Paul Kuharsky is a journalist for ESPN's NFL Blog Network and was in town for the Jaguar's OTAs in early June.
He was kind enough to make himself available for some Q and A while we enjoyed dinner at European Street in San Marco.
Many topics were discussed that night and through follow up emails ranging from Paul's background, fan perception and players to watch in 2009. I hope to have captured some of the highlights.
If you are interested in participating, catch Paul at the following places:
AFC South Blog; http://myespn.go.com/blogs/afcsouth
AFC South Mailbag: http://espn.go.com/sportsnation/mailbag/_/id/21417
Paul, some history for those who don’t know you (…and since there is no Kuharsky Wiki site): What inspired you to pursue journalism, specifically at Columbia, and was sports journalism always your occupational goal?
I grew up wanting to write novels, but realized in high school I had no plots. I felt like I had a knack for storytelling.
My dad had the New York Times in our driveway every day and I’d always religiously read it (mostly the underrated sports section, but often well beyond) and so newspapers seemed like a logical career course.
But my undergrad experience in journalism was strictly extracurricular—The Columbia Daily Spectator is independent, and when I was there we proudly billed ourselves as New York City’s “eighth-largest English-speaking daily.”
Made for a clever T-Shirt.
I wasn’t hell-bent on sports. It was the easiest place to grab a niche and get opportunities in that setting.
(No thanks on a Wiki site. The world needs editors and fact-checkers and standards. Wiki proves it. I could pick a random site, makes something up and have it become “fact” overnight.)
Market your blog and weekly chat. Tell Jaguar fans what they are missing.
It's the primary mainstream place on the web where the Jaguars get a fair shake.
If you’re among those who complain about the Jaguars not getting reasonable representation and about how national reporters don’t have very good perspective on them, I hope to be the antidote.
I cover, report on, analyze and comment on four teams and strive for the Jags to be one-fourth of everything over a big sample. The other three-fourths should be interesting to you as well, since your team plays a total of six games against those teams.
If you send me an email, odds are you get a direct reply. You send a great question you may well find it as the root of a blog entry. I’m happy to have you as a Facebook friend. I’d love for you to follow the blog on Twitter.
Dialogue with you is not an annoyance, it’s part of my job. You have a beef with something I write and want to have a reasonable conversation about it, you can alter my thinking. (More on this coming up.)
You Facebook. You Tweet. Has technology made sports journalism easier and do you think being able to connect more with your readers makes it more entertaining?
I don’t know if “easier” is the right word.
Even on a June Wednesday, if I don’t have a full plate and decide to make a lap—converse some on Facebook, check tweets, respond to emails—all of a sudden I’m wondering where my day went.
Now that’s a fun way to work, sure, and if it’s a good day odds are I pick up an idea for a post or two along the way, which is a beautiful part of the cycle.
The constant dialogue with readers is great and it’s a big part of what we are trying to do with the blog network. For a long time newspapers couldn’t be bothered with such interaction, many reporters were above it or didn’t have the time for it.
Now, mailbags like Ketchman’s are a highly anticipated feature.
You seem to have good relationships with at least two of the other ESPN bloggers (Sando and Graham). How often, if at all, do you engage the other bloggers/journalists when writing articles? Does the format ESPN has make reporting any easier?
I’ve got a great relationship with all of them. (Matt Mosley, for entertainment purposes only, will pretend to hate me.)
It’s a great group as are the editors who spend all day tidying us up and dressing up our stuff who get no public props, so I am offering some here.
As far as engaging the other bloggers…well we often talk via email when there is something good out there to write about, calling each other’s attention to it. I try to read them all, though sometimes it’s hard to keep up.
When I do read up I feel educated on what’s going on with 28 other teams and often come up with some spinoff ideas. I hope they get some from me. If I hit a little slow stretch, which arrives less often than I would have anticipated a year ago when I started in this role, I often find great inspiration in their work.
Understanding that these aren’t “real” practices, did you have any pre-conceptions going into the Jaguar OTAs, good or bad, and have you seen anything which caused you to rethink how you view their potential success this year?
