ESPN NFL Wild Card Playoff Conference Call Transcript


ESPN NFL Wild Card Playoff Conference Call Transcript

MNF’s Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and Producer Jay Rothman Preview Cardinals-Panthers and 2014 NFL Playoffs

ESPN conducted a NFL media conference call today with Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman and commentators Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden to discuss coverage of the Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers Wild Card Playoff game this weekend (Saturday, Jan. 3 at 4:20 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Cardinals-Panthers matchup is the first NFL Playoff game in ESPN’s 35-year history. (Full audio replay. Photos.) Transcript:

Jay Rothman: Real quickly, we’re excited to be in the postseason business, very excited for our Monday Night Football crew, the hard working men and women who deserve to be in the postseason quite frankly. The treatment of the game is really to cover the heck out of a playoff game where one team moves on and one team goes home and for us not to get in the way of it. Our treatment every Monday night, we have Super Bowl‑like coverage each and every Monday. We treat every game with the utmost importance, and this is just another one of those games where we’re going to have a blast doing a game in a great environment, we hope. We’re ready to roll.

Mike Tirico: I echo everything Jay said. A thrill to do a postseason game in the NFL. It’ll be an exciting milestone for me.  First time I’ve actually had a chance to do one. I would say overall just 23‑and‑a‑half years at ESPN, I don’t remember a week or a 10‑day stretch or two‑week stretch like this with all those New Year’s Six games, the College Football Semifinals, our first playoff game for the company and then the Championship game nine days later. This is about as great a run of events as we’ve ever had back to back to back. I know we’ll be in the centerpiece of it with the NFL playoff game, and we are thrilled to be a part of it, and it’s darned good to have your first playoff game next to one of the 30 men who have won the Super Bowl as a head coach. I know even if I have playoff jitters, I’ve got the guy next to me to make sure we do the right thing.

Jon Gruden: Well, thank you, Mike. I’ll be short and sweet. I love playoff football. I don’t think there’s anything like a single‑elimination format like the NFL has, and thankful to be a part of it with a great team.

Jay, could you talk a little bit of whether you’ll make any changes in terms of numbers of cameras, how you use cameras, those kinds of things, and then for Mike and Jon, can you offer some general thoughts on Carolina and Arizona?

Rothman: Camera coverage is identical to our MNF show. We have 32 cameras. We feel very covered with what we have. The only additional camera we’re adding in Charlotte is in what we call an RF handheld, which is a roving handheld to get color and crowd and that sort of thing.  But our Monday night complement, fortunately we get great support and we’re loaded for bear, so we’re excited to work with what we have.  We feel good about it.  Thank you.

Tirico:  Here you have the team in Arizona that was the surprise hot team of the first three months of the year, and then as the injuries on their third quarterback cooled them down, here comes Carolina on their great December run. They kind of picked that baton up. And as Jon said, the beauty of the one‑and‑done format, it matters not that Carolina went 63 days with a win and their struggle or that the Cardinals have struggled in their last two games. The winner is in the final eight.  Whoever can leave the path behind and thrive in the destination here of the playoff game will get the opportunity to move on, so I think it provides a great contrast in how the teams arrive at this game.

Gruden: I think both these head coaches have done a great job with the turnover on these two rosters.  If you put Carolina on paper and looked at their team last year and now look at it this year, it’s amazing the job Ron Rivera has done. What Coach Arians has been through in Arizona speaks for itself, not only at the quarterback position but across the board on his football team. The Cardinals appear to be on fumes right now, losing their last couple games with a third‑team quarterback, but they have firepower on defense, they’re a challenge to prepare for because they come from everywhere with blitzes and they still have some bad ball receivers that can go get it, and I’m really impressed with Carolina’s defense. I think Sean McDermott deserves much more credit than he’s received. They might play the game on defense with as much effort as I’ve seen all year. Dallas and Carolina have two of the great effort defenses in the tournament.

Jon, can you please cycle through the four games and maybe identify a player with each team other than the quarterback who’s vital to his team’s success this weekend?

