Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football telecast.
One thing I appreciate about being the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football team is that we’re a lot like a football team. The very good NFL teams enter the next season thinking, What can we do to get better? This isn’t corny, and I don’t want it to seem chest-puffing. We’ve been the highest-rated and most-watched prime-time show for eight straight years—a network TV record—but we’ve got that same feeling about improving this offseason that we have every year.
One of the things we’ve been discussing: expanding the use of the Skycam in live play-by-play situations during games. We might add a second Skycam to give viewers a totally different look this year. When NBC did the Notre Dame Blue and Gold Spring Game this year, the Skycam was moved from down the middle of the field to the sideline view, which is the view almost every play is now covered from. We wanted to see the impact of having the play-by-play camera on the line of scrimmage, from the sideline, via Skycam for every snap. We’ve studied the tape at length and hope to try this on our second preseason game in August, Pittsburgh at Tennessee. We’ll actually have two Skycams: the normal one that shoots from behind the offense in the middle of the field, and this new one, positioned on the line of scrimmage, on the sideline.
My initial reaction is this will make all fourth-and-one attempts better viewing experiences for the fans. But we’ll see how it works in Nashville in August for that game. If we like it, we’ll probably use it on live plays on fourth-and-short (and maybe others) in the first game of the NFL’s 100th season, Green Bay at Chicago, on NBC on Sept. 5. It’s new and fun—and it could make the viewing experience much more interesting.
That’s the techie in me, trying to get better. But in 30 years of producing games at the network level, one of the most important things I’ve learned—from John Madden—is so incredibly basic, as old as the game itself.
Watch pre-game warmups.
We have a team of 175 in front of and mostly behind the cameras that puts on the Sunday games, and we have every technical and modern convenience any TV crew could ask. But you’d be surprised how often we use something we learned just watching pregame warmups, the same way the fans in the stands do. Either Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth might use something on the telecast, or maybe director Drew Esocoff or I will see something and have a graphic built for use during the game. Maybe we’ll use it, maybe not. John taught Drew and me that intently watching warmups is really the final piece of game preparation. So much information is gleaned by rituals and warmups. Madden was the first to do this and the best ever at it. I love this part of the process.
Perfect example: Three years ago, before a Chiefs-Broncos game in Denver, linebacker Justin Houston came out before the game wearing an altitude training mask; he had a coach with him, with what looked like two extra-large catcher’s mitts. The coach set up some pylons and wore the two big mitts. Houston then began working his hands in all kinds of different pass rush moves much like a boxer would work before a title bout. Houston systematically went through his entire repertoire of moves. So, halfway through the second quarter, Houston was wrecking the game. He had three sacks and Denver tackle Ty Sambrailo had no answer for the quickness of his hands. We ran a package of the three sacks and ended it with video from the pre-game ritual, showing the hand movements in pregame that were used on the sacks. The Chiefs won the game, and Houston’s impact on the game was a huge reason.
So the modern technology like the sideline Skycam is great, and I mean that. I think it’ll make us better this year. But there is something crucial about the simple human element too—in this case watching pre-game warmups for an hour. If you watch our games and see really cool images and really great story-telling, I think we’ve done our job.
The 2019 season will be my 30th producing prime-time NFL games: 11 for ESPN, five on ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” and now 14 for NBC Sunday Night Football. The one question I get asked more than any other is, “What does a producer actually do?”
It’s simple: I’m like a head coach. I lead a production team of about 15 talented assistant producers. Each assistant has a specialized area of responsibility—replay, editing, sideline reports, medical condition of players, graphics, design, analytics and statistics, research, and other areas. During game weeks, I meet several times with each assistant to plot the editorial/creative strategy for the upcoming game. They present their ideas and I weigh in with mine, and we get aligned with the plan coming into the game. But as Madden used to constantly remind me, “Boom! A game breaks out!” And then it’s time to blend the preparation with immediate reaction to the action and form a cohesive telecast.
Like any coach will tell you, we need a talented and experienced quarterback, and for me that’s SNF Director Drew Esocoff. This will be our 19th season sitting side-by-side. We instinctively know what the other needs and wants. I’m constantly leading Drew on the editorial points or shots that need documentation; then he decides the best visual representation of those points all while making sure we never miss a snap. To say Drew is just taking orders would be like saying Tom Brady never creates any big plays on his own. Drew is supremely talented and fits my definition of a great director. He’s always where he should be and more importantly where the viewer needs him to be. Drew resists the trap many directors fall prey to when they try to invent art.
