to be extra-diligent when they return to their living quarters or, perhaps, wander into public restaurants and bars. For weeks, the NFL’s plan seemed to work. After the Titans’ outbreak, the most accomplished coach of his time, Bill Belichick, voiced pride in how the Patriots were eluding COVID issues. “We monitor everything every day. We don’t just do it when there’s a problem or something comes up somewhere else,’’ he said. “We do it on a daily basis and make everyone aware — because this is everybody. It’s not just players; it’s players and coaches and staff and everybody else. If we can do something better, then we talk to them about how we can do it better. So we try to monitor it the best we can, and we, I think, are pretty vigilant with all of us.”     

Until Newton was placed on the dreaded reserve/COVID-19 list. This forced the Patriots to take a game-day flight — two planes, 3 1/2 hours in the air — and turn to backups Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham in a rushed reset Monday night. See how this already has altered competitive balance at the most important position in team sports and further discombobulated a schedule complicated by a Titans-Steelers postponement? It doesn’t require much imagination to see how the season could become a logistical entanglement; at least MLB, when it was bombarded by summer outbreaks, had time to shut down a team or two for weeks. The NFL doesn’t have such a luxury. As for the idea of sequestering everyone in hotels in home cities, the Players Association shut it down.     

Of course, there still is no exact science about how COVID is contracted and spreads. In the Titans’ case, multiple positive tests over several weeks seemed to take an eventual toll. In other cases, a player can catch it from a family member or child or simply by happenstance. On the college level, Notre Dame’s outbreak was linked to players and coaches sitting together for a team meal — dumb, dumb, dumb — and a player vomiting on the sideline. Such irresponsibility is a poor reflection on school leadership — namely the president, Red. John I. Jenkins, who was maskless when he attended the ceremony for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Apologizing to students, Jenkins wrote in a letter: “I know many of you have read about the White House ceremony I recently attended. I write to express my regret for certain choices I made that day and for failing to lead as I should have.’’ Days later, after Trump saluted Notre Dame during a debacle of a presidential debate, Jenkins tested positive for the virus.     

If it can happen in Tennessee, if it can happen in South Bend, it can happen anywhere.     

The NFL insults us all by treating the virus like an ankle sprain and simply playing the game a night or two later. College football, with a power base in the Southeast, can be even more careless. The coach who slayed LSU last month, Mississippi State’s Mike Leach, hasn’t been wearing his facial covering as mandated by the SEC. “I tried to remember the best I could. Then I found myself talking all the time,’’ said Leach, who calls the team’s offensive plays. “So between me taking it down to talk, me lifting it up and it falling down on its own and me remembering to put it back up, I think there were a number of challenges there.”     

Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, responded with a two-page memo to coaches and warned of consequences. Leach responded with trademark sarcasm in a back-and-forth with the New York Times. “Do you ever find that pretty soon those things will start to smell bad, and all of a sudden, you’re going: `What’s that smell? What’s going on out there?’ No, there’s nothing going on out there. That’s your breath,’’ he said. “I find myself too preoccupied to do it, and then all of a sudden I notice it’s around my neck down there.’’     

Eventually, Leach centered on the political heart of the matter. “I try to do my best with it,’’ he said, “but once you’re six feet apart, I can’t help but wonder if some of this isn’t a homage to politicians.’’     

Saturday, Leach and Mississippi State were muffled in a shocking loss to Arkansas. The Razorbacks’ first-year coach, Sam Pittman, dutifully wears a mask, saying, “I couldn’t live with myself if I thought I had transferred the virus to somebody.’’     

Coronakarma, to paraphrase John Lennon, is gonna get you.

BSM Writers

The Big Ten Didn’t Learn ANYTHING From the NHL’s Mistake

To not have your product ever mentioned again on THE sports network seems like a steep tradeoff to me.

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ESPN, Big Ten

My favorite moments in life involve watching someone/something on the verge of a great moment and after a lot of struggling, get to the moment that makes them happier than you cam imagine. You can feel your scowl shift from tepid observer to interested party and then finally transition to open fandom. I was on the verge of another one of those moments coming into this week until the Big Ten decided that they would make biggest mistake since the Legends and Leaders divisions.

The conference was closing in on a brand new set of media rights to go into effect starting with the 2023 football and basketball seasons. The discussions were near a climax when the USC and UCLA called Big Ten commish Kevin Warren. Then, the negotiations relaunched and something special was about to happen. The Big Ten was inches away from declaring themselves the richest and most forward-thinking conference in the entire country and if they could win a few football games, they’d be head ahead of the SEC.

You can argue until you are Gator Blue in the face but the fact is, the Big Ten was about to explode and pass the SEC. The conference was about to have games on FOX, ABC/ESPN, CBS and NBC. All of the networks. ALL OF THEM. They were also developing a package for a streaming service to test the waves of the web. It all sounded so damn smart.