Gruden: Well, in Pittsburgh it all starts to me with Le’Veon Bell. Does he play or does he not play? We had the Steelers on Monday night and he is as good a runner as there is on the planet. Without Le’Veon Bell the Steelers are a different team just because of his tremendous ability. I think it all starts right there with Pittsburgh.

For me in Baltimore I think it’s all (Joe) Flacco. Flacco gets all the attention but when he gets hot in the playoffs he showed what he can do a couple years ago, and when he’s not hot, he showed what he’s capable of doing against Houston a couple weeks ago.

All over the injury report, A.J. Green left with a concussion. I think that’s a big issue, certainly for the Bengals. They got destroyed by Indianapolis. The film was ugly. They were missing their linebackers in that game. In (Emmanuel) Lamur is back, 59, if he plays, I think that helps tremendously what Paul Guenther wants to do. I think the health of the linebacker corps and A.J. Green for the Bengals and obviously the great young receiver for the Indianapolis Colts, he’s got to get back in the fold. They desperately miss his dynamic play making, the little guy, T.Y. Hilton.

Detroit, you know, without Ndamukong Suh, I think Coach (Teryl) Austin is the key player in this game, the defensive coordinator. I think he might have to do some things to get pressure on Romo that he didn’t have the ability to do before. I think he’s a key player in this, as he has been for the Lions all year. Austin has done a great job with this Lions’ defense.  They’ve got to rally now with some specific changes I think in the game plan. They’ll negate the loss of a great player. And for Dallas, to me it’s taking away Calvin Johnson. Their secondary has to have a different plan than they did a year ago because Megatron shredded them for an NFL record, I believe. And I do know in big games, big moments, that’s where Matt Stafford is going with the ball.

And for your game?

Gruden: Lindley is the key. I thought Bruce Arians did a great job with Ryan Lindley in San Francisco, just getting done with the film. They put him under the center, they reduced the game plan, they did some things that he was comfortable doing.  I think that’s really important, staying away from the turnovers, even though he played better, the three turnovers doomed Arizona, and on the other side of the ball for the Carolina Panthers, it’s all about Cam Newton. He did not handle the blitz very well at Arizona last year, seven sacks, three interceptions. I’m sure Todd Bowles is coming with more action to create turnovers and get field position for Arians’ offense.

Jon, Mike, what kind of story would it be if a relative no‑name like Lindley goes on the road as a third stringer and pulls off an upset, and same way, what if (Drew) Stanton makes some kind of miraculous recovery and gets to play with a partially torn ACL? How big would that be assuming that were to happen?

Tirico: Those are the things you talk about for years, and that’s why the playoff stage is so special. When we still discuss Philip Rivers, we harken back to him playing through the knee injury, winning the playoff game in Indianapolis, going to New England in the conference championship game and almost beating the Patriots there. Those are the things of legends. If it’s Stanton, it would be in that Willis Reed chapter of dramatic returns from injury to lead your team to a playoff victory.

If it’s Lindley, it joins the anonymous club. I was just looking at the running back/quarterback combo there, and it’s hard to find a playoff team with a more nationally anonymous combo at running back and quarterback than the back by committee since the (Andre) Ellington injury and then the third quarterback with Lindley since the first two. But it would fit right into the pedigree of Bruce Arians and all these stories along the way of everything looks like it’s against you, yet they succeed.  We had this team eliminated from the playoffs when (Carson) Palmer got hurt, Stanton took over, and they won their two big games right after. If there’s a group, especially this year, that I’m not willing to count out, it’s the Arians‑led Cardinal group for sure.

Gruden: I’ll just echo, I think it would be a great story, obviously, if they could win a playoff game with their third‑team quarterback. But I don’t think you have to put it all on the trigger. I think you have to rely on the defense. They’ve got to play great situational football and special teams. But if they could win a game and then get their No. 2 quarterback back assuming he’s healthy and win another game, you’ll have a fun time writing about it. It’ll be quite a Cinderella story

How does Lindley look to you guys?

