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10:59 am
Thu January 30, 2014

Sports Writer Ray Didinger On The Myth Of The 'Dumb' Football Player

Originally published on Thu January 30, 2014 11:53 am

On Sunday, the Super Bowl will draw a TV audience of more than 100 million people, spawn countless watching parties and generate a week's worth of chatter about the half-time show and the best commercials. But at the heart of it is a game — one that Ray Didinger has been covering for decades for a variety of media organizations, including NFL Films.

Didinger has written 10 books and is currently an analyst for Comcast Sportsnet in Philadelphia. He tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies about his love of football, his respect for the game's players and the myth of the "dumb football player."


Interview Highlights

On why he loves football

I just found the strategy of it, the complexity of it, the intricacy of it — I just found it fascinating.

Basketball, to me, looked like a simple game. Baseball, to me, was a game of cameos — the pitcher, the hitter, the fielder. But football was one game that was the most inclusive. It was the truest team game. I mean, nothing happens on a football field if everyone doesn't have a part of it. You can have the greatest quarterback in the league, but if the guys up front don't block and the guys don't run the pattern or catch the ball, then that quarterback isn't going to win a game. Everybody has to contribute on every single play.

On his respect for football players

It takes a lot of courage to play this game. I've been around it now for 43, 44 years, working in newspapers and working at NFL Films for 13 years and now doing radio and television. ... One of the things I've taken away from it is a profound respect for the guys who play this game, because it is a violent game and the guys who play it have to accept that fact.

You can have tremendous talent, you can be big, you can be strong and you can be fast, but if you're not willing to go on the field and take the punishment, then you can't play. ... How good of an athlete you are will get you there, but it's your courage and your durability and your ability to play through that pain that will allow you to stay there.

On players needing to know all the plays

This sort of belays the idea of the dumb football player. I really don't think you can be truly a dumb guy and play this game at the NFL level. There's a lot of thought that goes into it ...

You could have the five guys up front or six guys up front all do everything the way they're exactly supposed to do; but if one guy doesn't get the play right or one guy goes in the wrong direction, all of a sudden he leaves a wide open gap ... that might cause the fumble, might cause the interception, might cause the play that breaks the game down. Everybody else did everything right, but if one guy breaks down then the whole play breaks down.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. In case you hadn't noticed, there's a big game Sunday. The Super Bowl will draw a TV audience of more than 100 million people, spawn countless watching parties, and generate a week's worth of chatter about the halftime show and the best commercials.

But at the heart of it is a game, and on today's show we're going to take you into the world of pro football in a way we hope you'll find interesting, even if the Super Bowl is the only game you watch or half-watch every year. Later we'll hear from former quarterback Ron Jaworski. But first, Ray Didinger has covered football for more than 40 years for a variety of media organizations, including NFL Films. He's written 10 books, been named a Hall of Fame writer in Canton, and is currently an analyst for Comcast SportsNet here in Philadelphia.

Well, Ray Didinger, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I enjoy watching football on television, but I know a lot of people for whom football holds no appeal at all. What do you like about football?

RAY DIDINGER: It's always been my favorite game. Right from the beginning I liked football the best of them all because I just - I just found the strategy of it, the complexity of it, the intricacy of it, I just found it fascinating. I mean basketball to me looked kind of like a simple game. Baseball to me was a game of cameos, you know, the pitcher, the hitter, the fielder. Football was the one game that I thought was the most inclusive. It was the truest team game.

I mean nothing happens on a football field if everyone doesn't have a part of it. I mean, you can have the greatest quarterback in the league, but if the guys up front don't block, and the guys don't run the pattern or catch the ball, then that quarterback isn't going to win a game. Everybody has to contribute on every single play.

DAVIES: You have 11 guys on each side of the ball, and all of them have assignments before the play starts, and then they have to react and improvise once the play begins. So it is complicated. It's also really violent.

DIDINGER: It is, it is, and it always has been. I mean, that's the game's nature.

DAVIES: Right. You know, I'm also interested in the fact that, you know, the violence, while it can be repulsive to a lot of people, if you're really invested in your team winning, and a big moment has come, and you put - your guys put a hard pop on the other guys, that's exciting. And so that's what's interesting to me about it, is that it is complicated, and these athletes are incredibly skilled and do these acrobatic things, but the violence in a way, once you're invested in rooting, is a part of the appeal, isn't it?

DIDINGER: It is, it is. It takes a lot of courage to play this game. I mean, that's one - I've been around it now for 43, 44 years, and one of the things I've taken away from it is a profound respect for the guys who play this game, because it is a violent game, and the guys who play it have to accept that fact.

