Gregg Bell is the Seahawks beat writer for The News Tribune. He took the time to chat with The Big Lead about how his military background helps him do his job today, baseball beats vs. football beats, the Seahawks' offense, and more.
Liam McKeone: In your own words, describe your journey from when you realized you wanted to be in sports journalism to where you are today as the Seahawks beat writer for The News Tribune.
Gregg Bell: Well, as a hobby as a kid, I remember in third grade, I'd watch games and then handwrite, in cursive, game stories based on what I saw on TV. World Series, Stanley Cup Finals, 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Just as a hobby. I've always been interested in it, always interested in sports growing up. I grew up in the Ohio Valley, just west of Pittsburgh. Big football area. I always had it in the back of my mind as something I'd really enjoy doing as a profession. Then I got an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. That's not exactly a liberal arts school, so not a lot of journalism or writing there. I did some engineering, then did five and a half years in the Army as an officer after graduation. Then I was at a point in my career where I could either go to Korea and serve as a company commander on the DMZ. I had just gotten married, no family housing, couldn't bring my wife with me. Or I could fulfill my original committment with the Army and I could then get out.
I chose to get out, resigned my commission, and go to graduate school for journalism. I went to Cal Berkley; I was thinking about what graduate school I could go to, my father-in-law is a lawyer and wanted me to go into law. I thought about business. But [what I really enjoyed] was writing and covering sports, so it was a one-track mind doing that. University of California Berkley was kind enough to give me a spot. Neil Henry was a former Washington Post reporter who also really enjoyed sports and appreciated sports writing. He was a huge mentor, he and Rob Gunnison at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism championed my sportswriting cause.
I went there, two years, and in my second year I was fortunate enough to land an internship at the Sacramento Bee. Bill Endicott was a former Marine officer who was hiring interns that year and he liked my military background, so I used that to my advantage and parlayed that into an internship in the sports department. What really helped me at that point... I was 27, 28 years old and older than most graduate students. I had a real direction-- I wanted to be a sports writer, period. Most others in the journalism school wanted to do whatever, they weren't sure what kind of reporting they wanted to do. In the national internship piles, the general news writer pile was gigantic, and for sports, I was the only one. The Sacramento Bee happened to have a new sports internship, so I got it.
I was living in Oakland with my wife at the time, and the Oakland A's got good right when I was an intern. The Bee said, 'Well, instead of us sending someone from Sacramento and have to pay mileage per diem every day, why don't you cover the A's from Oakland and not have to drive to Sacramento as an intern?' So that's what I did. They went to the playoffs that year, and they asked me to come back as a beat writer full-time. My last semester of grad school, I was actually at spring training in Phoenix for the A's. I turned two versions of each story in every day-- one to the Bee, one to my instructors back at Cal. So that's what I did, went right into beat writing for the A's, then the Oakland Raiders, and I've been doing it ever since.
McKeone: How'd you end up in Seattle after the Oakland jobs?
Bell: My wife wanted to have kids, and she said, 'You can't be on the road for 170 days a year, or whatever it is, and I'm raising kids by myself. What job can you have where you won't be on the road so much?' I had a couple friends in the Associated Press and a job came open in Seattle. Janie McCauley was the Seattle Associated Press writer and she was moving to the Bay Area. She recommended I take the job in Seattle. It was a great fit for me and my family life at the time, because the AP writer generally stays home. He covers both teams. For instance, when the Cleveland Browns come to Seattle to play the Seahawks, I write both sides. I write the Browns and the Seahawks. Baseball, same way. I covered all the sports here-- the Huskies, Mariners, Sonics, Seahawks, I even went Boise State, Washington State, Gonzaga. But it was always for home games. I never had to go on the road and travel like a beat writer does. That appealed to my wife, who said, 'Oh great! You might work all year round with all the seasons, but you'll be home all the time.' So that's what we did, we ended up having twins my last couple years on the Raiders beat down in Oakland, and then we moved the twins up here to Seattle.