Gruden: I think he’s struggled, obviously, against St. Louis. It was a short week, a Thursday night game. Both teams struggled offensively, as do most teams on Thursday night with very little preparation, and then obviously against the defending world champions, it was a significant struggle, not just for Lindley but the entire offense. They were beaten soundly on both sides of the ball.

I thought he got off to a great start against the 49ers. However, that’s not the 49er defense where they opened the season with. There were a lot of unknown 49ers on the field. But he did play good. He made some difficult throws, but he did turn the ball over too many times.

For Jon, obviously we’ve been talking about Lindley for a couple questions here, but as a coach, how do you approach this when you get into a playoff situation where you don’t have your starting quarterback? Generally the history of playing backup quarterbacks, starting them in a playoff game, has not ended well for those teams that had to play them. How do you kind of approach this with your entire team knowing you’re kind of put a little bit behind the 8‑ball?

Gruden: The year we won the Super Bowl, we had to beat Chicago in Week 16 with our backup quarterback, and we had never won a game in below‑freezing temperature. So what I did is I went down to Warren Sapp’s locker and Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber and said we’ve got to play some defense tonight. That’s what Bruce Arians has to do. You’ve got to go get Calais Campbell, you’ve go get your star players on defense, hopefully Larry Foote is ready to go, get Patrick Peterson and Cromartie and say, let’s pick it up, let’s play the game of the year on the road and go down to Ted Ginn and say return a punt just like you did against the Giants. Let’s get after them in the kicking game, as well. Let’s run the ball.  Let’s not be afraid to punt the football, and let’s take our shots here and there when we strategically get the one‑on‑one isolations that we want. Don’t turn it over, play great defense, and find a way to win, and let’s see if Drew Stanton can get better.

You just saw the Broncos on Monday night and some of their flaws were exposed in that game, but what do you think about them going into the tournament, in particular with their change in offense to more of a running style, and what do you think about the talk, the concerns that have been raised lately about Peyton Manning?

Gruden: Well, I like the Broncos. I said that last week on the broadcast. I kind of like a team that’s balanced, that can run the ball and pass the ball, and with C.J. Anderson coming out of nowhere, I think there’s confidence that they can run the ball. I think that’s what their line does the best. We’ve got to quit talking about Peyton for just a second. The offensive line of the Broncos has undergone huge reconstruction at midseason. That’s uncommon for a team that’s got 12 or 13 victories.

I think they’re trying to help the line by running the football, doing the things that they do well, and I’m not so concerned about Peyton Manning because I did see some great throws the other night. I saw him throw the ball very well at the Raiders, and I like Denver a lot because of their head coach, the way they play defense, and The Sheriff down the stretch has been pretty good down the stretch in big games.

Jon, can you clear up, are you contractually tied to ESPN and not going to be a candidate for any coaching jobs, or is that not correct?

Gruden: Yes, I am. I’m not a candidate to coach. This is as good a team as I’ve been on in a long time. I’m excited to be a part of this team. Thanks, though.

What was your opinion or reaction to the Jets firing Rex Ryan?

Gruden: That was a tough day for me yesterday because I went through that several years ago, and a lot of these guys are my friends, including Rex. I’m really disappointed for him. I understand winning and losing is certainly the defining number for some people, but I expect Rex Ryan to get picked up quickly. I’m sure there’s some celebrations in Buffalo and New England and Miami. But the Jets, they chose to move on. I wish them the best in their endeavors, but I think they lost one heck of a football coach.

With Tony Romo, he’s led the league in passer rating this year. Have you ever seen him play this well throughout his career, and what made him so fantastic this year down the stretch where he’s usually struggled, and has he kind of reached that level where we kind of say he’s untouchable with Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady type play this year?

