We all owe Ryan Mallett a debt of gratitude. Had the Arkansas quarterback not slid down the draft board to the third round, we might not have gotten the moment where the NFL Network won the television draft.
It came deep on Friday night after Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders had thankfully exited the property. The third round had just concluded and the quartet on the NFLN set -- Rich Eisen, Charles Davis, Brian Billick and Mike Mayock -- dug deep into the Mallett selection. Each offered insight on why the quarterback had tumbled down to New England with the 74th overall pick.
Davis gave a quick primer on Mallett's background and New England's success with players who had joined the organization with so-called character issues. Billick discussed the subjectivity of evaluating quarterbacks and that what was now in Mallett's control was learning how to be a professional. ("If you can't learn and adopt your trade here [New England], then you don't belong in the National Football League," Billick said).
Mayock said Mallett was "harshly punished" for his off-the-field activities but "ultimately ended up in the right place." Eisen asked the panel what the "end scenario" was for a guy who was unlikely to play for years. Billick responded that Mallett could learn maturity sitting behind Tom Brady, while Davis explained that developing Mallett could eventually provide New England with future players and picks -- the way it did when Matt Cassel was traded to Kansas City.
The network owned the Mallett selection. NFL Network insider Michael Lombardi, clearly tapped inside the Patriots' draft room, had tipped viewers 10 minutes before the selection that New England was going to draft the quarterback. Lombardi later explained that Mallett was the top quarterback on the Patriots' board and that Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino had texted him how surprised he was that his player had fallen so far. NFLN analyst Kurt Warner even texted Brady about the pick. Brady responded: "I'm here for 10 years."
"I thought, from start to finish on that story, we just nailed it," said NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger. "The team was so proud of it. It was a great moment. And Kurt texting Tom Brady put a bow on it."
Perhaps it was one too many puns, dated references or primal screams from Chris Berman, but it was during NFL Network's post-round discussion on Mallett that I declared the NFL Network to have the superior coverage this year.
The terrific quartet of Trey Wingo, Trent Dilfer, Todd McShay and Kiper restored order nicely for ESPN on Saturday. Wingo again highlighted that he is everything Chris Berman is not: Delivering information in a smooth and digestible manner, while drawing from the experience of doing a daily show on the NFL. I noticed more and more people this year through social media and other means cite they enjoyed the NFL Network's coverage. Is that a knock on ESPN? Not really. Both productions are sound, and it's an incredibly difficult show to produce. But each year it feels like ESPN's second-day crew outshines its so-called wow guys.
There were plenty of other talking points that arose from ESPN's and NFL Network's coverage last week. On Sunday, I contacted Weinberger and ESPN's Jay Rothman to get them to address some viewers' concerns.
SI.com: One of strongest complaints from readers -- especially this year -- is showing draftees on the phone with the teams before the official announcement. It eliminates the drama of where the players are going. Why do you tip picks?
Rothman: You are there to document this live news event, as it is unfolding live before your eyes. But I question it too. Is it the right thing we are doing? From an execution standpoint, if you look at the amount of time that each team actually took once they were on the clock, I promise you the first 10 picks were each less than five minutes.
One school of thought is it's reality TV, you are in the moment, and it's the nature of the immediacy, so yes, you are getting tipped and the announcement of the pick is just a formality and a kiss-off. That's one scenario, and that allows you to get ahead of the team on the clock. The other scenario would be no cameras allowed in the green room and players are not allowed to have a phone. When the pick is made, we all get the pick and then you are analyzing the player. We then use that 10-minute clock for analysis of the player.
Weinberger: It's a news story we are following. We want to show the moment these kids' lives are changed and that moment is when the team calls them to let them know where they have been selected. Sometimes it takes six to seven minutes for that kid to even get off the phone and greet the commissioner. Maybe we have to change that part of the format, if we want the first time they hear about it, or if they react and cry like Mark Ingram. But that is the system that is in place. The system is the team calls the players first, and at that point, it's there and it is a news story like any other news story. It's the moment you win the award. But we talk about it a lot. I get the same emails you get and see all the tweets. It does seem at times the commissioner's announcement is secondary.
SI.com: How would you evaluate your coverage?
Rothman: I trust the feedback I got from some close people in the business who are not just raising the ESPN flag. The feedback I got was positive... I felt we were more comprehensive and constructive, positive and negative, at the times players were drafted.
For example, with Jon's analysis of Julio Jones. When the Falcons traded up to the sixth spot -- and Jon being a receiver coach for Mike Holmgren -- we asked why wouldn't the Browns take Julio Jones for Colt McCoy if he is such a great receiver? Jon was like, "There is no way Mike Holmgren would tolerate drops from a receiver." When the trade came up -- and not to hurt the kid -- Jon was very critical right then and there. We dug up the video of dropped passes.