Then there’s Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. A great production will never make up for mediocre announcers. But great announcers with ambitious, solid production makes for a terrific viewing experience. The audience plugs in to the announcers and judges their experience by how much they enjoy listening to them.
There has to be good chemistry between the booth and the truck, where we work. A good example of this was the Odell Beckham Jr. catch in 2014. Prior to the end of the first quarter we ran a pre-game package of Beckham making what were then considered insane one-handed catches of every variety and displaying hops that would make any NBA player proud. On the first play of the second quarter, Beckham made the touchdown catch seen ‘round the world. As Al completed the call with astonishment in his voice, Cris interjected immediately with even more disbelief. Drew and I hurried to get the replays on the air and the excitement from Al and Cris kept growing. The Giants crowd saw our replay sequence on the big screens in the stadium and the buzz built with every new view.
After the extra point I told Drew to put Al and Cris on camera. I wanted their raw reaction to what we’ve just seen. Al, who’s made a career of finding the right words for the situation, told the audience who Odell Beckham Jr. is, where he grew up, went to high school, the athletic genes of his mom and dad. Cris told the audience Odell grew up as a soccer player—some thought with the ability to become world class—and that his hands may not be his best appendages. We put up an old photo of his mom and dad from their playing days at LSU (Dad football, Mom track and field), and Dad’s college roommate Shaquille O’Neal. It’s a sequence that made proud everyone associated with SNF. We took a jaw-dropping moment (the kind you live for), covered it with precision and then layered in the stories to bring Odell the person to life. While this was all happening our sideline producer, Michele Froman, saw Lebron James’s tweet about the catch, had graphics build it, and we put it on the air.
In season, Sunday Night Football is a job that for me is the classic example of “living the dream.” My typical game week:
• Watch the game we’ve just done and grade it in all areas (individual performances and team execution) for discussion and review in Wednesday’s full production staff meeting.
• Check-in in with NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus, NBC Sports Group president Pete Bevacqua and executive producer/president of production Sam Flood for their thoughts.
• Touch base with the PR directors for both teams in next Sunday night’s game. Send off a detailed request list to each of them so they know what to expect when we come to town.
• Get a detailed analytics document from Pro Football Focus analyst George Chahrouri. Analytics—I can’t say I’m an unabashed believer. But when 32 teams are contracted with PFF on personnel and game-planning, it makes me curious. George has a great math brain and great football knowledge base. He might tell me the precise number of snaps this year J.J. Watt has been single, double and triple-team blocked, and his production in each scenario. I have a simple rule for any analytics or graphic: If the audience can’t understand it in 20 seconds, it’s not making air.
• Watch the complete telecast of the previous games by the two teams we’re doing Sunday, in my home office in Connecticut.
• Meet with the graphics team and director of research Ken Hirdt from Elias Sports Bureau to discuss the big topic items for this week’s game. This begins the process to determine which graphics will be produced as creative story animations.
• Review last week’s telecast with Cris and Al separately. Spoiler alert: When you have these two there’s not a lot of fixing to do. Al still has a kid-like excitement for big games. Cris and I mostly talk about how we covered the football aspect of the show. Were we on the adjustments? Did we adequately explain who won and why?
• Receive and watch Cris’ video scouting report for each of the teams.
• Check in with “Football Night in America” producer Rob Hyland to coordinate the Sunday night pregame show’s needs for the week, in part to make sure we’re not stepping on each other’s toes in interview requests for players and coaches.
• First big all-staff meeting of the week, a 2.5-hour Sunday Night Football staff meeting—Drew and I video-conference in from our homes, while the others are in a large conference room at the NBC Sports studios in Stamford, Conn. I start by presenting general business items for the week, then select one person from the team to present a review of the previous telecast. During the season every team member will get an opportunity to do this. This is one of the ways to evaluate how a person thinks about what we do. It’s usually a good predictor of who will become a star player on our team.
• We then do an exercise called 3 Up/3 Down. All team members state three things they liked about the telecast and why, and three things we should have done better. No holds barred, no sacred cows.
• In the final hour of the meeting, team members present their top five ideas for this week’s game. Caveat: No idea can be stat-related. We have enough of those.
• At the final graphics and edit team meeting, we determine which stories turn into special animations. This group edits about 30 pieces a game, and maybe five will make air in a given week.
