Neil Reynolds really needs no introduction but I am giving him one anyway. If you are in any way interested in the NFL on this side of the pond, then you likely know who Neil Reynolds is. Neil Reynolds is, by far, one of the leading experts on the NFL in Europe. He is a columnist, author, analyst, TV presenter, radio pundit, Britbowl presenter and family man. He was heavily involved in NFL Europe and was asked to set up NFLUK. He has interviewed the who’s who of the NFL including Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Ray Lewis, Brett Farve, Joe Montana and many other legends that are contained in his book Pain Gang. I was lucky enough to chat with Neil about his career and his thoughts on the NFL and here is what the great man had to say about it all.
Q. We all know you here in Ireland and the UK as an NFL analyst legend and the face of NFL on Sky, so, what everyone wants to know is where you got your start in NFL? Was it love at first sight or was it Superbowls here and there?
Well, it was a little bit of both. It took a while for me to get used to it. I would watch the game with my Dad in the mid eighties watching on Channel 4. My Dad was more into it at that time and I was like “Why did they run it up the middle to gain an extra yard? Why don’t they throw it down the field the whole time?” and then it kind of just grew on me, I got more and more interested, watched more and more Superbowls, more games to the point where I must admit, I started to not really concentrate on what I was doing at school! I had a big argument with my Dad and he said “You’re never going to get anywhere just focusing on American Football. If you spent more time concentrating on your schoolwork than you do on memorizing stats and numbers of jerseys, you’ll get somewhere in life.” So, I always remember that and bring it up whenever I see my Dad and we chat about that! It grew on me through the Eighties and I just got more and more into it from TV. So, it wasn’t love at first sight, no!
Q. So, did you decide to focus solely on NFL or did you cover other sports? Was it always just your dream to cover NFL?
Well, the way it worked journalistically was that I wanted to just get into American football. So, in 1991 I contacted First Down magazine to get some work experience with them and I went and did a week with them. They tried to offer me a full time job but there just wasn’t anything going at that time so I did freelance work for them for a couple of years for First Down and Gridiron Magazine but there wasn’t a full time job there at that time. So, I took a lot of advice and had to go away and get grounded as a journalist so I went away and worked for a local newspaper, got fully qualified as a journalist, went on training schemes and covered village fetes and flower shows and that sort of stuff. I did all the mundane local reporting but within a year of becoming a fully qualified journalist, I had an opportunity to join First Down Magazine. I knew there were risks attached to going down one route so early in my career but I decided that it was a dream job and I couldn’t turn it down, so I kind of fell in to American Football full time quite early in my career but I did do some of that other stuff along the way.
Q. Did you ever think that you might have to go to the States perhaps to get proper exposure to it?
To be honest, it never really crossed my mind! I kind of just went from one thing to another! I did 3 years at First Down and then got approached by the NFL to run NFLEurope.com and then to launch NFLUK.com and so for me, there were always opportunities on this side of the Pond! I still wanted to write, so when I was working for the NFL full time for a while, I didn’t do as much writing as I did when I was at First Down which is why I wrote my book. I enjoyed doing that and trying to prove myself in the US. I did have to go through a lot more hoops to get that published in the US because I was British, but once I had proven that I had contacts, the chance to speak to people and had the knowledge and the History of the Game under my belt then it worked from there. I haven’t ever really considered chasing opportunities in the US just because I’ve always had a chance to work in the sport over here.
Q. While writing your book and speaking to legends, do they perceive you differently because you are British? You said on your NFLUK Inside the Huddle Podcast that Tom Brady remarked “You know a lot for a Brit”. Is it perceived that you don’t know as much as Americans do?
Eh yea. I think that’s happened a number of times. The Tom Brady quote is not an unusual one for me. I think it is something that will always be there. I’ve got the wrong accent! I think sometimes people might think that on Sky as well, you know, sometimes people want to listen to an American accent and can be put off by a British guy talking about it. I still stand by the fact that, I think, British and Irish fans are the most knowledgeable in the World, I really do because we have to work harder to find our information. I think we have a lot of desire to learn about our teams and that kind of thing. I’ve had that over the years but it doesn’t take long, it is two or three questions into an interview. I don’t really set out and try to prove my knowledge either, I just talk to them and I think it comes across. When I interviewed Y.A Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback for the Giants and 49ers, he said “I didn’t even know you had Football over in the UK! Are you calling me from New York or something?!” I said “No, I’m calling you from London!” That blows me away! I think it is becoming more and more established that the UK is a major player in the NFL so I am managing to get great access to players. I think there will always be that sort of having to prove yourself but I think I have always been able to do that as well. So with Tom Brady saying I know a lot for a British guy, it came across like I knew what I was talking about when I was chatting with him and I never asked him to dumb things down, I’d rather our audience hear how they would be speaking to ESPN or something.
