Michael Lombardi is a former NFL general manager and three-time Super Bowl champion, an NFL analyst, and a best-selling author as well.
A New Jersey native, Michael’s new book Football Done Right: Setting the Record Straight On the Coaches, Players, and History of the NFL offers thoughtful insight into the history of the game, the top 100 players of all time, and a revolutionary idea on who should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
JIM MONAGHAN – He’s a former general manager with a number of Super Bowl rings to his title, an NFL analyst and an author as well. Michael Lombardi, good morning and welcome to WDHA.
MICHAEL LOMBARDI – Good morning. It’s always good to be in Jersey. I love it. You know, I appreciate it. I am a product of, as I wrote in my book, I am from the Church of Springsteen. So anything that comes happens with Jersey, I am delighted to do.
JM – You know, let me go to the Bruce Springsteen comparison since you brought it up. You made an interesting comparison between Tom Brady and Bruce Springsteen in the brand new book, by the way, which is called Football Done Right. Tell our listeners about that.
ML – Well, you know, my first book I wrote about Springsteen’s incredible ability. As a 15-year old kid. I saw him sing “Born to Run,” and it was the first time I really ever heard it live. And when I was in Florence, Italy, in 2013, as a 52-year old man, I heard him do it again, and I’ve heard him do it numerous times, and it sounded like the first time with the same enthusiasm, the same passion, the same vibrancy. Malcolm Gladwell talks about 10,000 hours. You got to put 10,000 hours into something. But I think he left us short. I think he put a period on the sentence too soon. You also have to have that Born to Run enthusiasm, that ability to do things over and over again with passion. And that’s Brady. Brady can do it. He doesn’t get bored. Springsteen doesn’t get bored. I mean, he plays the songs as if you’ve never heard him before. And he has that ability, and that’s a rare competitive trait to hold on to. And I think Brady does it. I think the greats, the true greats – and Springsteen’s great – they have that quality. And so I call it the Born To Run Theory. You know it’s just you got to do it. Sinatra got tired of singing “New York, New York” you know, he got tired of singing “My Way.” People get bored. It’s one of the things that you fight against as a leader, you fight against as a human.
JM – In your new book, in fact, Tom Brady is the number one of the top 100 players of all time. And I’m not surprised by that. What kind of surprised me, though, Michael, in a league that’s been dominated by quarterbacks for at least 30, if not more years, only one other quarterback made the top ten. And it wasn’t anybody named Montana, Peyton Manning, even Aaron Rogers, who’s obviously still playing.
ML – Yeah, I went back and watched a lot of Johnny Unitas as a young executive in the league. I put my giant foot in my mouth and I was doing a program with Ernie Accorsi, who I worked with and for in Cleveland, and Steve Sabol at NFL Films down in Morristown, and we were talking about quarterbacks, and I arrogantly said, as if I knew it all, “Well, Unitas couldn’t play today, he’s too slow.” And they looked at me like I had some kind of leprosy. And so they said, you’re wrong. Watch. Go back and watch. And I did. And I fell in love with the player. What I learned about the NFL is being quick-minded is better than being quick-footed. And when you can make rapid decisions and you can throw the ball with incredible accuracy, understanding, to me, the separation between Johnny U and Peyton and Montana is nobody protected Johnny U. He got the crap beat out of him. He had an innate sense of toughness because he was going to get killed. Those quarterbacks in the 60’s and 70’s, they took a beating. No rules protected them. And I’m not saying Peyton wasn’t tough or Joe wasn’t tough, who I watched, I just think it was a harder game. Remember, Unitas called all his plays. He went onto the field, he called the plays, he ran the plays, he did everything. And he still got the crap beat out of him because the rules…offensive lineman had to block like this, right? There was no pass protection, I mean, you know, the Red Bank native, former Red Bank Catholic head coach Vince Lombardi said, you know, Bart Starr got sacked nine times in the Ice Bowl. What do you think talk radio would have done to Lombardi after Starr got sacked nine times, right? They would have killed him. “Lombardi, he doesn’t know anything about pass protection. He’s an idiot. Send him back to Red Bank Catholic,” you know, but they rules. It was the rules. And I think Unitas, had he played i na game like today, he would dominate today. He would be quick-minded, he would be unbelievable because he had that ability.
JM – Michael Lombardi is my guest here at 105.5 WDHA. The new book Football Done Right: Setting the Record Straight On the Coaches, Players and History of the NFL. Staying with Unitas and calling his own plays, you talk early on in the book about how there were players who were also coaches, and you mentioned Curly Lambeau and George Halas. And I think of a guy like Unitas who was calling his own plays, and then players would often say, that Peyton Manning on the field, it was like having another coach. Same with a guy like Tom Brady. They just saw the game differently than so many of the other players.