And you can have tremendous physical talent. I mean you can be big, and you can be strong, and you can be fast, but if you're not willing to go on the field and take the punishment, then you can't play. And I've seen a lot of guys come into the NFL that were so gifted, I mean they looked like great athletes, they ran like great athletes when they were in T-shirts and shorts, and then they put the pads on and they started hitting, and all of a sudden you could almost see them shrink.

And that's part of it. I mean how good an athlete you are will get you there, but it's your courage and your durability and your ability to play through that pain that will allow you to stay there.

DAVIES: One of the ways that the game has changed over the years is that it's gotten much more complex, and particularly offensive plays. I mean they're complicated when they call them, and then when you - after the team breaks the huddle and goes to the line of the scrimmage, you'll often hear the quarterback shouting these incomprehensible things, which may be changing plays, changing formations.

And I thought we'd listen to just a little bit. This is a little bit of audio of Peyton Manning when he was a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. We're going to hear him call a play in a huddle, and then we're going to hear what he says when he goes to the line of scrimmage. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL GAME)

PEYTON MANNING: We go on dice right, ice cream, alert, 654, Jose. Brown, Richmond, 96 double. Run a flare, run a flare. Brown, Richmond, 96 double. Hut, hut.

DAVIES: OK, Ray Didinger, Brown, Richmond, 96 double, flare. What's going on here?

DIDINGER: That's a quarterback calling a play in the huddle, and he has to - the quarterback has to tell everybody in the huddle, the other 10 guys, exactly what they're doing, what their responsibilities are. So he's talking about where the backs are set. He's talking about the blocking assignments. And then he talks about the play, then he give you the play.

He gives you the formation, he gives you the blocking assignments, and then he calls the play. And then - and what the snap count is, is the ball going to be snapped on one, two. That's the hut, hut. If he says on two, he means when he says hut, hut, on the second hut the ball gets snapped. If he says on one, the ball goes on the first hut.

Then they go up to the line of scrimmage, and Peyton Manning does this better and more extensively than any quarterback that I've ever seen, is change the play at the line of scrimmage if it doesn't look to him like the play that he's walking up to the line of - if he looks at the defense, and he knows the play that he's called doesn't really have a very good chance to succeed, then he will change the play at the line of scrimmage, and everybody has to - all the other guys have to listen, and OK, it's off now.

And what he will do is he will, generally, sort of check, check, which means OK, now we're out of that play. And then he will go into his next series of plays. And you will hear him say a lot of things that a lot of it is code, and a lot of it is meant to throw off a defense.

DAVIES: It's gibberish to confuse the defense.

DIDINGER: Yes, he'll say a lot of stuff, but there will be within what he says at the line of scrimmage a word, a code word that will tell everybody that what I say next is the play.

DAVIES: OK.

DIDINGER: So he'll go into, you know, 23 brown, right, ba ba ba ba ba ba ba, but the code word may be Toledo, you know. And when he says that, then the players know OK, now what he says next is the play. So this sort of belies the idea of the dumb football player. I really don't think you can be truly a dumb guy and play this game at the NFL level. I mean there's a lot of thought that has to go into it.

DAVIES: Right. When you're hearing him say brown, Richmond, 96 double flare, I mean if I'm a lineman and I'm getting ready to engage in an extremely violent encounter with a defensive lineman, and I'm looking at where his feet are, because he may be shifting, and that's going to affect where and when I can hit him, and I've got to be listening very carefully to my quarterback - don't people sometimes get confused?

DIDINGER: Always. It happens a lot. And you have - this is what coaches call mental mistakes or mental breakdowns. And very often they lead to game-changing plays. You know, a guy won't get overpowered and knocked to the ground. He'll just go in the wrong direction. You know, he'll block right when he's supposed to block left. And if you have one guy - you could have the five guys up front or six guys up front all do everything that they exactly are supposed to do, but if one guy doesn't get the play right, or if one guy goes in the wrong direction, all of a sudden he leaves a wide-open gap.

And then his man comes through clean and gets a clean shot on the quarterback, and that might cause the fumble, might cause the interception, might cause the play that breaks the game down. Everybody else did everything right, but if one guy breaks down, then the whole play breaks down.

DAVIES: The other thing that always fascinates me is when a team can run a no-huddle offense, they can run nine plays without ever gathering in the huddle. You can literally call every play, shout it at the line of scrimmage, easily heard by the defensive players, and it works.

