I had a chance to speak with Keith Cossrow, Coordinating Producer and showrunner for All or Nothing, NFL Films’ show about a year in the life of an NFL Franchise.
Last night, the second season of the show launched on Amazon Prime Video chronicling the Los Angeles Rams 2016 season.
I talked to Cossrow about the show, his role and how the series will move beyond Season 2.
How long have you been with NFL Films? Were you with the show from the conceptual phase prior to Season 1, and how did you come to be a part of this?
Yeah, I’ve been in charge of it from the get go, Season 1. I’ve been the showrunner for both seasons. I’ve been with NFL Films for 20 years since 1997, 20 seasons as we like to say.
So how did the idea of the show, prior to the Rams, how did that develop?
Since Hard Knocks was born, it was viewed as the Holy Grail. “When are you guys gonna do a Hard Knocks on the regular season?”
We always thought it was impossible, because the two things teams talk about most during the regular season are injuries and strategy. You just can’t show that stuff in real-time the way you do Hard Knocks where it’s the preseason with a different set of storylines that can be shared much easier.
So we thought, it’s never going to happen. And even if it does, it’s not going to be very good, because we won’t be able to show anything.
And then this [Arizona] Cardinals thing developed last year, and we started to figure out that maybe we could shoot the whole thing, not tell anybody because we didn’t know how it was gonna turn out, keep it a secret, put the whole thing together and then air the whole thing after the season was over betting that the content would be compelling enough and unique enough and the access would be extraordinary enough that people would be interested in watching it.
We found a partner in Amazon who aligned with that point of view and thought it would fit their audience and what they were looking to do with sports and original programming in the way they like to do on-demand streaming and bingeable content. We had never done a binge show before, so it was really exciting to get into this format with Amazon.
The rest is history.
We did the Cardinals season. It went spectacularly well. Amazon had great results, and it won the Emmy for Serialized Sports Documentary, and we were on to Season 2.
How did that transition work, going from the Cardinals to selecting the Rams? How did that happen?
Well, it’s always a challenge to pick a team whether it’s Hard Knocks or this.
Were you guys under the same constraints as Hard Knocks with the rules like no playoffs, no new head coach?
No, there are no rules for this. It’s so new...
The challenge last year was that nobody had seen the show when we were asking them if they want to do it. We said, “Well, we did this thing with the Cardinals, and it’s coming out soon.” You’re trying to get a team to agree to do it in the spring before they break up for the summer. And they’re all like, “Are you crazy? The Cardinals didn’t do that.” And we’re, “But they did! We swear! It’s going to drop on July 1st, and it’s going to be really cool!” And teams were like, “Well, call us next year. If it goes well with the Cardinals, maybe we’ll think about it.”
But one thing that was a big priority for the league last year was to document the Rams move to Los Angeles. We thought that their return home to Southern California was an historic story as the first relocation in a generation. More than that, it was the Rams coming back to LA. And it was something we all knew we needed to document. So we started documenting it from the time the move was announced.
Obviously, Hard Knocks happened. Hard Knocks, from a production standpoint and a relationship standpoint, went really well with [Head] Coach [Jeff] Fisher and with the team. They were very comfortable with our crew and trusted us. So we all agreed it would be an interesting proposition to stick around.
The crew, the footprint is much smaller for All or Nothing. We managed to get through this entire second season without anyone knowing what we were doing. That’s in large part because of how small the crew is. It’s by design. We don’t want people talking about this show during the season if we can avoid it.
The Rams were terrific to work with from the top down. [COO] Kevin Demoff, [General Manager] Les Snead, Jeff Fisher and his staff. The players were great.
And you know, the season started so well, and we thought, “Holy moly. We might’ve caught lightning in a bottle for the second time.”
And then it took a turn, and things changed.
You said you like to pick a team in the spring. Have you picked one for Season 3?
Not yet. We’re working on it, talking to a few teams. Hopefully, we’ll have one lined up pretty soon. When we do, we’ll probably keep it quiet for a while.
But it’s a long process and a serious decision for a team to make. We have to respect that process and go through it and have a lot of conversations with a lot of teams to get there.
You mentioned the 3-1 start. Things looking good. Was there a sense of how things were going to go for the season overall? Did you notice anything different about the Rams compared to the Cardinals from the showrunner’s standpoint?
No, nor did our directors in the field, Shannon Furman or Pat Harris.
No, we thought this team had a lot of talent. Obviously, there were questions on the offensive side of the ball, but the defense was so good. And they were playing genuinely good football that first quarter of the season.
