Friday September 14th, 2007

In NASCAR circles they refer to the "silly season" as the flurry of personnel moves and team-switching between the last race of one season and the start of the next. Sports television has its own silly season, especially when it comes to the broadcast partners of the National Football League.

Notable additions to the small screen this year include: Tiki Barber (NBC), Tony Boselli (FOX), Bill Cowher (CBS), Keyshawn Johnson (ESPN), Keith Olbermann (NBC), Bill Parcells (ESPN), Emmitt Smith (ESPN) and Barry Switzer (Fox). After enduring endless conference calls, interviewing many of the principals and digesting an orgy of football from the opening week, we think we've got a line on it. Below, we offer SI.com's broadcasting guide to the new NFL season:

Who we like: James Brown. We've said it before: Brown is the most ego-free broadcaster in sports television today, and his switch from Fox to CBS last year changed the dynamics of the pregame ratings race. Last week The NFL Today finished with a 3.2 overnight rating, up 14 percent from last year and 3.2 percent higher than Fox.

It's the first time since 1998 that CBS' pregame show beat Fox in Week 1, according to the Sports Business Daily. "The addition of James Brown was a home run in every aspect in terms of what it did to Fox's pregame show and our show," says CBS Sports and News president Sean McManus. "We were up in every category and they were down in every category for the most part." What's new: Cowher. The former Steelers coach joins Brown, Boomer Esiason, Dan Marino and Shannon Sharpe on The NFL Today. He agreed to a two-year deal in February. "I can give an assessment, and I'll try to be honest," Cowher says. "It doesn't mean inwardly that I'm not pulling for [the Steelers]."

We're cool with him inwardly rooting for the Steelers, but we'd like him to be outwardly more interesting in the next few weeks.

On the hot seat: Esiason. Not that he's going anywhere, but his new gig replacing Don Imus on New York's WFAN Radio means that we're going to learn a lot more about Boomer Esiason than we ever thought we would. Is CBS concerned about one of its sportscasters offering political opinions and commenting on the news cycle?

"Initially, I'm not concerned," McManus says. "Obviously, we trust Boomer's instincts. Boomer is not just an ex-athlete. He knows a lot about politics and about the world. He has a lot of opinions. It's a great opportunity for Boomer and the cross-promotional opportunities for CBS Sports are terrific. We just hope he occasional mentions his Sunday job."

Week 1 highlight: A wicked shot by Esiason at newcomer Cowher. Said Esiason: "It must be good for Ben Roethlisberger to actually have a coach that will trust him."

Best game: Nov. 26: Baltimore at San Diego Executive swagger: Says McManus: "I predicted our games would be higher rated in the afternoon window than the Sunday night game, and they were 13 percent higher last year." Tweak at the competition: "Sunday Night might be football night in America, but Sunday afternoon is where the ratings are," McManus says. "The most important game is the late window on Sunday afternoon."

Who we like: From Cris Collinsworth to Bob Costas to Olbermann to Peter King (full disclosure: King works at SI.com!), there's plenty of broadcasting talent here with journalistic chops.

What's new: Just about everything when it comes to the Football Night in America studio show. Veteran producer Michael Weisman, who has seemingly been winning Emmys since the days of Desi and Lucy, was charged with fixing up a muddled pregame show that was torched by plenty of critics. As part of the reconstruction, NBC wisely jettisoned His Loudness (a.k.a. Sterling Sharpe) to bring in Barber, who isn't shy about expressing opinions (and isn't shy about selling Tiki Barber). Olbermann was added to handle highlights and free up Costas to counterpunch, which he does better than anyone.

"All the other shows look ahead. We get to look back, which is unique," Weisman says. "And this year it will feel like a live show as opposed to a scripted show."

The biggest hit or miss will be Olbermann's weekly "Worst Person In The NFL" feature. "It could be anybody from an official to a fan to a coach to Dick Ebersol, Weisman says. Trust us, it won't be Ebersol.

On the hot seat: Bettis and Barber. Genial and likable, the former Steeler needs to assert himself more on the set this year, especially with the flavor-of-the-month Barber seemingly everywhere on the network.

Barber will obviously garner attention given his high profile on the network and that he's just months out of uniform. He used "we" last week when talking about the Giants, but we're willing to give him the benefit of the doubt based on his history of candor.

"The standard is always, 'Are you willing to speak the truth in whatever you think?' Collinsworth says. "It doesn't necessarily have to be right, but it has to be what you really believe. I think Tiki has crossed that threshold."