DIDINGER: Yeah, and that's where the game is headed now. It used to be that when an offense would huddle all the time, after every play, they would go back and they would huddle up - well, you had 30 seconds there, and so the defense had an opportunity to see who was in the huddle, what personnel was on the field, and then the coach could mix and match based on what he saw, and they had time to do that.

But if teams are moving at this faster pace now, and they're snapping the ball every 15 or 20 seconds, which more and more teams are going to, the Eagles are certainly going to that, it really is to the advantage of the offense because the defense is stuck with its personnel.

They've got the 11 guys out there. They really can't change very much. But it is more challenging, and it's particularly challenging if you're on the road and you're playing in the other team's stadium because the fans are hip to this. The fans know what's going on and the fact that these guys have to communicate and hear at the line of scrimmage.

So when the visiting team is trying to do this, and the quarterback is trying to get the word out to his receivers, his linemen, the crowd - and you'll see this, and Seattle does it better than anybody - they just make this deafening roar that it makes it hard for guys to hear. Now, for the home team - it is a very funny dynamic.

When the home team's got the ball - in fact in Denver, when Denver has the ball, and Peyton Manning is doing all this stuff, they put up on the scoreboard: Quiet, Peyton at work.

(LAUGHTER)

DIDINGER: And the crowd gets very, very quiet, I mean remarkably quiet when you're talking about 70,000 people. So they let him do his thing at the line of scrimmage, and everybody can hear it.

DAVIES: Another thing we're seeing in the game is a lot more concern about injuries, especially concussions. I mean there's been this long - been a lot of research, there's now a lawsuit and court settlement that may or may not stand, that can affect, you know, dozens, hundreds of players. But it's also affected how the game is played and how players are treated. What's your take on that?

DIDINGER: It has, it has, and it's really changed the way the game is officiated and the way the league approaches it, and the kind of game that they're - the kinds of hits that they're trying to take out of the game, the way that I would say they're kind of trying to re-educate the players into playing a whole different style of football.

They're trying to get the players back to playing the way guys played years ago, which is tackling with their shoulders and not with their heads. They're trying to get guys to take - you know, not use their helmet as a weapon, not to use their head as a weapon but to tackle with their shoulders and block with their bodies and to try and minimize that kind of contact in the head area.

It's made it very hard. It's made it very hard, especially for defensive players. Some of this the league wanted to create because the league back in the '70s, because there were a lot of really great defensive teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Steel Curtain being a perfect example, defense was taking over the NFL. Big strong physical teams were taking over the NFL.

And as a result, most of the games tended to be 17-13, 13-10, nine to seven. There wasn't much scoring. And the NFL was concerned that they - that it was hurting the product, that they think the fans, they don't want to see that. They want to see touchdowns. They want to see long passes. They want to see big plays.

So they began putting in a lot of rules that made it hard for defenders, that limited the kinds of hits. You can't - no, you can't hit him that way. No, you can't hit him outside five yards past the line of scrimmage. You can't hit the quarterback. You can't do this.

And so they tried to create a more wide-open, explosive, offensive game, which they certainly have done. I mean every year now you see the point total just keeps going up and up and up. So they tried to accomplish two things: number one, more it a more explosive, wide-open, entertaining, offensive game; and at the same time maybe make it a safer game with a little less contact and trying to preserve the receivers.

They now have this thing they call a defenseless receiver. You can't hit a receiver once the ball kind of goes past him or if he's not in a position where he catches it and can defend himself. If he's suspended in the air, reaching for the ball, it used to be you could hit him and knock the ball away. Now very likely if you do that, you're going to get a penalty. So they're trying to make it - you know, they're really trying to do that, but it's - I think it's made it very, very hard for defensive players and defensive coaches to deal with and try and slow down these highly skilled athletes.

DAVIES: You talk to a lot of players. Do they welcome these changes? I mean...

DIDINGER: Offensive players do.

(LAUGHTER)

DIDINGER: Offensive players do. I mean receivers, sure. I mean there are guys that play in the league now as receivers that would've had trouble playing 30 years ago, I mean smaller guys that would've been pushed around and beaten up. Now, I mean they get a lot of space. I mean the rules now are you can only hit a receiver within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Once he gets past five yards, which is just two strides, you can't touch him anymore.

So you have a lot of wide-open space to run through. It didn't use to be that way. And once the ball's in the air, all the rules protect the offensive players. So yeah, offensive players love it. Quarterbacks love it. Offensive linemen love it. Offensive coaches love it. But if you're a defensive player, it's very, very hard.

