Peter King on the 12-Year Journey of Monday Morning Quarterback
As it turned out, MMQB became several thousand words a week on everything and anything that King felt like writing, whether about football or about his family or about coffee. Now, with Monday Morning Quarterback available in book form, King talked to FanHouse about how the column got to this point.
He also addressed accusations that he's too close to Brett Favre, why he likes Twitter, and what it meant to be the subject of the New York Times crossword puzzle. The full interview is below.
Michael David Smith: Are you surprised by how big this column has become?
Peter King: I'm very surprised. To get 1.9 million or 2 million people to log on and read something is sort of a tribute to longevity. A lot of people get used to reading it every Monday after it started with sort of a cult following -- back in 1997 there weren't many original, web-only columns. The Internet was the Wild West and no one really knew what was going on.
There are dedicated football fans who want me to focus only on football, but I kind of want it to be sort of like a newspaper -- if you don't like the non-football stuff, just move on. If you don't want stuff about airplanes and TV shows and things like that, you'll move on. But I try to have that mix between the personal stuff and the majority of people who just want to read all the football they can.
Let me ask you about the part of the book that I'm sure will cause the most arguments: you list your Top 100 players of all time and of today. Peyton Manning is No. 1 of today and No. 25 of all time. If you do a revised edition in 10 years, where do you think Manning will be on the all-time list?
Well, one of the dangers of lists like this is using active players. I have gotten some reaction from people who say Manning is too high because he only has one Super Bowl ring. I don't agree with that. Why is it in baseball, we don't say about players who haven't won a World Series, that he wasn't a winner? Ted Williams didn't win a World Series, so we can't consider him the best hitter of all time? I've gotten a lot of questions about that list, and it's sort of the classic argument starter at a bar.
You've developed a big following on Twitter, and you post news and observations regularly. What do you like about it?
I got started on Twitter in April. I suppose the interesting part of it is the ability of fans to get access to people they really want to ask questions to. It's the ability to learn things from people in the business and from athletes. I'm not sure if over time I wouldn't have chosen to go on Twitter if Sports Illustrated hadn't asked me to, but I enjoy the ability to communicate with people. It's a cool way to have interaction with intelligent fans. I probably get more than my share of, "You're an idiot, you don't know what you're talking about," but those people I don't really engage with.
I told my Twitter followers I'd ask you a question that they submitted, so let me ask you one from Padrick Brewer: "Does King worry about oversharing with MMQB? How often does he edit personal stuff out or think twice about what he writes?"
Sure. I wouldn't write about stuff that my kids or my family didn't want me to write about. If I'm on an NFL training camp trip and I have a long off-the-record conversation with someone I'm not going to write, "I just talked to Player X or Coach Y and he gave me good stuff, but I can't tell you what he said." I just try to tell people what my life and my job are like.
You got your start as a print media guy, but you've embraced things like Twitter as well as writing the long Monday column on the web, writing a mailbag column where you interact with readers, and so on. Are too many print reporters unable or unwilling to embrace new media?
I think if you don't embrace the new media you're going to die. When I talk to young journalists I tell them, "Be versatile. Don't just think you'll work at the school paper and then get a job at a newspaper and be there the rest of your life." Newspaper circulation around the country is down 10 percent in a year, papers are dying and I just think it's important that young people have an appreciation for blogs, for new media. I'm not telling you anything you don't know, but being versatile is key. One of the things that helped me get a job at Sports Illustrated at age 31 in 1989 was that I tried to be versatile: when new things would come up, I was willing to try it.
Is your column a lesser product because you now watch games on TV in the NBC studio and you used to attend games in person?
That's a great question. It bothers me sometimes -- I wish I was in Green Bay this weekend to spend time with Favre, or with Aaron Kampman or Cullen Jenkins if they have a great game against Favre. That's one thing I simply can't duplicate sitting in the studio in New York. On the other hand, I get to see all the games now, and I think that has become a benefit. In preparing this book I went back and read some old columns and what I was doing then was writing the vast majority of my columns about one game. Now I'm able to touch on a lot of different games. Now the column is more diverse but not as nuts-and-bolts on any one particular team as it used to be.
Part of doing your job is cultivating sources. Are there any sources you've gotten so close to that you couldn't write about them objectively?
Well, I would say there are people who I've probably given the benefit of the doubt to more than some others over the years. I know people will say, "Oh, you love Favre." It's something I think about a lot. It's something I've tried very, very hard to make sure I'm fair. I realize that on a few occasions I have been overly fair at times. One time was when I took Favre's word for it that he didn't take a dive on the Michael Strahan record-breaking sack. I took his word for it, and probably in that case, I should have quoted him saying he didn't take a dive, and then said, "Hey, the picture tells the whole story, and whatever his words are, my feeling is he gave Strahan the sack record." That's how I feel now, and looking back on that it's something I view differently.