Then, the Big Ten went dumb.

The conference got greedy and asked for too much from what would have been their most profitable partner in cachet, ESPN. Reportedly the conference asked ESPN for $380 million per year for seven years to broadcast the conference’s second-rated games… at best. My jaw hit the floor.

Pure, unapologetic greed got between the Big Ten and smart business. The conference forgot a lesson that the NHL learned the hard way. ESPN dominates sports. ESPN is sports.

I don’t need to go to far back in the archives to remind you that ESPN’s offer to the NHL for media rights wasn’t as lucrative financially as NBC’s was, but the NHL took the short-term money and ignored the far-reaching consequence. ESPN essentially wiped them from the regular discussion. Yes, there were some brief highlights and Barry Melrose did strut ass into the studio on occasion, but by no means was that sport a featured product anymore.

One afternoon I had someone tell me that they were upset ESPN was airing a promo for an upcoming soccer match that ESPN was carrying. He told me, “they’re only promoting it because they have the game.”

That’s kind of how this thing works. ESPN is in business with some sports and not others so it makes a lot of sense to promote those you are in business with, yeah? ESPN doesn’t spend a lot of time promoting Big Brother, Puppy Pals or ping pong either. Why would they? There is no incentive too.

Here’s the sad question. Why would ESPN bother promoting the Big Ten? Why would ESPN spend extra time on the air, on their social platforms, on their digital side, to promote something they don’t have access to? The Big Ten is a big deal, but is it that big of a deal?

I am not suggesting that ESPN will ignore the Big Ten. They will still get discussed on College GameDay. But why would the network’s premiere pregame show for decades go to any Big Ten games and feature the conference?

There will be highlights still shown on SportsCenter, but I’m willing to bet they get shorter.

The Big Ten chose network television and a streaming service over the behemoth that is ESPN. As far as streaming is concerned, consider that over half of all NFL frequent viewers still don’t know that Thursday Night Football games are on Amazon only this year. That’s a month away and that’s people who call themselves frequent NFL viewers and that’s the biggest, baddest league in the land. Good luck telling them Purdue/Rutgers is on Apple or Amazon. Streaming is a major part of the future, but it still isn’t the now.

ESPN may seem like the safe bet, but that’s because it’s the smartest bet. NBC is a fine network that spends a bajillion dollars on America’s Got Talent and The Voice. Fine shows, but tell me where I can watch highlights of the recent Notre Dame/Stanford game.

CBS is a wonderful network that dominated with the SEC package for a long time, but that’s because the very best SEC game each week went to CBS. Will they still dominate if they have the league’s #2 package? Because why wouldn’t FOX, Big Ten Network co-owner FOX, get the best game each week for Big Noon Saturday?

There isn’t a single one of us that has a good damn idea where college football will be in three, five or seven years but I do know that ESPN isn’t going anywhere. I know ESPN has elite talent at every level of production and on-air that’s been in place for a really, really long time. I also know ESPN cares way more about sports than the other networks. CBS would like the Big Ten to do well, but CSI: Las Vegas is a priority, too.

The NHL went for quick money and it cost them market share. The sport is still trying to recover after being largely ignored by ESPN for 17 years. It wasn’t out of spite, it was out of business. The NHL once thought it didn’t need ESPN. Where’s the NHL now?

The money the Big Ten will generate is amazing, I will not deny that. It seems like a boondoggle of a lifetime to grab this cash. However, to not have your product ever mentioned outside of Saturdays ever again on the network that literally everyone associates with sports seems like a steep tradeoff to me. The Big Ten is going to get paid a lot now but in the long term, they will pay the most.

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BSM Writers

Producers Podcast – Nuno Teixeira, ESPN Radio

Brady Farkas

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BSM Writers

Lance Zierlein Isn’t Taking Shortcuts

“That really hammered it home for me; man, you just can’t take shortcuts.”

Brian Noe

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Jack of all trades, master of none. The only thing I dislike about that saying is, to me, it implies that a person isn’t special in any one particular area. That isn’t the case with Lance Zierlein. The guy has been crushing morning drive in Houston for 25 years and knocking out NFL draft evaluations for eight years now at NFL.com. It isn’t possible for anybody to master draft analysis, but Zierlein’s talent evaluations stand out so much that NFL coaching staffs and front offices pay attention to his views.

In addition to his on-air duties and draft analysis, Zierlein used to provide gambling advice for bettors through his own handicapping business. This dude gets around. Zierlein has proven to be valuable in many different areas. It’s no wonder that new opportunities have become available to him over the years. In our conversation, Zierlein talks about not taking shortcuts. He also mentions how he tries to avoid taking himself too seriously on the air, and reveals the most gratifying experience of his career. Enjoy!

Brian Noe: How did you initially break in to the radio business?