It’s interesting if you go back as you watch the show even through London and even beyond that with the Carolina game, they were losing every one of those games on the last possession. You know, they could have very easily been 5-2 heading into their bye after London.
We might have very easily been talking about a different season.
Yeah, the line really often times seems tenuous. I do wonder what makes the difference between a winning and losing team, especially with the Cardinals season on the NFL Network right now. It’s just so hard to perceive the difference between a winning team and a losing team off the field.
Isn’t that so interesting though? I think that’s one of the real mysteries of the show is how fine that line is in the NFL.
We start this season out with the notion that what you’re about to see happens to 7 or 8 teams every year. And it’s not that these teams don’t have good players. It’s not that their coaches aren’t working their asses off every second of the day, sleeping in the office. It’s not that they’re not brilliant football coaches. They’re the very best in the world at this.
Twenty teams don’t make the playoffs! That is by definition a failure in this league where the expectation is to win every year. Thirty-one teams aren’t going to reach the ultimate goal. Twenty aren’t going to make the playoffs, and about a quarter of them are going to fire their entire coaching staff. Every single year.
And when you stop to consider that, you start to realize how much is at stake for these guys every single day when they come to work. Because if things don’t go well, lives are going to be upended. Families are going to have to relocate. Careers are going to end. It’s a totally different world when you begin to understand it from that perspective.
That’s why the title of the series is All or Nothing.
Yeah, I appreciated the framing with Fisher’s firing up front to start the entire season almost like Sunset Boulevard where we know what’s going to happen but it’s the process that’s most interesting.
I think people are going to walk into this wondering, “Are we going to see what happens really with Jeff Fisher and the coaching staff?” I think there’s that element of the elephant in the room, so I think it was important to give the audience a glimpse of that right out of the gate.
But you know, to go back to your original question about noticing anything different, the answer really is, “No.”
You probably experienced it binge-watching it, there’s not a moment where it’s like, “Oh man, it’s over.” They’re 3-1, and then they lose a close game, and then they lose another close game. It’s not like they did anything different. One different play each of those games and you’re 5-2 or 6-1.
That’s the NFL. It’s that close.
Instead, you’re 3-4. Your offense is really struggling. You’ve got a fan base that wants to see their rookie quarterback. And all of the sudden, things start changing. A couple more losses on top of that, and now you’re starting to get desperate.
It’s not like you feel like you’re watching a train wreck. It’s all unfolding in real time almost in slow motion as a viewer.
Yeah, it’s not like a train wreck. It’s more like a slow train derailment.
How much stuff did you guys have to leave on the cutting room floor either by your decision or by request from the team?
Not that much. Being able to air it six months after the season gives us an opportunity to air so much more of what happens.
I think it’s more a balance of trying to figure out what is going to make the most compelling story for an audience. If you go too heavy on the strategy and the Xs and Os, you’re going to lose a lot of the audience, the casual fans. If you ignore all of the football, then you’re going to lose you, the avid fan.
We want to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. We want people who are tuning into Amazon to watch Catastrophe or The Man in the High Castle to want to watch this show. You want to appeal to broad audience that loves premium television or content in that serialized, addictive, character-driven storytelling. That’s what we’re aiming to do here.
So you’re trying to hit a lot of categories at once. That’s the balance. It’s not really a question of, “We better leave this bit of strategy on the cutting room floor because it didn’t work out.” It’s more just that we don’t want to bore you. We want you to be interested in what happens next.
It’s a balance. The whole show’s a balance.
Clearly, a big part of the story was just about the return of the NFL to Los Angeles, something that was both new and familiar at the same time. Did you guys pick up on anything from the city, the market that was distinct, on how LA was reacting to the Rams and not just the other way around?
I think everybody noticed in that first month that there was genuine excitement. When they filled the Coliseum for that Seattle game and you had the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers playing...
We made a decision to cover that game as if it was a playoff game. We mic’ed more people than we probably ever have in a regular season game between the players, wives and coaches. So we really covered that game, and I think it shows. We spent about 15 minutes on that game.
The excitement was genuine. LA was ready for that team and for football, and I think LA was really responding. When you see Case Keenum going in to be on Ryan Seacrest’s show with his wife, they were riding high.
But it’s LA. There’s a lot to do there. If you’re not winning, they’re going to find something else to do. The imperative in LA is that you have to win pretty consistently. Every sports team in that town knows that. The Rams are no exception, and the Chargers will find that out pretty quickly.