• I develop and distribute the camera isolation plan for this week’s game. We have a general plan that we augment depending on who the teams and players are in this week’s game. It differs slightly every week. Say we have the Falcons. Our plan for Julio Jones is the first priority. We need to isolate him using a camera that most effectively can include Jones, the cornerback covering him and the safety that sits over the top on virtually every single play.
• Sideline meeting by teleconference with Michele Tafoya (from her home in Minnesota), her producer Michele Froman and sports medicine consultant Mike Ryan. Froman leads the review on each of Tafoya’s hits from the prior week with the end goal being how we can all be better. We collectively determine the stories Tafoya will need to follow and possibly unearth for this week’s game.
• Mike Ryan provides what to look for on any significant players dealing with injuries, and details on any specialized equipment they may be wearing.
• Read the research guide issued by Ron Vaccaro and the NBC Sports research team.
• Fly to the city of the Sunday night game (usually in the afternoon).
• First thing I do when I get in my hotel room is set up my “office” where I can see the TV. Thursday night is usually a quick bite in the hotel with Drew where the game is on at the bar or room service and watching in my room. I use it as pre-test. As situations come up during the Thursday telecast, I execute them in my mind the way my instincts and preparation tell me. It’s good warmup for Sunday night.
• Al, Cris, Michele, Drew and I attend practice of the home team. This is the best part of my week and the most informative. You learn an awful lot by watching practice. Friday practice usually deals with red zone offense and defense along with third down and goal line. Here you get a sense what matchups teams like, who the offense wants to feature or what defender they want to attack. Best practices I’ve ever been to? The 49ers of the early nineties—pace was fast and the ball never hit the ground. Every receiver and back who touched the ball took it to the end zone. The Patriots are also a fascinating study for the amount of work that goes on seemingly without a lull. There isn’t one wasted second.
• Meet with coach, quarterback and two other players who we deem to have significant roles on Sunday. Another fun and productive part of the job.
• Production meetings are always done at the home teams’ facility or the visiting teams’ hotel. They’re almost always friendly and it’s where we get to ask questions based on the news of the week or something we’ve seen on film or in practice. Four stories about production meetings over the years:
1. Bill Parcells was usually entertaining and informative in these meetings. I remember when he was coaching the Patriots, I asked him about Ben Coates, his highly productive tight end. My question was something like, “Where do you put Coates among the tight ends you’ve coached?” His answer: “Better than good.” He didn’t want to call him great for whatever reason, but also wanted to acknowledge that just calling him good would be selling him short. Ben Coates, better than good. Think it works perfectly.
2. Most interesting production meeting to observe was when I did Sunday Night Football at ESPN in 1991, and it involved my analyst, Joe Theismann, and Lawrence Taylor, who was still playing for the Giants. You remember the horrible leg injury Theismann suffered at the hands of the Giants and LT in 1986. Joe never blamed LT and the fact it was an all-time great like LT that ended his career was something Joe wore as a badge of honor. You could still see the sorrow in Lawrence. Every time Joe asked him a question that day, you got the sense Lawrence wanted to say, “I’m really sorry, Joe.”
3. Best information I ever got out of production meeting: Opening Monday night, ABC, 2002, Pittsburgh at New England. John Madden and Bill Belichick actually had two meetings—one with Bill speaking as head coach, and one with him speaking as the coordinator. In the offensive part of the meeting Belichick said that trying to run on the Steelers was a waste of time and effort—the front seven was too big and the results of running wouldn’t be worth the effort. He said, basically, that they might pass on every play. Fast-forward to the game. At one point Brady passed on 29 straight plays as the Patriots blew them out. New England ended up running on just 18 of 63 offensive snaps.
4. Week 13, Minnesota versus Kansas City, 1999. In our production meeting, I asked linebacker Derrick Thomas about his six-sack game the previous year against Jeff George—then with the Raiders, now with the Vikings. Was there anything about him that made him easier to sack than other quarterbacks? “Absolutely,” Thomas said. A split second before he took the snap under center, Thomas said, George would flex his hands. So Thomas could time up the snap and get to George. On the Vikings’ second series of the game Thomas sacked George. In the fourth quarter, Thomas strip-sacked him for an 18-yard loss … and teammate Eric Hicked picks it up and returns it 44 yards for the touchdown. On both sacks we had the replays of George’s hands flexing before the snap and Thomas’s eyes peering in to time it up. Analysts Joe Theismann and Paul Maguire explained to the audience how Thomas told us about Jeff George’s giveaway tip. It was a serendipitous TV moment.
• Head back to hotel, gather our replay team and watch the home team’s coaches tape from last game, the all-22 and end-zone angle coaches and players use to evaluate themselves and break down their opponent.
