As I continue to be busy with family commitments this week, I continue with the guest columns. I’ll have some of my own original content throughout the week, look for that.
On this second day of guest columns, I provide this from Michael Schottey, the Associate NFL Editor of the Bleacher Report. Michael is none too thrilled about the analysis coming from the networks.
This past fall, the worst of NFL broadcasting was on display during Week 11. For months, the “Wide Nine” defense had been ubiquitous as the Philadelphia Eagles floundered and the Detroit Lions excelled running a defense that, if you believe announcers, is full of crazy and novel concepts.
Then, in Week 11, FOX used Brian Billick (a former coach and NFL offensive mastermind) to explain the “Wide Nine” defense. Just as Billick started to move toward his chalkboard, the producers thought it would be funny if they fast forwarded to show viewers how much content they were missing because FOX doesn’t think they actually deserve analysis.
That was it. It was over.
The video, posted by Fox on YouTube, has not amassed 2,000 views in the months since it first aired. There was no encouragement to “see more” by going on Fox’s website. Viewers were literally left with the inference that “this Xs and Os nonsense is just too hard for you common folk. Why try to explain what you plebeians will certainly never understand.
The Pregame Circus
Of course, nothing speaks to the pandering of network coverage like the pregame show. Too often, the sets are packed with former players and/or coaches who offer little-to-nothing in terms of analysis. The player or coach is either too raw as a broadcaster (see Sapp, Warren; Irvin, Michael or Cowher, Bill) or, perhaps worse, the experienced broadcasters turn into sideshows rather than substance. Just imagine a world where Deion Sanders, Terry Bradshaw or Michael Strahan actually delved into something other than schtick for more than five minutes every Sunday.
ESPN might be the worst offender of pregame shenanigans — not because their show is the worst (though, Berman critics might agree there) but because they have a solid analysis show that it chooses to run at 3 a.m. on Sunday!
NFL Matchup features Merril Hoge, Sal Paolantonio and Ron Jaworski and has actually been around since 1984 when Steve Sabol of NFL films manned the telestrator. Most fans under the age of 30 have no idea Matchup even exists because it’s hidden in the recesses of late-night TV. Yet, for those that catch the broadcast (or the 7:30am re-run, or know to DVR it), it showcases a treasure trove of knowledge.
Take that 30 minutes of Xs and Os glory and compare that to the crud on a typical pregame show. Networks would rather shove Tim Tebow down your throat for the 1,000th time than actually take 5 minutes to describe how Tebow managed to win games as a Bronco. Listening to the broadcast (both pregame and in-game) Tebow was some magician that “just wins games.” In reality, Tebow was able to take advantage of a simple numbers game on offense (because he was a run/pass threat) and ball control helped rest the Broncos’ defense.
ESPN might showcase the biggest gap from what they do to what they are capable of, but the other networks aren’t much better. The entire gamut of pregame shows is storyline and personality driven. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, balance would be nice. Ironically, NBC’s Football Night in America probably has the best on-air analyst in Tony Dungy. However, because highlights packages, injury news, and updates (naturally) take the majority of the time on Sunday night, Dungy and Rodney Harrison have less time to do their thing.
Misinformation and the Time Crunch
While pregame shows have no excuse, game broadcasts can at least claim that they don’t have the time or the ability to offer anything but the basest of between plays. As offenses move faster, it is easier to simply say, “so-and-so missed the pass” when that rarely might be the case.
I broke my teeth in sports as a color commentator (and later play-by-play) for a small Division III school in Minnesota. As little as I was able to catch by breath during those broadcasts, NFL commentators have so much more to deal with. It isn’t just the offenses pushing the envelope, producers cram as much as they can into a telecast while advertisers want their products plugged as well.
The broadcast format does the viewer no favors as well. TV executives have decided (wisely) that the average NFL fan will follow the ball on any given play. Unless that safety or backside receiver is your cousin (or on your fantasy team), most fans don’t care about him. Because of that, TV angles focus tightly on the ball. However, much is lost in what cannot be seen on TV.
With complex option routes and extensive audible systems, many mistakes on the football field can’t be simplified to “so-and-so threw the ball poorly” or “so-and-so didn’t run the right route.” More often, the quarterback and receiver saw the same thing but reacted in different ways. The quarterback, looking at an safety’s shade can be thinking slant, while the receiver–noticing a stutter in the cornerback’s stride–is thinking he can beat his man deep. Both reactions are completely valid within the framework of the play, but neither explanation is often proffered.
Broadcasts often leave viewers with the idea that a small number of players are either superstars or bums and the rest of the field doesn’t really matter.
In real NFL terms, nothing could be farther from the truth, but there simply isn’t time (or effort) to break the finer points of the game down immediately. The far greater sin is the cookie-cutter answers given by color commentators who should be better. Troy Aikman, Phil Simms and Dan Fouts have all forgotten more football than many of us will ever know, but all are guilty of giving simplistic analysis to complicated situations. At best, it’s lazy. At worst, it’s disingenuous.
So, What’s the Solution?
I’ve already mentioned Dungy and Harrison as a pairing that gets the pregame Xs and Os right (or, as right as they reasonably can.) Mike Mayock is another guy that, pregame or in-game, is either on-the-money with analysis or keeps his mouth shut rather than filling dead air with something he isn’t sure about or just isn’t true.
Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon have emerged as a surprising pairing that works. Harlan, not truly an “NFL guy” is a capable play-by-play voice who can carry an exchange while Gannon, often deliberately, works through what happened on the field.
Billick and John Lynch have both, at times, come through with interesting commentary, from both their knowledge of the game and their experience. While not every former player or coach makes the transition into capable commentator, these two have. Billick is more polished than Lynch at this stage of the game, but both clearly have a future.
Fox has made the most inventive stride recently, with the addition of Mike Pereira to every broadcast as a rules analysts. From his perch at Fox, Pereira can bring insight and expertise that no other network has access to. As networks struggle to fill space during lengthy challenges, Fox has found a way to make it one of the highlights of their broadcast. No rambling, no ill-informed guessing, just the fact, maam, and Pereira is becoming a star because of how effective he’s been.
Sadly, the biggest broadcast each week–Monday Night Football–is probably the biggest offender when it comes to this issue. A pregame and halftime show driven by Berman and a broadcast that has pushed Jaws out of the booth to make room for Jon Gruden’s personality is never going to be as informative as a true diehard fan would want. (Or, ironically, as entertaining as ESPN producers think it is.)
So, this is the NFL, so this column can’t end with an impassioned plea to turn off the TV (although muting may be, at times, wise.) Instead, simply make your voices heard. Compliment announcers, commentators, producers and networks when you see something done right. In a social media-driven world, perhaps we can convince someone that less hot air and more cold hard facts is what the viewers really want.
Michael Schottey is an NFL Associate Editor for Bleacher Report (managing NFC and National NFL writers) and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in Michigan, Michael got his start in sports on Minnesota radio covering the Vikings as well as the other pro sports teams in Minneapolis. He now lives in Florida with his wife, 2-year-old son and is expecting another son shortly.
Some very good points from Michael. More guest columns coming up over the next few days.