Q. There is no doubt that you are an expert on the game. Fletch always comments on your podcast that you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things NFL. Was that a process of sitting down and reading Stat books from a young age and was it an odd thing to get used to in comparison with our European sports?
I think I’ve just read so much on the NFL and kind of lived and breathed it and I think when you do that, you just pick up so much. The thing is with working on Sky or working on the podcast is that we are trying to take a league wide view so there is no doubt that there are a number of people in the UK who know more about the St Louis Rams defensive line than me because they watch every St Louis Rams game. If they are a Rams fan, they might watch every game but you have to take that league wide view but it just seems to me that with American Football, it’s my passion, it’s my job, it’s my hobby, it’s everything, that information just seems to stick, I don’t know why!! So that side of things I’ve always had a good grasp of! I can’t really explain it, I don’t sit and read endless amounts! I will say this though as sort of an insight; I go in to Sky games incredibly well prepared and most of it is a comfort blanket that I don’t even use but I will have at least a line or two of notes on every player on the Roster. Just because if something comes up, I will have a little bit about their play, their style and some news so that if Henry Hynoski of the New York Giants catches a touchdown pass, I might have something to say about him personally apart from just the touchdown. I always have that sort of information but I don’t find that to be a chore to prepare that, I enjoy that.
Q. You played American Football. Did that give you a better appreciation for the game and a new perspective on it?
Yea, I think so. I think it’s all relative. I was a Tight End for about ten years in the British League. I know if you’re catching a pass across the middle, you might feel differently than if you were catching a ball ten yards out on the sidelines. Although it’s different and the level of hitting is different, I understand the thought processes when you see a Wide Receiver nervously threading across the middle of the field! I know what they are going through in that aspect. I know I have never been a professional football player but I know how to play the game. I know what it takes to make a catch and what you should be doing when you’re running a pass and that kind of stuff! So it does help and I am always happy to do stuff for the domestic game. I’ll be hosting Britbowl this weekend. I enjoy doing that and I think it’s good for people to try and play a little bit. It enhances that passion that people have for the sport.
Q. Did you suffer any injuries and consider putting yourself in your book Pain Gang as the 51st toughest player?!
I didn’t really suffer any bad injuries but I did hit myself in the head with a hammer! (If you don’t get this reference, download the Inside the Huddle Podcast on iTunes!) I suffered a neck injury once and missed about two or three games. Nothing major! I fractured my jaw one season but I only missed about two games then. I was lucky enough, never had any broken legs or anything like that! I managed to get through ten years with nothing too serious so I enjoyed it a lot. I had to stop earlier than I liked, I was thirty when I stopped but I was travelling every week covering NFL Europe so it was hard to play but I enjoyed every minute of it.
Q. Speaking of your book Pain Gang: Pro Football’s 50 Toughest Players, how did that idea come about and did it take a few years to come to fruition? I have read it a few times and sometimes just dip in and read random chapters on different players!
