What’s new among the five networks carrying games this season—and which one is broadcasting’s version of Johnny Manziel
At the beginning of any NFL season, whether they’re spinning for public consumption or believing it with fiber and soul, sports network executives will praise the NFL schedule-makers for setting them up with a great slate of games. But give CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus credit: Not only did he praise the league for hooking up CBS this year, but he was effusive about his competitors as well.
"Taking a step back, if I was any of the other broadcast partners I would be pretty satisfied with the schedule," McManus said. "I think the Fox schedule is really good, and I think the other two primetime schedules are really good. With the extra complication of trying to increase the marquee value of Thursday night, I think the NFL did an amazing job not just for us but for all the broadcast partners."
We won’t know for months whether the 2014 schedule results in higher viewership, but don’t bet against the NFL. Last year regular season games averaged 17.6 million viewers per telecast, the second most-watched season behind 2010 (17.9 million). Below, The MMQB offers a quick snapshot of what each football-airing network has planned for you this season. (For individual previews of each network, which I’m doing this week and next for SI.com, head over to my archive).
What’s new: Once upon a time you could count on CBS to be the most conservative of all the football-airing networks. Every year they’d load up John Madden and Pat Summerall and that was that. But anarchy has arrived in the land of Les Moonves. “I’m not sure we have been as conservative as you imply; we have made a lot of changes throughout the years,” said McManus. “Don’t confuse stability with conservatism.”
Fair enough, but stability passed go at CBS after last season and morphed into significant change. First and foremost, the NFL granted the network a new prime-time package, and so every Thursday night from Sept. 11 to Oct. 23 (as well Dec. 20), NFL games will air on CBS and also be simulcast on NFL Network as part of Thursday Night Football (Games in Weeks 9-12 and Weeks 14-16 will be televised on NFL Network and will be simulcast on over-the-air stations in the primary markets of the participating teams.) All TNF games (they are all divisional matchups) will kick off at 8:25 p.m. ET, with the exception of the Week 16 Saturday doubleheader, when the NFL Network will air its game at 4:30 p.m. ET with CBS at 8:00 p.m. McManus said CBS will have two players mic’d for every Thursday game and that CBS will have as much equipment for those games as they would for any playoff game other than the Super Bowl. There will also be new graphics, music and images solely for TNF, and CBS is using its “A” broadcasting team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, as well as its top production talent. Tracy Wolfson also moves from the SEC sidelines to the lead sideline reporter for TNF. “Hopefully, the presentation will be such that people see it is first class,” McManus said.
As for the pregame show leading into TNF, CBS regulars James Brown and Bill Cowher will be joined by NFL Network's Deion Sanders for a show beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET on CBS and simulcast on the NFL Network. That group will also do the halftime coverage of each Thursday night game.
As far as CBS game broadcasts are concerned, change is also the buzzword: The announcing team of Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts has moved up to the No. 2 spot at the network. First-year analyst Trent Green has been paired with Greg Gumbel following the retirement of Dan Dierdorf. They’ll serve as the No. 3 unit. Marv Albert stepped down from his NFL on CBS duties and was replaced by Kevin Harlan, who will team up with Rich Gannon on the No. 4 team. The No. 5 team is Spero Dedes and Solomon Wilcots (who used to partner with Harlan), and the final team features Andrew Catalon, with Steve Beuerlein and Steve Tasker rotating as the analyst. Jenny Dell (for Eagle/Fouts) and Evan Washburn (Gumbel/Green) have been added as sideline reporters. Brian Anderson and Tom McCarthy will serve as backup play-by-play announcers; Adam Archuleta and Chris Simms will do the same as analysts.
With Wolfson, Dell and Washburn, CBS Sports management has dramatically shifted its philosophy on NFL sideline reporters. This year the network will have full-time sideline reporters for NFL regular season games for the first time since 2006. Last year Wolfson worked select NFL games including the Super Bowl.
“We have had sideline reporters for years at CBS for the playoffs and when we looked at how we will produce Thursday night, we thought we wanted to do this like the playoffs,” McManus said. “We then decided to do the same on Sunday."
The NFL Today has also gotten a makeover, as Tony Gonzalez and Bart Scott replace Dan Marino and Shannon Sharpe.
What’s underrated: The addition of Gonzalez. He’s bright, opinionated and producers say he’s going to work hard. “CBS hired me to give my opinion, and now I can give my full opinion,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t have to be a jerk about it. There is a constructive way to criticize someone. Before I shied away from that, but this is what I am getting paid to do. I really believe I will be fair. I don’t have an agenda. I am not out to crucify anyone. I’m not the hater type. And I’ll also be someone who said I was wrong about something.”
