From breaking news to moving features to on-air embarrassments, the best and worst of 2014 from those who cover the NFL
Media Person of the Year
THE PICK (tie): The trio of Adam Schefter, Don Van Natta and Kevin Van Valkenburg (ESPN).
Rarely does a reporter dominate a beat during the opening of a free agency period like Schefter did last March. From boldfaced names (Darrelle Revis, Jared Allen, Golden Tate, DeMarcus Ware) to rank and file players (Shawn Lauvao, Tyson Jackson, Andre Roberts), Schefter broke seemingly every signing on Day 1 of free agency. “I've been a reporter for 32 years and I've never seen anybody break as much news in one day as Adam Schefter,” said Ed Werder, an ESPN colleague.
The blog Awful Announcing counted 62 NFL players that Schefter broke news on. It was a remarkable showing, though worth noting is that one of Schefter’s main competitors, Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer, was suffering from a dangerous case of aspiration double pneumonia. But Schefter’s work stood out all year, including foreshadowing Buffalo drafting Sammy Watkins by reporting that Stevie Johnson was likely to be moved (which he was, to the Niners). He also morphed from what came off as a vanilla, pro-league take on Ray Rice’s domestic violence case to a blistering attack on the league that reflected what many felt about the NFL’s lax handling of the case.
The dogged reporting by Van Natta and Van Valkenburg on the NFL’s handling of the Rice assault shed significant light on the league’s (and the Ravens’) clumsy handling of the case. The duo’s reporting contradicted NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's statement that he did not know precisely what had happened inside the elevator until TMZ Sports released the second videotape. Van Natta also did a piece on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that was one of the signature sports profiles of the year.
HONORABLE MENTION: Rachel Nichols (CNN), TMZ Sports.
Nichols forcefully questioned Goodell during his initial press conference on Rice, illuminating some of the significant issues on the incident with her queries. TMZ’s September release of Rice’s assault from inside the elevator changed the shape of that case and ignited a national conversation on domestic violence.
Broadcast Team of the Year
THE PICK: Trey Wingo, Trent Dilfer, Mel Kiper and Todd McShay (ESPN’s NFL Draft Day 3 coverage).
ESPN’s coverage of Michael Sam’s selection was the network at its absolute best. Seth Markman, the network’s senior coordinating producer for the NFL, said the discussion on how to handle the possiblilty of a Sam selection had occurred for months, and when the core draft production team arrived in New York City, they spent the final 45 minutes of a Friday morning production meeting discussing Sam alone. Following Sam’s seventh-round selection by St. Louis and a 10-minute examination of how Sam would fit in with the Rams both as a football player and a media curiosity, Wingo informed viewers that they were about to see footage of the moment Sam learned he had been drafted. Wingo began to talk over the footage but abruptly pulled out and let the natural sound of Sam’s weeping take over. The Missouri defensive lineman held the phone close to his ear as he spoke with Rams coach Jeff Fisher. Viewers saw Sam’s boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, consoling him, then wiping his own tears. They heard Sam say “Yes, sir” twice and then “thank you.” That was followed by Sam kissing his boyfriend and both men embracing. Then another kiss, more hugs and the raw footage running out. It was unlike anything viewers had ever seen at an NFL Draft and remarkable, honest television.
Wingo then led the audience to analyst Bill Polian, the former Bills and Colts general manager who offered honest words on Sam: “I recognize that this is hard for non-football people to understand but at this stage of the draft you are trying to draft players that can make your team and there is an old saw in scouting that says when you are down here and the talent level isn’t outstanding, stay with the numbers, meaning people who have good 40 times, good height, weight and speed. Then sign as a free agent after the draft toughness and attitude. Don’t waste a draft choice on someone who doesn’t have the numbers. Michael Sam does not have ideal numbers. He’s a tweener in virtually every way.”
Polian later explained why Sam could be a good fit for the Rams given the creative schemes of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a blitz-happy coordinator. The conversation eventually led to new images of Sam, breathing heavy, and giving his boyfriend another kiss. Later, Sam and his boyfriend smashed cake into each other’s faces and kissed again. “This is a draft unlike any other from what we just experienced,” Wingo said. “Maybe one of the more relevant picks we have had in recent history—Michael Sam crossing that barrier, becoming the first openly gay man drafted in the NFL.”
ESPN went 17 minutes on the Sam selection, and it led up to the draft’s final selection. Sensational work.
HONORABLE MENTION: Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth (NBC); Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts (CBS).