The thing is, good team, bad team, problems solved, or problems lingering, every team has a great vibe in May and June. That’s why the league’s just masterful or lucky (I think some of both) in how this piece of the offseason plays out media-wise.
I’ve been putting huge disclaimers on practice reports from OTAs or minicamps, but if I write that Derek Cox made a brilliant interception, I’ll see it catch fire and all of a sudden Jags fans can be emailing me saying, "I’ve heard Cox looks amazing."
All from what may have been a butchered play by since-cut Cleo Lemon with no pass rush, or maybe on a play where an end ran by the quarterback that really counted as a sack and a win for the D.
I think the Jags are a little more on the upswing organizationally than maybe I thought going in. But I don’t know about the talent at some key spots—particularly defensive tackle.
You mentioned that the new Jaguar helmets were not as bad as you thought they’d be. A recent survey noted Jacksonville as one of the least popular NFL franchises. If accurate it would seem to indicate the Jaguars have a national marketing issue. Did the uniform change carry more significance than recent changes such as theFalcons or Cardinals?
No. I think it was good to streamline and simplify.
I think the helmets will get ripped when they are more widely seen but it’s still probably good that they will be more unique.
Fact is for a small market team’s uniform to get noticed out of market, one of the guys who wear it has to be a huge deal. So if Maurice Jones-Drew is a giant, maybe someone who drafted him in their fantasy league or has a UCLA tie wears his jersey in Times Square.
But it has to rank as the least likely ones you’d see there.
Now if they do what the Cardinals did and make a surprise Super Bowl appearance that changes everything.
Jaguar fans don’t want to or like to hear this but the unfortunate fact is they are, divisionally speaking, the bottom team even though they rank third in number of playoff appearances.
In another interview you referred to the Houston/Jags rivalry as “fun” due to how they have “gotten under the Jags' skin.”
Safe to say all three teams have gotten under the Jags' skin.
As fans of a team that hasn’t earned respect within the division, do you find, through emails and chats, their attitudes are such that they ignore the facts and is this any less consistent with other NFL teams fans’?
There are a good number of Jaguars fans I come across who don’t care to come to terms with the fact that they were 5-11 or that things won’t magically be back to 2007 form just because the offensive line is healthy and restocked.
And because I might refer to these things, they judge me to be completely anti-Jacksonville. They are entitled to feel that way. And there are teams every year that come out of nowhere, so every fan is entitled to hope.
I think the three teams ahead of Jacksonville have better, young talent and will stay in front of Jacksonville this season. But I think the Jaguars can be quite a bit better than they were last year even still in fourth place.
The league’s unpredictability is the single best thing it has going for it. My read now could turn out to be completely wrong.
I personally love Manning and Fisher. They make the divisional games fun. The wins feel better and the losses hurt worse.
Do you think fans miss the importance of polarizing figures and hate too much? I laugh when I read some other AFC South fan attacking JDR.
I had this conversation with Bruce Matthews once for a story I did for The Tennessean on just that sort of thing. Everyone is so careful and delicate for fear of providing bulletin board material, and then Sunday they’re trying to rip heads off.
So what does it matter? I understand that Buddy Ryan and Jerry Glanville were over the top. But come on.
It’s to the point now where I might ask a Titan about a specific Colt for something I am working on—let’s say a receiver about a corner. And he won’t answer about that specific guy, he’s got to talk about all of the DBs, because if he doesn’t he believes he’s insulting the other guys.
The whole disrespect angle is the silliest thing. I think everyone should be motivated every day to earn his paycheck, which in most instances is quite lucrative.
As noted in your Texans/Jags comment, rivalry is a big part of the game.
Throw out the 44-17 win and the average margin of victory for the Jags is just over three points per game.
Throw out the 29-7 win for the Colts and the average margin of victory is just under 10 points per game.
Does the lopsided record negate this as a rivalry or does the closeness of the games indicate how strong the rivalry is? I would imagine the Colt fans don’t view this as much of one.