I just felt we were more balanced and educating fans on who these players were... I also thought Suzy [Kolber] did an awesome job with Mark Ingram, from telling that story all the way until the moment where she got an email from his father in prison. That was phenomenal. We played it back during the weekend and every time I saw it, I cried. That was the most unbelievable moment, and I've worked 20 drafts.
Weinberger: I thought we stayed we true to what we normally do, focusing on the analysis of the players and teams. The coverage of the event continues to grow and change, and no matter how much Jay's team and our team plan, there are so many situations that pop up that you cannot prepare for. It's much like election coverage. If the teams don't use all 10 minutes, it can throw you into a spiral...
When the pace started moving, I thought we handled that well. We'd like to do a better job at the draft parties we showed and I'd like to be in more than 10 draft war rooms next year. I think we always can do a better job continuing to find ways to give viewers context of what's happening, when a pick is made, and how it affects that fan base.
SI.com: Why and how did Mark Ingram Sr. email Suzy Kolber with a note for his son?
Rothman: We reached out during the week to try to talk to him, knowing how proud he was of his son. It was a great father-son story. Suzy worked through the dad's attorney to get hold of Mark Sr. and then Dad sent the email through his attorney for us to be able to read the email when he was selected.
SI.com: The moment was fantastic television, no question. But some wrote that moment was manufactured or manipulative. How would you respond to those who say ESPN created the news here rather than reported on it?
Rothman: There was not an iota of that at all. It was more from the perspective of being able to celebrate, knowing the story and knowing what a great kid he was. I'm a proud parent and many of us here are, and it was an opportunity to share a special moment with a kid. There was no contrived or manufactured intent. That was never the thinking. It was a more of a heartfelt thing and genuine. We were not trying to be disingenuous and manufactured. ... I think the Dad wanted that read to him. The Dad did not send that through the attorney not to be read to him.
SI.com: You know how this column feels about Chris Berman on your draft coverage. Once again, Twitter and other social media avenues produced a torrent of criticism against his work. How did you view his performance?
Rothman: I read the tweets and who was saying what about him. Chris is a guy's guy, man. People like him, people don't like him. Just like everybody else. My take is he's a guy's guy and I know how the fans respond to him at Radio City. They love him. I know how coaches and GMs around the league feel about him. Between his relationships and with the fans, he's a guy's guy. Yes, he's not the polished anchor that some of our others guys are.
SI.com: You both predicted the ratings would be up significantly. In the end, they were a mixed bag. A total of 42 million people watched the draft on all the networks, the second most alltime. But ESPN's ratings were down and the NFL Network's rating was up just a tick. How did you view the ratings numbers?
Rothman: You know what I took for granted? The draft was held a week later and we were against three NBA playoffs game and the Lakers. We did not have that issue last year. I don't think it was as much labor fatigue but I thought the NBA and The Office really had an impact. I know the older demo was off for us but the younger was up.
Weinberger: You are happy to see a gain no matter what, but you are really happy to see a gain when there is no free agency and when American Idol is on against you. The expectations for the draft are almost abnormal at this point. But we are happy and we think we delivered the product that our viewers expect us to deliver.
(In honor of Peter King, here are some additional notes about the coverage)
A. I think Trent Dilfer was terrific during the Saturday coverage. Dilfer has long been a favorite of this column, and would be my choice to succeed Gruden on Monday Night Football -- should Gruden return to coaching. He was forceful with his commentary on Saturday, backed up by intellect. "How much of a burden did they have in college?" Dilfer said when analyzing the quarterbacks. "Andy Dalton carried the entire program of TCU. That tells me more than any shorts workouts and seeing how the ball spins."
B. I think television executives remain enchanted by Gruden. "I met Friday with [NFL Network Senior Vice President of Programming and Production] Mark Quenzel and Eric Weinberger," said Rothman, "and the first thing they said was, God, Gruden is f------ awesome. And before Dilfer came on the set, he said to me, 'Gruden was awesome.' I think Jon has that buzz and people want to hear what he has to say. It's just like QB Camp. He is a sticky guy, meaning you want to stick around and see what he has to say."
C. I think the NFL Network remains inexplicably transfixed with Irvin. "I thought Michael did a great job on opening night," said Weinberger. "He sat back most of it and he chimed in when he needed to chime in. Those are tough roles.
D. I don't think Gruden and Kiper hate each other, but I do think ESPN knows genuine conflict is good television. At one point, it seemed Gruden's head was about to explode as he exclaimed how much he liked Locker ("He reminds me of a young Rich Gannon!") following Kiper questioning his accuracy in the pocket. "Jon has the utmost respect for Mel and vice versa," said Rothman. "If you sat in our meetings, they were awesome and hysterical.
"Jon is a grinder. He works his butt off. Mel respects him for that. There are analysts out there who just read the preview guides and don't do the work. Jon does the work. He watches the tape. He always says to me: 'Jay, you think a monkey flew out of my ass and put this tape together?' Mel respects him for that.