Gruden: Well, this is my opinion, but I think they’ve run the ball better than they have ever run it. If you just check the statistics the last few years it’s almost ridiculous how lopsided they were not running the ball. Every play was a pass.  Romo had a punctured lung, he’s had bruised ribs, he’s had physical problems, he’s been throwing it and throwing it and getting hit, and usually there’s going to be two or three bad things that happen when you live like that. When we just talked about Peyton Manning, I think the balance in Dallas’s offense is awesome. They can really hurt you running the ball. We talked about Denver’s offensive line and the construction that they’ve gone under. The Cowboys have as good an offensive line as there is in the league. Maybe the best left tackle, a very good center, a thumping rookie right guard, and a really aggressive right tackle and left guard. They’re solid up front, and they have some dynamic skill players, Dez Bryant, Witten and Williams can hurt you down the field. I think it’s a combination of those things.

Is there anything he’s done differently with his game to kind of endure – to do this with the back injury and everything, it seems pretty incredible this late in his career.

Gruden: Well, I think it’s a credit, certainly, to Scott Linehan who came from Detroit, the combination of Garrett, the head coach, Callahan, the line coach. There’s a vast amount of experience. And I think Tony Romo’s relationship with Jason Garrett, what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and the fact that he’s had a lot of good looks with pass protection that he has not had before, I think it’s a combination of a lot of things, and he’s in a real rhythm, and I believe he’s healthy, and he’s going to play the best football of his life as the tournament starts. I would expect that from Romo.

Jon, Andrew Luck is obviously very physically gifted, but what do you notice about him and his evolution intellectually and as a quarterback tactician?

Gruden: I just can’t get over the playing strength that he has. I think he’s on fumes a little bit. He has taken a lot of hits.  He’s wearing down. I worry about Luck. I really do. They have not run the ball very well. He’s taken some real hits. Last week was a huge, I think, confidence builder for the Colts. I really like their scheme. I just think their protection has been very inconsistent. T. Y. Hilton has been in and out of the lineup, but Luck has taken a huge amount of punishment in my opinion. If they can keep him upright, his will to compete, his playing strength and his knowledge of the game gives him a chance to win every single time out, but they’ve got to get him some better looks, I think, in the pocket.

Jon, I wanted to ask you about a team that’s not in the playoffs, the Eagles. They’ve had a lot of injuries on their offensive line. They lost their starting quarterback for a good portion of the season. Watching them play this season, did you get a sense the defenses did a better job this year of adjusting to Chip’s offense the second year?

Gruden: I think so. It’s not the first time everybody has seen that style of no‑huddle, up‑tempo football. They are familiar to a degree with how to prepare for it. The number of explosive plays was reduced. I don’t know what you talk about as an explosive play, but I use 20 yards or more. I think that number was reduced a lot compared to some of the big hits that he got last year. And I think you’re going to see more and more 3‑4 defenses. I think teams did a better job against the run, and I think that’s natural, but knowing Chip Kelly like I do, he’ll make some adjustments and he’ll have a new club in his bag next spring, also.

How much of that reduction in explosive plays do you think was attributed to DeSean (Jackson)?

Gruden: Well, I think that’s part of it. They had Darren Sproles and DeSean. … Yeah, that could possibly have something to do with it. The back of his football card speaks for itself. He has more 40‑yard gains I think than any guy in the league since he entered the game. Maclin had a great year. I know Cooper is a good player. They have a good young player in Matthews, but I haven’t seen speed on the field like DeSean Jackson really since Bob Hayes, somebody like that. He’s a game changer with his acceleration and speed.

Jon, what did you think about the job Bill O’Brien did in the first year with the Texans? And how tough is it to get a team to that next level to where you can become a playoff‑contending team without knowing who their quarterback is next year?

Gruden: Well, I think O’Brien did a great job. You go from two wins to nine wins, that’s a very good amount of progress, especially considering that they had injuries and questions at the quarterback position. The No. 1 pick in the draft didn’t even make his presence felt, and they’re in the tournament until Week 16. They don’t get eliminated until Week 16. It was a great coaching job by not only Bill O’Brien but the entire staff. I think Romeo Crennel did a great job with that defense.

And in terms of trying to get to that next level, how difficult is that in the NFL because it’s obviously a parity type of league, but there are only six teams every year who can get there and a lot of them are moving up and down every year.