• Dinner with Al, Cris, Michele and Drew. A rollicking good time. This might be a good time to discuss Al and vegetables. Most of us like variety and spontaneity in our dining choices—most of us who are not Al Michaels, that is. It’s well-documented that Al claims never to have eaten a vegetable. I once saw him order Onion soup and ask the waiter, “Have the chef strain out the onions.” I did see Al eat a vegetable once, albeit unknowingly. The night before we opened AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Jerry and Gene Jones threw a grand opening party that only they can throw. There was a cadre of waiters walking around with trays that held delectable delights of all kinds. Al reached for what he believed was something like a tater tot. It was fried okra. Halfway through the bite Al realized something foreign was in his mouth and he needed to expectorate immediately. Except he was wearing a suit; and this was a classy party. He frantically found a napkin and gently pushed the okra from his mouth to the linen.
• I end the night by writing my camera and replay notes—designed to let camera and replay operators understand the main storylines for the game with a day to digest them.
• Gather the replay team and watch the coaches tape of the visiting team’s last game. If they are division rivals we may watch that last matchup as well.
• Sideline meeting with Michele Tafoya, Michele Froman and Mike Ryan. We finalize Michele’s report for the open of the show and then she gives us information on the stories she’s been working on since Thursday. Drill down on the details. Michele submits her written stories as Saturday evening goes on. Mike Ryan provides added pertinent injury information.
• Meet the visiting team at its hotel. Meet with coach, quarterback and two players.
• Head back to my room and spend the night trying to organize everything I’ve learned about these two teams in the last six days and play the game and show out in my head.
• At some point of my career I was looking for preparation that would be functional for what I do during the game. I’d often hear some of the games’ best players talk about how they evolved their training to fit their game actions and responsibilities. That intrigued me and made sense. During a game I’m making decisions probably every 30 seconds. Should we do a replay, insert a graphic, have Al tell a story or Cris forecast what’s coming? Those are a few of the things we can do after every play. Sequencing replays and stories is also a big part of my job. I like to examine all my choices in both areas and play through the possibilities based on game situation.
• Lights out at 11 p.m. All Star pitcher Jim Kaat once told me: “Think long, think wrong.” I usually get about five to six hours of sleep on Saturday nights.
• Wake at about 6, and, in my room, screen the graphics and element reels we’ll show in the 10:30 a.m. full staff meeting. I like to know those well in advance so I can begin making tweaks. This is a reel of most of the pertinent graphics that can make air and every edited feature that can make air as well.
• Around 7:15, I work out. I like to swim, so if there’s a pool at the hotel, I swim about 1.25 miles. Swimming is great for thinking. It’s you and the water face down all alone except for your thoughts.
• At around 9:30 a.m., there’s an editorial meeting with Al, Cris, Michele, Drew and key personnel to discuss the most important storylines of the game and how we’ll handle them. Each person has a take and then we collectively settle on the best one that can be executed in the confines of a football broadcast. Translation: How do we make sense of this for the audience in 25 seconds or less?
• At 10:30 a.m., we watch the graphics and elements, and how they may play in the telecast. I can usually tell what the announcers like and don’t like by their comments and reactions. If they don’t like something, it probably dies right there.
• About seven hours before the game, I head to the stadium.
• We start a two-hour rehearsal at our mobile unit six-and-a-half hours before the game. All people on the show (except talent) are in position and operating their pieces of equipment. Everyone has been put in the best possible situation to succeed. I borrowed this from watching NFL practices. Teams and players have been running and practicing the same plays since mini-camp in the spring. Yet in Week 17 they’re practicing them again. It’s that confidence of knowing that everyone knows their job on every single play.
• Over lunch, Drew and I watch the end of early games on DirecTV with a special eye on next week’s two teams, if they’re playing.
• Then we have the camera/replay meeting. I talk storylines of the game, Drew follows with the shots he wants to see to best cover those storylines. Our replay director, Charlie Vanacore, goes over each camera person’s responsibility for the entire game depending on player, down and distance and location on field.
