Amazon's 'All or Nothing' series about the Arizona Cardinals is a game-changer
The Amazon series is a tremendous adventure in NFL reality television
Has anyone ever won an Emmy and a Super Bowl in the same calendar year? Because the Arizona Cardinals have a pretty good shot, thanks to an unprecedented decision to allow NFL Films behind the scenes for their entire 2015 season.
The result is a game-changing sports documentary in "All or Nothing," an eight-episode, Amazon-only series debuting July 1.
The series is "Hard Knocks" to the next level, showcasing the club's colorful personalities, shining the light on a franchise that's reinvented itself into a perennial winner and opening up an endless world of streaming possibilities for future NFL consumption.
NFL Films collected over 1,000 hours of footage for the project -- beginning with the start of the 2015 season and wrapping up with the NFC Championship Game loss to the Carolina Panthers -- and spared no expense on the accoutrements either, hiring Jon Hamm to narrate the full series, creating an entirely new musical score dedicated just for the show and striking a deal with Amazon for new-age distribution.
It's a tour de force of reality television and newly-broached ground. No professional sports team has ever granted this kind of access to the comings and goings and ups and downs for the entire season. As NFL Films coordinating producer and show runner Keith Cossrow said, the access the Cardinals gave is "the Holy Grail of sports documentary programming."
For Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, it began as a passion project, a way to shed a light on what he believed was something special blooming in the desert. Bidwill promoted long-time Cardinals personnel man Steve Keim to GM before the 2013 season, and the two hired Bruce Arians after one-year stint with the Indianapolis Colts (Arians won Coach of the Year in 2012 after Chuck Pagano took a leave to fight leukemia).
The trio changed the culture in Arizona, fostering a football vision that has the Cardinals pointed in the right direction and set up to be a Super Bowl contender.
And they might help to change the way NFL television culture operates while they're at it, turning part of the focus towards a new generation of consumers shying away from traditional consumption.
"I think consumer behaviors have changed. I think the NFL, we've got to do a great job with listening to our fans," Bidwill said. "But other content, like this kind of content, the concept of watching it all at once, we want to make it easy, we want to put it in a digital format, put it on mobile. We want to be available to cord cutters. We want to understand how it's consumed. This is the first show that's been truly digital."
It doesn't hurt to have a cast of budding TV stars to work with either. Arians opens the show in a preseason meeting, calmly letting everyone there will be "no f--ing excuses" in 2015. It sets the stage for exactly the sort of performance you'd want from the Kangol-wearing coach who landed his first stint running an NFL team in his 60s and threw caution to the wind. He's endeared himself as a player's coach but he thrives thanks to an uncanny knack for knowing when tough love is necessary.
"He knows how to communicate -- every time is not the right time to get on someone when they're down," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "He has a pretty good feeling and idea on when to get on someone and also win and to lay off on someone as well."
"Let go" by the Pittsburgh Steelers after the 2011 season, Arians was set to retire without ever landing a head-coaching gig before Pagano called him. His work in Indy drew the attention of several clubs -- the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns were also interested in hiring him -- but it's easy to see why he landed in Arizona. The connection with he, Keim and Bidwill is obvious; people in all kinds of organizations talk about working towards the same goal, but in the show the singular focus and dedication towards winning a Super Bowl in this group is crystal clear.
"We're all on the same sheet of music. There's no doubt that we're all in lockstep," Bidwill said. "Not only in 2015, but also in 2014 and in 2016. We all have a shared interest in achieving that goal."
Everyone in the NFL wants to win. But creating the synergy of teamwork, avoiding the focus on individual goals and fostering a familial atmosphere all the while grinding out a competitive roster and coaching players up is a lot harder than it sounds. As Hamm notes, Keim is in constant "pursuit of the perfect roster," making more than 400 roster moves since becoming Arizona's GM.
Some of the bold ones -- bringing in recently-shot Chris Johnson , signing a nearly-retired Dwight Freeney -- paid huge dividends. Even Keim's quarterback, Carson Palmer , was supposed to be washed up when he arrived from Oakland. He was a top-five MVP candidate in 2015.
Some moves even involve a little luck. The first episode of "All or Nothing" features an inside look at the Cardinals' draft room from the 2015 draft. After drafting D.J. Humphries in the first round, Arizona had its sights set on Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah .
VP of Player Personnel Terry McDonough is on the phone with Abdullah as the Cards are on deck, explaining how they're excited to land him. Suddenly the Detroit Lions are blowing up the back's phone. Arizona realizes he's not going to last one more pick and is forced to regroup. They trade down, grab Markus Golden a few picks later and then look for their running back answer in the next round.
Arians stumps for David Johnson out of Northern Iowa, the collaborative juices get rolling and the rest is history.
"I think he can be a bellcow by Thanksgiving," Arians said of his rookie at one point during the season.
Arians wasn't precisely accurate -- it took just a bit longer for the rookie to explode on the scene. But it happened immediately after Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington went down with injuries, and the rookie rolled up 658 total yards and five touchdowns in his final five games.
Arians wasn't the only one excited to see the rookie -- Keim and Bidwill are spotted talking on the sideline at practice about what to expect with Johnson carrying the load.
"I think David Johnson's going to have a big week this week," Bidwill says.
"No doubt," Keim replies. "It's not many times where you lose a guy like Chris and actually get excited about the next guy to see how he's going to perform, knowing what he could potentially be."