I mean, it's - what are you allowed to do? You know, I can't hit him in the head, but now they don't want me to hit him at the knees. And the other part that's really tough about this is the game moves so fast. The players move so fast that everybody looks at the films and they slow them down, and they do them in super-slow motion, they say, oh, why did he hit him?

You've got to understand that these things happen in the blink of an eye. I mean sometimes you just take the shot that's there for you. That's the hard part, is trying to officiate this game with these guys that are so big, so strong and move so fast.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Ray Didinger. He is a Hall of Fame football writer, and we'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and as we approach the Super Bowl, we're speaking with Hall of Fame football writer Ray Didinger. The game now is such a huge thing that it has to affect the players and the coaches differently, and you've observed how coaches deal with this. There's a two-week gap between the game that gets them there, you know, the conference championships, and the game itself. How do coaches get their players in the right mental and emotional frame of mind to do this?

DIDINGER: The downtime is a factor. And I - there was a real pattern there for a number of years where sometimes there wasn't two weeks. Sometimes there was only one week after the championship game. And generally speaking, those games were better games - better played, more competitive, cleaner, not as many mistakes - than the games with the two weeks.

And it confirmed in my mind that I think that the players are so into routine, and they're so used to playing every week that having more time actually throws them off their schedule. And actually having more time to think about playing in the Super Bowl throws them off schedule.

DAVIES: So how do coaches handle it?

DIDINGER: Some very poorly. I mean, the coaches - I've always had this thing, and it almost always plays out to be correct. I watch how teams handle the week leading up to the game or the two weeks leading up to the game. And the first team and the first coach that starts complaining about distractions, complaining about their hotel, complaining about their practice field conditions, they're going to lose.

DAVIES: That's the coach talking. How do you know the players are distracted?

DIDINGER: Because the players take their lead from the coach.

DAVIES: They really do?

DIDINGER: Yeah, for the most part they do. If the coach is rattled, and the coach is unnerved and uncomfortable in his surroundings, that will be transmitted to the players. The coaches that have handled it the best, have been the most successful, are the ones that have said to the guys, just have fun with this, OK, it's the Super Bowl, have fun with it.

And Chuck Noll, who was the coach of the Steelers in the '70s, was exactly like that. I mean Chuck said to these guys, hey look, you know, you've spent your whole life, you've worked your butt off to get here. Have fun. You know, go on, just go out and have fun.

The press is going to come in here, they're going to talk to you for an hour, they're going to make you famous, they're going to put you on television, enjoy it, have fun. You know, whatever they ask you, answer the questions. If you feel like making stuff up, make stuff up, but have fun with it.

I think that Bill Parcells is another example, the great Giants coach who just went in the Hall of Fame. Parcells, I think, did a very smart thing. Some coaches try to tell players, look, it's just another football game. You've been playing this game from the time you were little kids. This is no different. This is just another football game.

It's not. And I think the coaches that try and tell the players it's just another game are doing them a disservice. I think, you know, Parcells would tell them, he'd say look, this is going to be a different week for us. We're going to be staying in a hotel. We've got these interviews every day. And pregame warm-up is going to be a circus.

There's going to be movie stars on the field, there's going to be circus animals on the field, there's going to be - it's not going to be like any other game we've played. Everything about this is going to be different, OK, so be prepared for it.

DAVIES: People in Philadelphia remember the 1981 Super Bowl, when the Philadelphia Eagles got - one of the two times they made the big game. And the coach back then was Dick Vermeil, who was known as just a guy who prepared relentlessly, worked around the clock, was a real disciplinarian. They were playing the Oakland Raiders.

DIDINGER: Correct.

DAVIES: They kind of took a different approach. Tell us about that one.

DIDINGER: Well, you're right. I mean, you characterize it very well. Dick was a guy who literally slept in his office, drove himself hard, drove his team hard. The Oakland Raiders were the Oakland Raiders. I mean, back in those days they were a really good team, and Al Davis was the owner, and he brought in all these kind of renegade guys that nobody else wanted. And so they played it fast and loose.

I mean, Dick Vermeil was a guy that set curfews for his players. The Oakland Raiders laughed at curfews. I mean, they were two totally different teams. You couldn't imagine two more different teams. And they get to New Orleans, which is the ultimate party town, and Dick tells his guys right away, OK, curfew is 10 o'clock at night, you're not going to leave the hotel, we're going to practice all this time, and this is going to be our schedule, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

And the Raiders just said, hey boys, have fun. And so on Sunday comes the game, and the Raiders came out and looked very loose, very relaxed and played a really good game. And the Eagles came out, and they looked tight, and they looked nervous, and they didn't play at all like they had played during the season, and the Raiders wind up winning the game easily, 27-10.

