Last Wednesday afternoon, knee-deep in preparation for his upcoming Bills-Packers assignment, FOX Sports broadcaster Kevin Burkhardt received word from network vice president Jacob Ullman that he should immediately join a conference call with management. Upon dialing in, Burkhardt learned that his play by play assignment for Dec. 14 had been changed: His trip to Buffalo for the Packers-Bills was out. Instead, he was heading back to Ohio after calling the Colts-Browns game the previous week. What prompted the change of location for Fox’s No. 2 team (Burkhardt, John Lynch and Pam Oliver)?
The small business of Johnny Manziel’s first NFL start against the Bengals.
“My first reaction was, “Well, so much for the three days of Buffalo-Green Bay prep I just did,” Burkhardt said, laughing. “My second thought was excitement. I loved watching Manziel play in college, and we were just in Cleveland so that was good, too.
NFL broadcast crews usually travel Thursday night or Friday morning to their game site. Because of the late change and given the crew had called the Browns the previous week, Burkhardt and Co. arrived in Cleveland on Friday and attended the Browns’ walkthrough practice the following day. After that practice, they met with Manziel. What happened in that production meeting? Burkhardt, Lynch, Oliver, producer Pete Macheska and director Artie Kempner sat with the rookie quarterback for 20 minutes and Burkhardt said that Lynch did not pull any punches. One of the questions Lynch asked was about Manziel having a reputation of someone with lax practice habits.
“I thought he gave a pretty honest answer; he said you can’t really compare my work habits to Peyton Manning or Tom Brady,” Burkhardt said. “Manziel said this week he put in maximum effort, that he worked his tail off, and that hopefully it was going to show. He was pretty honest with us on the fact that he put in all this work this week and maybe not for the whole year. He came off very honest, maybe even a little naive. John [Lynch] brought up all the great quarterbacks and said they do what Johnny did this week every week.”
“It was a good talk,” Burkhardt continued. “We did everything from talking about his college days to what he learned from sitting out. He was calm and relaxed and engaging, and I enjoyed the meeting. The one thing that impressed me -- and the coaches told this to John, too – is that he has been a good teammate. Manziel said he thought sitting out was a good thing because he learned more about football this year than he had his entire life. I believed him. I don’t think it was media talk.”
Lynch watched a lot of film on Manziel, including the Browns’ preseason and his time at Texas A&M. Burkhardt said he did a lot of research on biographical stuff and asked Manziel about growing up in Kerrville, Texas.
“He said it was funny I brought that that up because four years ago at this time he was sitting in high school playing his final football game,” Burkhardt said. “Now he had an NFL start. I thought that was striking because you realize he is still so green in some ways.”
One of the things Burkhardt and Lynch had to remind themselves prior to calling the game was making sure that Manziel was not the center of the whole broadcast.
“You have to remember the Bengals are a first-place team, this is a playoff-type game for both teams, and that you are doing two teams,” Burkhardt said. “I think it is easy to get caught up in the Manziel mania so the biggest challenge was not getting caught up in that. You obviously have to present that story but there was a lot more on the line.”
The game was a big deal for FOX. This Deadspin piece shows how Manziel impacted the number of Fox markets that eventually aired the game after Manziel was named the starter. But the game itself was a dud. The Browns trailed 20-0 at halftime and the final was 30-0.
Burkhardt said he and Lynch saw the third quarter score between the Bills and Packers -- much tighter than the Bengals-Browns -- and joked with each other. “I told John, ‘How about we hop on a plane quick to catch the fourth quarter?’ But it's okay because we have had so many good games.”
At least they can say they were part of a record. Fox Sports PR sent word late on Monday that Manziel’s debut was the highest-rated Fox regular season game in Cleveland based on the overnight rating. Though Fox has the NFC package, a network spokesperson said they’ve done about 40 Cleveland games since getting the NFL package in 1994.
The Noise Report
1. CBS’ Week 15 regional coverage on Sunday earned an overnight 12.3 rating, the highest-rated NFL singleheader game for CBS this season in the metered markets. Those games included Miami-New England, Pittsburgh-Atlanta, Houston-Indianapolis, Oakland-Kansas City, Jacksonville-Baltimore, Denver-San Diego and New York Jets-Tennessee.
1a. NBC Sports NFL analyst CrisCollinsworth on voting for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for NFL MVP: “The whole Aaron Rodgers MVP thing is now a little up in the air. I had already cast my ballot. I was going to vote for him. It was over, but now it’s a little shaky.”
1b. CBS NFL analyst Boomer Esiason, talking on “NFL Monday QB” on the CBS Sports Network, on Johnny Manziel:
“I think he should start next week. The fact of the matter is, he was nervous. We all saw that and we’ve all had our first starts. I think back to my rookie year. I had four starts. I was basically a disaster, just like he was but maybe not quite as bad … It’s obvious that he is a guy that is more pomp and circumstance than he is substance. He has to work this offseason on the fundamentals. He has to learn the game, learn his offense, learn how to read defense. Somehow he has to find the poise that it takes to be a pocket-passer in the NFL.”
2. Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported that ESPN drew a 2.0 overnight rating for the Heisman Trophy presentation on Saturday, down 26 percent from a 2.7 overnight last year and the lowest rating since 2006. The 30 for 30 debut of “The U Part 2” followed the Heisman presentation and drew a 1.3 overnight rating, down 13 percent from a 1.5 rating for “Youngstown Boys” following last year’s Heisman presentation.
2a. CBS drew a 4.5 overnight rating for Navy-Army on Saturday, the highest figure for that game in 15 years and one of the highest overnights for a non-SEC game this year.
2c. Sports Business Daily reporters John Ourand and Michael Smith on some behind-the-scenes intrigue among ESPN executives.
3. MLB Network said its coverage of the Winter Meetings was its most-watched ever, averaging 127,000 viewers in primetime. That was 38 percent higher than the network’s primetime Winter Meetings average in 2013.
3a. Fox drew a 0.6 overnight rating for its inaugural golf telecast -- the Franklin Templeton Shootout.
4. Charles Barkley (a noted Knicks basher) will be one of the game analysts, along with Reggie Miller, for TNT’s coverage of the Knicks at Bulls on Thursday.
5. On Monday, I wrote about how The Walking Dead had gotten the best of the NFL, and the odds on Bill Simmons’ next landing spot.