18 Questions with Paul Kuharsky

Over the past year, ESPN’s AFC South blog has become a daily stop for Colts fans.  Paul Kuharsky brings insight and commentary from around the division home on a daily basis.  He was incredibly gracious to give us his time this week.

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1.  What is the best (defined however you choose) rivalry in the AFC
South?

a.  Colts Jags

b.  Colts Titans

c.  Jags Titans

d.  Jags Texans

Jags-Texans is fun because of how Houston’s gotten under Jacksonville’s
skin. But how could it be anything but Colts-Titans considering they are the
only two teams to win the division since it was created?

2.  If Vince Young doesn’t get hurt at the start of the 08 season, do
the Titans still win the division?

Well, you’re giving me an out there because he wasn’t demoted because of the
injury, it was just an easy way to dress it up. He was demoted because, right
before he got hurt, he asked out of the opener when things weren’t going well
and he was getting booed. That was a final-straw deal for the coaches, who felt
they had to make a change. So I can say yes, the Titans would have had the same
season had he not gotten hurt, because Kerry Collins was getting elevated that
week as a result of Young’s behavior.

But what you are asking me is, if Young played a bit deeper into the season,
would the Titans have been able to go 13-3. I think they could have been 3-0
with him. If he was still in there for Minnesota in Week Four, my thinking is
they would have been 3-1 instead of 4-0 and, yes, the division door would have
remained open for the Colts to overtake Tennessee down the line.

3.  I’ve gathered from recent chats that you are a soccer fan or at
least a follower.  I live in Argentina,
and therefore am morally obligated to watch futbol.  Tell our readers something about recent team
USA game in Nashville versus Trinidad and Tobago and give them a reason to
watch USA soccer.

It was a great game that, with the hat trick from Jozy Altidore, gives us
hope we may be finding what we are always missing – a consistent finisher. I
understand people who don’t like soccer, and I am not a force-it-down your
throat guy. But even friends who don’t care for it concede the World Cup is an
incredible event to watch.

Part of the appeal of the U.S. National Team is that we are not the
establishment like we are in so many other sports, we are trying to nose in on
the establishment. We have some budding guys who have that sell-the-sport
mentality and possess real-people qualities. They are not giants. They are not
rich. They are a lot closer to me and you than any professional football,
baseball or basketball player. I love the tension. And I like big things. If
you think the SEC is the be-all and end-all of the sports world, well you’re
talking a regional college conference and in the discussion of the World Cup,
the word “world” is used honestly and accurately.

FYI, I peeked into Boca Juniors HQ when I visited Buenos Aires (great city) and
I have picked Argentina to win the World Cup in at least the last two
go-rounds. What the heck happened in that recent qualifier against Bolivia?

Editor’s note:  We are not going to mention the Bolivia game.  It never happened.  Do you hear me?  IT NEVER HAPPENED!

4.  Describe a regular in-season work week?  How often do you make
it to each of the four cities?

You’re trying to cure reader insomnia, huh?

Monday morning I’m online at home or a hotel, surfing through everything
written off games involving Colts, Jags, Texans and Titans. I’m most interested
in stuff that explains how and why something unfolded as it did and in columns
and opinions, but I try to be thorough and link to all coverage and analysis if
time allows. If I didn’t cover the Titans at home, then I am usually on a
flight back to Nashville. I’ll touch on something I’ve kept from the game I
covered to consider more, maybe after seeing some replays. After everyone has
played, I do a blog entry called “What I think they’re thinking” where I try to
get in the head of each of the teams.

Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday aren’t distinct enough that you want a blow-by-blow,
trust me. I’m on the phone. I’m reading transcripts. I’m at the Titans facility
a couple times for open locker room and to be around other writers. I’m on the
radio in Nashville three mornings a week for an hour and have some semi-regular
spots in the other AFC South cities. I love visiting with Kravitz & Eddie.

Weekly benchmarks: A column post, my longest of the week, shows up Thursday,
and my weekly chat is also Thursday – at 3 p.m. ET. Those are both pretty much
year round. (Come early and often to the chat, I urge people, your boss told me
it’s OK). Friday’s posts include what we called “Audibles” last year, a take on
each game coming up.

Saturday usually includes a flight, and ideally I’ll post something from
wherever I am going once I get there to help set the stage.