Lance Zierlein: Radio started for me 25 years ago. Actually it started before then; I started my own handicapping business 28 years ago when I was really young. Then I hustled my way on radio as a football analyst, an expert in my early 20s. I sent stuff out to a bunch of stations, got on, gave out my phone number for my pick line, which I answered myself and gave out picks. That was my living. 

From there, 610AM became an all-sports station in the fall of ‘94. By ‘95 the general manager of the station liked me on the radio and so I was doing a weekend sports show for a couple of hours on Sunday. By ‘97 I was doing morning drive. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I quit a job making $400 a week working 60 hours a week. It was just ridiculous. It was like some horrific management position in a field I had no idea what I was doing. I just quit and bet on myself and started my own business and three years later I’ve got a morning sports talk show. It’s been that way ever since.

BN: What has been your career path when it comes to writing?

LZ: I’ve been writing for a while. I started my own football newsletter in 1998. It was a sports newsletter, then in 2001 it became a football only newsletter. I did that for a while. I was a fantasy football writer for the Houston Chronicle. I had a blog in the Chronicle that was fairly heavily trafficked. I covered everything but really started to focus in on the NFL draft and some fantasy football stuff and the Houston Texans.

Some people over at the NFL noticed me. I planted some seeds over there and introduced myself to people at NFL Media. In October of 2014, they reached out to me about being their new NFL draft analyst. Shortly thereafter I was hired. I’ve worked there since the fall of 2014. So eight NFL drafts and 25 straight years of drive-time radio as well.

BN: When you think about all of those different avenues whether it’s handicapping, sports radio, or being a draft analyst — which is like scouting — which do you think you’ve had to learn the most about to know what you were talking about really well?

LZ: Oh man, well for me radio was never formulaic. I didn’t learn in college, I was just a natural talker and thinker and entertainer. I’m not necessarily predictable.

I think the most that I had to learn was the NFL draft. Handicapping is something that you learn as well. I learned in the pool halls of New Orleans when I was going to school at Tulane. I had a mentor who was a former vice president of finance for a company there. He just taught me about handicapping as being an analytical process where you try to find the right side of the puzzle. There’s a puzzle between two teams, various players, here’s the point spread and you try to work the puzzle out and find the right side. That took time too.

When it came to the draft you’re talking about having to really learn all of the specific factors for every position. From long snapper to punter to kicker to every position on the offensive side and defensive side. Even if you think you know what you’re doing and even if you have a scouting manual like I had to work off of, until you actually watch a ton of tape and make mistakes in evaluations, which you don’t know until two and three years down the road in many cases, and learn from those mistakes and alter your process and dial in your process to match the changing tides of NFL and college football, you really can’t get there.

I think the most learning I had to do believe it or not, and my dad was an NFL and college football coach my whole life, I think it’s interesting; the most learning I had to do really was the scouting and the evaluating process before the NFL draft. I think that was the most work I had to do from start to finish. And I still think that I’m learning in that as well.

BN: Doing draft evaluations is difficult. Handicapping games is difficult. Between the two, which do you think you were thrown into the deep end more? Most when it comes to that?

LZ: Handicapping I was trying to pick winners for people and I didn’t really feel like I had anything to lose. I was doing something I loved to do. I had left a job I hated that I should have never even been in. To me I was master of my own domain. I had my own company. But there’s a pressure that comes with that because although I didn’t need much money to survive and I was married to my first wife at the time, there is a pressure with knowing that you have to win so that people will sign up for the next month and you can pay bills.

When it comes to being thrown into the fire, listen I’ve got to write 500 players a year and every one of them is going to live on the internet forever. There’s receipts on 500 players. When I got thrown in I’m having to call defensive back coaches I know to ask questions about certain things having to do with cornerbacks, safeties. I’m talking to pass rush specialists. I’m talking to coaches primarily and really getting an education. I was lucky enough to talk to some guys who really gave me some help along the way.

But if you just watch a tape, the tape will speak to you. I had Jerry Angelo who was the GM of the Bears who one time told me just say what you see. Just say what you see. I really lived off that for the first couple of years. Then beyond that I started to really learn to be more technical with some of the things I was looking at at every position. Having 500 players that you’re writing up, from what I recall from a former editor there, he got 15 million hits internationally on my scouting reports over a relatively short period of time during the draft.

That really hammered it home for me; man, you just can’t take shortcuts. You have to really understand these guys, know these guys. If you project them wrong that’s fine, but don’t miss because you took shortcuts. It’s going to be there for everyone to read and see. I would say thrown to the wolves much more in the evaluation.

BN: Which of the three would you say is the most gratifying for you between sports radio, handicapping back in the day, and the writing/analyst work that you do?

