ESPN should change up its lead broadcast team for 2011 NFL Draft

Monday April 26th, 2010

In sports television there are few segments more irksome than those featuring contrived arguments. ESPN has had its share of spectacularly annoying examples in this genre, and the summa cum laude of such nonsense came a few years back when the network pitted Sean Salisbury, a loquacious ex-quarterback with a my-way-or-the-highway style, against longtime NFL reporter John Clayton, a bespectacled, John Hodgman look-alike nicknamed "The Professor." The segment, dubbed "Four Downs," came off so comically forced that it usually mitigated the moments Clayton and Salisbury made salient points.

The painful memory of those segments flashed back Saturday as I watched Mel Kiper and Todd McShay duel during the final four rounds of the NFL Draft. Whereas Clayton and Salisbury's battles were about as convincing as Rocky V, the divergence of opinion between Kiper and McShay felt organic and, just as important, the context was relevant to the discussion at hand. As an array of college prospects flew by, I found myself really enjoying the dynamic between host Trey Wingo, analyst Ron Jaworski and the two draft gurus. Everyone on the set knew the subject cold. There was no excess yelling or screaming, and no shtick. I felt like an adult watching, and it felt good.

The Saturday show concluded the NFL's first three-day and primetime draft, a programming change that could not have gone better for the league and its TV partners. The draft was watched by a combined 45.4 million viewers on ESPN, ESPN2 and NFL Network, an increase of 16 percent from 2009 (39 million viewers). It was the most-viewed first round in ESPN's 31 years televising the event, and the coverage (which aired from 7:30-11:20 p.m. ET) averaged 7.29 million viewers on the network. The three-day telecast averaged 3.717 million viewers on ESPN, the most-viewed draft in the network's history. While commissioner Roger Goodell would not officially commit to a permanent primetime shift when interviewed him Friday night, it will be stunning not to see a similar format in 2011.

That brings us back to ESPN's coverage, and its final day in particular. There's no question the Saturday telecast is a much different broadcast. You can miss podium picks, there's no reaction shots to consider, and analysts can really chew into a discussion. So I recognize the first round is the harder production when I make the following recommendation:

ESPN should make the quintet of Wingo, Kiper, Jaworski, McShay and JonGruden its main draft team for the 2011 draft.

Wingo lives and breathes the sport 365 days a year as the host of NFL Live; he runs an efficient and professional show that allows the analysts next to him to make their points. But the main reason I favor him over Chris Berman is that I feel Berman is too much an agent of the league.

No doubt there are those who enjoy Berman's showmanship and passion for the draft. There's an argument to be made that his job is simply to pilot the ship. That's fair, but I'm a selfish viewer and I want my pilot to ask tough questions of league people and players without taking into account whether he or she will be at a golf outing hosted by that player the following week.

McShay and Kiper have developed chemistry and respect each other on-camera. Jaworski is one of the most prepared analysts in the history of the game; I never feel cheated when I watch him. Gruden has fantastic insight into the league -- especially offensive players -- and he's energetic and prepared. Yes, he's too Johnny Positive when it comes to draft picks, but Kiper and McShay can balance that. My cast is not a referendum on Tom Jackson. He should remain part of draft coverage in some form, a thoughtful commentator whom I respect even when I disagree with him.

Do I think we will ever see this crew? I do not. There's a marketing component to all of this and ESPN wants stars such as Berman on its most-watched platform. But Jay Rothman, the network's senior coordinating producer for its draft coverage, told Sunday night that the coverage next year will change somewhat out of necessity.

"I'm probably going to suggest that we drastically reduce our number of on-air people for next year," he said. "I'm talking about Thursday and Friday night. It's hard to stay true to the draft and not miss a pick and still give a little background on the players. I'm not saying we did a bad job. You do the best you can. But it is unscripted. It's not a clean and polished and pretty show like Sunday Countdown or NFL Primetime. Things get backed up. I don't want to say I was frustrated, but there is frustration given the speed of it all. My thought is to bring down the talent level big-time and keep it snappy."

There were certain talking points that arose from ESPN's and NFL Network's coverage last weekend, especially if you monitored the coverage on Twitter. On Sunday, I contacted Rothman and NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger to get them to address some viewers' concerns. Rothman first:

1. There was a major sentiment among those on Twitter that Steve Young dominated too much of the conversation on the first night. What is your reaction?

Rothman: "Steve has a lot to add. I guess I would not give ourselves an 'A' for being completely balanced on that set. But when it comes to the quarterback, Steve has a lot to say. He's a really smart guy. But I'd have to go back to the film and really dissect it. I guess there could be times when any one of our guys could have gone off on tangents. But I think Steve is a brilliant guy and when he has something to say, he'll say it."

2. Was Gruden too positive about draft picks, especially with the guys he worked with on Gruden's QB Camp?

Rothman: "Jon is a passionate guy. He is a really upbeat, positive person. He's one of those guys who finds the good in everyone and he loves his quarterbacks, as you know. Jon is not a ripper, per se. He's not a negative guy. But I think he can be constructive. That's just who Jon is. If you sat down with him and watched tape with him, he could do positive and negative evaluations. Maybe he could be more constructive or objective, but Jon is a guy who likes to find the good in people. He lets other people be the naysayers."

