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Al Michaels: Voice of the Super Bowl

The legendary play-by-play man on calling his ninth Super Bowl, the criticism of his comments on commissioner Goodell and the Mueller Report, and his favorite telecast of all time (hint: it’s not the Miracle on Ice)

Al Michaels’ voice opened the 2014 football season, with the kickoff broadcast in Seattle, and it will close it, too, with the call of Super Bowl XLIX next week in Glendale, Ariz. A season that’s been unlike any other has had controversy at the beginning (Ray Rice) and at the end (Deflategate), but viewer interest has remained as strong as ever. NBC’s play-by-play man, and recent author of You Can’t Make This Up (with Sports Illustrated’s L. Jon Wertheim), talked to The MMQB this week about what will be his ninth Super Bowl play-by-play call—and his past, present and future perspective on the game he considers the perfect television sport.

VRENTAS: When you call the Super Bowl, your audience is probably more than 100 million viewers, not all of whom are football fans. How does that change your approach?

MICHAELS: Well, what it does is, you never want to insult the intelligence of the fan, someone who really knows all of the stories. So you begin to think in terms of maybe almost prefacing some stories with, “Hey, people who follow year round know this, but …” We don’t try to do that very often, but we’ll do it from time to time. If there is a story that is known by 50 percent of the audience but is not known by the other 50 percent, but it is relevant, we may come in that door. The other thing is we try to find the stories that haven’t been told that the bigger, broader audience would enjoy, to personalize some of the players, the coaches, the owner or what have you. It’s pretty much the same thing on a Sunday night. We like to think we have this big tent and we are basically standing outside saying, “Come one come all!” We have something for the aficionado; we have something for the person who only watches one game a year. That’s pretty much our philosophy on Sunday Night Football. We go into every game thinking of it as a mini Super Bowl. They tell us it’s the No. 1 show on television right now with over 20 million people every week, and that’s pretty much our attitude. So the Super Bowl is very much an extension of our attitude for a regular Sunday night game.

I’m sure to some people, it sounded like a script. I had written out the points. Because we were dealing with, in effect, a legal document [the Mueller Report], I wanted to make sure I had everything right.

VRENTAS: This will be your ninth Super Bowl broadcast. Best moment in the previous eight?

MICHAELS: Well I would say that of the eight, the game I enjoyed the most and really relished the most was XLIII, which was Arizona-Pittsburgh. I just felt that the game itself was great. You had an iconic franchise, Pittsburgh, against the Arizona “what-are-they-doing-here?” Cardinals. They had lost [47-7] in December to New England and then had this magical run, which made for a great story. The Cardinals are in the Super Bowl? And then you had two iconic plays in that game, James Harrison’s interception return at the end of the half, 100 yards. Arizona is going in to take the lead and instead, Harrison intercepts the pass and is running down the sideline; he’s almost tackled eight different times and the clock is running out, so if he gets tackled or taken out of bounds at the 1-yard line, you can’t even kick a field goal. And then Larry Fitzgerald catches a pass in the fourth quarter, and Arizona has the lead. Roethlisberger leads Pittsburgh back on a 78-yard drive, which culminates with Santonio Holmes making a tremendous catch in the end zone. So top to bottom, that would be my favorite of the eight. And on top of that, I didn’t know it at the time, but three months later John Madden decided to retire, so that turned out to be John’s last-ever broadcast. And what a way to go out.

I guess if you had [to pick] one incredible moment, again Harrison and Holmes’ catch would factor into this, too. But I did the game after the ’99 season, St. Louis against Tennessee. At the end of the game, Tennessee had the ball at the 10-yard line, Kevin Dyson caught the pass from Steve McNair, reaches out, can’t get into the end zone, so that’s the way the game ended, on the 1, and the Rams won the Super Bowl. Otherwise that would have been a game that would have gone to overtime, and that’s something that’s never happened in any of the 48 super bowls. And that’s the only thing I’ll be rooting for a week from Sunday. I want to be able to do the first-ever Super Bowl overtime game. I think that would be fantastic. Look, announcers root for high drama. Some fans think we’re biased or whatever. We want high drama, we want excitement, we want controversy, we want a lot of strategy to talk about, great plays, wild plays. And then for me, at the end of the day, I want to go to that fifth quarter. And as long as we go to overtime, we might as well go to triple overtime, and make it the longest game ever. That would be the all time fun day for me.

