The Deferential Spirit: How Peter King Became The NFL's Bob WoodwardS

Peter King had been sitting with me in a waiting area on the second floor of the Time & Life Building for almost an hour. We were surrounded by conference rooms and executive dining halls, a little exposed to the light Tuesday traffic of the office, chatting about King and his career and his new venture, The MMQB, a football-specific website under Sports Illustrated's banner that launched today.

"Yeah. That's—that's the way it goes," King said when I thanked him for chatting with Deadspin. Sports Illustrated's PR guy, who'd set up the meeting and who'd sat in on much of the interview, laughed.

I'm telling you these details because these are the kinds of details that are important to King's conception of magazine journalism and MMQB itself—lightly impressionistic scene-setting that establishes the discreet, credentialed presence of a scrupulously non-judgmental writer. (I'll note here that a lesser journalist might've written, "... King said bitterly," because he did say it bitterly, and he might've written that the PR guy "laughed a little too loudly," because he did laugh a little too loudly.)

"I really want to write with an eye on the scene and being observational instead of just reporting what they say," King told me. "I want them to report what they see and what they feel."

Much of our conversation centered on this idea—on the access King gets, and the sort of reporter one becomes after decades of that sort of access.

"Look, there are pluses and minuses to doing something for 30 years," King said. "I think the pluses are I get to convince Jeff Fisher and Les Snead and Kevin Demoff at the Rams that I can sit in their draft room and write about the first round of the draft in a way that—never in the conversation before that do I say, I'm not going to screw you. I think they trust me to know that what happens in this room is going to be portrayed fairly."

King wrote a behind-the-scenes account of the Rams' war room back in April. It was an exceedingly rare bit of access. Chuck Klosterman had a similar piece for Grantland a couple of weeks later, writing about access he was supposed to get to the Browns' war room that ultimately never came.

"Now if you say, is it going to be portrayed in a way that is positive to their team?" King continued, about the Rams. "I mean, first of all, they have two [first-round picks]. But if they had known there was a good chance they weren't going to get Tavon Austin and do some of things that they wanted to? I'm not naive, I don't think they would have let me in the room, OK? But there's probably only a certain number of people who are going to be able to tell that story from the room."

One of those people—maybe the only one—is Peter King, the most-read writer in the NFL. The 24-year veteran of Sports Illustrated just signed a new contract with SI, which is estimated to be worth about $1.5 million a year and which includes the new breakaway website. SI owns it, and hired talented writers Greg Bedard, Jenny Vrentas, and Robert Klemko to write for it. King's popular Monday Morning Quarterback column will run there, as well.

The Rams story was typical King: high access, an exclusive treatment, a rare peek on the other side of the curtain. It was a unique perspective. If there was drama in the war room, it resolved itself in a mostly happy ending. Fair, is how King would describe it. It didn't seem to provide any point of view except one with which the principals of the story would be totally satisfied.

"People view when I write about certain teams I'm going to show favoritism toward their teams or I'm always good to some players," King said. "And, I think, in some ways, it's a justifiable criticism. I'm not going to sit here and say that there are some players that I like quite a bit and that, I think, over the years I've written a lot of good things about. But what I chafe at, a bit, is if people say I'd never write a critical thing about X, or I would never write anything critical about this team. I just don't necessarily agree."

I suggested to King that there's one guy who does seem to escape criticism: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. It's not so much that King never disagrees with Goodell (he does, as he'll protest if you suggest otherwise); it's that King approaches the job with what Joan Didion famously identified in Bob Woodward—"the deferential spirit."

King is, functionally, a steam valve, a way for NFL and team executives, coaches, and players to let off pressure. You can get a reliable measure of where the NFL is at any given point by reading King on Monday mornings. What Woodward and, latterly, Politico's Mike Allen are to Washington, King is to professional football. (Like Allen, King isn't above birth announcements.) In King's formulation, the NFL is the happy sum of the good faith and benevolence of powerful, well-intentioned men—commissioners, GMs, coaches, quarterbacks. His column will give you exclusive quotes, color you'll find only by reading him, and the human story behind the box score—gossip, sunny-side up. Actual insight into the business of pro football? King is a tabula rasa, by design.