Gruden:  It’s tough. I got fired for going 9‑7, so it’s hard to get over the top. You’ve got Andrew Luck in your division.  You don’t have Andrew Luck, you’re going to have a hard time beating Andrew Luck.  You’ve got to get better at that position. You’ve got to hope Jadeveon Clowney can come back and make things easier for J.J. Watt. God knows how many sacks Watt might get if Clowney reaches his potential, but I think they’ve got to get that quarterback position solved, short‑term, long‑term, to be able to take it over the edge.

I have a question related to the value of running backs these days. We saw in free agency last year how little interest there was in an awful lot of the running backs, but I’m wondering if there’s any chance you think the pendulum might swing just slightly in favor of the running backs based on how important it may or may not be to run the ball come bad weather in wintertime.

Tirico: I think it’s changed. It’s a cyclical league, and I think we’re seeing that circle back a little bit. With all these teams playing, or I shouldn’t say all, but many teams looking to mimic college and play this quick offense, quick‑paced offense, keeping the ball away from them, keeping your defense off the field a little bit is a good way to go, so to be able to do that is a strength.

It comes back to the No. 1 thing, and Jon when we’re together discusses this every week, and I’ll take a position, the tight end position. The tight ends who are the receiving tight ends, and you can identify them, it takes away the disguise part of football. You’re not going to run the ball very often. Now when you have a tight end who stays and blocks a little bit, a run‑pass threat like a Jason Witten, all of a sudden – Heath Miller.  All of a sudden now your run game is added because of that deception you provide with your passing game, so you’re not a one‑dimensional team, and I think that all feeds into if you have a running back and can feature him, you can keep the ball away from the other guys, doesn’t matter how fast they want to score. So I think it will cycle back a bit more to more of a run‑based National Football League. Not totally, not to where we were 10, 15 years ago, but I think people are realizing the hits their quarterbacks are taking, it’s not worth doing. Balanced ball is probably the best ball, and these playoff teams say that, I think, quite loudly.

Jon, any thoughts, especially when people look at Pittsburgh, Seattle, Dallas, one of the first things they mention are the running backs in these playoffs. What do you think?

Gruden: There’s no question. C.J. Anderson wasn’t even drafted. He’s as hot as any back in the league. Justin Forsett, he’s on his fifth team and he’s, I think, playing for the NFL minimum in Baltimore. It’s a critical position. These men have to be able to run the clock out and work short yardage, they have to pick up blitzes, catch the ball. Certainly the value of a great back has never been diminished in my mind, but obviously the way people are throwing the ball now and the way that they’re using two or three backs, everybody has a different viewpoint. I think the Bengals have done a great job with Hill and Bernard. Some people are doing it with a one‑horse committee like Dallas. Philadelphia has two dynamic backs that are very similar, but everybody has their own way of looking at it.

If Rex ends up taking a pit stop and joining your company, for example, for the next year, is there any advice that you would give him in terms of the transition to TV work from coaching, and how do you think he’d be at it, even though I know he’d be more likely to be a studio guy? Any advice you would give him about making that transition?

Gruden: Just prepare like he prepared as a coach and be yourself and try to be a great listener. Try to listen to the producer and the director and the people that are running the show and just be a great listener, be a great teammate.  He’d be great at whatever he decides to do. I can’t imagine him not coaching, though, honestly.

Tirico: You know, Rex was so popular with the New York media, a guy who was on the hot seat handled the New York media in that room, as you know, as well as anybody has since Parcells. The guy understands how to use the medium to communicate good messages, bad messages. So there’s no learning curve of getting comfortable in front of the camera, in front of microphones. There’s no learning curve in how to massage the message to get out what you want and when you want and how you want it to be presented. If Rex does go that way, I think it’s as smooth a transition as you could see from head coach to media guy. I’m with Jon, by the way. I hope he coaches, and if there was the right offensive mix, I think a team could make an immediate jump to a playoff team by hiring him. If you think about the jobs that are open, you’ve got the top seven NFL markets. Atlanta I think is the eighth TV market, and LA doesn’t have a team, so you have the top seven media markets that are trying to hire head football coaches, and you have four or five openings depending on what happens with Oakland, I don’t know where you’re going to find all these coaches, and if you look back, I know what the record was and everything with the Jets, but Rex did a pretty darned good job there overall, and I think with the right offensive mix and stability at quarterback, that could be a head coach who could turn a team around quickly.