And a lot of people in the retelling of that now say it's all because of that. It's all because of Vermeil and because of his approach, the Eagles were uptight, and the Raiders were the Raiders, and they were loose, and that was the difference in the game.

I kind of think that's overstating it a little bit. Vermeil's approach was the approach he took all season. I think when you take a team from the beginning of training camp all the way to the championship game, I think it would be a mistake to try and do anything different. Practice in three, three and half hours, that's what they did all year.

If they had gotten to New Orleans and Dick had said, hey boys, go out and have fun, French Quarter is right down the street, you know, go down and have a hurricane on me, I don't think the players would've known how to handle it.

DAVIES: What's one play that will live forever, one of the most memorable plays in a Super Bowl that you can think of?

DIDINGER: I guess it would be the one in the Giants - the first Giants Super Bowl a couple years ago when they beat the Patriots, when the Patriots were the team that nobody thought could lose. I mean they had been undefeated in the regular season, and they were just rolling through, and it didn't seem like anybody could stop them.

And they got into that Super Bowl against a Giants team that was a huge underdog, and the Giants had the ball at the end of the game with one last opportunity to move it down the field. There was a play where Eli Manning is trapped, and three guys have him, and it appears that he's - it appears that he's going down.

And somehow he spins out of it. I to this day still don't know how he did it. In fact Eli can't explain it. He somehow gets out of it, and he throws this sort of blind lob of a pass into the middle of the field, and as soon as it leaves his hand, you think, well, this is going to be intercepted.

And a receiver named David Tyree, who was like a specials teams guy that had only caught like two passes all year, jumps up, gets the ball and pins it against his helmet. He has Rodney Harrison of the Patriots, is right on top of him and is trying to rip the ball away. And somehow Tyree holds the ball on his helmet and comes back down to the ground, and it's a reception.

And that allows them to get a first down and another set of plays, and two or three plays later, then Manning throws what proves to be the winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. But if you're asking one play, that's got to be the play, because there's no way that Manning should've ever thrown the ball. He certainly should've never thrown it to David Tyree.

David Tyree makes the miracle catch of all time, and Giants win the game, and the bottom line of the whole thing is David Tyree never catches another pass in the NFL. He came back the next year, suffered a knee injury, went on the injured reserve list, never played again, never caught a pass again. That was the last pass he caught, and that's the one we'll always remember.

DAVIES: Ray Didinger is a football analyst for Comcast SportsNet. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

As we get ready for Super Bowl XLVIII, we're taking a journey inside the world of pro football. In a few minutes, we'll speak with former quarterback, Ron Jaworski, about what it feels like to play his position and to play in a Super Bowl.

But first, we continue our conversation with Hall of Fame football writer Ray Didinger. He's covered the game for more than 40 years and has written 10 books. He's currently a football analyst for Comcast SportsNet.

Ray, well, let's talk about this game. The big player is the weather. I don't think we've ever had had a Super Bowl in an outdoor stadium in a northern city, have we?

DIDINGER: No. No. They have not. This was something that the league had talked about for a while, trying it. They've had the game in northern cities but always in domes. I mean they've had the game in Minnesota, but it was in a dome. They had the game in Detroit, it was in a dome. They had the game in Indianapolis, it was in a dome.

DAVIES: So what do you think? Is it a mistake?

DIDINGER: I think it's a mistake. And I said that from the beginning, I said it was bad idea, and I still think it's a bad idea. I mean for a couple of reasons. Number one, this week, I mean you've got a really good game here. I mean you got the number one offense against the number one defense. I think these are the two best teams in football. I think you generally have a really good matchup and a lot of really good players. You know, Peyton Manning, one of the great players of all time, trying for his second Super Bowl, it's a lot of really good football stuff to discuss. But all people are talking about is the weather. So I just think making that a factor, to me, seems counterproductive to what the game should be.

And the other thing is, I just think if you are, if you're in a position where you can put the game in a good place where you know the playing conditions are going to be ideal, where it's going to be a dome stadium or a warm weather site and you know that it's going to be fair for both sides. You're not going to have a passing team playing in freezing conditions. You're not going to have conditions that are going to favor one team over the other; it's going to be fair both ways, then I think that's a better way to go than putting it somewhere where you get a passing team, like the Broncos, maybe having to play on a cold and blustery night and throw away half their playbook.