Then Sundays start quite early – I do some more Nashville radio and am
hopefully at the stadium at least two hours ahead of kickoff. I try to see
game-time decision guys warming up. I try to hear the audio of the game
broadcast on a little TV I have with me – but reception at some places like LOS
is rough. (I know, I know, others have the DirectTV and/or Slingbox which puts
everything on their laptop. I am a Comcast subscriber who is not there yet.) I
do some entries during the game on things that strike me as begging for comment
and I fire off a what-did-it-mean “Rapid Reaction” as soon as it’s over. Then
to the locker room where I try to stay off the beaten path if I can. Back in
the press box I check on what’s happened in my other games and touch on them,
then write as much as I feel the game I watched warrants. That’s the best part
of the week. Then, back to the hotel for a late dinner with an eye on the late
game and three alarms set to ensure I am on time Monday morning to surf and
catch that flight.

And… you can wake up now.

5.  You used to be a beat writer for the Titans, correct?  Compare
and contrast that job with what you do now for ESPN?  As more and more
newspapers fold, are the divisional ‘bloggers’ the first steps toward ESPN
assigning beat writers to each team?

I covered the 1995 Raiders for the Oakland Tribune, then was the lead guy
for The Tennessean on Oilers/ Titans from 1996 through 2000. After that I was
still very involved in the paper’s coverage, but not as the primary person.
Then last summer I moved to ESPN.com.

As a beat writer, you constantly worry about news and have to be on top of
everything. You ask the same question for weeks or months to monitor things and
be sure they don’t creep up on you or pop up elsewhere. You field story ideas
from high-level editors who want to get involved and you often have to be
creative at addressing what they want in some sort of manageable fashion.

In my current role, if I get news, ESPN.com is happy of course, but I take
it to a completely different set of editors than my regular stuff flows
through. And my primary job isn’t to break news, it’s to quickly tell you what
it means. I get some ideas from editors, who are all well-versed in the NFL,
and I usually welcome them as there are times when the faucet can run a little
dry.

I can’t speak to ESPN’s plans – that’s at least 25 levels above my pay
grade. But clearly as newspapers fade – a sad thing to watch for a guy that
expected to have a full career as a newspaper man — there is going to be
increasing room for people with roots in beats to do jobs like mine. I couldn’t
have been more fortunate to get one of these jobs as ESPN.com started the blog
network concept.

6.  You get questions and comments from all four division teams. 
Which team has the most knowledgeable fans?  Which has the most ‘engaged’
fans (by volume of email)?

Volume of email winner is Tennessee – because a lot of Titans fans have read
me for a long time, because I am based in Nashville, because I spout off on the
radio here and because having followed the franchise since 1996, I obviously
know its history and behavior patterns best – in part because Jeff Fisher’s
been in place from my first day on the team.

I can’t rank the fan bases on a knowledgeable scale. I can tell you this -
it’s amazing how smart the smart fans of every team are. PhD smart. They can
tell you salary cap wrinkles and that so-and-so flipped to strongside
linebacker against the Seahawks in the third-quarter in 2001 and what Player X in
the draft is a perfect fit to do in their scheme. I love hearing from those
people, and I appreciate that they can know stuff I can’t or don’t yet. It’s
also amazing the degree to which the much more casual and less engaged fan in
all four markets thinks a collection of guys his team would part with should
have been enough to lure Jay Cutler from the Broncos. Kerry Collins, LenDale
White and Bo Scaife to Denver should have done it, no?

7.  Are there a lot of Colts fans in Tennessee because of Peyton Manning? 
We’ve always had the impression that the Colts/Titans rivalry (which has always
been fierce) has been slightly dulled by Manning’s popularity in both states.

Early on after the team moved as people sorted through things there was some
of that conflict. But it did not take long for fans in Tennessee to cordon off
their pro allegiances from their college loyalty. UT fans will always hold
Manning in high regard, and they may like to see him do well, mostly apart from
those two games against the Titans and anything that might determine the
division winner. And there is a share of backlash for people that are tired of
seeing him in the playoffs and in commercials.

I think the rivalry was more dulled by the Colts winning seven consecutive
games against the Titans from 2003 to 2006.