My question is about your game in Carolina. What are your thoughts about a team with a non‑winning record having a home playoff game, and what suggestions would you have for postseasons with similar circumstances?

Tirico: That’s the rules they sign up for when they leave the competition committee meetings. They decide who’s getting in. I think any complaints fall on deaf ears in terms of what a team’s record is. You win your division, you get in. That’s the rules that are set up. I’ve got no problem with that. I do have a problem with a team hosting a playoff game with a record that’s less than the opponent. I think that the NFL should do what the NBA has correctly done in my opinion, and that’s the team with the better record is the home team for the playoff game. Pretty simple fix. Don’t think it’s that big a deal. You win a division, you deserve to get in, but you don’t necessarily deserve a playoff game at home for being three‑and‑a‑half games poorer than your opponent.

Gruden: I like the way it is personally. I’d like to see everybody be 12‑4 that’s a division title. I’d also like to have a new Cadillac sitting in my driveway. But the division winner should, I think, get in and host a playoff game. These teams don’t play the same schedules, so 10‑6 might be 10‑6, but 7‑8‑1 might be just as good because of what they went through to get to 7‑8‑1. I think there’s a lot of different ways to look at this. That’s why I just like the tradition of the division title, you’re in, you automatically host a playoff game, and a couple weeks from now, no one will even remember this.

Wanted to get your thoughts on Cam Newton’s recent play and also the performance of the Panthers’ defense.

Gruden: In regards to Cam Newton, I just think he’s just showed some incredible toughness this year, what he’s been through. He missed the entire off‑season with an ankle, then he got hurt in the preseason and missed the opener I think with rib injuries. I don’t think he really ever got healthy and then he gets in a car wreck. Next thing I know he’s jumping over people and he’s doing that Superman Stretch Armstrong things he does. I don’t know how big and how strong and how tough Newton is, but he’s as big and strong as any quarterback I’ve seen. His fundamentals, his pass protection, his new receivers, the changes on the offensive line have all made his life difficult, but he is the heart and soul of Carolina football right now. I give him a tremendous amount of respect, and as I said earlier, I love the way McDermott coaches defense. It’s a 4‑3 scheme I’m familiar with. They play with tremendous effort. They have 11 tacklers on the team. I really am stunned at the progress they’ve made in the secondary of new faces, rookie players. I see a number of contributors.  And if you don’t like Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, then you just don’t like football. They are a pleasure to watch. It’s a darned good defensive football team. They’re mentally tough, and Ron Rivera deserves a lot of credit.

Tirico: I’ll give you the Cam answer first. It’s great to see Cam back with the joy that he plays with. I think if there’s anything about Cam, there’s so many unique qualities to begin with: Size, speed, combination, the journey. I think Cam Newton always seemed to play football with a joy, a smile, a million‑watt smile, and that was not there earlier this year.  He played through the ankle and the ribs as Jon talked about. He was not right when we saw him against Philadelphia on a Monday night in November. I saw that post‑injury here these last couple of weeks, that same Cam Newton, and that can mean a lot, because as Jon will tell you, the star player kind of lifts everybody up, and people look to him, and Cam provides that.

And defensively, Luke Kuechly is one of my favorite players in the NFL. I love what Kuechly and Davis have done together as a combo. The league has a lot of warts and a lot of negatives that have come to light this year, but those two guys are two of the absolute brightest spots with Davis back from the three knee injuries, almost unheard of in sports, the way he’s come back, and Kuechly’s leadership, the way he presents himself, and the way he plays, he is a poster boy for what is great about American sports. To watch those two guys lead this defense over the last month has been fun to watch, and I think it’s a huge reason, like Jon said, that they’re still playing and the other teams in the South have gone home.