It's been a great fit family-wise. It's a big city but has small neighborhood feels. Ironically, the season we got here-- I got here in October 2005-- it was the Seahawks' very first Super Bowl season. So the AP sent me to Detroit anyway. I was on the road for the Super Bowl, and my wife said, 'What are you talking about? You told me you wouldn't travel.' But because the Seahawks went to the Super Bowl that year I got to cover them. It's worked out great. From the AP job, I went to the University of Washington for four years and was their beat writer from a team's perspective. That was a really valuable experience, to see things from the other side. To travel with the team on the plane in the hotel, to be a part of their recruiting strategy, to know why the coaches want to emphasize things at certain points. I worked with Scott Woodward, Steve Sarkisian, a little bit with Chris Peterson, and then a job opened up here at The News Tribune to cover the Seahawks. I jumped at it, and that's what I've been doing for the past five years.
McKeone: What aspects of your military background do you feel help you do your job today?
Bell: One is organization and time management, for sure. That was the biggest trick at West Point. They'd give you 30 things to do but there's only time in the day for 20 of them, so the trick is to find out which 10 you can get away with not doing, how you can prioritize your time. That helps a lot on deadlines and multitasking at my current job. The other thing that really helps my writing and reporting is that my viewpoint is a more worldly view, and an appreciation that there's a lot more going on in the world than sports. Sports is just a toy story for life. I try to approach my stories that way. I had a mentor very early on in the Bay area, two of them-- John Shea and Ann Killion, who still write for the San Francisco Chronicle. John told me, 'Make sure you keep an eye out for anything that seems different or peculiar to you. You're out there every day. Write it and go with it, because the readers who aren't out there every day will definitely think it's funny and interesting.' Then Killion told me, 'Sports writing is not about sports. It's about people.'
And she's so right. They're just people. They're held on this huge pedestal, but they're just regular people with lives and wives and girlfriends and dogs and kids. I try to keep that perspective in how I cover these guys. Yeah, they play a sport, are paid zillions of dollars, held up on this gigantic stage for us to see, watch, and enjoy, but deep down they're just people. They have the same issues we do. They have a family at home, they believe in causes: social justice and equality and police reform and use of deadly force... All the things I've covered with the Seahawks in the last five years, I try to keep a more worldly view. I think that all goes back to having a career before sportswriting that was real world stuff. It's helped me keep a perspective I like to think I have every time I write.
McKeone: Back when you were an intern, it seems like the Bee kind of threw you into the deep end having you cover a playoff team in the A's. How did you feel when they gave you that assignment?
Bell: Oh, I loved it. And, I mean, you're right-- I was totally fortunate. I was supposed to be on the sidelines in the rain with a clipboard keeping stats at a high school football game and filing stories at Starbucks. I understood that. I was very lucky. It was a matter of convenience, like I said. They didn't want to pay someone to drive from Sacramento every day. I also think it helped that I was older. I was 29 years old at the time in my last year of grad school. I think that helped me show them that I could handle it, and it wasn't as though I was just out of college and wide-eyed. I had been around the block a little bit. A 24-year-old, 25-year-old Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, or Jason Giambi didn't faze me that much. I think that helped a lot too. It was a sink-or-swim situation, but fortunately I was able to keep my head above water long enough to get the job.
McKeone: When you moved from the A's to the Raiders, did you find the transition from baseball to football natural?
Bell: Ah, no. Baseball was much friendlier to print writers with the time you get to know someone. The NFL game is geared towards television. Billions of dollars in TV contracts, the access is all television. That was a big adjustment for me. Baseball, you showed up at the park three and a half hours before the first pitch, you hung out in the clubhouse, got to know the players. You saw them every single day for 162 games plus spring training. You got to know them, and they knew you. They knew what your wife's name was, what you did before you got there. The NFL is so contrived and controlled with the access: 30 minutes before practice three days a week, and during that time they might also be doing TV, they might be doing treatments, they might be eating lunch. You might get five minutes with a guy. Maybe 10 minutes a week. The quarterback, for instance, Russell Wilson. He's in a press conference setting, always. You don't talk to him other than in front of cameras in a very staged and formal environment. You don't get to know them and they don't get to know you. They don't know my wife's name, they don't know I have twins.
Baseball is exactly the opposite. You go across the country with those guys, you hang out at the park and batting cage. You don't hang out in football. It's in-and-out. What I really miss is the bonding and camaraderie between reporter and player, without a notebook, without a recorder, that you get in baseball. I try to do it in football, but the time is so limited and the access so controlled, it's really hard. The players resent the fact that every time you walk up to them you have a notebook or a recorder out, but they don't understand that our time is so limited with them that we have no choice. Baseball is the opposite. We have too much time and they get sick of seeing us. It took me a few years to adjust to that. I try to talk to guys just as guys, rather than, every time I come up to you it's with a recorder and notebook out. It's just harder to do in football.