Actual insight into the sport as it is? Actual insight into the business of one set of fungible assets bashing another set of fungible assets into early senescence? To deliver that would entail recognition of a range of criticisms that don't sully the beautiful minds of the men who run the game. It would be, in a sense, against the rules, and King is nothing if not—to use his word—fair.

Said King: "The pro-Goodell thing, I think, stems from the fact that when I wrote the SI profile on him. [Former SI managing editor] Terry McDonell says, 'I want you to write a profile on Roger Goodell. I just want to know who he is as a person. That's all I want to know.'"

A traditional profile, in other words. "Quite a few people I talked to in his life were very favorable to Roger Goodell," King said. "I think if you asked the people who have gone looking for the Goodell skeletons in the closet, they've been exceedingly hard to find—if there are some. I didn't find one in a major way. In a major way.

"But I would say this," he continued, speaking carefully. "I would say that I have—if the measure of being fair with somebody, like Roger Goodell, is going to be judged on a profile and then from that point on, no matter what I will do about someone like Roger Goodell, it will not be measured on what I write about Roger Goodell. It'll be measured on the perception that I'm madly in love with Roger Goodell. OK? I'm neither pro-Goodell or anti-Goodell. I cover Goodell. Do I think that he has the best interests of the NFL and its players at heart? Yes. Do I like everything that he's done? No. Do I think the 18-game schedule is a good idea? Absolutely not. But, you know, we are in a perception business. And I'm not going to change perceptions of what people think about me by sitting here and saying that I'm fair with Roger Goodell. You have to—and everybody has to—draw their own conclusions about that. I'm probably not a very good guy to give a spirited defense of myself. I think I'm fair. But the world will have to decide if I am."

He talks about fairness quite a bit.


"We're having our last little kind of team meeting before the season starts and before the launch of our site," said King, inadvertently shoving his elbow into a tray filled with a bunch of wine glasses. Tinkle tinkle blink blunk. "Basically what happened is, we got together in May and we went over a huge list of story ideas, assigned some stories, they've done the stories, they've turned them in so we're reviewing them and we're talking about, kinda, writing style."

It's a slightly new direction for King. He'll write, but he's also overseeing an entire outfit for the first time.

"I guess in the back of my mind, you know, when I was thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my career, I just thought it would be fun at some point to be a boss," said King.

I told him that he was starting to sound like an NFLer.

"Look, I'm 56 years old. At some point, somebody here's gotta step up and cover the NFL." He paused. "I can't—I mean, in terms of being the next ... whatever-it-is..."

Peter King?

"Or be the next person who is seen as the main NFL guy," he said. "And so, I think one of the things that I really want to do is help the next group of people and three of whom who are here to be—to get to know everybody in the league."

Perhaps this is the start of the Peter King coaching tree. He has advice for his writers about the style he wants for his site.

"What I think is really kind of interesting was when I came to SI in 1989, I didn't change my writing style very much at all, because I was writing an NFL notes column and the managing editor at the time, Mark Mulvoy, just wanted me to write the way I wrote at Newsday, so I didn't really have to change."

"These guys?" he said, referring to his three writers. He paused for a few seconds.

"It's a sort of a style point with me," he said. "But I think when you go to write for a magazine, which I consider us to be, we're a sort of magazine-y website, I want the writing to be really kind of special."

As an example, he cited Vrentas's trip to see Don Shula. "Don Shula walks with a walker right now," King said. "And he's 83 years old. So, I wanted part of the story—I don't want, the story is not, Look at Don Shula, he walks with a walker! But everyone wants to know—I have not seen Don Shula! Where is he? What's he doing?"

MMQB is meaningful to him. King wants to run something and shape it in his own image. As a beat writer with Newsday in the 1980s, King made himself indispensable by becoming a central node in the NFL's social network. He covered training camps and met everyone there was to meet.