DAVIES: What can fans who have a ticket for this game expect? How long are they going to be out in this weather?

DIDINGER: Well, I think that's something nobody's really talked about - but, or maybe even thought about, but I have. I mean I know that the way the Super Bowl is now, this is not a normal football game. This is not a game where you're going to pull up into your parking space 10 minutes before kickoff, walk in, grab a beer, sit in your seat and they're going to kick it off. Because of the security, because of the traffic around the stadium and the crowd control issues, they tell people that you have to be, not just at the stadium, but in your seat fully two hours before the game. I mean just to make sure you get there, I mean that's how hard it is. It's such a big event now, it's hard to get around, it's hard to get from point A to point B, and largely for reasons of security, which I fully understand. But they tell people - and they have a pre-game show that begins two hours before the game for that very reason. So you have to be in your seat two, two and a half hours before the game. Then the game is played. And typically now, with the long halftime, and all the television breaks and TV timeouts and commercials, the game will probably be about four hours. So if you factor in two and a half hours before the game, then a four-hour game, you're asking people to sit out in the cold for six and a half or seven hours.

You know, and nobody's really talking about that, but if you're paying $3,000, $4,000 for a ticket and you're going to have to sit out in the cold for seven hours, I hope people, I hope they dress in layers because it's going to be cold and it's going to be uncomfortable.

DAVIES: All right, let's talk about the game itself. I mean, we often focus on quarterbacks. And, of course, we have Peyton Manning here, one of the best, nearly the end of his career, playing at an incredibly high level. And the Seahawks have Russell Wilson, this young promising quarterback who runs as well at throws. But the big story is Richard Sherman, this cornerback, this defensive player for Seattle and it's really because of the remarks he made after he made the critical play, breaking up a pass that ended the championship game that got the Seahawks there. So why don't we listen to this. People who have paid attention know this. But this is Richard Sherman being interviewed by Erin Andrews on Fox, right after he made the big play to get them there.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

JOE BUCK: They're sending down at the field and with Erin Andrews.

ERIN ANDREWS: Joe, thank you so much. Richard, let me ask you about the final play; take me through it.

RICHARD SHERMAN: Well I'm the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you gonna get. Don't you ever talk about me.

ANDREWS: Who was talking about you?

SHERMAN: Crabtree. Don't you open your mouth about the best. Or I'm gonna shut it for you real quick. L.O.B.

ANDREWS: All right before - and Joe, back over to you.

BUCK: All right. Well, we saw...

DAVIES: And that is, of course, Richard Sherman trash talking the receiver, Michael Crabtree, saying he's the best. Were you surprised at this performance?

DIDINGER: No. No, not really. I mean I would've expected, Richard would've had some kind of outburst, because that's him. I mean he is the number one - in a league full of trash talkers, Richard Sherman is the number one trash talker in the league. And given that moment, given that audience, given that stage, yeah, I expected that Richard Sherman would go off. I didn't know quite in what direction, but we soon found out. And here's the thing that's lost on the average fan, who only sees these bites. Richard - there are a lot of guys who talk trash and can't really back it up, that they're more trash talk than ability. Richard Sherman talks a lot of trash, but he can back it all up. He is one of the two best cornerbacks in the entire National Football League. There's a guy in Arizona name Patrick Peterson who is close, but Richard Sherman on the week in and week out basis is probably the best corner in the league. And he...

DAVIES: To explain, yeah, who corners the guy who - usually there's one on one on the receiver. His job is to defend...

DIDINGER: Yes.

DAVIES: ...against pass plays and he does it really, really well.

DIDINGER: Extremely well. I mean that's and when people want to talk about this game, I mean he is a very, very key player in this game. I mean there are trash talkers that are irrelevant. I mean when the Eagles went to their last Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Freddie Mitchell - who was like their fourth receiver - was trash talking the whole week, but Freddie Mitchell is not going to be a factor in the game. Richard Sherman is going to be a big factor in this game, because obviously, the Denver Broncos are team that loves to throw the football. They're a team that's built around Peyton Manning and his receivers. And they're going to - that's going to be the part of their game, they're either going to win or lose with their passing game. And so they're going to have to go against the Seattle secondary and Richard Sherman is probably going to be matched up on Manning's favorite receiver, who is Demaryius Thomas, and whoever wins that matchup is likely going to win the game.