ML – You know, I fought with my editor on this one. When I was writing up Manning, every time I watch The Bourne Identity or one of the first Bourne one with Matt Damon, and he’s sitting in that restaurant and he doesn’t understand why he knows what he knows and what he sees. Sherlock Holmes talks about seeing and observing. Well, Damon in that playing Jason Bourne. He knew everything. I know the guy’s left-handed. I know this guy’s got a gun, he went through all these things in about a matter of seconds. And the woman that was sitting with him in the coffee shop was like, oh, my God, how do you know that? That’s how Manning processed. He was Jason Bourne. Like, he could come to the line of scrimmage and just all of a sudden and computer-like, sort all this data out in 25 seconds or less, and then make the right decision. It’s hard to do. That’s impossible. Montana, same thing. Brady unbelievable. I don’t think people understand how hard it is from the time the quarterback breaks the huddle till he sees everything, and then he decides. Why didn’t the Indianapolis Colts motion? Everybody loves motion. One of the stories I tell in the book is (Bill) Walsh was coaching for the Bengals, and Bob Trumpy lined up on the wrong side at tight end, and he moved over from left tight end to right tight end, and three people moved around on the defense. And Walsh said to Bill Johnson, maybe we should put wide motion in. That might confuse the defense. That’s how motion became effective. And so why didn’t the Colts use motion? The Colts didn’t use motion because Manning wanted the defense to sit still so we could figure out what the hell they were doing and if they were moving around. It hurt his process of uncovering the defense. And that’s a unique quality to have, and Unitas had it.
JM – Why do you think more players don’t go into coaching?
ML – It’s hard. A lot of hours. The money’s good now, but you got to really put the time in. I don’t think players understand how hard it is and how much, as Al Davis told me and I write in the first chapter in the introduction of the book, you know, you don’t work in the NFL. You got to live in it. I mean, you live in it, and it takes a toll on you. It really does. I was fortunate enough to have a great wife and raise two boys who are now in coaching themselves. It’s hard. It’s a hard profession to do, and it takes a lot of time. And usually players have made so much money, they’d rather dabble in the stock market and watch their money grow than work 18, 19 hours a day.
JM – It’s obviously a little early in the college football season, but your thoughts on Dion Sanders, who was a remarkable athlete, played both sides of the ball in football, a great baseball player as well. What are your thoughts on him?
ML – I’ve been fortunate enough to be around some incredible people, and one of this most incredible people is a man by the name of George Raveling, who was a former basketball coach at Iowa, Washington State and USC. He was on the stage when Martin Luther King gave the (“I Have A Dream”) speech, and when Martin Luther King came off the stage, Coach Raveling asked Dr. King if he could have a copy of that speech, and he gave it to him. And he’s owned the speech up until two years ago. And we started a website called The Daily Coach because we believe everybody needs a coach. It’s a free newsletter that goes out to everybody. And we wrote about Dion. And what happens to a lot of us is we get a perception, we label people, and Dion’s easy to label. Flashy, diamonds, talks, we label him that way. But at the core of who Dion is as a leader, he’s old school, holds people accountable, demanding, pushes for excellence from his people, has a message. Great storyteller, right? One of the things that Lombardi learned, and I write about it in the book, from Earl Red Blaik after he left Fordham to go to work at West Point, was the power of how was he going to be a leader, what kind of leader was he going to become? And storytelling really tells the tale of leadership, and I think that’s where Dion excels.
JM – Michael Lombardi is my guest here at 105.5 WDHA. Football Done Right is the name of his brand new book. There’s a section on television, and obviously football and television are perfect together. I think of a guy like Tony Romo, and I think if you do a second edition of this book, I think you’re going to end up putting Romo in there. I watched, you know, his first couple of years as analyst, and he’s reading the defense as it’s out there and he’s telling you what’s going to happen. And that was something revolutionary that I don’t recall anybody ever doing.
