Two of the best to ever do their football jobs — defensive end J.J. Watt and veteran big-game producer Fred Gaudelli of NBC Sports and Amazon Prime — are walking away. Watt says he’ll retire after his 12th NFL season ends, and Gaudelli produced his last regular-season game Thursday night for Amazon, Dallas at Tennessee.
Each has one game left — Watt for the Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco on Sunday, and Gaudelli in the truck for one of the NBC’s two Wild Card games in two weeks.
Watt’s a giant in his field, as is Gaudelli. I asked Cards PR man Mark Dalton to ask Watt for teammates or foes I should talk to about him, and he gave me three: retired Baltimore guard Marshal Yanda, former teammate Duane Brown, and a combination of former teammate and later a foe, center Ben Jones. (I added T.J. Watt, his brother and mentee.) I reached out to speak to all four on Thursday. Within 24 hours, I had them all, at length — and each was humbled that Watt singled them out. Yanda called from an ice-fishing trip on a lake in South Dakota. They all wanted to talk about J.J. Watt.
“I never played a game-wrecker like him,” Yanda said. “The thing that I respected most about him is his effort. Not even the very elite players played like him. Every play — run, pass, field goal — his drive was unmatched. You look over and he’d have his hands on his hips and he’d be breathing hard in a long series, then, then next play, he comes as hard as he did first play of the game.”
Koa’s first ever NFL game.
My last ever NFL home game.
My heart is filled with nothing but love and gratitude. It’s been an absolute honor and a pleasure.
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) December 27, 2022
Similarly, I texted commissioner Roger Goodell about Gaudelli. They’d worked together going back to an NFL preseason game in Tokyo in 1990, Gaudelli producing the game and Goodell repping the league there. Now, Goodell counts Gaudelli as a confidant in the hugely important business of making the NFL look like a prize on television. Goodell spent 20 minutes praising Gaudelli on New Year’s Eve.
“Freddie’s been the ultimate coach in the truck, calling all the plays for years,” Commissioner Goodell told me Saturday. “I have so much respect for him for a few reasons. One is just his constant desire to improve the experience for the fans. He constantly was looking to see what could we do differently. He surrounded himself with people who were innovative and he pushed them to be innovative. He wasn’t afraid to take a chance. I remember when we were talking to [NBC’s] Dick Ebersol about starting Sunday Night Football, Freddie’s name was one of the first he mentioned. Dick really wanted him. Matter of fact, I think it might’ve been before [John] Madden.”
Looking at the significance of both:
The J.J. Watt experience
Watt, 33, is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. He’ll go into the Hall of Fame listed as a defensive end, but he played all over the line. In 150 regular-season games, he has 112.5 sacks — three of them just two weeks ago at Denver, the final one on Sunday in Atlanta. He has scored six regular-season touchdowns, three on receptions as a tight end, and he’s batted down an NFL record 69 passes.
Simply, Watt is one of the best players in modern NFL history.
July 2011: Watt the rookie arrives in Houston.
Texans tackle Duane Brown: “He comes in, the 10th pick in the draft, a D-lineman, and you always think on the offensive line, ‘We’re gonna kick this kid’s ass.’ He was a problem from the first day. His get-off on the snap was incredible, like I hadn’t seen before. One play, a trap play, I pulled and blocked him and knocked him down. I celebrated. Big play for us. I looked at him, and he smirked. That turned into revenge. The rest of the practice was hell for everyone. I mean hell.
“Every day was a competition. Who could run the fastest 10-yard shuttle? Who could bench the most? Who could win practice? He made me better every day. He got there in 2011, and I’m convinced my best three years in the NFL were his first three years in Houston.”
January 2012: The dominance begins.
Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda: “We were a really good team when Houston came to Baltimore for the divisional playoff game. We had no weak links on our line. The right side [center Matt Birk, Yanda, tackle Michael Oher] was pretty solid. We scouted J.J., we knew him, but that day, that game, he completely ate our lunch. That was a sign of things to come.”
Watt had 2.5 sacks, including one directly on Yanda, and one on a stunt over Yanda and Oher. “We prided ourselves on the TE game, the tackle-end game,” Yanda said. “J.J. lined up across from me, moved toward Mike’s hip, and I had to pick up the looper. J.J. used his arm-over move and his quickness on Michael and got the sack. I consider that day two sacks on me. We won the game, but that’s the first game he ever wrecked in the NFL, and I was just, I don’t know. Defeated. I was defeated.