In October of 1995 you spent a week with Brett Favre and the Packers for an article that I think is one of the most insightful pro football pieces I've ever read. But did Favre giving you that kind of access make you too close to him?
That was a story about a week in the life of the Packers. Mike Holmgren let me go anywhere in the building and let me see basically everything. I didn't even know Brett Favre before that -- I had met him once -- but I walked into the building and he said to me, "Here's where I live, come over any time." I certainly did start to become close to him, but people who say I got too close to Favre and I'm always in his corner need to know that all of us in this business try as best we can to find out things others don't know. And my guess is that there's probably been 20 occasions over the last 14 years where I have written something about Favre that other people said, "I wish I had that." I can definitely look myself in the mirror and say that the only time where I would ever question my news judgment on Favre is after the Strahan sack. Every other time I've written about him, you put any story I've written about him, and I feel good about it.
You started that piece in 1995 by writing about all the various aches and pains Favre was suffering from. Are you amazed that he's still playing, 14 years later, and hasn't missed a single game in all that time?
To think that a guy can play every game at that position since 1992 is absurd. And that particular year -- I didn't know this at the time -- was the year that he was going through his Vicodin addiction. It's amazing to make it through one season, let alone all these years. He's a coach's son, one of these guys who just goes out there and plays. His father once almost whipped him after he scored a touchdown because he scored on a different play than his father called, and he's one of those guys who just thinks it's his job to go out there and play. He has a tough body, a high pain threshold and has also had a lot of luck never to get his knee rolled on the way Tom Brady and Carson Palmer have.
I understand you wanted to do a profile of Mark Sanchez and he declined?
Well, Sports Illustrated, after the Jets went to 3-0, wanted to do a story on Sanchez and how he's taken the town by storm, and I called the Jets and through the Jets, Sanchez declined. He said, "I want to accomplish something before I sit down for long profiles." I think that shows a good, smart kid. I did interview him at the Jets' facility, but for a story more about the Jets as a team than just about Sanchez.
You said at the start of your appearance on Charlie Rose that the NFL has potentially serious problems on the horizon with the labor situation. What's your best read on it: are we going to see games canceled because of a labor stoppage in 2011?
The thing to keep an eye on in the labor situation is that DeMaurice Smith has added essentially a third party in these negotiations, and that is the retired players. The players and owners can say whatever they want to about taking care of retired players, but the question is who's going to pay for it? I haven't heard anything from either the players or the owners about who's going to pay for it. I think instead of taking 60 percent of the gross, the players should take 59 percent of the gross and put 1 percent in a fund for indigent retired players. And then the owners should take their 40 percent and agree to just take 39 percent and put 1 percent in that fund. Because without both the players and the owners agreeing to that, they're not going to get the retired players taken care of.
Overall, I look at the tea leaves and the tea leaves say to me that we're headed headlong to a labor stoppage in 2011.
You and Mark Cuban had a little back-and-forth on Twitter about the football league he invested in, the UFL. In the book you mention that you attended the first XFL game. Is there room in this country for a second football league?
I think there's room but it has to be like the Pacific Coast League or the International League in baseball. A minor league, with minor league expectations. I was a very young sportswriter when Donald Trump ruined the USFL by prematurely saying, "We're going head-to-head with the NFL in the fall." That was idiocy. The UFL should be content with being a minor league. They should build a financial model based on getting 20,000 people to come to the games. I think it's great to have people like Cuban involved, but I don't think Mark Cuban gets into things to be a minor league.
What percentage of NFL players do you think are using performance-enhancing drugs?
I would say 10 or 15 percent. That's a guess, but I think you'd be naive to think HGH isn't being used by some players, if they think they're not going to get caught.
What have you written over the years that you're proudest of?
I really liked that Packers story. I wrote a story on the Dallas Cowboys around draft day 1991 covering Jimmy Johnson and their coaches and how they prepared for the draft and I was proud of that one because it helped people to understand how the Cowboys as a franchise worked. I think way back to my days in Cincinnati, I did a profile of the Reds' ownership -- including Marge Schott, who at the time no one knew -- and explained to Reds fans who these people were.
How's Paul Zimmerman doing?
It's going to be a long process. He was so damaged by these strokes that it's going to take him a long time to get back. But as Linda says every time I have any communication with her, she's amazed because he just won't give up and he'll do all the rehab he has to to try to get back to being able to communicate. He was always a guy you could talk to for hours. I hope he gets that back in some way.
What did it mean to you to be in the New York Times crossword puzzle?
Wow. it was totally bizarre. I just wanted to be one clue. I didn't want to be the theme. It was very strange. I do the crossword and I have to stop at Thursday. I don't think there are a lot of Sunday New York Times crossword people who also read Monday Morning Quarterback. I heard that a lot of crossword people were ripping the crossword constructor for putting me in there -- "Who's this guy?" and things like that. That's a good wake-up call that a lot of people don't care about some football writer. I'm just lucky to know that there are 1.9 million people who want to read what I write.