DAVIES: You know, Sherman has made a lot of the fallout from those comments, people calling him a thug on Twitter, him seeing kind of a racial element to all that. What do you think is going on here?

DIDINGER: I don't think it has anything to do with that. I just think it's poor sportsmanship. I don't think it's a matter of black or white. I think it's a matter of right or wrong. And I just think that it was just poor sportsmanship on his part to call out Michael Crabtree, had no reason to. I mean you broke up the play, you kept him from catching the pass, you won the battle. Good for you. Leave it at that. And for Sherman to turn to the 49ers bench and give the choke sign, again, poor sportsmanship. Win with class.

DAVIES: It was insulting.

DIDINGER: Yeah.

DAVIES: Was that part of the - he's a smart guy, I mean went to Stanford. Is it - was he maybe making himself a star in a league when it's hard for a defensive player to be a star?

DIDINGER: I think it was a little bit of that. I mean the leaves really about the offensive players, as with talk. I mean it's about the quarterbacks, it's about the receivers. You kind of have to work hard, as a defensive player, to draw some attention. Well, Richard Sherman has been able to do that and I think that's part of it. I mean, a little bit of it is his own marketing. I mean he's smart enough to understand that. But for people who only, the only thing they've seen of Richard Sherman is that film clip and they now think well, boy, this guy must really be a fool - no, he's actually quite a bright guy. He went to Stanford. He had a three-seven grade point average and is working on his master's degree in communications.

The idea that he's sort of this doofus, not true, but he is guy that - and the other about him is I understand a little bit about what's driving him. He was a fifth round draft choice in the NFL - which means a lot of teams passed him over. There were a lot of questions about whether he was going to be good enough to play in the NFL. He felt as if he didn't get his due respect. He felt that he was - he felt that he's always been trying to prove himself, prove himself, prove himself. And I really do think each time he goes out to play, each week when he goes out to play, he sort of reaches this kind of emotional pitch that I'm going to prove to these people that I can really play. Oh, well, he's long since proven that. But I think he's one of these guys that kind of feeds off that kind of energy and this idea that I'm still proving myself. And I think when you catch him fresh off the moment, as Erin Andrews did there, right after that game, all that emotion is right there on the surface and I think that's what you saw.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Ray Didinger. He's a Hall of Fame football writer. And we'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Hall of Fame football writer Ray Didinger. We have the Super Bowl coming up this Sunday.

You know, the outcome of game is affected by the talent of the players and kind of the scale of the coaches and the various schemes that they employ but emotions also a part of it. And I'm wondering how an incident like this could affect the emotional state of either the Denver Broncos or the Seattle Seahawks.

DIDINGER: Well, I think the emotional level really almost goes player to player, and it speaks to kind of the character of the team and the personality of the team. The Seattle - Richard Sherman kind of is the face and in a lot of ways the pulse of the Seattle Seahawks. They're a big, tough, mean football team - and they like that.

DAVIES: Seattle? They don't - Seattle? Mean?

(LAUGHTER)

DIDINGER: Oh no, they are and they like that. They feed off of that. They like to intimidate you. I mean their defensive secondary of which Sherman is a part, is called the Legion of Doom - actually, the Legion of Boom because they're so big. This is a league in the NFL, as we mentioned earlier, they're trying to take hitting out of it. They're making it hard for defensive backs to be physical with receivers. Well, the Seahawks have no problem with that. The Seahawks are physical because that's their game and they make no apologies for it. They get some penalties, but they feel like overall that they have to play that way. They're bigger than other teams, they're tougher than other teams, and they want you to know that coming in. So they're going to play with a real edge in this game. The Broncos, I think, to a large degree, reflect their coach, John Fox, but more, they reflect Manning. They're very professional. They're a team that shows up at the stadium carrying, you know - the Seattle Seahawks show up at the stadium carrying a black jack. The Denver Broncos show up caring a briefcase. I mean that's the personality of the two teams and I think that's the personality you're going to see on Sunday.

Now, does that mean that one is more likely to win than the other? I don't know. But I do think that that's it. And you sort of take your cue from your leadership forces, and in Seattle, the leadership force really kind of is Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch on the other side of the ball, the man they call The Beast.

DAVIES: The running back who just does not go down, right?

DIDINGER: Yeah. Yeah. That's the - those are the leaders of the team and the team takes on their personality. Whereas, in Denver, they take on more of the, I don't - maybe the corporate buttoned-down kind of personality of Peyton Manning.

DAVIES: We got to talk about Peyton Manning. I mean he had a remarkable career and comes from a remarkable football family.