“Okay, I got another story for you. So J.J. Watt went off and we barely squeaked by. They deserved to win the game, really. We came out of this game, my family’s there. We got in the car and we were driving home and it was quiet because we won but they knew I didn’t play well. When I don’t play well I’m very disappointed. Finally, I said, ‘Wow, that was not my best game.’ My sister shoots it straight. She didn’t even waste one second. She said, ‘Yeah, no kidding, you played like s—.’
“So yeah, you’re bringing back some memories.”
October 2016: Schooling T.J.
In 2015, Wisconsin tight end T.J. Watt switched positions to outside linebacker. In 2016, J.J. moved to Wisconsin to rehab after rupturing a disk three games into the season. Until then, he’d been supportive of T.J. in whatever he did in football. Now he became a mentor.
Edge rusher T.J. Watt: “So J.J. lived in Wisconsin for two months. We grabbed breakfast at Mickie’s Dairy Bar [in Madison], and it was a couple weeks through the season for me. We watched film together. That was the first time that we’ve ever really talked football and talked shop. That was when my eyes opened up to how someone who is so successful in the NFL truly studies film. Before that, I didn’t really know what I was looking at. He was giving tricks of all the linemen I’d face and slides and protections on the offensive line, stuff that I never really knew how to study. That kicked the door open for us, and we began sending film clips back and forth to how we can improve and how we can get better as individuals.
“That was my first full year playing the position. To be able to have a three-time Defensive Player of the Year brother who I’m not intimidated to ask questions or to sound dumb in front of, I think that was really important for me. How valuable has it been for me to be able to talk shop with him? Very.”
T.J. Watt, in 2021, became the second Watt to win Defensive Player of the Year, after his 22.5-sack season in Pittsburgh. “I got a backstage look at how to be a dominant NFL player, both from him and Derek [his fullback brother],” T.J. Watt said. “When J.J. got into the NFL, he always allowed us in to see everything — and not just the good stuff. I’d look at him and see a guy who ate the same cereal I ate, grew up the way I grew up, and if he did it, why couldn’t I do it? The blueprint was there.”
October 2020: Playing the right way.
Center Ben Jones: “I got drafted in 2012 by Houston, and I learned so much. I watched J.J., Duane Brown, Andre Johnson put everything into the game. Their sleep, the food they ate, massages, and offseason work. Your body makes your money. Treat it right. And that year, I played right guard, and my welcome-to-the-NFL thing was blocking him every day at practice. He made my life miserable. But he made me better, a lot better.
“When I left for Tennessee [in 2016 in free-agency], we stayed close. But playing him, the gameplan was always all about him. We’d have dummy calls because he studied our calls and knew them. We’d call ‘Deuce!’ That was a double-team on J.J. We’d have ‘Watt Checks.’ ‘Oscar’ was the call we’d make to run away from him, and we used that a lot. But he was just. Never predictable. That made it hard to play him. Our thought was, he’s gonna make the freak play here and there — don’t let him disrupt the whole game.
“My story about J.J. … I have a picture from a game in 2020 when I’m in Tennessee and we play played a wild game against Houston.”
The Texans scored to go up by seven, but failed on a two-point conversion with two minutes left. Tennessee scored on a long drive to send it to overtime, then scored on a long drive on the first possession of OT to win. Watt played every snap of those two drives.
Jones: “So this picture I have: There’s J.J., on one knee in the end zone, totally exhausted, and our team is celebrating this big win. I see him, and I go over to him. I put my arm around him and I say, ‘You poured it all out there. You gave it your all.’ I mean, we’re family. The raw emotion there, I’ll never forget it.”
The Gaudelli impact
After 33 years of producing big games and innovating things like the first-down line, Gaudelli, 62, will move out of the production truck and into a less-frenetic full-time executive producer gig for NBC and for Amazon Prime. The all-consuming way Gaudelli did the job — including honchoing the schedule with the league, fighting for the best games — took a toll on him. “These jobs aren’t conducive to great health,” he said Saturday.
Gaudelli produced 33 years worth of prime-time football — 11 on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, five on ABC’s Monday Night Football, 16 on NBC’s Sunday Night Football and this season on the first year of a streaming series on Amazon. It’s this last season that, to me, is especially notable.
Thursday night on Amazon Prime Video was a big jump for the NFL. Goodell compares it to the NFL equalizing revenue-sharing in the early sixties, putting games on cable in the eighties, launching satellite and DirecTV deals in the nineties. To Goodell, in 2022, one person was best suited to usher in a new media product and the streaming principle: Gaudelli.