A great example of this meeting paying dividends occurred in Week 16 last year, Kansas City at Seattle. Cris wanted to make the point that he thought Russell Wilson throws the best deep ball in the game because of his technique; Wilson drops his right shoulder low and almost throws the ball straight up, achieving a very high apex. The benefit of this is that it practically drops straight down as if parachuted from a chopper. In the camera/replay meeting, Drew and I say if Wilson does attempt a deep pass, the camera operators should stay on the arc of the throw for the duration. Midway through the fourth quarter, Wilson uncorked a deep pass for Tyler Lockett and it dropped straight down into Lockett’s arms. Camerawoman Christina Glendon and cameraman Rick Stogsdill executed our vision to the T. We had Wilson, the entire trajectory of the ball in relation to the field, and of course the catch. A hand-held cameraman, Pete Stendel, wasn’t in the ideal position to capture the entire act but made a great adjustment and tracked the tight spinning ball dropping straight down into the arms of Lockett. The replay operators—Joe Riehl, Tom Hayes, Maggie Gallegos and Bob Sullivan—all had the right cues and perfect rolls. It was beautiful TV.
• At about 6 p.m., the referee and replay official visit the truck. The replay official wants a map of where our cameras are positioned so he can envision what angles we’ll have during the game. There is little if anything he won’t have, but because bodies can be arranged in unpredictable ways, 100 cameras wouldn’t guarantee you’d always have “the defining shot.” The referee and I go over the commercial format. I may also have a rules question from something we saw studying the film or from the 1 p.m. games. Terry McAulay was always great at helping me out before a game and wanted the show to get things right. I could put up a tape of a wide receiver screen and ask him about how far he would let a lineman get upfield before the pass and before throwing a flag for illegal man downfield. “A generous yard-and-a-half measured from his back foot,” he’d say. That insight I could pass on to Al, Cris and the replay operators and now we were all smarter.
• At 6:50 p.m., an hour-and-a-half prior to the game, I meet with the officials and team PR guys in the officials locker room to get the inactives and one last time go over the commercial format for the game. The referees who run this meeting the most effectively are most often the best referees on the field.
• At 7 p.m., while the country watches Football Night in America, Drew and I watch the warmups. Remember that Justin Houston story. Here’s another one: Drew Brees is pre-game gold in his rituals. Everyone knows those pre-game speeches but Brees is big into visualizing potential results of passing plays. He told us about this in a production meeting once and we’ve watched him do it in pre-game every Saints game since. In T-shirt and shorts in early pre-game, then full-pads and uniform close to gametime, Brees will drop back to pass, find his first option on the particular play, throw it, and then go through the rest of his progressions as if he hadn’t. He told us he does this to reinforce what his options are on every play. During the telecast, we might bring this pre-game ritual back after we have replays of Brees finding his second or third option.
• At 8 p.m., for the final piece of confidence-building, we rehearse the open with Al, Cris and Michele.
• At 8:13, we are live.
Midnight or so … A couple of cold ones for me. Unlike the regular author of this column, I want my beer to taste like beer, not fruit or herbs or plants. So maybe a couple of Coors Lights. Johnnie Walker Black for Al and Drew—Blue if they’re feeling self-indulgent. A glass of Cabernet or two for Tafoya, and I think it’s just water for Collinsworth. McAulay joined the team last year and he’s a tequila guy.
Going to sleep after a game—now that’s tough. I’ve been running on adrenaline for three-plus hours and the come-down is oh so slow. There’s the replaying of decisions I made or didn’t make that keeps my mind racing until I see it for real the next day. Unfortunately, rarely do I dwell on my good decisions. The bad ones live in bright lights on the marquee between my ears. Parcells used to say one of the reasons he finally got out of coaching was the joy of the victories lasted a very short time, but the feeling of the losses stuck with him for days. I identify with him there. It’s usually a tough night for sleep no matter how the show went.
By noon the next day, I’m watching the tape. By then, all that matters is the next game.
I am just shy of 59. I’m a rabid sports fan.
I have never been in favor of instant replay in any sport.
I feel no matter the sport, replay just saps the drama out of games and makes them longer than they have to be. Football would be better without instant replay. Somewhere we evolved from Let’s correct the egregious mistake to Let’s examine every score and turnover frame by frame.
We’ve adopted a mentality that has gone from celebrating touchdowns to investigating why they’re not.
That just seems counterintuitive to me and a lot less entertaining and exciting for the fans. Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and Jesse James are the most notable examples of what I’m talking about, but there are many more. I’m not saying they were officiated incorrectly because by rule they were compliant. Somewhere we just parsed the rules so finely that, as Michele Tafoya likes to say, they resemble the tax code. No one knows what’s in them and they’re way too complicated for a game.
