Q/A with John Clayton: His 24/7 study (obsession) of football; That’s what I do

Note: I’m going to be out for a couple of weeks. However, I’m leaving behind some gifts for the holidays: The best of my Q/As. I’ll feature a new one each day through Jan. 2. Please check in. Happy Holidays to all.


Posted on Sept. 17

Here is what’s more amazing than John Clayton becoming a YouTube sensation (more than 2 million views) with his new ESPN SportCenter ad: The fact that he even took a day off to shoot the ad.

Clayton rarely takes days off. Maybe 10, 15 tops, all year, he says.

The truth is, a day off separates him for doing what he truly loves: Studying football.

Study, not cover, is exactly what he does for ESPN. Hence, his nickname, “The Professor.”

I always have been fascinated by Clayton. In Chicago, he does a weekly report on Wednesday at 4 p.m. on WMVP-AM 1000, the ESPN-owned sports talk station. I am continually astounded at his knowledge and his ability to name players buried deep on a team’s depth chart

How does Clayton do that?

I now know how after talking to Clayton late last week. His schedule is insane. For instance, after covering the Atlanta-Kansas City game during week 1, Clayton woke at 3 a.m. the next morning so he can begin watching replays of the other games prior to going to the airport.

Note: Our interview was interrupted twice because he had to takes call from NFL front office people. No doubt, calling him for information.

Here it is:

Who is the third string running back on the Bears?

They just made the change. Remember, they had Kahlil Bell, and they cut him. They made the adjustment with Armando Allen, who they brought up.

How do you keep track of all that? You’re talking about a guy who barely gets on the field. Do you have photographic memory?

Oh, well. Any free moment I have, I study it.That’s what I try to do. I’m even doing more things this year than I ever have before. I find it so essential to do.

I want to know everything I can about a roster. Everything.

I keep track of every contract in the league. I have every roster in the league. I make sure my rosters are updated every day.

I have these databases. One data base has every salary of every player, every age of every player, every height and weight of every player, every year of experience, every entry level.

What I do with the salaries I build a program, takes the salaries and add them up. I have the proration of their signing bonuses, and the money they are likely to earn. I mix that all together so I can put together a salary cap number of every team in the league.

Second data base: How they were built. I’ll have the name of the player; what year he came into the league and position he plays. I can keep track of whether the team is too old, how many new players they have.

I keep track of the inactives on Sunday…

Why do you need to know all this?

Because that’s what I do.

Not everybody does this.

OK, do I follow the salary of a player because I care about what he makes? No. A decision is made for that guy to make that salary. What does it mean that you have a back up who is making $2 million? Well, before the start of the season, they’re going to come to him and ask for a pay cut. You know going in, certain guys are going to go.

If you’re above the cap, you know Kyle Vanden Bosch is going to redo his contract to give (the Lions) cap room.

I also need to know who is the third receiver. When I talk about fantasy receivers, how do they use those guys? People want to know.

You live in Seattle. Nothing is close to you besides the Seahawks. Why do you feel you have to be at a game every Sunday as opposed to watching all of them on DirecTV?

To me, it’s the best way to get a feel for football and finding the changes and finding the trends. The game changes to a certain degree every 3 or 4 weeks. I’m at the game and I’m watching every game. I’ve got the iPad.

When you’re at the game, you get a full view of what’s going on and the immediacy of going down to the lockerroom and answering those questions. You don’t have the ability to ask those questions if you’re sitting at home.

I go to Atlanta-KC. I see what I see. Then I have the ability to go over to Matt Ryan and talk about what he’s doing with his offense; get a feel for the Chiefs.

I’d go to 32 training camps if they let me. When you’re watching practice, I’m pretty intense about following everything. You watching and saying, ‘this guy is in good shape, this guy has lost some speed…’ You’re putting that all in perspective and you have the immediacy of asking somebody.

Do you watch every game eventually?

Before I’d tape every game I could. Now thanks to NFL.com, they have the digital version of every game in 30 minutes. So literally in KC, I got up at 3 on Monday morning. I watched four games at the hotel. Went to the airport and watched three more. I had seven games done by the time I flew back home. When I got home, I watched the rest.

Does anyone do what you do?

The teams are. If teams are doing it, and if I can get in the heads of the teams, it might help me out a little bit.

You go, ‘All of the sudden. Wait a second. If the fourth round pick is ahead of the third round pick, then you start to realize maybe the third-round pick is being phased out.’

Do you have GMs hitting you up for information?


How do the players treat you? I imagine it is different than when you were covering the NFL as a newspaper reporter.

In 2000, ESPN did a Clayton Across America. I went to 31 teams in 28 days. The top players would be nice enough to come over to you, particularly on teams 23 and 24. They were following me. They would come over and say, ‘Hey John, I know you must be really tired. Do you need me for anything?’

I always do the Inside the Huddle notebook, because I’m trying to stay on top of trends. Once I started doing that segment, the top players on the teams were so cooperative. They would tell the little things they were doing differently. What trends they spotted.

If you’re a negative, ripping person, they’ll like you or hate you. I am what I am. I try to find the trends and do the most honest job I can. For whatever reason, that’s gone over well. Most of the top players are good to me when I see them or need them.

So what’s your daily routine?

I get up every day at 4,5,6. I try to go as long as I can before I get fatigued.

How much writing do you do?

Today, I did 3,500 words. Tomorrow, I’ll do about 1,400 words.

Do you ever see your wife?

Every Friday night is date night. As soon as I get done with my last segment, I take her out.

Do you ever take any days off?

Year round, maybe take 10-15 days off. It’s a seven-day-a-week job.

Do you feel if you did anything less, you’d be slacking off?

I would, yeah. What it all comes down to is that even though I’ve been doing this for a long period of time, I’m trying to always reinvent myself. I’m trying to get better. You can only get better when there’s so much new information out there.

You really love this, don’t you?

My only goal in life was to be an NFL beat writer for a team. Now instead of doing it for one team, I get to do it for 32 teams.

It’s phenomenal how much fun it can be. There’s so much information out there. I would like to do more with the numbers from a sabemetrics perspective. Sort of like what they do for baseball. Could I find a wins against replacement number for a QB, WR, Offensive tackle? I can see things visually, but I’d like to translate them into numbers.

It’s a fantastic job, and it’s only getting better.

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