Five Big Things
McKeone: Seattle's offense has gotten off to a slow start early on in the season. How will they try to avoid trouble early in the game as the season progresses?
Bell: Well, they've got to establish the run first. Everyone asks why the Seahawks run so much. Two reasons. One, that's the way Pete Carroll wants to play. He doesn't care that the rest of the NFL passes the ball more than they run, he wants to do the opposite because he believes in controlling good field position and winning with a running game and defense. The second thing is the offensive line doesn't pass protect well. They can't pass-block when other teams know they have to throw. It's imperative that this team gets yardage on first and second down in the run game to make manageable third downs, where they can do play-action passes and Wilson can drop deeper without pressure coming after him.
The problem so far this season is they haven't run the ball consistently. They've had penalties, first-and-20s... They've had six first-and-20s already this year, by far more than anybody in the league. So even if they gain on first down it's still second-and-15. Then they have to throw and the defense is coming after them and Wilson is running for his life. This offensive line has had issues for three or four years in pass blocking and they run so much just so they can throw later in the game. They've yet to get the run established enough because Chris Carson's dropped the ball four times in three games. Until they start running consistently like they did last year when they led the league in rushing, their offense is going to struggle, and that starts with not having penalties on first down and getting in manageable third downs.
McKeone: You mentioned Carson, it seems like he has the full backing of the coaching staff, but four fumbles in three games obviously isn't ideal. Will they stick with him, and what else does he need to improve upon in order to become the guy they clearly believe he can be?
Bell: Publicly, they're gonna say that, right? What else could Carroll say? The other reason they're sticking with him is that Rashad Penny was injured last week. A first-round pick from last year, with a hamstring injury, wasn't available. That's why he didn't get yanked as quickly as maybe he could've been. C.J. Prosise ended up playing three running plays for him, but Carson came right back in third and fourth-and-1 and didn't get it. But if Penny is available this week, they'll find out Thursday if he is, then that's more of an option to sit Carson down if he continues to have his struggles.
Carson is a hard runner. Runs through tackles, creates holes sometimes, 1,100-yard rusher last year-- it's not like they suddenly want to give up on him. He catches the ball very well for a guy his size. As long as he can hold onto the football, which has been somewhat of a recent problem... The other thing is staying injury-free. Part of the reason they drafted Penny is that Carson hasn't had a complete season without an injury since way back in junior college. He's gotta stay healthy and he's gotta hold onto the ball. Those are his two big things right now. But I wouldn't be surprised if Penny gets more carries this week in Arizona if he's healthy enough to play, just because that's one of the reasons they drafted him.
McKeone: It feels like Russell Wilson has been on the cusp of an insane statistical season for a few years now. Even with the line's issues, what kind of season do you see Wilson having?
Bell: If they're winning, he's never going to throw it 40+ times a game. He threw it 50 times the other day [against the Saints] because they were down 27-7 and the last quarter and a half was complete playground football. He ended up throwing for the second-most yards of his career. Last year, he threw it fewer times than any other QB in the league, yet he had his most efficient passing season, 110+ passer rating, a career high, 30+ touchdowns... If they can get the run going, he could be that efficient again. People say, 'Well, he's a $140 million quarterback, why don't they have him throw it 40 times a game?' Again, their offensive line is not built to do that. They just can't pass protect enough for Wilson to step back and win games by himself. If they can get the run going, I can see Wilson having a 3,500 yard, 110+ passer rating, 30+ touchdown season again. And when they need him to take over games int he fourth quarter, he will. He'll do it running and he'll do it throwing. He still has that in his back pocket: that if nothing else is working, they can still win games just with him. But that's not how this team is built to do it.
McKeone: Shifting to the other side of the ball, Jadeveon Clowney was a late addition to the team. How has he adjusted to the scheme and team in Seattle so far?