Yea, I had that idea since I was probably about eighteen or nineteen about writing the book and it was a bit of a dream. I was barely out of college and working as a wine waiter at the time and I thought that I better write this book! I had a few of the names listed out and had written a couple of sample chapters but I was eighteen with no idea of where to send it so I kind of sat on it and didn’t do anything and it was something that kept percolating away in my mind. I was really fascinated by these guys who played through so much pain and toughness. It’s a part of the game and in the end I just thought; I have to write this story. I had great contacts in the Hall of Fame and I gave them a list of all the players that I wanted to feature and they gave me home telephone numbers for every living member of the Hall of Fame! So, I’m calling Chuck Bednarik and Tommy McDonald! It was a bizarre thing really that they gave me so much and I kind of had to ride out an internal political storm in the NFL because even back then the NFL were conscious of promoting the violence of the game. So, I did have that issue but I just decided that I had to do it and I enjoyed writing it. I planned to do it the way you said there by dipping in and out of stories. I wanted it to be a book where you can pick it up and 50 self contained stories. That was my plan that you could read Chapter 1 and then Chapter 18. I wanted people to be able to do that. Speaking to so many legends was just fantastic; ringing up Dick Butkus as he was eating his breakfast was just bizarre! So, I was on the phone to Dick Butkus and he was like, “Nah, I don’t want to do it” and I told him “you are going to be in this book anyway because you were one of the toughest NFL players in NFL History. Did you consider yourself tough?” and he said “Well, I didn’t really consider myself tough” and he kept talking and 45minutes later we were still chatting! I just needed to get him going! It has opened up other doors. I had Joe Montana on the phone for the book and because of that I got to spend a couple of hours at his apartment a few years ago. It was 2010 when the 49ers were playing the Bronchos. I rang up Joe Montana’s agent and said I did the book with Joe before and I asked if there was any chance of an interview while I was in San Francisco. He said “yea, pop by Joe’s apartment, you can do it on Thursday.” I went around his apartment, he gave me a tour, “Here is my Swimming pool over here. Let’s go into my home Cinema” and I did a 45minute interview with him. It was brilliant. It has opened up a lot of opportunities for me.
Q. Is that still surreal for you? Do you still pinch yourself when you talk to the who’s who of the NFL?
Yea, definitely! I never will lose that. I always say this; I think anyone who works in it should be a fan of the sport. If you’re not a fan, you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. You have got to have that passion for it. You can never look like you take it for granted. I might moan on the podcast or say I was tired as some of it is exhausting, you do travel a lot but I’d never complain about it. Some of it’s hard but you would never say “Poor me, feel sorry for me”. So, that passion is there. I was sitting there in New England and I had butterflies in my stomach when they said “Tom Brady will be in in 5 minutes.” Then the PR guy comes in and says “Tom will be in in 2 minutes, he’s on his way.” Then you hear him walking down the corridor. Then he comes in and sits down and you’re chatting and you’re like; it’s Tom Brady!! The first question, you’re not really listening because you’re thinking; Bloody Hell, it’s Tom Brady! I still get that and I hope I never lose it. There were a few people hitting me on Twitter and on the forums saying that I was grinning like a Cheshire cat during the Superbowl. It’s the Superbowl, I’m going to smile! How could I not be happy? I was walking around Joe Montana’s apartment pinching myself. I’m sitting watching the practice at Indianapolis last week and it suddenly does dawn on you. I am sitting at the practice watching Andrew Luck on a beautiful sunny day and I was just sitting there thinking; how cool is this? I do have those moments of appreciation. It’s still a job and there is a lot of hard work at times. You have a lot of things on the road that you have to deal with. You are told by the Colts to be there at 8:30am in the morning and you arrive and they tell you; “Right, we have Andrew Luck set up to meet you at 4:30pm.” So, there is a lot of that sort of stuff, ‘Hurry up and Wait’ is what we call it! I do still get those moments though. It’s fun for me. It’s fun for me to go into the Sky studios and watch the games. There is nothing there that is mundane or feeling like I have to get from the start of the show to the end.
Q. So, how did you make the transition then from written media to being on TV? Did you ever envision that you would be sitting in front of a camera on Sky in your pink tie?!