James Harrison's interception return TD in Super Bowl XLIII was one of Michaels' favorite Super Bowl moments. (John Biever/SI)

James Harrison's interception return TD in Super Bowl XLIII was one of Michaels' favorite Super Bowl moments. (John Biever/SI)

VRENTAS: Well, you’ve already got your controversy. “Deflategate” has become a major storyline in advance of the Super Bowl. What questions will you ask in your production meetings with the Patriots, and how will you handle the controversy on air?

MICHAELS: Well, the whole thing is still evolving right now. We know where it is today. We don’t know where it will be tomorrow; I certainly don’t know where it will be a week from Sunday. There’s a lot more that’s going to either come out of this or not come out of this. Cris [Collinsworth] and I, and Michele [Tafoya] and our whole gang, we’re concerned with 6:30 Eastern Time, 4:30 Mountain, a week from Sunday. We are thinking about it right now, but I’ve got to see where this winds up. There’s a lot more to come with this story.

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VRENTAS: You were the first broadcast on the air after the Mueller Report came out divisional weekend. You and Cris received some criticism afterward for having been perceived as giving praise to the league. What was your plan for addressing that on air?

MICHAELS: Well a couple of things were at play here. The Mueller Report comes out Thursday around noon, give or take a couple of hours. And 48 hours later, we are doing a game. The report also obviously involved the Baltimore Ravens, who are playing in our game. And who is going to come to our game? Roger Goodell. What we planned to do, and what we did—and it’s funny, because Bob Costas did almost exactly what I did on the pre-game show. Bob talked about, here are the bullet points; here is what came out of the Mueller Report. Which is exactly what I did. I’m sure to some people, it sounded like a script. I had written out the points. Because we were dealing with, in effect, a legal document, I wanted to make sure I had everything right. What I really did is recount some of the specifics of the report. Now again, you had Roger sitting in the stands. There’s a lot of animus towards Roger from a lot of people, and no matter what the report said, they were still going to feel that way. But I felt the key thing to do—and I know [NBC Chairman] Mark Lazarus, I think he talked about this at the boxing press conference—was we were there to report the facts. And then Cris came in with his comment, editorially, about Roger. Cris has known Roger for a long time. I have, too. And Cris felt it was important for him to say, “Look, I know him as an honorable man.” That probably turned some people off. But let’s reverse this for a second. Let us say that we had this game, Roger is at the game, Baltimore is in the game, and we ignored it. I think then, we should have come in for some criticism. But instead, we had to address it, and this is the way we felt it was fair to address it. One of the things was, “Hey look, the league wasn’t absolved of all blame in this,” but one of the key components of that report that people wanted to know was, Did Roger Goodell lie? The report said he did not lie. We took heat for saying what the report said, but what are we supposed to do? Go, “Hey you know what, Mueller is a liar”? Some of the people who came after us didn’t want to believe that the Mueller Report was factual. But this certainly wasn’t the time to delve into whether or not that was the case. All we wanted to do, is like on Dragnet, Sgt. Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts.” That was our attitude about this.

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We live in this world of tweeting, and social media, and anti-social media, and all the rest, so no matter what you say, there is going to be what people say is a firestorm. I don’t know what a firestorm is. I’ll digress for one second and tell you a very funny story. I loved Curt Gowdy. He was one of my early mentors and idols in the business, and when Curt was doing this in the ’70s, he’s doing Super Bowls, World Series. The big events—Curt Gowdy did them. And he was a great pal. You had no cable TV, you had no social media, you had no internet. And Curt would say, if the boss got two letters of criticism, it was a barrage. Three letters was a deluge. We’ve gone from the world of 1975 to the world of 2015. It’s a wacky world.

I know what a good production is, and I know what a bad production is. [Miracle On Ice] was not a good production, let’s just put it that way.