Like life itself, sports were never intended to be perfect. Sometimes you have to live with an unfair result. I don’t have hard data to support what I’m about to say, but I would guesstimate that professional officials in the major sports get 95% of their calls correct. How many people in the world in any other business do we expect to get 95% of their instantaneous decisions correct? How about zero percent. Losing on a bad call or non-call is painful. Cardinals fans will always have Don Denkinger, Saints fans last season’s NFC Championship, the railbirds who had Maximum Security in this year’s Kentucky Derby … all will always feel their moment of glory was unfairly snatched away. In my opinion it’s part of sports lore and the price we all pay for loving sports. The experience would just be better if we just play the game on the field and not break it down by the frame.
However, I know that I am in the minority here. Because of technology fans want every call to be right or made right. Therefore, our role in NFL officiating must be taken seriously because the league and the fans depend on it. For officiating purposes only, five years ago we added 4K cameras—with four times the pixels of regular cameras, enabling us to zoom in tight on replays and see crystal-clear views—shooting down each goal line and each sideline. If we were not involved in replay we would not be deploying these cameras. I have always believed that the NFL should install those four cameras in every stadium that hosts an NFL game if replay is going to play this big a role in officiating. It would even out the equipment disparity in regional game broadcasts versus national broadcasts versus prime-time broadcasts. I know it’s technically even for both teams in any given game but if you’re in a 1 p.m. regional game with the bare minimum equipment required and the team your battling for a playoff spot is on Sunday Night Football, well, that ain’t a fair fight.
I do believe the NFL officiating people will eventually take the entire replay operation away from the networks and handle it themselves in New York. This will come with its own set of issues and I’m not sure if it will make it any better for the fan. TV will still have to address it and show the fans the defining shots ad infinitum while waiting for New York to deliver the verdict. I just think the game would be better, and slightly faster, if we abandoned replay.
Best games I’ve seen in my 30 years in the truck:
• Super Bowl XLIII – Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23. James Harrison’s 100-yard interception for TD to end the half, Larry Fitzgerald’s insane fourth quarter and Santonio Holmes gets both big toes down in the corner of the end zone to win it.
• Super Bowl XLIX – New England 28, Seattle 24. Malcolm Butler steals Seattle’s bid for back-to-back Super Bowl titles. By the way, this is still the most watched television show in American history.
• 1999 AFC Wild Card Game – Tennessee 22, Buffalo 16. The Music City Miracle. Actually did the rematch the following season on opening night in Buffalo. Game ended with Buffalo kicking off again with Frank Wycheck, Lorenzo Neal and Kevin Dyson all back deep for Tennessee. No miracle this time: Bills 16, Titans 13.
• Super Bowl LII – Philadelphia 41, New England 33. The Philly Special, and Brady throws for 505 yards and loses the game. Nick Foles magic. He deserved it.
• 2003 MNF Green Bay 41, Oakland 7. It’s the best and most memorable performance under adversity that I have ever seen. Brett Favre, the night after father Irvin unexpectedly died, threw for four touchdowns and 399 yards, and made a couple of miracle throws. I will never forget Al and John in the show’s open. Al: “John, he’s been indestructible and has played through everything but how does he play through this?” John: “There’s no road map for what he’s about to do.” I will forever be indebted to former Packer PR great Jeff Blumb for making Favre available to us live on the field after the final gun. He handled himself with great dignity and class and let America know what his dad meant to him.
• 2015 Divisional Playoff Game – Arizona 26, Green Bay 20. Let’s see. On Green Bay’s final drive Aaron Rodgers completes a 60-yard semi-Hail Mary on 4th-and-20, and then on the final play of regulation a full-blown prayer with Jeff Janis on the receiving end of both to send the game into overtime. I do believe if Randall Cobb hadn’t been injured earlier in the game, Mike McCarthy would have gone for two to try to end it here rather than kick the PAT to send it to overtime. The Cardinals were absolutely stunned and badly in need of a standing eight count. I don’t think they would have recovered and stopped Rodgers on a two-point play. The overtime coin toss begins with a coin that didn’t flip and the Packers yelling for Referee Clete Blakeman to flip it again, which he did. Cardinals win toss. Larry Fitzgerald finishes off the Pack in three plays. We later learn both Packers two-point plays for that game featured Cobb, and McCarthy/Rodgers weren’t confident they could execute the play without him. By the way: Has there ever been a head coach who lost more heartbreaking playoff games than Mike McCarthy? Four in overtime!