Newcomer of the Year
THE PICK: London Fletcher (CBS Sports Network, That Other Pregame Show)
One of the issues that ex-players have when they enter broadcasting is that they are unable to separate themselves from their previous life. They pull punches. They protect former teammates and coaches. They don’t reveal the underbelly of the game. Fletcher told The Washington Post in September that he felt “liberated” being away from football for the first time in two decades and pledged to be true to himself and the people watching him. With that as a backdrop, Fletcher delivered one of the more remarkable on-air commentaries by an ex-player I’ve ever seen when talking about his former defensive coordinator, Jim Haslett.
“Why does Jim Haslett still have his job as defensive coordinator after five years of ineptitude at the defensive coordinator position?” Fletcher said. “He is clueless as a defensive coordinator. He lacks attention to detail. He lacks feel on how to call a game. Some of the calls he used to call when I was playing were head scratching. They were so bad I used to change them—‘We're not running that.’ And we'd get off the field and he would ask, ‘Why did you change the call?’ For years he has always made excuses. One minute it was ‘We’re changing from the 3-4 and we don't have the right personnel.’ Next minute it is salary cap. Next minute it is Mike Shanahan. Next minute it is injuries,” Fletcher said. “Mike Shanahan recognized early that this guy does not know what he is doing. And he tried to help him out… And what does Jim Haslett do? He threw (Shanahan) under the bus just like he throws everybody under the bus, players and coaches included. He is a guy that does not know what he is doing."
He followed by tweeting Haslett had ruined “plenty of people’s careers.”
When being bold isn’t a put-on, it makes for interesting television.
HONORABLE MENTION: Trent Green (CBS), Jim Trotter (ESPN), Tracy Wolfson (CBS).
THE PICK: Cris Carter (ESPN)
Carter’s emotional commentary on Adrian Peterson’s misdemeanor reckless assault on his four-year-old child resonated through the clutter. He connected with the audience through the prism of his own experiences with corporal punishment, telling the story of how his mother “whooped” him as a kid. It was powerful, honest television and part of a year during which he emerged on multiple ESPN airwaves after signing a four-year deal with the network in January. Along with Sunday NFL Countdown and Monday Night Countdown, Carter became a regular on ESPN Radio throughout the NFL season, appearing most weeks on the Mike & Mike show. While I’m not a Mike & Mike regular—I’m loyal to Howard Stern and The BBC World Service in the morning—Carter was interesting every time I heard him on the show.
HONORABLE MENTION: Jerome Bettis (ESPN); Louis Riddick (ESPN); Kurt Warner (NFL Network).
Best Television Feature
THE PICK: ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown (Oct. 19) had a beautifully-produced feature on the relationship between Browns cornerback Joe Haden and his younger brother Jacob, who is challenged to communicate verbally. It’s hard to watch without getting choked up. Full marks to producer Terrell Bouza, reporter Josina Anderson, director of photography Nathan Golon, and editors Sean E. Stall and Pete Hollander.
HONORABLE MENTION: A Christmas Wish For Leah (Sunday NFL Countdown, Dec. 21). Markman considered this piece on Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still and his daughter, Leah, the most impactful piece Sunday NFL Countdown produced during the 2014 season. Remarkably, a production assistant (John Summa) produced the feature. Promote that kid, ASAP.
Tweet of the Year
THE PICK: PFT Commenter, Kissing Suzy Kolber and SB Nation
I’m not sure if I can print this on The MMQB but here goes.
Note: Some of these selections were taken from my SI.com Media Awards. Those of you who read that piece will see some crossover.
• ESPN’s Chris Berman and Trent Dilfer discussing the Ray Rice assault (and the Ravens cutting him) during the Chargers-Cardinals game was a disaster on… AND THE PUNT IS BLOCKED!
• As highlighted by Awful Announcing’s Matt Yoder, the issues of former NFL and Washington paid consultant Frank Luntz appearing on Fox Sports 1 to discuss (i.e. praise) how Roger Goodell performed during his press conference. Not a good moment for Fox Sports 1.
• ESPN’s Johnny Manziel obsession at the draft, as chronicled by Tim Burke of Deadspin.
• This Bill Polian interview and re-interview was as strange a sports TV sequence as you will ever see.
• CBS hired former NFL referee Mike Carey to be a Mike Pereira-like presence in the booth. He had a rough first year.
• NBC Football Night In America studio analyst Tony Dungy’s ‘distraction’ take on Michael Sam.
• UFC announcer Mike Goldberg destroyed a part-time NFL announcing gig with a couple of tweets.