[laughs] It wasn’t ever something that I ever imagined doing. When I was working full time for the NFL there were various things I had to do like presentations for a website and I would get incredibly nervous! I could never do any public speaking! I literally couldn’t do it. I don’t know why, I just couldn’t do it, I’d get nervous. I would stutter through it. But, because I had written the book and because I had always covered the NFL, once I was made redundant by the NFL, Sky said to me; Why don’t you come and do a couple of shows and see how you do? And it went from there really. I did a couple of shows but there was no fulltime spot for me so then I did BBC Radio for 2 years. I kind of just grew in confidence in terms of being able to talk about the sport. The BBC Radio stuff was great for me learning a few more broadcasting skills because I was a written journalist. I wasn’t a broadcaster, that wasn’t my natural thing. I just decided as well that I am going to talk about the things I know and just try and be myself. If I’m too dull for some people, well, you’re never going to please everyone. You just have to be yourself. I am never going to be Cecil Martin; I’m never going to be bouncing around! But, by the same token, Cecil won’t be able to tell you who the back up Running Back is for the Houston Texans is. I bring something different to the table. That’s how it works. I just grew in confidence doing it more and I find the TV stuff a bit easier because if you were to stop and think about how many people are watching, it could make you nervous but at the time; we are in a quiet studio and there is just a camera and one or two cameramen. So, it doesn’t feel like you are talking to a lot of people. Then, I have been able to do things like the Fan Rally at Trafalgar Square. Those things are really fun but if you had of told me five or six years ago that I would be doing stuff like that, I’d never have believed you!
Q. Speaking to such a large audience, is it tough to deal with the criticism you may get sometimes? It was discussed on your podcast that ye received criticism about your discussion over the Hall of Fame induction this year. Fletch said he blocks abusers on Twitter and that you go back and try to reason. Is it hard to take sometimes?
I don’t mind stuff like that. I absolutely like getting into debates with people about football because it’s a game of opinions. But I’ve seen it before where there is stuff about you personally. You get it on Twitter and people get it in every walk of life. There is nothing I can do about stuff like that. If there are people out there who don’t like what I do then I just have to hope that there are people out there who do. I actually really like having a debate about certain things I’ve said and I will sort of try and defend what I say rather than just ignore or block because I think we are dealing with a knowledgeable fans. There are people who may know more about that subject on their teams than I do so I might learn something. I love all that sort of stuff and I don’t mind having a bit of a debate. But when you get the tweets into the Sky studio saying ‘I hope you die’; I don’t have really a lot of time for them ones! I do believe that the fan base here is very knowledgeable so they will disagree with what you say sometimes but I don’t have a problem with that.
Q. Speaking of fans here, we have the opportunity to see a game each year in Wembley with the International Series. It was announced this week that Jacksonville Jaguars are replacing the St Louis Rams from next year and visiting the UK for the next four years. How do you feel about that?
I kind of said some of this on Twitter last week that with all due respect to the Rams and I am very much looking forward to watching them this year, it doesn’t really make a lot of difference to us I don’t think. We still get our games. There are plus points for the Rams and some players that I am interested in seeing for the Rams and there are players I am interested in seeing for the Jaguars. I’m still very excited that we have a team committed for four years. I think we’ll see down the road, judging by the comments from Chris Parsons, the Head of NFL International, from Robert Kraft, from the Commissioner that we will see two games going forward. That excites me a lot. I haven’t got to the point that I’m so spoiled by international series games that I’m going to start complaining about who comes over! I personally enjoy whoever comes over.
Q. So, are you looking forward to seeing Blaine Gabbert who is talking himself up like he is a quarterback of the calibre of Drew Brees?!
I won’t lie to you; Blaines got a lot of work to do! The only thing we can hope for is improved targets around him; I do think that’s a genuine thing we can look at. There is still that potential. There were times when he stepped into his throws last year and he has such a strong arm, he’s so big and the ball literally fizzes out of his hand. That’s great but no-one looked more nervous under the face of pressure last year. There are a lot of ifs and we wait to be proved if he can be an elite Quarterback but he’s nowhere near that yet. There are signs that maybe he’s getting it. He’s had a strong preseason so far. With some better targets around him he may be able to take some steps further but as of right now, he is not a Drew Brees, I give you that!
Q. Is that the same problem that your own team the Miami Dolphin’s have? Do they lack targets? Do you sometimes lose hope in them?
I honestly, and I said this on the Podcast a few weeks back when people say that I am anti-Jets, I take a more professional look at the league. I enjoy watching all of the teams. If you told me in Week 1, I could watch Miami and Houston or Green Bay and San Francisco and you gave me the remote control there and then, I’d watch Green Bay and San Francisco. I will still always have that thing for the Dolphins but I enjoy watching the big games more than I enjoy watching my own team. I do lose hope with them sometimes, I had some struggles this offseason but I think going with Tannehill is the right move. I don’t think there is much between him and Matt Moore. You’re not going to damage him too much and I think he will be fine in terms of confidence. He is going to know he is going to make mistakes along the way. The problem with Miami is that he has no one to throw the football to. So, I think that’s the issue there and they are way away from being a contender because this is a passing league now. It’s a league where you need an elite QB, you need playmaking Wide Receivers, you need a difference maker at Tight End. The Dolphins don’t have enough of those type of weapons to make a difference through the air.