8.  Your blog is very popular with Colts fans.  Sell us on what
the ESPN AFC South blog gives Colts fans that they can’t get anywhere
else.  Why should fans of the Horse stop by each day?

They should stop by a couple times a day. A couple good reasons:

–They can have a direct influence on the blog. If you send a good idea to
my mailbag, it may take me a few days, but there is a good chance it turns into
a blog entry crediting you for getting me started. Accessibility and interaction
are big parts of my job. People are usually surprised to hear back from me, but
I’d say 90 percent of the time they will. Have a suggestion, a critique, a
complaint, a good question you want someone specific to address? I’m your guy.
I’m a blogger with reporter roots and access. Make a comment on a post and I
may respond to it.

–The blog network is an evolving thing. I get to contribute ideas for what
we should and shouldn’t be and I have a strong voice when we consider certain
directions to go or not go and any tweaks in form or formula. Really, there is
no formula. I think that sort of new horizon mentality is refreshing,
especially when some papers haven’t been able to figure out how to change or
adapt to what readers want. NFL fans are thirsty for as much as they can get,
and we’ve pledged to let you drink. A lot. We are also not at all reluctant to
point you to someone else’s good work. In fact we are eager to do it.

–While it’s difficult in some slower pieces of the NFL calendar, I strive
to write something on every team every day and my hope is that it’s a take or a
spin that’s more columnist or analyst than beat guy or reporter. But ultimately
it will mix all of those things. I don’t fit into any of those conventional
boxes where I am limited to doing things one way. We are different kind of
bloggers, rooted in reporting bases and with accountability to the people we
write about. It’s the best of all worlds.

–You may not care much about the Jaguars, Texans and Titans, but the Colts
will play six of their 16 games against those teams and at the AFC South Blog
you’re going to find out a lot about them too.

–Two words: Door prizes.

9.  So now that you work for ESPN, how often do you make to the campus
in Bristol?  Do they have some kind of room where they store the athletes
in between using them for commercials?  Like some kind of cage where they
just force Andy Roddick to hang out with LeBron?

Not counting my interview trip, I’ve only been to Bristol once. I’m
scheduled for another trip in May. I think when bloggers are there, Mr. Met and
Big Red, that Western Kentucky blob mascot, are in charge of rounding up
athletes and mascots and getting them in that store room so we can’t see them.
Because if I saw Manning or Reggie Wayne there, I’d be compelled to do a blog
entry on it and that’s not how they roll at HQ.

10.  The Colts are notorious for favoring the national press over the
local press.  Do you feel like being with ESPN gets you any special
consideration from the club?

I’m with a national outlet, obviously, but in the blog network we are kind
of in niches of our own, not local but not quite national. I don’t think I get
any special treatment because of who I write for. Access-wise I get what they
think I deserve based on the questions I am asking and who I want to talk to.
How do they treat a regional guy? Bill Polian has been generous with his time
in wide-ranging sit downs or phone conversations I’ve had with him, but I try
not to over request. Player wise, they are a tough team to deal with from afar,
but they’re not obligated to help me out that way. When I have been there – in
Terre Haute, on West 56th Street or at LOS – I don’t recall missing
out on anyone I needed to get outside of some assistants in camp who declined.
Sure, I’d love for them to be more of a wide open media team. I can understand
why they are not.

11. Wouldn’t the Rams, Titans, Texans, and Colts make a better AFC
South?  Even if the Jags don’t move, shouldn’t they play in the NFC South
with Tampa, Atlanta, and Carolina?  New Orleans could move to the NFC
West, and Saint Louis to the AFC South.  How do you feel about
realignment?
 

I think you’re being too literal, and the geographical labels certainly
don’t always fit nicely. But those two divisional matchups a year create rivalries.
Do you think Texans-Rams creates much sense of rivalry in the early years when
Houston’s already got seven good years of battling the Jaguars and ticking off
Jacksonville? That’s my main case against realigning anything. If the Jaguars
wound up on the West Coast and the division then crossed multiple time zones,
then it would have to be adjusted.

12.  The Texans have been the ‘it’ team in the preseason for several
years.  Tell us why 2009 will see them finally become a threat in the
South, or why they will be the same 6 to 9 win team they always are?