3. Why did Gruden not appear on the third day of the draft?

Rothman: "I took him off, but let's start with this: Next to Mel and McShay, nobody was more prepared than Jon. He had written reports of his own that were 20 deep at each position. He was sickly prepared for this thing. But after Friday night, I knew we were bringing McShay down to be with Mel, which would be unique and different. I knew Jaworski was on the set and we were firing up another set in Bristol with Herm Edwards, Tedy Bruschi and Trent Dilfer. Plus, we were increasing the videoconferencing and Sport Science pieces.

"So it was about 12:30 a.m. Friday night, he was tired and his voice was gone. I just said to him, 'You know what, you don't have to do this.' He said, 'No, no no. I'm going to do this. I studied for this.' I said, 'I don't want you to do this. You're exhausted and your voice is gone and the truth of the matter is I'm going to have five guys on the set again, which is difficult to navigate.'

"I don't make the final shots at ESPN, but I do oversee our NFL guys. I don't want to see Jon get lost in the sauce. He should be special. So to have him sit on a set of five on Saturday when Mel and McShay will be prominent, Jaws will be there, plus another set back in Bristol, I didn't want to do that to Jon.

"It makes me crazy to read irresponsible reporting saying Gruden quit.

That is such garbage. It's ridiculous. Here's the thing about Jon: He never wants to let anyone down. He is loyal and a man of his word."

4. Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen ultimately went to the Panthers at No. 48. Is the fact that Kiper had him No. 4 on his board a referendum on Kiper's draft expertise?

Rothman: "It is not a perfect science, and the truth of the matter is only time will tell in terms of evaluating the evaluators. I know how hard Mel works and how hard he prepares. I told this to Gruden: 'You know what I love about Mel? He is the most humble guy. He is the nicest guy in the world and he has zero ego.'

"Mel does his work. He studies his tape. He has perspective. He talks to a lot of people in the league and he comes up with an educated opinion that is his opinion. And he does not mind if you bury him or criticize him. It is just his opinion. So in terms of your question, it happens. You have to evaluate the evaluators over time and see if indeed he was correct."

5. I contend the Saturday group would make for the best opening-night team. What is your reaction to that suggestion?

Rothman: "They are stars too, man, and they are talented. And I'm fine with that opinion. That's something we should evaluate too. But they have the luxury of not being beholden to the picks. If I said to you, we're going to do a show and we'll let you know who was picked when we get to it, well, that's kind of what Saturday is. What I love about Day 3 is you are not a slave to the picks. Day 3, you can pick a topic and go. You can pick a team's board and have a healthy conversation. You can go from point A to point B cleanly and not be a slave.

"Like I said, those guys are talented guys. Trey does a hell of a job. Jaws works his butt off. So three guys on that set are completely dialed in and Mel and Todd are great. We were never going to manufacture debate with them and, to be blunt, maybe at times in the past we have been capable of that. I was proud of what they did on Saturday and maybe it's something we move in the future."

6. Should the primetime draft be here to stay?

Rothman: "Well, I loved it, and I think the league did a great job. We were up 25 percent against LeBron James and other primetime competition. We will huddle up with the league in the near term to figure out what we can do to make it better, but the fact they brought in the Hall of Famers and stars littered throughout, I think football fans loved it."


And now Weinberger:

1. One of the biggest complaints from viewers is tipping picks, when your network and ESPN show shots of guys on the phone with teams before they get drafted. What is your reaction to those viewers who charge that it takes the drama away?

Weinberger: "I don't think its takes the drama away. I actually think it makes for a pretty amazing pacing. The teams call the players before the commissioner goes up to the podium. That means the player and agent know, and if teams are tweeting out their picks, we feel we have a journalistic responsibility to get it out there. That's why we do it.

"One of the best moments at the draft was when we had Dez Bryant and his family and a camera in his home. His family went crazy and he dropped to his knees in tears, and that was before the pick was announced. I have heard that frustration from fans and I have heard it from people in our NFL Network organization. I get it. But this is the way it happens. Sometimes it's three or four minutes before the actual pick is made. I think you are seeing a kid's emotion as he gets told that he is getting picked."

2. Mike Mayock lost his voice after two days. What contingency plan did you have in place as the linchpin of your coverage goes down?

Weinberger: "We knew that morning [Saturday] it would be a struggle. Mike came into the week with a bit of a cold and we tried to manage it as much as we could but it just gave out. I'll tell you, though, what he did on ended up being fascinating. But we are glad his voice did not give out for Day 1 and Day 2."

3. Did the three-day draft work as a television program?

Weinberger: "There is so much information over the three days and there is shockingly even more that we can still do. Using Mack Brown for us as an analyst really opened up a lot of ideas of just how last week was about college football, high school and pro football coming together. We were stunned by how it carried through all the way to Saturday."

4. How would you assess your broadcast?

Weinberger: "We were so happy with our talent. It was amazing. Corey Chavous had a great weekend. Charles Davis had a huge weekend. I would almost break up Day Three into two days. I know it sounds ridiculous, but Day Three moved so fast that I'm not sure it didn't move too fast for the viewer."

5. Should the primetime draft become permanent?

Weinberger: "Yes. Maybe we can even do a round a night and do seven nights. That's what we were joking about in the truck, though you get in the round 5, 6 and 7 it starts getting a little tough. Why did I like the primetime draft? I just think more people get to see this unscripted sports reality show. You don't get much television like this: In the course of a minute, someone's life changes and you are able to see it. There is simply not much like that on television."

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