Q. Is it a positive thing then that they have Joe Philbin and we know that Tannehill will be familiar with his system? Are they on a good footing in that regard?
Absolutely. I really like Joe Philbin. I managed to watch an episode of Hard Knocks when I was in the States last week and he comes across really well. He probably cries himself to sleep every night that hasn’t got Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, Jermichael Finley! He probably worries about that every night he goes to sleep but in terms of the future; he’ll get that team on the right track and maybe they realise there is not a quick fix anymore because they try that sometimes I think. Maybe be a team more like Green Bay who are consistent and build through the Draft and that kind of thing. I like him a lot. He’s not the most extrovert guy in terms of coaches but he talks a lot of sense.
Q. Do you believe Reggie Bush when he comes out and says he is going to be the NFL’s No.1 Rusher this year?
Q. Just no?!
No. Reggie just can’t stay healthy. I like Reggie Bush. Last year he showed me something. I was surprised last year that he actually started running North South and looking a bit more aggressive, finishing his runs, running through tacklers at the end. I think he has spent far too many years dancing and running sideways to sideways, sideline to sideline. I don’t have that faith that he can be that kind of RB, but he could be a very good back for this kind of attack that Miami are going to run, where they want to throw the ball out of the backfield as well. I think Reggie could have a good year. He just needs to stay healthy. That’s the thing with Reggie Bush; can you keep him healthy? I don’t think he has played sixteen games in a season.
Q. I agree. He is like one of those players like Michael Vick. He got injured again with a contusion to the ribs so that is their biggest problem, keeping him healthy.
Yea, Vick is a problem for Philadelphia. Look at the Eagles, they’ve managed to get rid of the Dream Team label but you look at what the Eagles have done this Off Season; they have about eight pass rushers they can rotate in and become like the Giants in terms of that Defensive Line. They’ve got LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, a pretty ok offensive line. The thing that stops me thinking they are a Superbowl contender is that I can’t see Michael Vick playing 16 games and then another 3 in the Playoffs.
Q. He has had two injuries so far with the thumb and the ribs and it’s only Preseason!
That’s the way he is! He runs the ball and he’s not that big. I think he will never be a pure pocket passer; he is always going to have those issues. With the injuries, that’s a pattern now, it’s a regular pattern with the injuries. When he is healthy, he doesn’t take care of the ball enough in terms of turnovers. That quarterback position stops me fully believing in the Eagles. If it wasn’t for that, I’d have them probably as Superbowl favourites. If you put someone like Aaron Rodgers or a reliable top ten QB in with the Eagles then I think you’ve got a Superbowl contender.
Q. On that point of Quarterbacks; what do you think of the new QBs coming into the league like Andrew Luck and RGIII? Can we really even compare the two as their styles are so different? What did you make of Andrew when you spoke with him last week?
I’m a believer in Andrew Luck. I mean, he just comes across as so ready and he’s being talked about that he is the most pro-ready quarterback in a generation and I think that’s true. If you look at him on the practice field, he looks like he’s been playing five years. They are lining up for a play and he backs away from the line of scrimmage and calls out a different one. I was stood there last week watching him in Indianapolis and I was wondering; have you number 12 or 18 on your Jersey?! The way your directing things here, you don’t look like a rookie. He has all the physical tools; his passes are accurate. I think he is going to have his ups and downs. He’s playing on a team who aren’t very good and have a long way to go to be good again but he will be everything he has been advertised to be in my opinion. RGIII is exciting but the little bit that worries me is that if he starts becoming the next Cam Newton and tries to run around; he might be more like Michael Vick because he is a lot lighter. He might suffer a few injuries. I think we are looking with RGII, a bit more potential down the road but the two in Year 1, Andrew Luck is going to be the guy.
Q. Do you think Quarterbacks coming out of college are more pro-ready or can we still get a few flops like Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell?