ML – No, I mean, (John) Madden didn’t even do it. I think what Romo proves and what I try to write about in terms of (Howard) Cosell and Bret Musberger and Madden is that the fans have an insatiable appetite to peel back the layer, to learn about what’s going on before the ball is snapped and what could happen after the ball is snapped. We don’t get enough of that. We spend too much time talking about stories, talking about the player, where he’s from, yada, yada, yada. The fans want to know the chess part of football. And Cosell, when he first went to ABC, nobody wanted football on television. Here’s how interesting it is. Monday nights in America in 1971 was dominated by appointment television. CBS had Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy, Andy Griffith. NBC had Rowan and Martin, Doris Day. And bowling leagues were the most popular thing in sport in the world. Everybody was in a bowling league. And Monday night was bowling night. Well, when Monday Night Football came rolling around on ABC with Howard Cosell, people stopped bowling. People stopped watching Gunsmoke. People stopped watching Rowan and Martin.T hey tuned into Howard because Howard was going to say something. And 50% of the switchboard lit up with people that hated him. 50% loved him because he actually said something. Why do we love Barkley today? Why does everybody love (Charles) Barkley? It’s really not hard. You love Barkley because he’s honest, he’s authentic. He says what he thinks. And yet no one models themselves after Barkley. They try to patronize everybody. And Cosell called it “jockocracy,” where former jocks are now protecting new jocks. And he thought that was wrong. And I think by his popularity, that was correct. Think about this. He had his own show called Saturday Night Live. That was before NBC’s) Saturday Night Live. He gave it to Saturday Night Live. He introduced Sinatra at the Garden in front of20,000 people when Sinatra came out of retirement. That’s a powerful figure.
JM – Yeah. Truly larger than life. No question about it.
ML – Yeah. And that’s what advanced the game. The power of Cosell, Musburger, bringing betting into it. Right. He’s got Jimmy the Greek standing next to him. And people want to bet on the games. I mean, we’re in Jersey, right? We all know that every construction site had cards for games, right? People passing them out left and right. I didn’t gamble, but I can remember my Uncle Frank. He used to come around with all these cards you put a dollar in, you’d circle all the plays and everybody wanted to bet. But when he put Greek on TV, all of a sudden things changed. The Sports Phone. Nobody remembers the Sports Phone. Right. Macy started the Santa Claus hotline in ’64 and they had kids call Santa Claus and tell them what they wanted. Well, it broke the New York system. It broke the phone system in New York. And years later, a guy bought that line and he put the sports phone in because we couldn’t get scores and betters wanted to know up-to-the-minute scores and he was able to deliver.
JM – I never knew that. I knew a bunch of guys who worked at Sports Phone.I never knew that about the history of it, though. That’s amazing.
ML – It’s unbelievable, right? And it all came from Macy’s. Macy’s had the idea of, call Santa and tell him what you want. They destroyed the phone system in New York, went caput.
JM – Michael Lombardi is with us this morning at 105.5 WDHA. Football Done Right: Setting the Record Straight On Coaches, Players and History of the NFL is his brand new book. Christian Fauria, who won a couple of Super Bowls, a tight end with the New England Patriots, among some other teams he played for, he has said in a couple of different interviews, Michael, that everybody has the same plays, they all run the same routes. Why do some offenses appear to be more complex than others?
ML – Because the ones that are the complex start with simplicity. Einstein has five levels of intelligence, and everybody thinks the number one level of intelligence is brilliance, right? No, for Einstein, the number one level of intelligence was simple. So when you start with a simple concept and you start with simple plays every week, you can become more complex because what happens is the players know what todo and then they adjust to the week. So if you study (Bill) Belichick, he starts with simplicity and ends up going to complexity. But when you start with complexity, you can’t get to simple, and that’s really what happens. Dan Henning told me a long time ago, if you don’t have any tendencies, you’re not any good. And that’s about everything we do in life. If you don’t have any tendencies, you’re not going to get any good. Because the more you can repeat things, the better off you are.
JM – The book is really a terrific read and it’s an interesting take on the history cut down into different levels, whether it’s the top 100 players or talking about coaching and what have you. You talk about George Seifert in the book and he is not – I was surprised to learn this – not in Canton. How much of that do you think is because he’s the guy who followed the legend, Bill Walsh?
ML – For all the reasons. And then when he went to Carolina, he didn’t win. And so it’s easy for people to say, well, see, he didn’t win. He only won because of Walsh. See how hard of a job it is to take over for Bill Walsh? How many people after they took over for Bear Bryant have suffered? How many coaches have taken over for Don Shula that couldn’t win? I mean, it’s hard. Guy won three Super Bowls. They’re not going to give many credit. I found it really hard to understand. I think the whole coaching thing is wrong. That’s why I put a criteria in place, because if you don’t have it, how do you accept people? One thing I learned in scouting, scouting is about elimination. You have to have a criteria. And if people don’t fit the criteria, they don’t get in. Everybody thinks scouting is about finding oh, I’m going to find a about it’s about elimination. So when you set a criteria that eliminates certain people and now you’re not debating over, does this guy work? Does this guy not work? And I think some of these coaches, Marty Schottenheimer is the 8th winningest coach in NFL history. He’s got a 61% winning percentage. He can’t get a sniff. He can’t get a sniff to get in the Hall of Fame. Now, so we put it in perspective. There’s over 500 gentlemen that have called themselves head coaches over the history of this league. Nine of them have 200 Wins or more. Nine out of 500. You belong in the Hall.