LZ: God, that’s such a hard question because they’re three very different times of my life. The handicapping stuff was me just getting a shot to springboard into sports and into radio. I always knew handicapping was going to be a way for me to get into radio. I planned it as a side door into radio and my plan worked. I was pretty good at what I did.

Radio was just incredible because it introduced me to my wife. She was a listener so it introduced me to her. We had such a great following. Athletes liked the show. That’s gratifying on a level in my 20s and in to my 30s, I don’t think anything can match that when people around the city know who you are. You’re having fun every single day. You’re coming into the radio station and it’s just a lot of fun. You’re just kind of on a wild ride. You don’t really recognize it until after it’s over.

Football was special in a different way because my dad was a lifelong coach. He’s been a coach since I was one or two years old. He’s won a Super Bowl ring. He’s coached for a variety of college and pro teams. The first time he was reading my scouting reports when he was with the Arizona Cardinals, he came across them. One of the other coaches showed him.

When he really realized wow, he knew I did radio, he knew I did some of the scouting stuff on my own in a newsletter, I don’t think he really took it all that seriously. When he realized in reading my scouting reports for offensive lineman that I was really pretty good at it, and that he agreed with much of it, and he’s now calling me every other day to talk about prospects and get my thoughts on guys, you just can’t imagine the amount of happiness that gave me as a son to know that my dad had that level of respect for my work.

It’s really a second job. Radio is what I had done and this is a dramatically different job. If you’re doing NFL draft analysis for NFL.com, I’m following a scouting protocol. This is not radio. It’s a totally different discipline and job. Knowing that he really had a great deal of respect and that other Arizona Cardinals coaches started calling me and asking my opinions on certain players, it’s hard to really put into words how gratifying that is.

Then through the process knowing that there are people in the league who really respect my work and guys I’ve become friends with who are general managers now who respect what I do. There’s just an immense feeling of satisfaction in doing that and knowing I’ve got number one radio shows at four different stations in Houston.

Then to be able to do this with professionals that are in my dad’s trade. I grew up watching my dad as a coach, I know how tough that profession is for front office personnel, for coaches, and to know that people have a respect for the work that I do, that’s a level of gratification that’s completely different. That’s like a cherry on top. If I never did anything again tomorrow, I would be happy with what I’ve accomplished in my time in sports.

BN: Football fans turn into mini GMs when the draft rolls around. A lot of their evaluations are way off. [Laughs] Do you see a common thread between some of the evaluations that are just not accurate?

LZ: That’s a tough question. I think some people are way too opinionated and firm in opinions and they have not spent nearly enough time actually watching the players. I think it’s really more they’re aggregating opinions from other people and then turning it into their own, which is kind of an incomplete analysis. I think that’s a mistake that some people make.

I think there’s a belief that who you are now is who you’re going to be in the future. That’s the most basic mistake that everyone makes. You have to learn you’re not giving grades for who a player is right now, you’re giving grades for who a player is going to be in three to five years. Learning to do that does not happen overnight. It’s hard. It forces you to think differently. It forces you to really focus on traits and the habits of successful people.

Whether it’s certain successful traits, there are traits that can lead to success, explosiveness, speed, length, toughness, and you’ve got to look for those, and then you worry about NFL coaches coaching up the rest of it. Don’t get too hyper-focused. I think a lot of people get too hyper-focused on who a player is right now and not who a player is going to be later. Then also on the flip side, they get too enamored with stats and names as opposed to understanding what typically works in the NFL.

BN: How about your future? Say five years from now, what you’re doing, where you’re doing it at, what would be ideal for you?

LZ: I really don’t know. I think honestly if the right opportunity came with an NFL team and somebody I respected as a general manager, that would be something I would have to consider. I’m not sure that that right opportunity and all the things would fall in place. I don’t know that that would ever be the case. I’m not sure I see myself doing that in five years.

I think honestly, I feel like I have an eye for talent outside of football. I think I have an eye for talent in radio. I’ve brought five to seven people in who have become radio people and good hosts. I think at some point that might be something that I want to do is become more of a program director. If not a program director a talent scout to bring in the next generation of radio professionals.

I could see myself doing that because I do think I have an eye for people who have it. I didn’t learn the traditional way and so I understand that you don’t have to go through the traditional methods to be someone who can be captivating or entertaining or someone with upside. I think I recognize when people have that kind of upside. I think I’d love to be involved in that side of radio at some point in the future.

I’ve got a football business along with the former director of analytics for the Tampa Bay Bucs. It’s kind of a scouting tool and a recruiting tool for colleges. We’re already working with college teams and with high school teams. I think the handicapping stuff is out for me moving forward. [Laughs] That was an avenue and a vehicle and I still love trying to solve the puzzle, but I don’t put the same time into it anymore. There are different directions I can go in, but I’m happy where I am right now both in radio and the draft stuff. I’m just going to keep letting things play out and we’ll see what happens.

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