I think we will still get some, that’s just the way it’s going to go but then if you look at the last couple of years, these guys have moved into more starting roles. I do think we will see more players coming in and doing what Tannehill is doing from Year 1. The college game is so much more of a passing game now. It’s so much closer to the NFL that it’s not such a huge transition. When Troy Aikman was in college, Troy Aikman was at Oklahoma to start with and they were running the Wishbone and Troy was throwing six passes a game. So, he had to transfer to UCLA to enhance his chances of getting in the NFL. Now, everyone is running pro-style offenses or spread formations, you know? There are still going to be guys that struggle to make that step up to the NFL so I think you will still see busts at the quarterback position but I don’t think you will see as many situations as when you see a guy who has to do an Aaron Rodgers and sit and learn for four years. I think we will see more players who are ‘in’ much earlier in their career.
Q. Going from young to old, what do you make of T.O and Randy Moss coming back into the league after a year off? Is it a good thing for the League to have the old veteran players back?
I don’t see it as being good for the league. Randy Moss maybe a little bit but people have to be careful to not get too hyped up about Randy Moss saying “Oh yea, Randy Moss is looking like his old self” at training camp or preseason workouts or Minicamp. Randy Moss, when he last played in the NFL, was not wanted by the New England Patriots, was not wanted by the Minnesota Vikings and was a complete non-factor for the Tennessee Titans. At one of his last games for the Tennessee Titans, I didn’t even recognise him on the field, didn’t even notice him. So I think that someone like Randy Moss may have something to offer but I tire hearing about T.O. Terrell Owens has been around and he has had his chances. He has blown all his money and he has thrown every Quarterback he has ever played with under the bus. You know, if he has got something left in the tank then fair enough, I will wait to be proven wrong on it but at the moment, I’m not excited about seeing him back in the League.
Q. So, are you going to stick your neck out and make a Superbowl prediction?!
Superbowl prediction? Oh dear! I still think New England will come out of the AFC even though I think that has improved this year. We’re going to record an NFC preview on the podcast very soon and that Conference is loaded. When you look at teams in the Conference; Green Bay, San Francisco and that’s even putting the Giants down the pecking order and can they do it again? New Orleans will be motivated I think and still talented. Philadelphia are going to be loaded. I’m still thinking that if they add some defensive pass rush, shore up that side of the ball a little bit that I like the Green Bay Packers. So, I’m going to go Green Bay and New England.
Q. Is that the Aaron Rodgers man crush coming out again Neil?!
Yea! But now that I have met Tom Brady and Tom Brady was really nice, I have quarterback crushes everywhere!
Q. Back to yourself then; what’s next on the cards for Neil Reynolds? Any plans or career aspirations we will look forward to in the future?
To be honest, I’ve just done one full year on Sky, I enjoy doing the podcasts once a week, I enjoy hosting Fan Rallys and I see the game growing even more on this side of the Pond. To be honest, I’m in that ‘dig my nails in to the desk, hang in as long as I can and enjoy the ride’ mode! I have no plans, I mean, I’ve done some work covering Rugby Union in the past which was ok, I enjoyed it a bit but this is my passion. I want to do this for as long as I can and I just want to enjoy it as well. I should always remember I should be enjoying it and I think I do enjoy every part of it. So, no immediate changes! Well, I might move away from the pink tie! In fairness, I think the tie has taken on a bit of a following so I’m going to have the crack out the pink tie in Week 1!
Q. What about Pain Gang 2? Are you going to give us another book or is that it?
I haven’t really paid much attention to doing another book at the moment because I’ve been so busy with the TV stuff and everything else that’s going on but I’m constantly jotting down ideas! Literally, I’m sitting on the train and I’ll write down ideas and start to think about things. I mean, I looked at various types of things for books and I think I’ve got at least one more in me but no immediate plans but I don’t think I’m finished on the book writing front that’s for sure.
Q. So is written journalism still the number one passion then or do you like the TV stuff?
Whoa, that’s a good question. Eh, I really enjoy writing still. I love the TV stuff and the podcasts I really enjoy doing with Fletch and I enjoy every aspect of my work but I am a writer. I wasn’t asked to write any training camp reports when I was in the US but I chose to do that. So, I’ll always keep up with that I think.