The pro argument is that they will discover a new defensive identity with a
new coordinator, a couple new assistants, the addition of Antonio Smith, a
healthier Amobi Okoye and a draft class providing help. And that a healthy Matt
Schaub can be a top 10 quarterback who cuts down on turnovers and leads an
offense with excellent weapons in Andre Johnson and Steve Slaton.

The con argument is that they will continue to turn the ball over too much,
won’t be productive enough in the red zone, will have Schaub miss time hurt and
will continue to lack a defensive personality. If those things all linger,
their odds of closing the gap on Tennessee and Indy shrink. They had a big win
over the Titans last year and could have beaten the Colts. They have to be
better in division games to live up to any breakout-team expectations.

13.  We’ve been notoriously hard on Vince Young from the startStill, he was a media darling for awhile.  What happened?  Did
Young regress, or was he never really as good as the media made him out to
be?  Can he ever become even a Michael Vick level starting QB in the NFL?

He was never really as good as he was made out to be, though I am unwilling
to hang all of that on the media. Merrill Hoge wasn’t on board by any means.
Half of the people who graduated from Texas still seem unable to understand how
Young is not up there with Manning and Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.

Young regressed when he found out how hard the job actually was, but also
everyone figured out he doesn’t read defenses very well and eliminated the fear
factor. He lost the locker room very quickly and has offered no indication that
he “gets it.” The people around him, it seems, insulate him rather than
presenting him with a candid assessment. I’ll be surprised if he becomes any
kind of consistent starter in the league, and doubly surprised if that happens
in Tennessee.

14.  The Colts running game was a mess in 2008.  Who shoulders
more of the blame: the banged up offensive line or Joseph Addai?

It’s a share-the-blame situation. (Copout, I know.) Going forward, when we
see what they do at running back and on the line we may get a better sense of
what the team actually thinks was at fault. The line doesn’t get all the
blocking blame either. Didn’t Gijon Robinson whiff on a crucial play?

15.  Multiple choice question.  Zombie attacks most often result in:

a. Painful bites

b. Infection with Rage

c.  a concussion

d.  A loss of three yards.

Because I always wear a necklace of garlic when I am around the Colts, I
have managed to avoid finding out any of this for myself, though I have
witnessed several cases of D. Most amazing thing about your Zombie – when he
was sitting out training camp practices last summer in Terre Haute, if you
looked at him from a distance, he still looked like he was in pads.

16.  Which AFC South team is in the most trouble for 2009 unless they
really have a great draft?

The obvious answer is Jacksonville. Even with a really great draft, can the
Jaguars fill what I count to be at least six spots that they will need
contributions from?

17.  The Colts faced three incredibly difficult free-agent decisions
this year.  Jeff Saturday is an incredibly important member of the club,
but battled injuries and is in his 30s.  Kelvin Hayden has a knack for big
plays, but is a cover-2 corner and those are often expendable.  Marvin
Harrison was released after a Hall of Fame career.  How do you rate those
three moves?  Were they all the right call?

Yeah, I think all three were. Saturday would have been a huge loss – I don’t
care what they’ve brought in to train and have ready behind him. He’s a huge
cog in what they do and they need to sustain that as long as possible. I won’t
second-guess them if he doesn’t stay healthy. I think all of us have thought at
one point or another, that while they roll through linebackers and corners, at
some point for continuity sake they have to take one they believe is special
and keep him around, elevate him to a piece of the core. Hayden fit that for
them. And Harrison clearly wasn’t regarded as very threatening by opponents
very often last year. If his fade arrives and he’s still got impeccable timing
with Manning, etc., then you’d like to see them keep it together. But in a lot
of games I was at last year, they looked out of sync. If he’s losing speed and
burst and the ability to run away from anyone and that impeccable timing isn’t
a lock, I think you serve the team best by putting sentimentality aside and
making a smart business decision.

18.  Finish this sentence…The Indianapolis Colts will win the AFC South
in 2009 if…

If Manning plays like Manning and is sufficiently supplemented by the run
game and if the Titans have just a little more trouble without Albert
Haynesworth and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz than I am imagining they
will. Both are good teams that will look a lot like last year’s versions.
Pre-draft, I’m envisioning them neck-and-neck and I don’t imagine on April 27 I
all of a sudden see one of them as the clear favorite. If the league gives them
another regular-season finale game, this one could finally have serious stakes.

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