The NFL Draft is the TV equivalent of an open-book test, one taken by professional broadcasters and network analysts. They've know the subject from the inside, and they've been covering it ad nauseam for the past two months, including those final five-hour draft previews Saturday on both ESPN and the NFL Network.
Watching the dueling NFL Draft presentations presented a challenge. Would it be better to set up dual TVs with sound on each or opt for picture-in-picture on one screen and toggle between them for the audio feed? We opted for the latter.
Some notes on the networks' oral exam, also called the actual telecast.
ESPN gets the edge. Its corporate culture features improved news reporting, lots of analysis, great graphics and a deep stable of talent. The ESPN screen's "Pick is In'' alert was understated compared to the NFL Network "Selection'' headline. ESPN, as is its wont, cut away fairly quickly to "Baseball Tonight'' right after the draft's 256th and final (Mr. Irrelevant) pick Sunday night ... The NFL Network presentation was hardly second-rate. The network is availing itself of many eager and capable on-air personalities. It had combine and NFL Films video, along with the unflappable and seemingly indefatigable Rich Eisen hosting. The NFL Network clearly is a draw for players and coaches.
ESPN's Chris Berman. The network's signature personality is a quick study. He sometimes reacted to events by jumping on the obvious and not throwing the analysis to one of his co-hosts quickly enough, but he'll be missed on the same level as John Madden if or when he ever retires. He wrapped up Day 1's coverage with a congenial chat with Patriots coach Bill Belichick. He got Belichick to elaborate on the Patriots' four selections in Round 2. Grade A.
NFL Network's Rich Eisen: He had Belichick on near the end of the Saturday preview show, getting the coach to say, "The chances of us being in the Top 20 [trading up] are less than zero, and the odds of us going the other way [trading down] are pretty good.''
On the Patriots' draft philosophy: "Take the highest player on our board. You never have too many young players, especially at positions where you have many players ... Draft picks are opportunities to build your team.''
While both shows had NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL Network had him on along with new Players Union head DeMaurice Smith. The two were cordial, though it was clear the coming collective bargaining talks won't be easy as there appeared to be an impasse on the rookie pay scale.
Eisen was a constant throughout the two days, as he is on the NFL Network's daily "Total Access.'' He signed off calling the weekend's assignment "an honor.'' Grade A+.
Trey Wingo (ESPN): He worked well with Herm Edwards and Todd McShay on Day 1. "I talked to one GM who said Percy Harvin's problem was as much a failed intelligence test as a football drug test,'' was among his better lines. On Day 2 he ran the main desk as though he'd been doing it for 20 years. Great job. Eagles coach Andy Reid, tiring of Wingo's tough questions, quipped, "Isn't Jaws [Ron Jaworski] there to answer those?''
Fran Charles (NFL). I wondered if the low-key but always capable Charles would take charge of his three-man group with analysts Tom Waddle and Mike Lombardi. No need. The trio started slowly, hit their stride and were terrific as they rotated in for a lengthy segment each hour as the main desk took a break.
Suzy Kolber (ESPN). She was a pro and ran ESPN's Day 2 "Bristol set'' with Tom Jackson, Cris Carter and Trent Dilfer. She also had double duty in doing live interviews with NFL coaches on remote cameras.
ESPN broke into the Nuggets-Hornets game early in the coverage and teased the 9 p.m. Lakers-Jazz telecast with a Kobe Bryant live interview. Grade: Shameless but S.O.P.
The NFL Network ran banners saying "6 Days No More NFL Network'' and, on Sunday, "5 Days No More NFL Network,'' directing viewers to IwantNFLNetwork.com as part of its campaign to get off Comcast's sports tier. However, there are an awful lot of us who think the NFL Network is just where it should be; namely, on a sports tier for sports fans. Grade: Shameful.
NFL Network's Mike Mayock. Well-prepared and well-spoken with generally succinct insights. Wore well over the almost 16 hours. References to wide receivers as "play toys'' for quarterbacks were a bit odd. Took us inside with analysis of scouting lingo such as "loose hips,'' "getting skinny'' to get through small creases, and "sticks his feet on the ground.'' May have uttered more words than Kiper over the two days.
Deion Sanders, NFL. It seemed strange to have him as Emcee in introducing the players who were at Radio City Music Hall, but his on-stage interviews on Day 1 after players were selected were terrific. So was Eisen's quip: "Are you going to ask him if he's ready for Prime Time, Deion?''
Marshall Faulk, NFL. A bit reserved but spoke well and with insight, especially on occasions when Mayock said, "Why don't you take this one, Marshall.'' Looks like a keeper. After the Patriots traded out of the first round: "They do it best. They only pay players who do it now.'' It was sad to see him depart after only one round on Sunday.
Mel Kiper Jr, ESPN. It's impossible to imagine the draft without him, even if he is overexposed this time of year. The pompadour hairdo seems to be coming back in style. His "absolutely final'' Top 10 had seven correct picks to ESPN colleague Todd McShay's six. He's still got the stamina for the draft run-up and weekend extravaganza. He's also developed a better reaction to criticism and used it as a good-natured segue to more discussion. You can teach an old dog new tricks as shown by his seeming enjoyment of the taped "Best of Mel'' segments through the years.