The entire series is littered with moments of Keim and Bidwill talking in practice, a delightful juxtaposition of front office discussion going on while Arians is coaching the kids up on the field. It was something NFL Films latched onto early.
"The only thing we thought really early on was how Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim watched practice and had detailed conversations and running discourse throughout the season," Cossrow said. "The two of them standing off to the side kind of having meetings on the field. And you say, let's capture that. Let's put a mic on those two guys and capture how they watch practice. Observing, watching. I don't know we've seen that dynamic in any season of Hard Knocks. It was really interesting."
It's the sort of thing you rarely see, even in today's coverage-heavy NFL climate. A combination of willingness to do the project -- it was Bidwill's idea from the get go -- along with a crack team from NFL Films that integrated itself into the project helped produce real-time moments with drama that holds even months later.
"Our crew did not wear NFL Films gear, they wore Cardinals gear to kind of blend in. No one in the outside world knew what was going on," Cossrow said. "We had literally no idea how this was going to turn out. About halfway through the season -- the guys were more comfortable with having the crew around and seeing how we operated. And at that point they knew something special was happening."
No one was really sure how the packaging would go either. Cossrow says the deal brokers at the NFL, including Chief Content Officer Jordan Levin, saw the streaming option on Amazon as "really appealing for a lot of reasons," chiefly because it could "expand the footprint" for the NFL from a digital perspective.
"The way we consume television and stories now is very much in this serialized way where we can binge watch," Cossrow said. "It wasn't something we had done before and it was just an incredibly appealing option. This whole thing is an experiment and it's so new and so groundbreaking, it just felt right to go with Amazon. To forge a new partnership and to give audiences a chance to watch it all at once."
The modern-day beauty of "All or Nothing" is there's no waiting. You want to fire out all eight episodes -- No. 7 focuses solely on the epic Packers-Cardinals playoff game and No. 8 is all about the NFC Championship Game -- then they are all there for the taking beginning at midnight ET on July 1.
Just like Netflix lobbing out a new season of "House of Cards" or Amazon releasing a season of "Transparent" all at once, the entirety of the series is there for the watching.
And once you dive in and start hearing Arians talking to his players, you'll be hooked.
"You new guys. When I'm talking to you, a lot of times it's ugly," Arians says early in the season. "I ain't talking about you personally. I'm talking about your football. Your football sucks. I'm gonna tell you your football sucks. I like you as a guy. Smoke [John Brown] thought his name was m--f--er last year. Then he got to be Smoke, cause he started doing his s--- right."
Like I mentioned above, he's got this unbelievable understanding of when to throw sharp language at a guy and when to hug it out. You see it later on various plays -- the rookie running back Johnson fumbles an opening kickoff return early in the year and Arians tells him to shake it off, because games aren't lost on the first play.
One episode features the birth of Peterson's daughter Paityn -- one of the highlights for Bidwill was pointing out how Peterson is a superstar lockdown cornerback but he's still out there changing diapers like any average dad.
He was also stunned to learn "something new about every single person that was in featured in the show" -- Bidwill had never actually seen the bullet hole in Chris Johnson's shoulder until it began -- up to and including Keim and Arians.
That's how things work in a family sometimes, and it becomes clear how close-knit the Cards family is from the show. Arizona welcomes coaches' and players' families out to the practice field on Saturday, and there's an exchange involving one of Keim's sons (Carson, Brady and Warner -- they're all named after quarterbacks!) and CJ2K where the youngster asks Johnson why he's got gold teeth.
"It's a cultural thing," a smiling Johnson replies.
Peterson, who got to dominate the quarterbacks in games of hit the bucket, echoed the excitement felt by the team with seeing practice shown in the documentary.
"We're with each other all day. All throughout that day and just the way we communicate and the way we interact with one another," Peterson said. "We see how hard coach gets on us, but at the same time the love they have for us. That's pretty intriguing to me -- taking the cameras home and seeing what our wives, significant others do during the game, in the week leading up to the game. That was one of my favorite moments."
There are also pretty incredible insider-y moments subtly massaged by the four NFL Films directors (Jay Jackson, Steve Trout, Julia Harmon and Shannon Furman), like when Arians is in his office and hears Joe Philbin's been fired by the Miami Dolphins and replaced by Dan Campbell.
He's obviously sympathetic, noting he's been on that end of things quite a few times. (Shout out to BA for drinking from the CBS "We Need to Talk" coffee mug too.)
"They still have a FireBruceArians.com in Pittsburgh I think," Arians deadpans.
Getting insight into how a head coach reacts to the news of a colleague being fired is something you won't find anywhere else. And you can't dive into the January discussions of players and coaches as they press on towards the ultimate goal of trying to win a Super Bowl very often either.
Arizona fell short but, as Arians said after the NFC Championship Game loss to the Panthers, had "a lot to be proud of."
The suddenness of an NFL season ending in January is hard to catch up to. It's easier to move on and look at the next set of games when you're not the one on the losing end.
"Just make sure when we come back, we came back with the purpose we came last year," Arians says.
Good television successfully bookends the beginning and the end of a story. For the Cardinals, confetti wasn't falling down at the end, but you watch the full series, maybe on a bender, and you understand the logic behind the title. You get a sense of growth for the team. You see why they rally behind the leadership of the club, and it's not hard to distinguish a clear belief on the inside that they're not that far from something special again.
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