What’s overrated: Eagle and Fouts were underrated for so long that they have become the most overrated underrated announcing team in the NFL. But they are damn good. No network loves to show shots of NFL owners more than CBS. Here’s hoping they reduce that, along with the bros-will-be-bros laugh track that historically amplifies The NFL Today.
Best Games: Steelers at Ravens (Sept.11); Chiefs at Broncos (Sept. 14); Broncos at Seahawks (Sept. 21); Broncos at Patriots (Nov. 2); Patriots at Packers (Nov. 30).
If the network coverage were a current player it would be ….. Aaron Rodgers.
What’s new: ESPN will air its first-ever postseason game next January when the usual Monday Night Football broadcast team of Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and sideline reporter Lisa Salters broadcast a wild-card game. The talent remains the same as last year for the Monday night crew, but during the regular season MNF will have an earlier kickoff time (8:15 p.m. ET, starting in Week 2). ESPN said the network will televise the national anthem preceding every MNF game this fall—a first for the show.
On the studio end, the Sunday NFL Countdown crew will broadcast from a new a state-of-the-art 90,000-square foot space inside ESPN’s Digital Center 2 in Bristol, Conn. New talent additions to Countdown include features reporter Michelle Beisner, contributor and former SI writer Jim Trotter, reporter/host Wendi Nix and new Washington, D.C.-based bureau reporter Britt McHenry. SportsCenter host Lindsay Czarniak will be a reporter on most Sundays. The network’s Monday Night Countdown pregame show will now start at 6:00 p.m. ET.
What’s underrated: ESPN’s NFL features unit. Week in and week out the features group does a remarkable job of producing quality profiles on NFL stories. If you want to see a stark difference in production and philosophy, compare how ESPN approaches an NFL long-form piece journalistically with how Fox Sports does it. The back part of the MNF schedule is potentially loaded.
What’s overrated: Countdown staffers Mike Ditka and Keyshawn Johnson can be insufferable at times. The network has a habit of bludgeoning every debate topic in the league. So many voices at ESPN want airtime that it often leads to shouting or performing to get your point across.
Digital tips: All of ESPN’s NFL programming, including Monday Night Football, will be accessible via WatchESPN. There are hundreds of solid ESPN-ers you can follow on Twitter for NFL information with Adam Schefter being the most wired of all of them.
Best games Eagles at Colts (Sept. 15); Patriots at Chiefs (Sept. 29); Panthers at Eagles (Nov. 10); Saints at Bears (Dec. 15); Broncos at Bengals (Dec. 22).
If the network coverage were a current player it would be ….. Johnny Manziel.
What’s new: Talent changes everywhere. In July SI.com broke the story that Pam Oliver was being removed from the top announcing team after 19 seasons on the sidelines. Initially Fox management was going to take Oliver off the NFL altogether but eventually conceded to give her one final season. She will work on the No. 2 broadcast team with Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch. Erin Andrews has vaulted to the network’s No. 1 NFL sideline reporter, working with announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. Veteran Chris Myers returns to call games for the No. 3 team, with analyst Ronde Barber and sideline reporter Jennifer Hale. Newcomer David Diehl, a former Giants lineman, debuts as an analyst alongside announcer Thom Brennaman and sideline reporter Laura Okmin. The former No. 2 team of Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston and Tony Siragusa has been dropped in the lineup to No. 5. Donovan McNabb, Brady Quinn and Kirk Morrison have been added as analysts and will rotate on broadcasts with stalwart play-by-play man Dick Stockton. Justin Kutcher will work as a backup play-by-play voice, and Brendon Ayanbadejo will serve as a backup analyst. Peter Schrager will be a fill-in sideline reporter. Brian Billick, Kris Budden, Heath Evans, Molly McGrath and Tim Ryan are off the NFL, with McGrath and Budden moving to college football for the network.
What’s underrated: Chemistry is vital for a successful studio show, and the long-running dynamic between Bradshaw and Long on Fox NFL Sunday is likely taken for granted by some viewers. It should not be. They’ve been entertaining and thoughtful for their duration at Fox. I still say Curt Menefee deserves more love for being an ego-free host. Fox will miss Oliver’s work and contacts when she’s gone.
What’s overrated: Fox management has fallen in love with Andrews as an NFL sideline reporter despite a small body of work to justify that take. She can prove a lot this year by unearthing interesting news in real-time but more importantly by asking questions that occasionally challenge players and coaches. Fox’s affinity for McNabb here and on Fox Sports Live is truly puzzling.