Herm Edwards, ESPN. Always has something trenchant to say. You could feel the man's humanity and high ethical standards. His parable of the apple pie was great. "You know you need apples to make an apple pie and you know you need QBs in football. All of a sudden, when you go to pick the apples [players], you're seeing bruises on every one.''
His head-to-head with McShay over Miami's pick of West Virginia quarterback Pat White at No. 44 was classic. "He [White] can catch, throw and make people miss,'' said Edwards, adding, "He'll be tough to defend in the Miami Wildcat with only a week to prepare.'' McShay's reply: "You wonder if he's worth a No. 2. He's never returned punt or kicks, he's not a receiver. They picked him too high.''
Todd McShay, ESPN. The in-house draft guru had good insights in working the secondary desk with Wingo & Edwards. McShay's head-to-heads with Kiper and Edwards were good. On Minnesota's pick of wide receiver Percy Harvin at No. 22: "The risk is worth the reward. This could be the biggest boom or bust in the draft.''
Michael Smith, ESPN. He's a terrific writer and just as good on screen. He turned a not-promising "What's ahead'' segment into worthwhile viewing. He even bailed out ESPN's attempt to turn him into an ersatz Vanna White, but using a giant touch-screen board to update individual team's draft lists.
Steve Young (ESPN). Good man to have running the option for you. Doesn't have the same "Duende'' on air that he did on the field.
Keyshawn Johnson (ESPN). Ahead of where Deion was five or six years ago in making the TV transition. A work very much in progress.
Steve Mariucci (NFL). Knowledgeable and a nice guy, but has to be in a supporting role in this cast.
Cris Carter (ESPN): Delivered opinion with authority. Loved his depiction of Michael Crabtree as a young guy with an attitude. "I coach high school kids and my son is going off to college. I think I have a feel for the young one's attitudes -- and immaturity. You can tell this kid loves the game. He's a football player and a winner.''
Ron Jaworski (ESPN). He was a solid addition to ESPN's main desk for Day 2. He had plenty of opinion on discussions (Pat White, Michael Vick and assorted selections) and often had the video to back it up.
Jon Gruden (NFL). Ditto. Very strong and personable when draftees stopped by the set. You get the feeling he'll be facing a tough career choice soon: Back to the sidelines or a TV career?
Brian Billick (NFL). Assignment was a "team needs'' set with Charles Davis and Jamie Dukes on Day 1. It wasn't the high point of the coverage.
Charley Casserly (ESPN): Added humor to the proceedings and an ex-GM's insight. Late on Day 2 he noted that many players would be better off signing as free agents and having a choice of teams than being picked in the seventh round.
Charles Davis (NFL): To those who don't watch the NFL Network regularly -- and there may be more of us if the NFL pulls itself off Comcast this week -- he was a revelation. A sharp, well-spoken guy.
Jamie Dukes (NFL): He wasn't the smoothest in getting the floor, but was working in earnest for two long days.
Trent Dilfer (ESPN): A straight shooter. He had an interesting take on possible problem child Percy Harvin (No. 22, Vikings): "Money makes you more of what you were before you got it. He could have issues''
Tom Waddle (NFL). There was serious respect shown in both directions when Waddle's group was interviewing 49er coach Mike Singletary. Waddle and Singletary were Bears teammates. A media pro.
Erin Andrews. ESPN's on-stage reporter's work was on a par with Sanders'; however, she didn't quite have the star power in this case. She scored a Day 1 story that turned into a Day 2 assignment on the relationship between the [not related] second-day draft hopeful Quan Cosby (Texas receiver) and American icon entertainer Bill Cosby, who planned to spend Day 2 together. She also had a classic "Sorry, Commish'' line to Goodell when moving in to interview No. 15 pick Brian Cushing.
...Eisen on predicting trades: "You know something's going on when you see the trade phones working in the pit where the picks are checked for accuracy and pronunciation before they go to the commissioner to be announced.''
...Eisen on the mixed reaction the Radio City Music Hall gave the Jets' pick of Sanchez: "There are a lot of Patriots and Giants fans here who don't like to see Jets fans happy.''
...Nice work by whoever played "Hail to the Redskins'' after Washington took Brian Orakpo at No. 13.
...You know the NFL Network was monitoring ESPN and vice versa. Too many times one telecast would emphasize something only to have the other come back with similar commentary a minute later.
...Berman when ESPN didn't have video of Oakland's second-round pick, Ohio University safety Michael Mitchell: "This is like the old days.'' The NFL Network didn't show any video of the pick either ... On Day 2, the NFL Network desk tried playing "Stump the truck'' in asking for video of lesser-known players. The video guys were up to the task.
...ESPN was able to jump the gun on some of the draft picks by monitoring video of potential picks on their cellphones in so-called green rooms.