Barber has plenty of critics, but it says here that he's the kind of ex-player networks should strive to hire: one who has consistently spoken his mind throughout his career, critics be damned.

Week 1 highlight: Call it a pre-Week 1 highlight, but we loved this interplay between Collinsworth and analyst John Madden on a recent conference call:

Madden: I think it's time to not only celebrate the start of the season, but to celebrate, I hope, the start of good news. This offseason has just been filled with crap. Ninety-nine percent of what happens in the NFL is good and then that one percent isn't so good. But we hear about that one percent more than we do that 99 percent.

Collinsworth: This is Cris, one of the people in charge of covering the one percent.

Best game: San Diego at New England (Sept. 16)

Executive swagger: "More people watched Sunday Night Football last year than any broadcast or cable prime time package since the year 2000," says Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics. "It gave NBC its highest-rated show of the season."

Tweak at the competition: Sunday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli, who produced Monday Night Football for ABC, told Boston Sports Media.com that Dennis Miller "brought more than Tony Kornheiser" and that "if he were not a sportswriter, I think the media would be more critical of him." Here's our take on that: Occasionally, and no duh, dude.

What's good: Adam Schefter, who has made a nice transition from a well-regarded newspaper reporter with good hair to a well-regarded television reporter with good hair. Deion Sanders isn't shy with his opinions, which is both good and bad for viewers. Analyst Brian Baldinger does solid work. When it comes to talking about pro prospects, Charles Davis and Mike Mayock can hold there own with anyone.

What's new: Because of the shortage of former football players offering opinions, the NFL Network brings you "Put Up Your Dukes", a daily, half-hour show hosted by former NFL offensive lineman Jamie Dukes.

On the hot seat: Bryant Gumbel. He'd likely be long gone from the booth if his name were not Bryant Gumbel. To be fair, Gumbel improved as the season went on, and he gets credit in these circles for refusing to take the company line despite drawing a paycheck from the NFL. But he's not a particularly strong game caller and the guess here is that the play-by-play gig won't be a long run.

Best game: Green Bay at Dallas (Nov. 29).

Who we like, Part I: Jaworski. He replaces Joe Theismann as the de facto ex-quarterback-analyst on Monday Night Football. The one difference? The audience likes him. So, clearly, does Kornheiser. "What is undeniable is that Jaws is joyful and ebullient and he is a pleasure to sit with," says Kornheiser. "If there was a criticism last year that made sense to me it was that sometimes we were not talking with each other. We might have been talking at each other."

Here's why I like him: Jaworski said he watched tape of every ball Brady Quinn threw at Notre Dame. That's every ball. No analyst is better at breaking down what's on the field.

Who we like, Part II: The best thing about ESPN's football coverage isn't its game coverage. It's NFL Live with Trey Wingo, who once again proved during the Michael Vick saga that he's the best at his network navigating viewers when news is breaking. "Trey is terrific," says executive vice president Norby Williamson. "His work is no surprise to any of us."

Nor to us, which is why as soon as Mr. Chris Berman utters his last nickname, I'd like to see this guy made the Don of Sunday Countdown to give it more gravitas.

What's New, Part III: An armada of new studio and on-site analysts, including Johnson, Parcells and Smith, and more Fantasy Football experts than passengers on the Queen Mary. It's too early to make any firm judgments, but Parcells and Johnson got off to good starts in Week 1.

What's new, Part IV: Relevance, when it comes to halftime guests, according to Williamson. "Relevance can be described in a lot of ways," he told SI.com. "Is there a connection to the two teams that are playing? Is there a connection to sports? Every guest that we tried did not work, but we succeeded on a number of platforms. They [the guest] have to make the viewer smarter or more engaged about that event. So, yes, we are bringing back guests to the booth, albeit on a reduced basis. We hit the mark more often than not last year, but the barometer for us is going to be A-list relevant."

(That would eliminate James Denton, Christian Slater, Sylvester Stallone, and, just in case they were thinking about it,Theismann).

What's new, Part V: The second halftime segment of MNF will be an abridged version of "Pardon The Interruption" and will also feature well-known artists debuting music (more on this later). ESPN has also added a Player Tracker, which it describes as optical tracking on specific players, leaving virtual trails on the field. To take advantage of the YouTube era, fans will submit videos to promote their team.

What's new, Part VI: Some 10-year-old kid on Sunday NFL Countdown annoying me by pretending to be an annoying sportscaster. Yo, Jason Krause, go back to the third grade immediately.

On the hot seat: The new studio analysts and Kornheiser.