I’m not big on the close game factor, though if you’re close over a significant sampling, there is something there to help build your confidence.
If I ask you who’s going to win in A vs. B and you tell me, B, but close, then I think you are hedging your bet. I don’t really care close or blowout in your prediction.
Win by one, win by 20, it counts the same. I’d prefer the entertaining result, and late tension is entertaining. The only time I’ve ever enjoyed a blowout was in a Monday night game with very tight newspaper deadlines.
The Colts should qualify as a big rival for the Jags, as they are the team that usually wins the division. Jags are just another game for the Colts—though Indy certainly respects a division rival and knows such a team can more easily put together a great game plan. Big picture, though, the Colts are aiming for Pittsburgh and New England, maybe San Diego.
Vic Ketchman has often been criticized as being a “homer” by opposing fans. Some Jaguar fans still consider him a Steeler at heart.
You seem to regularly deal with the Titan homer label. How difficult is it to remain objective when covering a team for so many years and does that label ever get annoying?
Honestly, the Titans have it tougher, not easier. I know a lot of people who’ve been with the organization for a long time. It’s a lot easier for me to be hard on them because I know how they operate and I tracked them daily for 12 years.
I’m on the radio in Nashville for an hour for three mornings a week where I often wind up in position to rant more. You’ll probably see that more clearly when they down cycle than you did when they are 13-3.
Whether that’s the case or not, I don’t think it makes any sense as I try to get to know Jack Del Rio and Dirk Koetter better for me to pretend that I don’t know Jeff Fisher and Mike Heimerdinger well. Who would that serve?
It’s not hard for someone with a reporting background not to root for or against a team. You root for good stories, and sometimes, good people.
If San Diego is unable to get a new stadium are they the front runner to move to L.A. and if so does that silence the Jacksonville talk?
And is the potential for eight blackouts and no stadium naming right a concern Jaguar fans should be taking seriously?
As long as the Jags aren’t packing the stadium weekly, winning constantly and bringing in a huge revenue stream, they’re always going to be mentioned as a prime L.A. candidate.
It’s not a long list. But with the down economy, I wouldn’t expect any team to be sold any time soon. So there is some silver lining there from a Jacksonville perspective.
One can argue who had more pull on draft day, JDR or Shack, but the bottom line is that the first three first round picks (Leftwich, Williams and Jones) were big busts.
How important is it for Lewis, Nelson and Harvey to step up with respect to JDR’s job stability?
I don’t know that the Jags can get good without those guys being a big part of it, and they have to show progress to ensure Jack Del Rio is safe. So it’s not so much about first round picks being good, it’s about guys you are counting on to be good getting good and producing.
Now, I think a slight improvement in record can suffice for Del Rio if they are moving in the right direction. But I like conventional GM-head coach systems and think it’s probably a good thing that JDR now has to focus on coaching while Gene Smith will have final say on personnel.
Are you a game tape guy?
I’m not. It takes an awfully long time to sort through as many as four games after the fact, and if I’m not home until Monday I do think there is a shelf life to some of the information I can get from a late review and still make meaningful to you.
I’d like to try it more—but DirecTV is not a possibility at my house, I recently learned. Our sky is filled with too many trees. If I could have all my games on a DVR in my office and run them in the background Monday and Tuesday, I’d be able to jump in at key moments at least.
I want to do better in my second year at this of getting quality close looks at key plays and writing about who made it work, or not work. That’s a goal.
I’m not good at monitoring multiple games on a Sunday either. If I’m at Jags-Colts, I think I do best focusing on Jags-Colts and worrying about plugging into what’s going on simultaneously when I can, later.
Give me one player on each AFC South team that you simply love to interview and why.
Colts – Jeff Saturday does better filling my notebook there than anyone. He understands what we do and that we need to have someone to count on. He can speak to a lot of issues beyond his little world in part because of his union involvement. I like Gary Brackett a lot too.
Jaguars – MJD is a great conversation every time. He’s never in a hurry which really helps from my side. Fred Taylor was phenomenal.
