September 10, 2010

NEW YORK -- When I looked out over the Hudson from my office window in midtown Manhattan on Monday, Aug. 16, at about 6 p.m., summer storm clouds hovered above New Jersey and a light rain was falling. I smiled, thinking of all the fans headed to the Jets-Giants game that night at the New Meadowlands Stadium. I pictured them draped in ponchos in the parking lot, or huddled in a dank concourse, or stuck in traffic on the Jersey Turnpike. Me? I headed to the subway for a 20-minute ride home, stopping at the Duane Reade to pick up a 12-pack of Yuengling (price: $10.49) and some chips and salsa. Shortly before kickoff I called the Thai restaurant around the corner and ordered my favorite dish, then fired up the HDTV in the living room, hit the record button on the DVR and settled in for some Monday Night Football.

Around the country millions of football fans were doing the same -- in the den with their buddies, or at the local watering hole with fellow acolytes in SANCHEZ or MANNING jerseys. Football Sundays and Mondays have become an American ritual and it's television, not tailgating, that's at its heart. The game is perfect for TV -- its stops and starts allow for copious analysis and highlights, slo-mo HD replays from multiple cameras capturing the compelling physicality and showcasing the never-ending chess match of formations and strategies. Best of all, it's all brought to you as you luxuriate in the comfort of your easy chair or on your barstool, all for a tiny fraction of your monthly cable bill, or a few bucks a week for the DirecTV package.

True, on Monday night the rain stopped before game time, but rest assured it won't always be a balmy 79 degrees at kickoff in the Meadowlands or elsewhere around the NFL as the season progresses. Conditions at the Jets' regular-season finale last year? A bitter 20 degrees, with 17-25 mph winds and a wind-chill of 4 above. I couldn't give away the office tickets.

So how does the actual game experience at home compare with the stadium? From the standpoint of what's happening on the field, it's no contest. It's highly unlikely, for instance, that when you take your $95 upper-deck end zone seat, you'll have a former Super Bowl-winning coach (say, Jon Gruden) sitting on one side of you detailing formations and providing insights into strategy, and a former 16-year NFL quarterback (Ron Jaworski, perhaps?) on the other side, bringing his vast knowledge to bear. The fan in the seat in front of you (it's not ESPN's Mike Tirico) doesn't have a monitor and earpiece through which he receives constant and timely information about the game, information that he conveys to you -- an injury update on the halfback who just limped off, personal background on players, helpful reminders that Thursday is an all-new Grey's Anatomy. The fans around you likely have not studied hours of video on the two teams, nor interviewed the coaches and players in the days leading up to the game.

On Monday night, the benefits to the home viewer were apparent in the first five minutes of the game, when second-year Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez's short toss to LaDainian Tomlinson was picked off by Antrel Rolle and run back 59 yards to set up a Giants' touchdown. Gruden immediately broke out the telestrator and diagrammed what went wrong: "They're trying to run an inside clear with the tight end and an outside clear [with the wide receiver] to get LaDainian Tomlinson one-on-one with the strong safety. Sanchez doesn't see that the Giants played zone coverage and doubled Tomlinson."

Jaworski then offered his quarterback perspective: "One thing I've noticed about Sanchez, symptomatic of his game -- interceptions going to his left." With that the production staff unspooled a string of highlights from the previous season, showing Sanchez throwing picks in that direction. "We looked at his interception reel and cataloged every one, and a majority of them went to his left. He's got to continue to work with [offensive coordinator] Brian Schottenheimer on openings to the left. He's a young, developing quarterback; he's got to see the field with clarity. [Middle linebacker] Michael Boley right in the middle of the field -- he's got to see that and not force the throw." Play-by-play man Tirico then related how in 2009 Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer color-coded Sanchez's wristband -- plays in green meant be aggressive, yellow was caution, red was don't deviate from the plan -- but is taking the training wheels off this season, placing more trust in Sanchez. This took no more than two minutes of the broadcast.

Too much information? Tired of the babble? You can always hit the mute button. Fireman Ed doesn't come with one, nor does the foul-mouthed drunk three rows behind you in the stands.

It was a typical Monday night production but not the typical NFL viewing experience. That comes on Sunday, when a fan with the NFL Sunday Ticket package can take his pick from every game on the schedule. Or watch every game simultaneously on a single screen. Or, if he's crack or suffering from ADD, settle into the Red Zone channel, which jumps frenetically from one game to the next as scoring opportunities arise. Stats are available at the touch of a button. If he wants, the viewer can follow the games on any number of websites as well to keep up with his fantasy players, and engage other fans on message boards, in chat rooms or on Twitter.

Yes, I realize that the NFL's shiny new stadiums are promising more such options to fans, in the form of technology that will stream scores, stats and highlights to mobile devices within the venue. And DirecTV this year is offering its Sunday Ticket "to-go," with an app that will let you to watch games on your smartphone, from the comfort of your plastic seat in the upper deck. If the future of the stadium experience is to replicate what it's like to watch a game at home, what's the point of leaving the man cave in the first place?

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