"Conversely, Jon respects the hell out of Mel because he does the work. He's not a talking head who just regurgitates stuff. I was glad that Jon got lit up a bit and had his balls busted. I think he takes to heart this rap of 'Johnny Positive.' John is the ultimate ball-buster and he wants his balls to be busted back."
D. I think the NFL Network actually might add more staffers for its draft coverage next year. Said Weinberger: "I want to add more and more layers to the foundation of the analysis."
E. I think you can never have enough information guys on the set. ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter were excellent throughout the three days and Schefter (Twitter) and the NFL Network's Jason La Canfora (Twitter) added terrific value for multi-taskers through their Twitter accounts. The NFL Network's Lombardi had the scoop of the draft by breaking the news that the Patriots would select Mallett. Schefter and Mortensen were all over the Julio Jones trade. Said Mortensen (Twitter) prior to the pick: "General manager Thomas Dimitroff told me they were going to get an explosive player and they were going to have to trade up to get a guy."
F. I think NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders proved once again that it's always about him. During a taped interview with Cam Newton, Sanders asked the Auburn quarterback, "Do you know the cologne I'm wearing? It's called confidence. I wear it every day." (For the record, Newton said it smelled good.)
G. I think both networks showed how the labor rules affected the draft, with easy-to understand graphics. Schefter and Mortensen, in particular, did a nice job at the top of Thursday night's broadcast explaining the possibilities of what could be coming.
H. I think Kiper and Mayock were accurate on nine of the first-round picks based on this link. And Todd McShay correctly predicted eight of the 32 picks in the opening round.
J. I think NFL Network host Rich Eisen did the best job of anyone capturing the surrealism of the moment when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was booed at the start of the draft.
J. I think Mayock showed why he was terrific when Cameron Jordan went No. 24 overall to the Saints. Within a short timeframe, Mayock told viewers that he's the son of former Vikings tight end Steve Jordan, he was tough against the run, he did not have elite end speed, but why he would be effective as a bookend with Will Smith.
K. I think the NFL Network has a philosophy of staying in the room with the picks for Rounds 4-7, while ESPN often opts to for extended conversation from the Bristol set. Both strategies work. For example, Mayock was talking about the Broncos' selection of Oklahoma safety Quinton Carter on Saturday, while ESPN interviewed Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff about the Julio Jones pick
L. I think the NFL Network getting Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich on Skype was very cool. But not as cool as Eisen giving on-air props to the NFL Network staffer who pulled it off. I'd love to see more name drops of behind-the-air staffers.
M. I think one of favorite lines of the draft came from Mayock on his analysis of Pittsburgh wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin, who went to Kansas City in the first round. "Jonathan Baldwin is a diva. Jonathan Baldwin is a handful. But he's a talented handful."
N. I think Kiper and McShay had a nice moment on Saturday when Kiper dogged McShay for falling in love with Mallett now that he was a Patriot. Clearly, these two like each other, and when they have genuine disagreement, it is just that. No Sean Salisbury-John Clayton faux-fighting here.
O. I think NFL Network executives would not mind expanding the draft to four days "We'd be for it; it's another day of an event," said Weinberger. "It will shorten and help the television window. You may want to push that through the competition committee.
P. I think ESPN is going to have a three-person set for the first two rounds of next year's draft. "I definitely thought three on the main set was the way to go," said Rothman. "I thought fans got what they needed to get. They got more Mel and Jon."
Q. I think (actually, I know) ESPN and the NFL Network drew approximately seven million viewers Thursday night for the opening round, down from 8.3 million last year for the opening round. It was the second-most watched first round ever (8.3M in '10).
R. I think (actually, I know) ESPN's coverage drew 1.3 million fewer viewers for this year's first round than a year ago (6 million viewers from 7.3). The rating was 4.4, down 17 percent from 5.3 a year ago. But viewership was up among young men. The NFL Network averaged a record 566,000 viewers over the three days of the 2011 NFL Draft, up from 560,000 in 2010). The network averaged 1.04 million viewers on Thursday night.
S. I think after Gruden said A.J. Green was the best offensive player in the draft, he delivered a great smackdown on a current Bengals receiver. Said Gruden: "I think this guy is just what the Bengals need. Terrell Owens doesn't look like he'll be back. Ochocinco is playing soccer somewhere."
T. I think you should file away these predictions made by ESPN analysts prior to the draft and see how they play out:
Ron Jaworski: "Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams will be the best running back in the draft."
Tom Jackson: "Nick Fairley will win the Defensive Rookie of the Year but not make the Pro Bowl because of his style of play."
Keyshawn Johnson: "Jake Locker will be the first quarterback in this draft to make the Pro Bowl."
Dilfer: "The first quarterback to take a team to the playoffs will be Andy Dalton."