"Newsday said in training camp, 'Go and cover other teams,'" King said. "There's no beat guy who covers an NFL team right now where they say, 'Go to 49ers camp for two days.' I'm the luckiest guy in the world to have been able to work for Newsday and then spend two weeks going off to NFL training camps. Going to do Buddy Ryan and Ditka in Chicago, going to do Joe Gibbs and going to do Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Nobody gets to do that stuff today, in terms of beat people, because they're so maniacally concentrating on their own team. And that's just the way the business has become.

"But I think one of the things that has to happen today if you want to become a really good national writer is, you've gotta be exposed to these people," King continued. "And that's why at various points on this training camp trip—Jenny is gonna come for a while, Bedard is gonna come, Robert Klemko is gonna come—my whole thing is: 'Listen, you've got to get to know these people. You gotta get phone numbers, you gotta get emails, you gotta just be able to call them when something happens.'"


We were talking about Aaron Hernandez now. Peter King was doing a bit of cost-benefit analysis, explaining what he meant by that dillweed tweet.

"When I asked questions after Hernandez was drafted and everybody was talking about Hernandez, like, I remember going to training camp that year and just—I even forget where it was, it wasn't New England—but just talking to a couple of people and sometimes you can just tell when NFL people—they're just not interested in a guy," King said. "You can tell that they're just: 'Don't know enough about him but he was not on our board.' That kind of stuff.

"And this was another thing that I get criticized for, but I absolutely think that this is true. Three years of Aaron Hernandez: 175 catches, beating the Denver Broncos in a playoff game when he plays running back for the first time in his pro career, 'cause Belichick isn't happy with his running game. The guy was a really very good, versatile weapon. As big a weapon, to me, as the Patriots had on their team, other than Tom Brady. One hundred and seventy-five catches plus whatever he did in the playoffs. If you were to ask me, just in terms of value, and he was the 114th pick in the draft, if I would tell that you got three years of basically averaging 58 catches and X number of touchdowns and plays a big role in your playoff success, would that be worth three years, a mid-fourth-round pick? Absolutely, unequivocally. He'd be worth it. Now, is it worth it based on what we know now, and if the Patriots rewrite history would they have drafted him? I don't think they would have. The point is, just for production that they got out of that pick, I'm not saying they would have drafted him if they knew he was eventually going to be charged for murder, but I'm saying did they get value of that pick commensurate with that pick with that place in the draft?"

The answer is an obvious yes, he said.

I had a question for him: What did the Patriots know and when did they know it? Why'd they release him a few hours before the arrest? Were they aware Hernandez had been up to something bad shortly after the murder? King liked that question. It seemed to speak to his idea of the NFL as a panopticon overseen by well-meaning managers. But it's a tricky issue. With Peter King, you know what you know. And what you know are the people in these organizations.

"That's my biggest question right now," he said, enthusiastically. "When did they know Aaron Hernandez was in big trouble? I do not believe that they found out when the rest of the world knew. I believe Bill Belichick—based on nothing other than knowing Bill Belichick some—that ... I'd just be really surprised if he wouldn't have some suspicion that Aaron Hernandez was doing some things he shouldn't have done."

His enthusiasm sagged a little bit. He started getting practical.

"But the whole thing about today's day and time, especially with a team like the Patriots, there's a certain element of CIA to the Patriots. There always has been under Belichick, there always will be."

He continued: "You're not going to necessarily have the people in that organization who are going to be able to tell you things because Bill has got it pretty well locked down."

The doable story here is, essentially, the story that the good men who run professional football teams—the rational ones who can weigh on the one hand the sad fact of murder, and on the other the surplus value represented by a tight end who came through in the big spots—want told. It's a story about who could have known, and yes, but, and more than anything about how these powerful men can bring an organization together, and help it move past unpleasant facts, and focus on Sundays.

"One of the things that I would want to know right now, is kind of, 'W-W-B-D: What Will Bill Do?'" he said. "I wanna know what the atmosphere is going to be like inside his building when players come to camp."

That's the Peter King we know.

Image by Sam Woolley