With cable and satellite TV in decline, Goodell knew how important year one of Amazon was. “Streaming,” he told me, “really had to be done. I’ve often said I think it’ll change the way people watch football. There are all kinds of elements with that launch. But the production was one where for credibility purposes, we knew that it had to be true — that’s the best way to put it for me. It had to be when NFL fans watched, they said, ‘Wow, this is great. This is a first-rate experience.’
“So, going into the season, Amazon was maybe the highest priority from a media standpoint for us — making sure that launched properly. Knowing that Freddie was in the seat…that part of the launch was not a concern of mine. It was comfort. I knew he knew what to do, how to do it and I knew he was going to produce a fantastic product for our fans. That was really one of the most significant things for me in discussions with Amazon even before the deal was over.”
Goodell used the word “true.” Over the years, I’ve admired how Gaudelli was “true” on what was sometimes a tightrope. The networks and the league have a close and symbiotic partnership; it’s in the league’s best interests for the networks to show games in a positive light. But Gaudelli has shown his journalistic side too. Gaudelli told me, “You’re always walking that line with the league, but with all due respect to the league, we’re there to serve the fans.”
Twice this year Gaudelli walked the line on Amazon Prime games. In week four, Miami at Cincinnati, one storyline going in was that, four days earlier, Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had been staggered after a first-half hit, came out for a bit, then returned to play after halftime. In Cincinnati, he was staggered again after a blow, and his fingers stretched out in an unusual grasping form. Gaudelli showed the odd Tua hand reaction, went to break, then asked his sports medicine consultant, Mike Ryan, what it meant. Ryan said it could be a sign of neurological trauma. Gaudelli passed the info in to play-by-play man Al Michaels’ ear from the truck and said he was going to show the replay once coming out of the break, and Michaels should use the medical information.
Gaudelli heard from the league, which was displeased about the graphic replay, which went viral. But if Goodell wants “true,” Tagovailoa in the fencing posture had to be shown. Not over and over and over, but once or twice. Gaudelli knew it.
“You can’t sanitize football,” Gaudelli said, and that should be very high in his obituary in 40 or 50 years.
The next Thursday, Amazon had a stinker between two disappointing teams, Indianapolis at Denver. The Broncos were hapless on offense, and Russell Wilson threw two fourth-quarter interceptions, and the game went to overtime tied at 9. Fans started streaming out of Invesco Field. Fans leaving an overtime game — in Denver, one of the hotbeds of the NFL game? Inconceivable.
Gaudelli showed multiple shots of fans streaming for the exits, and even one outside showing a sea of people leaving the stadium. My first thought: The league’s not going to like that. My second thought: The Broncos will hate that.
“That’s what live television is all about,” Gaudelli said. “You’ve got to cover what’s happening, all of it.”
I asked Goodell about that aspect of Gaudelli’s game coverage. “Listen, there’s probably lots of things we wish he wouldn’t have done or shown,” Goodell said. “If you ask him, his standard would be, ‘That’s my obligation to be able to do that.’ I would never ask him to back down on something he thought was an obligation. That’s where you have that trust. Fred’s in the seat and Fred will manage it well.
“At the end of the day, you knew the guy was the best in the business. He was going to make sure your product was better and what else could you ask for ultimately, right?”
At Amazon, Gaudelli continued to give games, even bad ones, the big-game feel. Over the years, that’s been one of his strengths. Working with Michaels and John Madden, and then with Cris Collinsworth, Gaudelli never skated by — it was a mutual thing. Michaels, Madden and Collinsworth were worker bees, and one of the reasons Gaudelli is stepping away is he knows there’s only one way to do the job of producing a national TV game that millions watch. “The only time I ever shut it off is when I go to bed,” he said. He calls his desire to know every factoid about a game he can learn a “curiosity addiction.”
That has bled into the brains of two generations of people in trucks, at ESPN, ABC, NBC and now Amazon. One peer at NBC said Gaudelli’s lasting legacy should be teaching tens of young TV people the right way to do games — with smart details, looking to innovate each year. For his part, Gaudelli’s thankful he was hired 16 years ago by Dick Ebersol to start Sunday Night Football; Ebersol, he said, provided “a masters class in life and business.”
“If you’d asked me at 18, ‘How do you want your career to go?’ I couldn’t have written it any better,” he said. Good way to go out.