Jon, there’s plenty of talk up here about the way Matthew Stafford has played this year. What do you think his problems have been this year, and what would a win Sunday do for the perception of him as a quarterback?

Gruden: I think that a lot of the problems that they’ve had, they’re two-fold. Number one, it’s a new system. It’s tough.  There’s new reads, new footwork, there’s new decisions that are being made, and he’s also got some new skill players.  They’ve got a rookie tight end, they’ve got a new receiver from Seattle. When there’s a lot of new things around, there’s going to be some growing pains.

And secondly, that line, that offensive line, when I watch Detroit, I don’t always see Riley Reiff at left tackle, I don’t see the same group of players. I didn’t even see their center last week playing in the most important game arguably in the last 30 years of Lions football ‑‑ regular season game, that is. I think those two things, new system, new personnel at the skill positions, and obviously the injuries on the offensive line have had some things to do with his ups and downs, and Megatron was hurt. Those are significant issues.

And what about what a win could do for his perception as a quarterback?

Gruden: Well, I think there’s people that ‑‑ Andy Dalton, I think Jay Cutler, I think certainly Matt Stafford, Tony Romo, there’s a handful of quarterbacks that until they win a playoff game, until they take the team to the Super Bowl, until they win a Super Bowl, people are always going to be critical of them. But where would the Detroit Lions be without Matt Stafford? That’s the question I think you’ve got to maybe privately ask yourself sometimes.

Can you weigh in on the Ndamukong Suh suspension, if you think that was legit for what happened with a playoff this big?

Gruden: You know what, I’m really sick about what happened. I like Ndamukong Suh. I’ve had a lot of chance to spend some time with him over the years. I think he’s very bright. He’s obviously an outstanding talent. But there’s no place for that. You can’t do that. If you’re going to be physical and aggressive and tenacious, those are great words for a defensive tackle. I was fortunate to be with Reggie White and Warren Sapp, and I just don’t remember ever having to address stomping on a guy that was lying down. I don’t know if Ndamukong says if it was an accident or whatever, I have more important things to get ready for, but it’s a huge blow to Detroit’s defense, and I feel sick about it because in the heat of battle, I think Ndamukong Suh will regret doing that.

Tirico: I’ll give you two quick ones on both. Here’s Stafford’s opportunity. In his hometown, in Dallas, place where he has played great, two of his finest moments in his career against the Cowboys in comeback games, here you are. His first half in that game in Green Bay was not very good. Here’s a great chance to silence and prove that all the hard work that he’s put in can be a turnaround point or a stepping‑stone point, really, in his career. And both suspensions, that’s unnecessary.  For everything that the Lions did to get back, when you’re a leader on the line on offense and defense, on back to back weeks, get suspended for those types of incidents, that’s awful. That’s not championship football, and those are two guys who are desperate to win championships, and at the biggest moment didn’t do it. We’ll see if this costs them because I think playing without your center in Green Bay hurt them, as well. Two unfortunate blights on a season that should look back and say that team did more than a lot of people thought they would.

Coach, you mentioned Joe Flacco at the beginning of the call getting on the hot streak a few years ago and taking the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Do you see any of the teams in this round finding a path to get all the way to the Super Bowl out of the Wild Card round? And what have you seen from the teams that have made that run like the Steelers, Packers and Giants did and the Ravens that have allowed them to get all the way through from this week and especially having to play on the road as often as they would have to?

Gruden: You know, I like Dallas.  I’ve got a real feeling about Dallas. I call their defense the UFO defense, unidentified flying objects, because I’ve never heard of anyone on that defense at the beginning of the year. They play extremely well as a team. They’ve got a great field goal kicker. They can run it, and they can stop the run right now, and I like where they are.