DIDINGER: He does. I think a lot of people - I think a lot of people know that his father played football. But I don't know if people really understand how well he played.

DAVIES: Archie Manning.

DIDINGER: Archie Manning. Archie is the patriarch of this - which you can safely say is the first family of football, without a doubt. Archie was a great player. He was a truly great player. In college - he went to Old Miss - and he was a better college player than either Eli or Peyton. As great as Peyton has been, and as good Eli has been - and he's won two Super Bowls - if you took them back to college, Archie was better than either of the two boys. Now he'll never say that, but I've seen all three of them play and I can say that. I mean Archie was a great player. But the problem was he got draft - he came out in the 1970 draft and he was drafted by the New Orleans Saints who were a new team that had no sense of direction and no clue about how to build a winner. And so this was before free agency, so when you were the property of a team, you were the property of that team forever. So Archie Manning played virtually his entire career with a team that never put any good people around him. They changed head coaches every other year, and Archie, as a result, he was out there battling every week but he had no chance to win. Now at it has turned out, his sons have been with good teams and have had that opportunity, but it's - I think if Archie had had the same opportunity on the same kinds of teams that his boys had, he would've won a couple of championships.

DAVIES: Eli Manning, of course, has had to championships with the New York Giants...

DIDINGER: Right.

DAVIES: ...is a great player. And Peyton Manning had a long career with the Indianapolis Colts, had an injury, ended up now at Denver, and when you see him he's just seems so completely in command. Talk about him as a leader.

DIDINGER: He's extraordinary. He's, in many waysw a throwback to what quarterbacks used to be in pro football where quarterbacks ran the show. I mean today, quarterbacks in the NFL are, I mean they're almost like robo quarterbacks. You know, they have the headset in their helmet where the coach is on the sidelines with his play chart in front of him and he's saying, OK, run this play and then the quarterback gets in a huddle and he says what the coach says, and then they go up and they run the play the coach called. That's the way, virtually, all quarterbacks work today. That's the way the game is set up today, the quarterback does what the coach tells him to do. Back in the day, the Unitases, the Van Brocklins, the Otto Grahams, they ran their own game. I mean they got on the field and they called the plays based on what they saw, what the guys in the huddle were telling them. And it was a more fluid game that had more personality because the game kind of, the team kind of took on the personality of the quarterback. If he was a gambler, it was a gambling kind of team. He took a lot of chances, that kind of stuff. Well, now that's been taken away and it's now much more of a go by the percentages, go by what the computer says kind of game.

Well, Peyton is - he's like out of the old school. I mean he's going to run his game. And if anybody - and I saw some of the practices at Indianapolis when he was in Indianapolis and I'm sure it's the same in Denver now. Peyton Manning ran the practice. When the Colts went on a practice field, the coaches stood off to the side and twirled their whistles.

And Peyton Manning, he ran the practice. And during the games he clearly runs the games. The coaches will talk to him. He has the receiver in his helmet, as all quarterbacks do, but what they will do to him is they'll just give him information. They'll say, hey, listen. I think they're changing this coverage. Oop, they brought a nickel back on the field.

They're telling them that but actually the play, they don't huddle very much. They pretty much do it at the line of scrimmage and Peyton's making it all up on the fly. And that's why I think he's such a remarkable player today. Because he really is playing a game that's from another time.

DAVIES: OK, Ray. I've got five bucks. Who do I put it on this game?

DIDINGER: I've gone back and forth on this, Dave. I mean, I've really gone back and forth on this. I mean, you could make a strong case for Seattle because they can run the ball and they have this great defense, but way back in September, I mean, I picked the Denver Broncos. Before the season ever started I picked the Broncos to go all the way.

I picked them to go to the Super Bowl, win the Super Bowl. I just think that Peyton Manning is a man on a mission. You know, the way that he got bumped out of the playoffs last year, I think that stuck with him. I think that drove him. And I think he feels like he's got something to prove and he desperately wants to win that second Super Bowl ring.

There are people that think that he'll win and retire. That he'll retire if he wins it. I don't. But I picked Denver back before the season started so I'll stay with Denver now in what I think is going to be a very close, very exciting, extremely competitive game that hopefully the weather will allow both teams to play the way they want to play.

DAVIES: Ray Didinger, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

DIDINGER: My pleasure, Dave.

DAVIES: Ray Didinger is a Hall of Fame football writer and currently a football analyst on Comcast Sportsnet. Coming up, former quarterback Ron Jaworski tells us what it feels like to play in the Super Bowl. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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