Digital Tips: Fox Sports GO is scheduled to live-stream 97 regular-season games and four NFC playoff games. The games will be available on tablets through the Fox Sports GO app and on desktops at FOXSportsGO.com. (Due to league restrictions, NFL games are not available through Fox Sports GO on mobile phones.)
Best games: Bears at Patriots (Oct. 26); Niners at Saints (Nov. 9); Eagles at Packers (Nov 16); Seahawks at Eagles (Dec. 7); Niners at Seahawks (Dec. 14).
If the network coverage were a current player it would be ….. Richard Sherman
What’s new: The talent and production remain essentially unchanged but it’s a huge year for NBC given that it will air Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1, 2015. In all, NBC will broadcast 22 games, including a Thanksgiving night game on Nov. 27, a wild-card playoff game on the weekend of Jan. 3-4, and a divisional playoff game on the Jan. 10-11 weekend. On the technical end, Sunday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli said the broadcast will mount a real-time weather monitor on a cable cam to give viewers in-depth weather perspectives during game action. NBC has also redesigned its Football Night in America studio set. That pregame show (which employs The MMQB editor-in-chief Peter King) adds onetime SI NFL writer Josh Elliott as a features reporter, and reporter Kathryn Tappen.
Elliott, King, Silver. SI NFL team, 1998. Feelin' groovy! In Seattle. pic.twitter.com/AwUGucgnzA
— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) September 4, 2014
What’s underrated: FNIA analyst Tony Dungy has become a smart and opinionated voice, which I think few would have predicted when he entered broadcasting.
What’s overrated: No one loves a theme song more than NBC's football execs, and while Carrie Underwood undoubtedly has star power, SNF's over the top "Waiting All Day for Sunday Night" plays like a late-night Vegas act. They'd better off conceptually with a new opener each week geared toward the field.
Digital Tips: All SNF games are streamed live online via NBC Sports Live Extra, and NBCSports.com has behind-the-scenes photos and videos of the SNF production team and conversations with SNF and FNIA talent. Michele Tafoya will provide real-time tweets from the sideline, and the show’s Instagram feed has photos from inside the production trucks, locker rooms and the field.
Best games: Colts at Broncos (Sept. 7); Niners at Broncos (Oct. 19); Patriots at Colts (Nov. 16); Seahawks at Niners (Nov. 27, Thanksgiving Night).
If the network coverage were a current player it would be ….. Peyton Manning.
What’s new: Obviously the Thursday Night partnership with CBS was the major offseason news, but the NFL Network, given its programming needs, makes talent and production moves every year. One major addition is the debut of NFL GameDay Live, which will air Sundays from 1:00-7:30 PM ET and offer highlights and analysis of the 1:00 and 4:00 PM ET games, as well as live fantasy updates and reports, press conferences, interviews and live reports from game sites. The hosts are Kevin Frazier and Dan Hellie. The analysts are Brian Billick, Heath Evans, LaDainian Tomlinson and Daniel Jeremiah. Rhett Lewis and Erin Coscarelli are the new hosts for the daily NFL AM, which has added LaVar Arrington as a full-time analyst. NFL GameDay Morning has added quality reporters in Steve Cyphers, Andrea Kremer, Mike Silver, and Mark Kreigel.
As for the Thursday night pregame setup, NFL Total Access Kickoff will air Thursday at 6:00 PM ET on NFLN before every Thursday night game. The show features host Rich Eisen and analysts Michael Irvin, Marshall Faulk and Steve Mariucci live on site. Immediately following each TNF game, Eisen, Irvin, Faulk, Mariucci and Sanders will have a player or coach from the winning team on the set.
What’s underrated: The quality of documentary work. The network’s A Football Life series does not garner the same attention as ESPN’s 30 for 30 but it’s high-quality work worth watching. Eisen remains underrated as a host. He continues to improve in his craft.
What’s overrated: The ability of over-the-top personalities such as Warren Sapp and Michael Irvin to deliver for viewers. NFL Network management falls in love with such guys yearly because they falsely believe they move the needle. What they do is move people to purchase Advil.
Digital tips: The network’s news-breakers, from Ian Rapoport to Albert Breer and draft experts such as Jeremiah are must-follows for a daily NFL diet. As with many of us, Eisen’s Twitter feed is filled with self-promotion, but it also contains plenty of quality information and links. Another worthy follow.
Best Games: Steelers at Ravens (Sept.11); Saints at Panthers (Oct. 30), and Cowboys at Bears (Dec. 14).
If the network coverage were a current player it would be ….. Matthew Stafford