Titans – Kyle Vanden Bosch. I’ve known him longer than any of the others from my previous life. He is as accessible as anyone I have ever covered.
I could call him right now and if he didn’t answer he would return the call as soon as possible and never for a second let me think I was bothering him. Willing to speak candidly on any topic.
If the Jags had one rookie step up, and in doing it allowed the Jags to be a playoff contender, which guy would it need to be?
Because Sean Considine or Gerald Alexander could emerge as the second safety, leaving Brian Williams at corner, I’m going to say Terrance Knighton. If he’s a revelation in there, I think he could have a monster impact on the young ends, the linebackers and the secondary.
Smith talks about building the foundation first, and in my eyes, their biggest remaining foundation concern is on the interior defensive line.
Your Ultimate Building Blocks article: 4 Titans, 3 Texans, 2 Colts and 1 Jaguar. Your “considerations” group consisted of 3 Texans, 3 Colts, 2 Titans and 2 Jaguars.
You did qualify your list as not containing the 10 best players of the division and you noted youth as an emphasis. Would we be reading too much into this if the list was interpreted as your belief of an eventual power shift in the division?
Probably. I think the Titans may have the deepest pool of young talent. But they also have a history of not locking all of it up. So they did well to secure Michael Roos, David Stewart and Cortland Finnegan.
But they may have been only $1 million away from retaining Albert Haynesworth a year ago and didn’t. And if he doesn’t play well in Washington, it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have played well in Nashville.
The Colts do pretty well holding on to guys they identify as core guys and of replenishing at the spots where they let guys walk. Second contracts in Houston for Dunta Robinson and DeMeco Ryans and Owen Daniels are an issue right now. Who does the best job of identifying and keeping its top talent will have an advantage in the years to come for sure.
That’s in every division.
Many swipes have been taken at the Jaguars’ defensive backs. Rashean Mathis, Brian Williams and Reggie Nelson looked liked a solid lineup in 2007. We look at 2008 and the big names are Finnegan, Griffin and Hope.
How much do you think a consistent pass rush separates the Jags’ secondary from the Titans’ secondary?
It’s certainly a big piece to it. I like Mathis and every team would like a guy as versatile as Williams. Nelson got off track in his second season and is at a crossroads. I think the uncertainty of the fourth piece and the lack of depth hurt the Jags’ secondary too.
The three Titans you mention work with a solid fourth in Nick Harper, a high quality nickel in Vincent Fuller and had quality backups in Eric King and Chris Carr last year. William James would have been miles behind all four of those guys, yet Jacksonville had to use him. He was brutal.
Was Gene Smith the best off season acquisition the Jaguar’s made? With the news that Cleo Lemon was kept around for the sake of his contract, it seems like there definitely was something lacking in front office leadership.
So far so good. If Tra Thomas or Considine or even Torry Holt bust, well they didn’t break the bank for them. Tackle-tackle one-two in the draft seems about as smart/safe a rebuilding route as you can take.
They may need two years to restock, and guys like Knighton and Cox have to pan out to give fans faith in the draft process and to replenish the roster.
But I’m impressed with Smith so far. He handles himself well and I’ve talked to several scouts who like the path he’s travelled and the dues he’d paid.
Now he gets a few years to show us how he works and if that works. He needs some time.
Apart from Garrard, Drew or one of the rookies, give me a player on each side of the ball who has to step-up in order for the Jaguars to feel they can contend for the playoffs and why.
John Henderson is as important as anyone. I just don’t know how they can be consistently effective on defense without good interior line play.
While I understand they have a lot of young guys they like starting with Knighton, I think asking for two of them to emerge simultaneously and be difference-makers is a lot.
Look at how much work they’ve put into the O-line. They’ve hardly matched it on the other side of the ball.
On offense, I know some people are tired of waiting on Marcedes Lewis. But he is a better blocker than he gets credit for, and if he could stop dropping it, I think he’s a guy who can do some yards-after-the-catch work that could really help them.