JM – You talk in that section, by the way, “The Lombardi Criteria of Coaching,” number six, I believe is game-changing impact. Looking now at the game and who’s coaching now in the coaching ranks, who do you see that might be one of those game-changing coaches?
ML – Well, I think Kyle Shanahan up at San Francisco through his dad is kind of we’re going to start to see is positionalist football, right? We’re no longer… everyone is complaining about the running backs not getting paid. Well, running backs would get paid if they didn’t have a position, if they were part receiver, part running back, if they are like McCaffrey, who can line up in the slot and one routes, or if they can run from the inside run game. Positionless game is where we’re going. But one of the things that struck me, and it has influenced me since the day I watched it, Belichick and I are at a Cleveland Cavaliers game in Cleveland, and they’re playing the Bulls, and we are fortunate enough to sit behind the Bulls bench. And Phil Jackson’s the coach, and they’ve got the great team. And the Cavaliers are really good. Lenny Wilkins is coaching. They got, you know, Brad Dougherty, Larry Nance. They’re really good. And I watched Jackson, and whenever Lenny would substitute, Jackson would put his fingers and do that whistle that he used to always do. And he would move Jordan from the off guard from the two to the three and move Pippen from the three to the one. And now Lenny had a substitute to get the right matchups. So he was substituting, Jackson, without substituting. And that’s the essence of great. This is when you can substitute without substituting. When you can leave one set of players on the field and they all play different positions, you got something special. You knew the Patriots. The Patriots, when they had Gronk (Rob Gronkowski) and Aaron Hernandez, they were what we call a twelve team, one back, two tight ends. But Hernandez lined up in the backfield, Gronk lined up as a receiver. And so how do you match up to that? How do you handle that? And how do you know when they’re going to do that? See, that’s simple. But for the defense, it becomes complex.
JM – And to go back to your top 100 players we were just talking about game changing in terms of “The Lombardi Criteria,” number two player of all time. And this was not a surprise. And Giants fans here should know Lawrence Taylor because he changed the game. One of the few players in the history of the game to change the game.
ML – He changed the blocking scheme. I mean, it’s funny. Belichick did an interview the other day on long snappers, and one of the reporters asked him, why do you carry a position just for long snappers? And Belichick went through the whole history of onyx of long snapping, which was great, but he left out a part that he contributed to, too. He made Lawrence Taylor the gunner. And when Lawrence Taylor is coming after you as the gunner chasing you…. Then Parcels actually got mad because then the Washington Redskins made Dexter Manley the gunner, and Charles Man. All of a sudden, people started putting these big guys outside of Gunner. He’s like, see, if you didn’t do that, nobody would have copied know but Lawrence Taylor. I mean, it’s comical how people don’t truly understand when somebody compares Micah Parsons to him. And Micah Parsons is a really good player. I’m not suggesting that, but you’re not going to see another Lawrence Taylor for a long, long time. This is somebody that played the game with that Springsteen passion with unique talent.
JM – Michael, for listeners who want to get a hold of The Daily Coach that you referenced a little earlier in the interview, how do they do that?
ML – We’re online www.thedailyperiodcoach.com or search “Michael Lombardi, Daily Coach.” You’ll find us, we’re there. We write a morning email. It hits your inbox at 7 o’clock. We’ve got 35,000 email subscribers currently now, and we have about a 45% open rate, which we’re doing good. So we try to coach. Rav and I were both sitting around a lunch table one day, and we were both reading Bill Campbell’s book called The Trillion Dollar Coach. And Bill Campbell used to be the former college football coach at Columbia, and Rav and I looked at each other and said, you know, we all need a coach. Everybody needs a coach in their life. And so hopefully our website provides you with a little bit of coaching every morning.
JM – The book is called Football Done Right: Setting the Record Straight On the Coaches, Players and History of the NFL. If you want to follow him on Twitter or X, whatever we’re calling it these days, it’s @mlombardiNFL. Michael, thank you so much for your time here on WDHA. The book is a wonderful read.
ML – Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me.