But you have to have a quarterback that gets hot. That’s how we won it. Our defense deserves a lot of credit certainly, but when Brad Johnson came back off his injury, he played his best football against the 49ers. He played extremely well against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, and the last three quarters of the Super Bowl, he led our team on some long time‑possessing drives. You’ve got to get really great play from your quarterback. I don’t remember Aaron Rodgers or anybody playing like Aaron Rodgers played when the Packers won it. I really don’t. It was Eli Manning’s finest hour. There was some luck involved certainly in our victory. You’ve got to have good football fortune sometimes, Flacco, the misjudged pass, Eli Manning, the miraculous catch in the Super Bowl by David Tyree, quarterback play certainly is a big part of it. But I like Dallas if you were to say there’s one team I like in this first round, I’d pick Dallas.

Tirico: I’d go Dallas and Pittsburgh. Jon gave you all the Dallas reasons. If I look at quarterbacks who I think in the big moment will play well, which I think as Jon just detailed, those last three Wild Card teams in the last nine years who are teamed that have played this first weekend, I look at Romo and I look at Ben (Roethlisberger), and I trust them. I’ve watched them all year and believe in them, and obviously as was mentioned more the complement of a run game is huge to both.  I think when you look at the offensive line coaches in both places, (Mike) Munchak in Pittsburgh, (Bill) Callahan in Dallas, Jon is the expert on this, they’re two of the best in the business. I want a team that’s going to be able to run the ball and salt away a lead, and the defenses, and you talk about defensive coordinators whose guys play for them and they know exactly what they do and their style is very infectious, I think of (Rod) Marinelli in Dallas and (Dick) LeBeau in Pittsburgh. Those elements of the quarterback, the running game, the defensive coordinators, the guys who push the button and the teams on the big stage who do very well, every week is a big game with the Steelers and the Cowboys, so I like those two teams playing this weekend as the two who I think could make it all the way to Arizona.

Jon, the game that you guys are doing with Arizona, they’re on their third quarterback and Cam Newton had the car injury, Houston is on its third quarterback this year. In the college ranks you’ve had Ohio State on its third quarterback, situations with Jameis (Winston), back in the pros you’ve got Johnny Manziel. It seems like this has been an extraordinarily interesting year for quarterbacks. Do you agree with that, and if so, why is that?

Gruden: I think a lot of it has to do with the way we practice now. It’s different. We don’t practice in pads. We don’t pick up stunts and practice blitz pickups. We don’t have the lengthy off‑season that we once had to teach these quarterbacks audibles. And what you are seeing is a lot of people in no‑huddle offense running 90 plays a game. More players, more opportunities to get hurt, and some of these designed quarterback runs, dive options, read options, whatever you want to call them, they put the quarterback at extreme risk, I think it’s a combination of all those things, the way we practice, the way we prepare in the off‑season, the style of offense that we run, and training. Some of these young quarterbacks that come into pro football aren’t even seniors, and they haven’t had a spring practice, they haven’t completed their eligibility.  It’s a lot different, and I think that has a big reason to do with some of it.

Jon, Bruce Arians has spoken about his adaptability and fearlessness about signing a guy on Tuesday and playing him on Sunday. That’s obviously come in handy this year as far as changing schemes from one week to the next with all the injuries. How impressed have you been with Bruce’s offense and just his ability to adapt and say, hey, I’ve got Lindley this week, or hey, I’ve got Stanton this week. It seems like he’s able to put those guys in positions to at least know their limitations and tailor an offense around him.

Gruden: Oh, he’s done an excellent job. It’s more fun watching Bruce Arians when he had Carson Palmer if you really want to be honest. I think they’ve only averaged 12 points a game in the last four outings. He’s done an excellent job keeping his team focused, making some really difficult personnel moves along the way, keeping everybody’s spirits up, shrinking the game plan possibly, featuring certain areas to make a quarterback comfortable, but they miss their starter, they miss their backup quarterback, and they are really surviving right now with a third quarterback, and it’s very difficult to do. It doesn’t matter who the coach is.

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Bill Hofheimer

I oversee ESPN’s College Sports PR, while also working on ESPN soccer, Around the Horn, PTI and more. Previously oversaw communications for ESPN's Monday Night Football and NFL studio shows.
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