Once you get there, you have to win.
What have you guys as a production team learned from these first two seasons that you’re going to do differently moving forward?
We’re constantly learning. From Year 1 to Year 2, this show got technically much better.
We had a lot more cameras in the right places that allowed us to capture, say, the day Jeff Fisher was let go. That made a huge difference. We had more cameras on the practice field, more players and coaches mic’ed up during practice.
We shoot everything from a distance. We try not to be up in everybody’s face, because we don’t want them to be aware of us. We really want to be the proverbial flies on the wall. “You guys have your football season. We’ll be here off to the side documenting it.” You can always get better at that, but that’s sort of been our project at NFL Films for 55 years: how to capture these people and their lives as a team doing their thing as well as it can possibly be captured.
We’re constantly looking for better ways to do things. We’re already investigating better ways to capture sound in those meeting rooms and some other technical advancements that will help us in Season 3. We’re always looking for ways to improve the product.
One of the areas of improvement this year from Season 1 to Season 2, we didn’t have a camera in the Cardinals’ coaches booth until very late in Season 1. We knew from Hard Knocks that those add a lot, add a dimension. We got a camera in the coaches booth in the playoffs in the Arizona series in the last couple of episodes. But here, we got a camera in the coaches booth very early in the season, and we kept it there the entire season, home and on the road. It’s very complex to rig those up in every different stadium the team travels to. But you can see watching it how valuable those shots are.
Those moments when they lose the game in Detroit and you sit there with [Offensive Coordinator] Rob Boras in that booth after Case Keenum throws an interception at the end on a pass attempt to Lance Kendricks and you sit there with Boras as he actually apologizes to the other coaches in the booth and then just sits there for like a minute...you’re right at that moment at a place that it’s impossible to not understand how much these people care, how hard they’ve worked, how much they’ve invested and how much is at stake for all of them in these games.
You know, we sit there at home. We watch these games. We scream at our TVs. We want to call up the radio station or write on our blogs and in our papers this coach has got to get fired and that coach isn’t up to the job. When you actually see these guys do the job in a moment like that? How helpless they are that far from the field? When they call a play and it gets executed and it doesn’t go right? It’s excruciating. And it can’t help but change your perspective of all this a little bit.
I’m surprised. When you talked about what you learned, I thought you guys would have learned to watch out for falling goalposts with the wind.
(I was alluding to a moment in episode 6 where heavy winds blew some goalposts down; it’s also the episode in which Fisher got fired.)
We learned a lot. How about that day with the wind all in the middle of everything...
You know, show 6. Here’s one thing to note with that episode. We anticipated that some people are going to want to tune in and just watch that episode for obvious reasons. So we did construct that episode in such a way that it can stand on its own. Even if you haven’t watched the first five, you can watch that one and get it. Now I think if you take the time to watch the first five and understand how they arrive at that moment when Jeff Fisher is fired, I think you’ll get a lot more out of it.
On one level, that was something we thought might be pretty important with that episode that it be a standalone episode. We know it’s the moment that people are going to talk about most and remember.
You know, nobody ever told us to stop rolling the cameras that day. And that’s a testament to our directors Shannon Furman and Pat Harris and the crew that was on site that day that Coach Fisher and the team trusted them to that degree. Having the cameras where they are, you’re able to not be in the room with them and just roll. We operate those cameras remotely. And I think what emerged is something very powerful.
There’s been a lot of these access shows over the years, 24/7, Hard Knocks, other sports that have dipped their toes into the all-access waters. A lot of them have been excellent. But there’s never been a show until All or Nothing that spends every day of an entire season with the team. This season, we shot 1,200 hours with the Rams. When you get to that moment and you build up the trust and the relationship, they’re used to it. They trust. They’re going about their business, and we’re able to capture something none of those shows have ever captured. I don’t think any show has ever captured a coach being fired in the middle of the season.
And it’s not just the moment that Jeff Fisher gets fired that’s important. It’s the fallout. It’s what happens after he leaves the room, and you’re left in this silence with this group of people who now have to pick up the pieces and are, really, traumatized. It’s a horrible moment in all of their lives. And you have to handle it very carefully.
Our goal is to show the world a side of the NFL that no one has ever seen, but to do it in such a way that humanizes all of these people and gives us an opportunity to understand the life that they’ve chosen. How challenging it is. What’s at stake for them. What can happen when it does go bad, when a coach does get fired.
When you see the emotional response, I would think it’s pretty powerful for everybody.
Thanks to Keith for the time and the candidness.