Two opportunities I wish I could have over again:
A hidden camera for Barry Sanders. There is one player who just by mentioning his name to an opponent would wipe the smile off his face and change the mood from light and fun to dark and demoralizing: Running back Barry Sanders. I always wanted to have a hidden camera to record the players or coaches face immediately before and after someone in our production meeting asked him “What’s your plan for Barry Sanders?”The two shots juxtaposed would have been telling and hilarious. The two biggest mood changes I ever encountered? Tony Dungy and John Lynch. With all due respect to Leslie Nielsen, that my friends was “The Smell of Fear.”
A re-do for Dennis Miller. My first year producing ABC’s Monday Night Football was Dennis Miller’s second and final season. Two things I would do differently. At halftime, I’d have reprised his role as host of Weekend Update on “Saturday Night Live.” He killed that role for years. I think fans would have loved him riffing on Sunday NFL games and maybe even Saturday college games. It would have given halftime a must-see element, not to mention win the critics’ praise for Dennis. When we met before the season I tried to convince him to do it, but he told me: “Maybe next year.” Unfortunately, there’d be no next year. Also: I would’ve had him skip all the player/coaches meetings on Sunday and just watch football all afternoon. As Dennis got to meet the players and coaches he found out that 98 percent were great guys who were expending everything they had to try and win a game. The effects of that were twofold. His comedic sabre became dulled, as he was reticent to joke about someone he had just met and come to like. And it made him want to talk X’s and O’s, which the audience wasn’t ever going to buy. Would he have become a longtime fixture in the booth if we did these things? I don’t believe so, but it would’ve made for a better show and longer stint for him. Dennis loved being on Monday Night Football and was extremely disappointed when it ended. Anyway, kudos to the late/great Don Ohlmeyer for the truly bold idea of putting Miller in the booth and rekindle the buzz around MNF.
Twitter is the last place people go for affirmation, let alone love. But one of my favorite activities after every game is to go on and read the comments about the music selections on Sunday Night Football. They are universally positive and complimentary. That’s a real accomplishment when you’re dealing with a subject as polarizing as music in an environment as toxic as Twitter. Wendel Stevens is our chief audio technician, but he could easily be called music producer or DJ. Wendel spends all week examining our matchup and researching songs that might help us better tell a story. Examples:
• During Eagles-Seahawks game in 2017, amidst what looked like an MVP season for second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, Wendell planned to use the INXS song, “New Sensation.” Halfway thru the third quarter, Wentz made an impossible completion rolling to his right and throwing practically from his knees for about 30 yards down the right sideline. Three plays later he hit Nelson Agholor for a touchdown. Wendel heard me say we were going to commercial break with Wentz’s TD pass and celebration. So as the replays began, “New Sensation” formed the perfect soundtrack. It just adds a real fun element to the story not to mention add editorial exclamation.
• Wendell is also fast on his feet. Last season Dalvin Cook scored a touchdown versus Green Bay and the team celebration was a Limbo line. It was the first time the Vikings broke this out all season. Obviously, there was no way Wendell could know it was coming. Maybe 30 seconds passed before we went to break. I asked Wendell: “Have any Limbo music?” Truly, I was just teasing. Wouldn’t you know as we go to break with Cook doing the Limbo, Wendel is playing the 1962 Chubby Checker song, “Limbo Rock.” Limbo music. The entire truck laughed hysterically. “How’d you do it?” I asked. Wendel, with no air of accomplishment, said, “I played it live off the internet.” Amazing.
1. I think the NFL should keep the overtime rule as is for regular season and postseason games. I know everyone wanted to see Patrick Mahomes with the ball one more time in the AFC Championship Game, but football is a three-phase game. You can win or lose the game in any one of them. The Patriots converted three third-and-10s and scored a touchdown on their winning drive. KC’s defense was responsible for getting Mahomes the ball, didn’t, and in my opinion didn’t deserve another chance.
2. I think, at the risk of sounding preachy or like I know it all, but to all folks involved in production of live games of any kind, when producing sports on television remember what made you fall in love with sports in the first place: THE GAMES. Too many game productions are agenda-driven, and it comes at the expense of the action on the field/court/ice. There is nothing more frustrating for a viewer than when the announcers and truck ignore the game. We tuned in to watch the game; please let us watch it.
3. I think the NFL should flush the color rush uniforms. My gut says this is an age thing and your preference reflects your age. Regardless, there is tremendous equity in the uniform of an NFL team. When you turn on a game you know exactly who’s playing. At least that’s how it was for about 95 NFL seasons. The 49ers never wore black, so why now? Maybe some 10-year-old boy loves it. Me, not so much. It’s a lot worse in college football where bell-cow universities are often times unidentifiable by their uniform.