• Johnson knows he's being compared to the previous wide receiver who sat in his chair, and while we advocated Michael Irvin's exit, the folks in Bristol knew that he would at least draw press for his controversial opinions.

• Parcells can prove he's finally retired by criticizing players and executives when it's warranted.

• Smith got off to a rough start with an ill-advised take on Michael Vick this summer, but he's got a high Q rating and he's a helluva dancer.

• The Kornheiser brand is being pushed all over ESPN platforms and, once again, the sports bloggers will be watching.

Week 1 highlight, Part I: Mike Greenberg telling the audience during the Niners-Cardinals broadcast that Kanye West's CD "drops" tomorrow. Nice read, playa. There's nothing more dope than a Connecticut guy dropping the 411 on his peeps, yo.

Week 1 highlight, Part II: Berman, on the 21-year run of he and Sunday NFL Countdown partner Tom Jackson: "Tom and I have been together longer than Gleason and Carney." Good line.

Wish list: Williamson said Oprah Winfrey has an open invite to sit in on the MNF booth anytime. Says Williamson: "You'd watch that, right?" Yes, we would.

Best game: New England at Cincinnati, Oct. 1

Executive swagger, Part I: "The chief goal for us this season is to beat High School Musical 2 and to regain the lead for the alltime highest rated cable show," says executive vice president Jed Drake. "I suspect we have a reasonable shot of doing that."

Executive swagger, Part II: Says Williamson: "When you look at everything that we do beyond the game window and just the pre-game show window, when you factor in SportsCenter and dot-com and information people, I don't think there is another entity that has the breath and depth of knowledge."

Who we like: Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long. The duo makes Fox NFL Sunday hum. We also like Troy Aikman, the best analyst in pro football. One thing to keep an eye on: Aikman, who worked with Charger coach Norv Turner for three years in Dallas and is a close friend of the coach, could be assigned the Chargers-Lions game on Dec. 16. Last week Aikman worked the Bears-Chargers game, the first time Aikman was in the booth for a game Turner was coaching.

What's new: Plenty. Curt Menefee gets the job of setting up Bradshaw, Long and Jimmy Johnson. It helps that Fox NFL Sunday has been moved back to a studio in Los Angeles instead of repeating last year's traveling and disjointed circus. Menefee's assignment means play-by-play man Joe Buck goes back to what he does best.

Johnson and Barry Switzer will be part of a weekly segment called "Grumpy Old Coaches," in which they debate and discuss the issues of the day in college and pro football. Call it a work in progress. Last week could have been called "Not So Grumpy Old Coaches Waste Five Minutes of My Valuable Time."

Boselli will call games early in the season with Ron Pitts. Jillian Barbarie, now married with child, returns as Jillian Reynolds. Solid info guy Jay Glazer has been brought into the studio.

On the hot seat: OK, Curt Menefee, here's what we want from you: We need you to establish immediate chemistry with a trio if guys who have worked together for more than a decade. We also want you to make viewers forget about James Brown. And, finally, we want you to beat CBS in the ratings. Good luck, kid. Here's one big thing Menefee has going for him: Bradshaw told SI.com that he called Fox NFL Sunday producer Scott Ackerson in the offseason to ask that Menefee be given the job. "I've never done that before,"Bradshaw said. "I swear that's the first time I've ever asked for something like that."

Week 1 highlight: Costas came on for a cameo and punched out Fox in-house comic Frank Caliendo for making fun of him. A terrific gag and it makes both Fox and NBC look very smart. Here's hoping Parcells walks on the set of The NFL Today later this year and gets punched out by Cowher.

Best game: Saints at Bears, Dec, 30 (regular season) and Super Bowl XLII, Feb. 3

Executive swagger: "Every year during Weeks 1 to 3 the press does a weekly update on ratings, but when we get to the end of the season and you get the full scoreboard, there is not much written," says Fox Sports president Ed Goren. "Let me give you some quick scoreboard information from last year. The NFL on Fox was the most watched football season on Fox since 1995... Fox's national games was television's highest rated and most watched program of the fall... Fox's national doubleheader game beat Sunday Night Football by 25 percent. As far as scoreboard, there are a lot of Number 1s on that list."

Tweak at the competition: "If it hadn't been for Tom Coughlin, Tiki Barber might not have even been playing the last couple of years because he had been dropping balls on the ground so many times, he'd have been over on the sideline," says Johnson. "Now that he is in the broadcast business, I guess he got smarter and he forgot about all those fumbles."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.