• ESPN takes a lot of guff—and rightly so—when it comes to the company’s still-too-frequent-though-improved-habit of playing games with attribution on stories, the most laughable being the phrase “media reports” rather than giving the specific source proper credit for a news break. But the same rules need to apply when similar things happen when ESPN is on the other end. In NBC News’ interview with Steven Elliott—the former Army Ranger who broke his long silence to ESPN in April about his role in Pat Tillman’s death—there was no mention that ESPN investigative reporter Mike Fish and enterprise/investigative producer Willie Weinbaum had reported this story extensively for years. The NBC script informed viewers that Elliott was “stepping from the shadows” to tell his story, which is absurd given
ESPN’s Outside The Lines ran an extensive online and video piece on Elliott, who trusted the ESPN reporters to initially go public. This by no means diminishes the importance of re-telling Elliott’s story, especially for those service members suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, and kudos to NBC for investing the resources to travel to Washington state to examine Elliott’s current life. It’s a worthy story to illuminate, but they owed the viewer (and ESPN as a professional colleague) to cite ESPN’s role in bringing Elliott to the public.
• Dilfer fronted a de facto infomercial in January on ESPN colleague Tim Tebow’s attempts to become a viable quarterback, a piece one former ESPN-er in an email to me called “a new low for ESPN cannibalism.”
Note: Some of these selections were taken from my SI.com Media Awards. Those of you who read that piece will see some crossover.
• Former Saints safety Steve Gleason live-tweeted (using his eyes) the Saints-Eagles game for NBC’s Sunday Night Football in January. Here’s an awesome Vine of Gleason tweeting.
• Great work by ESPN investigative reporter Mike Fish and producer Willie Weinbaum on an Outside the Lines special on Pat Tillman 10 years after his death. After years of working the story, the two ESPN staffers earned the trust of Elliott, who discussed for the first time publicly on ESPN’s platforms the events that led to Tillman’s death from his vantage point as one of the shooters.
• The eight Thursday Night Football games that aired on both CBS and the NFL Network during Weeks 2-8 and Week 16 were the most-watched program on television in primetime for that night across all networks. In addition, the simulcast on NFL Network those weeks was the top-rated and most-watched program on cable television for Weeks 2, 4, 6, and 8. For the 16 games of the 2014 schedule, Thursday Night Football averaged 12.3 million viewers, up 52 percent compared to last year's 8.1 million for the 13 games in 2013 on NFL Network and over-the-air stations. Look for CBS to retain the Thursday Night NFL package.
• ESPN’s Louis Riddick, the former player personnel director for the Eagles, was a rare truth-telling NFL voice for a rightsholder. He directly criticized Goodell on the Rice adjudication and spoke for much of the public when questioning NFL officials who claimed they never saw video from inside the Atlantic City hotel elevator of Rice assaulting Janay Rice.
• Upon concluding the first half of its fifth season, an eight-episode arc that ran from Oct. 12 to Nov. 30, AMC’s The Walking Dead topped NBC’s Sunday Night Football five times out of eight weeks in the adults 18-49 demo, making it (as of Nov. 30) the No. 1 show in television for that group of viewers, the key demo for advertisers. AMC said The Walking Dead averaged 9.6 million adults in the 18-49 category for its fall 2014 run, tops across all cable and broadcast networks for a series.
• Cool tribute by NBC: Sunday Night Football production staffers wearing the jerseys of Devon Still, whose four-year daughter has cancer.
• Fox NFL reporter Jay Glazer had a monster get when he procured video of Tennessee tight end Chase Coffman blindsiding a Ravens assistant coach on the sideline during an interception.
• This “Best Days” feature that ran on NFL Sunday Countdown, by ESPN producer Dominique Goodridge.
• CBS This Morning anchor Norah O’Donnell asked Roger Goodell the following: “How is it that the NFL couldn’t get its hands on the second tape but TMZ could?” He had no answer.
• CBS Sports producer Charlie Bloom, one of the best in the business, produced this terrific feature on Bears defensive end Jared Allen’s involvement with the Wounded Warriors Project.
• Classy move by Washington’s PR staff to pay tribute to Bryan Burwell prior to a game against St. Louis.
• The combined audience for ESPN and NFL Network’s first-round draft coverage was 12.4 million viewers, the most-watched first round ever. Taken separately, ESPN averaged 9,943,000 viewers during the first round, up 60 percent over 2013. The NFL Network’s first-round coverage drew 2.4 million viewers, a 60 percent increase over last year’s previous record (1.5 million viewers). As for the entire draft, the 15-plus hours on ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 4,121,000 viewers, a 36 percent gain over 2013 (3,035,000). NFL Network viewership was up 33 percent over last year. Draft coverage of all rounds across ESPN, ESPN2, and NFLN averaged 5.4M viewers, the most-watched draft in history.