Bell: Slowly. They just got back Ziggy Ansah to be with him for the first time last week, he was inactive for the first two games coming off a shoulder injury that ended his time in Detroit. They haven't seen but for 15 snaps all season what Ansah and Clowney look like together. The idea is that offenses can't double team or chip both. They have to pick one, and the other one should benefit from that. We'll see. It was like a first preseason game, in Carroll's words, with Ansah. Clowney had a big first game. He helped Quinton Jefferson have a career day against Cincinnati. He has one sack in three games. Alejandro Villanueva of Pittsburgh handled him in the second game, and the Saints paid a lot of attention to him in the third game. Arizona has given up 16 sacks in three games. If Clowney and Ansah aren't getting to the quarterback in Arizona, there will be some questions about what's going on, because these are games they brought those two in to dominate.
McKeone: Between Ansah and Clowney, the defensive end room is suddenly more crowded than it was when the Seahawks drafted L.J. Collier in the first round of the draft. He got hurt in training camp and was a healthy scratch against the Saints. How do you see him fitting in with the team's plan for this season?
Bell: Because he missed a month with a badly-sprained foot, he's behind. That's why he was an inactive, healthy scratch. Yes, it's very peculiar a first-round pick is a healthy scratch in his third NFL game, but he's just not ready yet. He missed all that time and didn't play in any of the preseason games. Even coming out of the draft, he wasn't a superstar. He had one big season at TCU, 10 and a half sacks... He really needed the time to develop and he lost it with that injury. Carroll said it may be an on-and-off thing where he's active and inactive the first few weeks of the season. Now that they have Clowney and Ansah for just this year right now, Collier might be on a redshirt layaway plan this year. Which is odd to say for a first round pick, but when they drafted him, they didn't have Clowney and they didn't have Ansah. Quinton Jefferson has emerged as another defensive end option, even Branden Jackson has played well and has a sack in his first three games. Collier is like the fifth defensive end right now. Until he starts producing, which he needs playing time to do, this could be something of a red shirt year for him.
Five Little Things
McKeone: Favorite stadium in the NFL?
Bell: Heinz Field. I was born and raised outside Pittsburgh, so I'm partial to that. I grew up going to Three Rivers Stadium all the time, and to me Heinz Field is a palace compared to what Three Rivers was. Really neat build, neat vibe. The press box is on the sideline, which is key for a writer. The trend of newer stadiums is to be tucked into the corner, low, and around the corner of the endzone, much like New England, Chicago, Washington. Pittsburgh's not like that. I really like Minnesota's new stadium. Their press box happens to be in the corner of the endzone too. A lot of glass, open feel, a lot of light coming in. We're spoiled with Seattle, which has a beautiful stadium for both how we do our job and the noise, proximity to downtown.
I really miss Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. I wish they would've worked out a way to keep the Chargers down there. The trip, the city, the outdoor press box-- I'm a big fan of open-air, outdoor press boxes rather than the hermetically sealed, windows closed, no environment situations. Chicago really bugs me for that reason. There are few open air press boxes left in the NFL. Atlanta used to be one, but I haven't been to the new stadium yet, I'll be there in a couple weeks. I still love the Coliseum. I know it's old and outdated and they've remodeled it and they're changing it but to just feel the history, the Olympic torch, the fact that there's no depth. It's just Row 1 to Row 94. When you get out of the press box to go down to the locker room, you have to get out on to the stands and get down those 94 rows to get down onto the field and the long ramps to get to the locker rooms. It's kind of a throwback and I appreciate the history aspect of it.
McKeone: Go-to spot to eat in Seattle?
Bell: For out-of-towners, I take them to Wild Ginger. Pan-Asian, really good stuff. Locally, in my neighborhood, Taste of India is a great space in the University District. Snappy Dragon for Asian food.
McKeone: Favorite interviewee over the course of your career?
Bell: I was fortunate to have Art Howe as my first manager with the A's. He's a Pittsburgh guy, genuine, really, really classy guy. I thought he got really sold short in Moneyball depictions, especially the film version. He wasn't nearly the stooge and second fiddle to Billy Beane that movie made him seen. Great man. Really great to us as writers. Jon Gruden was great. I covered him at the very end before the Raiders traded him to Tampa Bay. Players... Charles Woodson was great to talk to after games with the Raiders. He didn't care what he said, he had reached a status with the league and the team that he was just varnished and truthful. He actually called for Bill Callahan to be fired after Callahan said the Raiders had to be the dumbest team in America for jumping offsides late in the game the year after their Super Bowl season. I have all kinds of crazy stories about the Raiders: almost boycotting the season finale in San Diego, not wanting to leave the locker room, Al Davis had to come down and convince them to come on the field.