4. I think, unlike the author of this column who is also a huge baseball fan, I root for the original evil empire. But this isn’t about Yankees versus Red Sox. This is about one of the best sporting events in our country: the College World Series. Eight teams make the trip to Omaha every June with the hope of a national title and the result is 10 days worth of competitive and exciting baseball. Omaha is the perfect host and its hardball nirvana. Definitely worth the trip. I worked in various roles on the College World Series from 1983 to 1990 and the event has only gotten better.
5. I think the NCAA should pay all college athletes whose sports generate profits for their universities. Yes, they are getting an education, housing, room and board but most athletic careers are extremely short. If your university is selling your jersey or likeness to a video game company you deserve compensation in excess of the education.
6. I think one of the most valuable — yet I feel undervalued –positions in a pro football organization is that of the public relations or media relations director. In my experience covering the NFL the PR directors have been a consistently high performing group. The basic definition of their job would be to ensure good media coverage for their team, the owner, the general manager, the head coach and the players, always presenting the positive story or anecdote and getting a member of the media to tell it. Many times these talented individuals have to counter or find the balance between doing what they’re paid to do for people—some players and coaches—who have no interest in the media and prefer it didn’t exist at all. Think about what it would be like to work for someone who wished your position and department didn’t exist. It would be hard to wake up every day fired up to do your job, right? I’m not suggesting all 32 public relations directors find themselves in this difficult position, but it’s more than you would think and if they manage to make a full career out it they will encounter it at some point. Yet, most if not all of them don’t let it deter them nor sap the enjoyment of doing their job. That’s professionalism.
7. I think no one has ever been better at calling basketball games than Marv Albert. I see there have been a number of pieces speculating on how much longer Marv will broadcast NBA games. I started listening to Marv as a 9-year-old in 1969 and as soon as I figured out I wasn’t going to be the next Mickey Mantle, Clyde Frazer or Fran Tarkenton, I decided to try and be Marv. Little did I know I was one of thousands of kids growing up who wanted to be Marv. Obviously none of us succeeded because Marv is sui generis. Marv made it exciting and he made it exact. “Clyde to the forecourt, Clyde to the top of the key… Pulls up from 20 … YES!” He is the soundtrack to many of my greatest sports memories as a kid and as a professional I have nothing but admiration for the work he’s done. He’s a true Hall of Famer.
8. I think it was awesome to see Dick Vitale awarded a Lifetime Achievement Emmy for his 40 years at ESPN. One of my first jobs in this business was to pick up Dick Vitale at the airport and take him to ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., studios. Later I was his producer on Big Mondays as we did the Big Ten game. All of it was a trip. Dick is one of the most unlikely people I’ve ever met to achieve stardom and fame. What’s really cool is he used that stardom and fame to help others. Namely, kids battling cancer. He and his wife Lorraine have raised over $30 million to fight pediatric cancer and that doesn’t include the tens if not hundreds of millions he’s raised for the V Foundation. I love Dicky V.
9. I think it was a great move by the Pro Football Hall of Fame to name former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol the Pete Rozelle Radio-TV Award winner the same year that Broncos owner Pat Bowlen is inducted. Bowlen had the vision to move the main broadcast prime-time game off Monday night and onto Sunday night, mainly because of the ability to change a bad game to a good game (flex scheduling) and the fact that Sunday night had more people watching television than any other night of the week. The first reaction of most if not all was blasphemy, myself included. Monday Night Football was thought to be sewn into America’s fabric but Bowlen had a different idea. He needed a partner to make it work and that’s where Ebersol came in. NBC had been out of the NFL since 1998 and badly wanted back. Ebersol sold his bosses on the prime-time package and Bowlen sold Ebersol on Sunday Night Football. Together they created what is now the only prime time show in American television history to finish as the highest rated in eight straight seasons. Congratulations to both.
10. I think Peter King makes this job look a lot easier than it is. I have racked my brain for two weeks to try and cobble together some morsels of information and entertainment. It’s been both fun and stressful to rewind 37 years of a television life. I can tell this is not a couple-day-a-week job. I’d wager Peter works on this seven days a week…probably fifty-plus weeks a year and truthfully never shuts off the work valve. All football fans are the benefactors of that. Thanks, Peter, for the opportunity to speak to NFL fans across the globe. I will see you all on Sunday nights in the fall.
Music to my ears:
Waitin’ all day for Sunday
night. Thank you, Joan Jett.