• Nice touch by ESPN during its Super Bowl pregame show to express sympathy for the passing of Terry Bradshaw’s dad, Bill.
• Stanford’s David Shaw continues to set himself up for a life after coaching. For the second consecutive year, Shaw was a terrific addition to the NFL Network’s draft coverage.
• South Park’s love-letter to Washington owner Daniel Snyder.
QUOTES OF THE YEAR
“I really have too much respect for the craft. I know what goes into it and I know what you have to do to do it. To assume I could not do it for six years and then come back and do it one time would be a stupid assumption on my part. The game changes. And the game not only changes from year to year but week to week. It is a complicated and complex thing. To think you could come back and broadcast at any level that would be accepted, I don’t have that kind of ego.”
—Former NFL broadcaster John Madden, on whether he would come back for a one-time assignment
“To go from the lead crew to no crew was a little shocking. I said I wanted to do a 20th year [on the sidelines]. I expressed to them that I was not done and had something to offer. Again, I think it was predetermined coming in. Not at that meeting, but two years ago it was determined that no matter what I did or did not do, a change would be made for this year.”
—Longtime Fox Sports NFL sideline reporter Pam Oliver, on Fox Sports management’s decision to remove her initially from NFL coverage entirely before putting her on the No. 2 team
“[It’s] not my job to make a stand on their name. If they're keeping the name, I'll keep using the name. If they're not, I won't. I'll call them whatever the team calls itself. It’s Dan Snyder's decision, not mine. As far as I can tell, he has as much interest in changing the Redskins name as I do in changing mine. So to me they remain the Washington Redskins.”
—ESPN’s Adam Schefter, on using the Redskins nickname
“I haven’t felt as good about anything since the Mets won the World Series in 1986.”
—Fox NFL producer Richie Zyontz, when asked if he remained confident on the decision to cut short Fox’s interview with Richard Sherman after the NFC Championship Game
“I think one of the things that bothered people so much over this was that the public did not feel the NFL understood why people were so upset—and did not understand why some of the early answers were not good enough. Hard questions to Roger Goodell in that press conference in some ways let people feel like they were having an opportunity to ask the things they wanted to ask. It let people feel their voices were being heard. I was just looking for information and I was little bothered by the perception that I was going after Roger Goodell. What I was doing was looking for the truth.”
—CNN reporter Rachel Nichols, on questioning NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
“If you cover the NFL, each day you work.”
—Washington Post columnist and former Redskins beat writer Jason Reid, when asked how often he is lied to by someone he covers
“CBS you pulled my song last week, now you wanna slide it back in this Thursday? NO, F— you! Y'all are sad for penalizing me for this.”
—Singer Rihanna, on CBS pulling her song from Thursday Night Football in September
“I think there was just a lot of spin there. It was a great opportunity for the commissioner to come out and be forthright and let everyone know what in fact he did know and why the investigation stopped when it did. Instead of getting answers, I think everybody walked away from watching that press conference without any answers whatsoever. I think if you’re going to hold players and coaches to a certain standard, then you as the commissioner—who has served as judge and jury since 2006—you’ve got to be held to the same standard as well. If it is proven that that tape in fact did make its way to the league office there on Park Avenue -- whether he saw that tape or didn’t see that tape, ignorance is no excuse, that has been levied against the New Orleans Saints and Sean Payton—I think there have to be some pretty severe punishments for the commissioner himself.”
—Fox NFL analyst Troy Aikman on Roger Goodell’s Rice presser
“The only time was when [then-ABC Sports president] Dennis Swanson asked me not to before the San Francisco-San Diego Super Bowl in Miami after the 1994 season. The league was sensitive that the spread opened at 19 and I think it went to 18 or 18 ½. So Swanson said to me—and not really seriously—that the league is really sensitive to the big spread so if you can just avoid it. And I did… until the end of the game. The game was 49-26 San Francisco so you have a 23-point differential and there is one play left in the game. San Diego had the ball at the 35-yard line and Stan Humphries is going to launch a pass into the end zone. That’s when The Rascal could not help himself. I said ‘Humphries launches one into the end zone and all over America hearts are beating furiously. Incomplete.’ ”
—Sunday Night Football announcer Al Michaels, on whether he has ever been chastised by management or the NFL for mentioning gambling spreads.
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