Currently, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are two very, very good dudes. Wright, you can talk to him about anything, well beyond football. He walked up to me at practice on a walkthrough Friday and started talking about the Antoino Brown situation, why you do what you do when it comes to reporting, certain questions he had. He talks to me about Army-Navy football and maybe going to an Army-Navy game. He's given money to build freshwater wells in Kenya in a village he visited a couple years ago with his wife on vacation and went back this past offseason to make sure the wells went in and those people had clean water. Just real stuff. I appreciate people who talk outside of the sports realm. Everybody can talk about the game and ball, but somebody who appreciates life beyond that are people I enjoy most.
McKeone: What's something you know now that you wish you knew back when you were starting out at Cal?
Bell: A couple things. One, it took me a while to learn sports wasn't the be-all, end-all and this concept of it just being a toy store. I wish I knew that a little sooner than I did, but I think I still picked up on it pretty quickly. I see a lot of people who think this is the be-all end-all and it's all that matters, and it really doesn't. As soon as somebody starting out realizes that the better their stories are, the broader their perspective is... You can get readers beyond the casual sports fan or even the hardcore sports fan to read your stories. The broader the appeal, the better your stories tend to be. Some people think you have to be in the niches of blocking schemes and passer ratings and 4-3 vs. 3-4 nickel. There's a segment of the readership that wants that. But to survive in the industry, you need to be versatile enough to appeal to somebody who doesn't even watch the game. Someone who's reading your story just to read a good story, a human interest story or a society piece. Something that goes beyond the field. It's hard to do that when you're first starting out in your career because you're usually just writing game stories or you're writing high school Friday night football.
I understand it's hard to do, but for a young reporter, to strive to write stories that go beyond the field. It goes beyond the scores. Increasingly, everyone knows the scores because it's all on their smartphones, fantasy and all that stuff. Take them to where they can't get their smartphone to take them, to where RedZone doesn't go. Don't just tell them about the touchdowns, tell them about the people who scored the touchdowns, who hit the home runs. What interests them and how'd they get here. Every single person in every single league has a story on how they got there. Most of them are fascinating, and some of them have never been asked about it. In the NFL, obviously, most of them have been asked about it. No matter what sport or what level you're covering, everyone has a story, and at high school and college levels they've rarely been asked. Just asking those stories that go beyond the field.
McKeone: What's something about this job that you feel other people don't really understand.
Bell: One thing, of course, like I said, is that people don't understand these [players] are real people. They go to the grocery store and fill up their gas tanks and go on vacations and stay up at night with their kid throwing up. It's real stuff. They just happen to be making millions of dollars at the professional level. The second thing is, this will sound a little bit like a complaint, people don't understand how much time this job takes. I mean, I'm in a grocery store right now talking to you because I got to make my dinner and take my kids to soccer practice, then I got to be on a phone interview, and I gotta have my story done by 5:30, and this is my off day of the week. The travel involved-- and travel in itself is nothing compared to baseball, I lived that, I know that-- but now that I'm 48-years-old with two 16-year-old kids, getting on a plane every other Saturday in the NFL season, it bugs me. I hate it. I hate that I'm missing my kids' practices and I'm missing their parties or dances or proms or homecomings... It sucks. You travel, you write the story, you don't get to go home that night after the game ends, you have to stay up until the next morning, you have to get up on the East Coast at 6am to get a flight early enough to get home in time to get the coach's press conference in the afternoon so you're getting up at 1:30 in the morning Seattle time to catch a plane home... It's a time suck.
It's a lot more time than just at the stadium or at the fields or writing the stories. Then there's a 24/7 element of sportswriting that was not there when I started my career. It used to be, get your story in by 10:30, goes to print at 11, and you're done. Now there is no deadline. You're constantly writing for the internet. You're never off. Someone who's entering the job should realize that. The younger you are and the fewer ties you have, the better off you are to be flexible and taking the time to move around and travel around. As I said, it's fabulous, but there's more to it than meets the eye sometimes.