VRENTAS: This year, perhaps more than any other in recent years, the NFL has become a lens for social issues: Domestic violence, the first openly gay player, the debate over the Washington team name. How do you see your role as an announcer in presenting these topics to a national audience?

MICHAELS: Well, my role is different than it would be let’s say if I was doing a pre-game show or a highlights show or a wraparound show or one of the gazillion shows, for instance, that ESPN does during the week. Where you have the ability to delve into these issues and examine them and look at them through the prism. I’m in the play-by-play role doing a game. It is unbelievably difficult, and it would be something the audience would vomit over, if I started to editorialize in between second-and-6 and third-and-3. Our game is moving pretty quickly. Especially the way football is played these days, we have very little time to examine these issues the way we would like to or prefer to. Not that we are ignoring it or avoiding it, but when people tune in to watch the game, they want to watch the game. They don’t want to be lectured to. They don’t want to be told what they are supposed to think. They want to watch the game. My role in the play-by-play area is to present the game to them.

VRENTAS: TV numbers don’t reflect any drop in fan interest despite some of the unsavory events of this football season. Why do you think interest is still at an all-time high?

MICHAELS: I think what the fans do is they can compartmentalize these things, to the extent that they read and they hear about Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, “Deflategate,” whatever the issue happens to be, and either they are interested in it or they are not interested in it. Some people can’t get enough and other people don’t want to hear about it, period. Whatever it is, when you get to the weekend, when you get to Sunday and Monday, you know what the fan is saying? I want my football. I want to watch my football. And the game the way it is played is so good. Television just does a spectacular job with football. It’s dramatic. It’s the greatest reality television show ever. The pictures are spectacular, the sounds are spectacular, and people love it. They love it, and they embrace it. And I think what they do is, no matter how they feel about what has taken place off the field or earlier in the week, they get to gameday and they want to watch the game. And I think that’s why the ratings are what they are. People love football.

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VRENTAS: What is your favorite football memory, whether as an announcer or not?

MICHAELS: Well I went to Super Bowl I, before it was Super Bowl I. My brother and I went to what they called the NFL-AFL Championship Game, or whatever it was. So I was there in January of ’67 along with about 32,000 empty seats at the L.A. Coliseum. I’m old enough to remember the Giants-Colts overtime game in ‘58 on television. I’ll never forget that. I have so many great, great memories. The game I talked about, Super Bowl XLIII, to do that game—and if I have a favorite telecast of all time, a day when everything went right. The crew had a great day, and the game was fantastic, and it turns out to be John Madden’s last game. That’s a pretty good memory, too. I did a Monday night game in ’93, Denver against Kansas City, Elway against Montana, which was an unbelievably dramatic game. Just the ebb and flow for 60 minutes was fantastic. There’s a lot of stuff that all runs together, but it’s why we love sports—you don’t know what is going to happen.

VRENTAS: Did you say Super Bowl XLIII is your favorite telecast of all time? I would have thought it was the “Miracle on Ice.”

MICHAELS: Yes, I’d say in terms of the production of it, and everybody having a good day, from the tape truck to our research people to you name it. Everybody. I walked out of the booth that day thinking, “That’s the telecast I always wanted to do.” Everybody just hit it, and that doesn’t happen every often. What happens is, I’ve been doing this for so long, there’s a tendency that if the game is really fantastic, I’m sure there are production crews that walked away and go, “Wow that was great, and we were great.” Well sometimes the game is great and the telecast is not particularly great. And it also works in reverse. The game might not be very good, it might even stink, but the telecast is unbelievably good. So sometimes, there’s this crazy sort of anti-juxtaposition to what is really taking place. But that game I knew, I just walked away thinking, everybody was on top of it. The pictures were so fantastic, and crazy stuff happened, and the game was great. That was a good glowing feeling that day. I gotta tell you, in reality, I know what the production was on [Miracle on Ice], and it was not great. But the game was phenomenal, and that’s all people will know about. I can’t tell you the technical problems we had that night and throughout the Olympics at that arena in Lake Placid. That’s a long story for if I ever write a book about TV engineering. Nobody gave a damn. But look, I know what a good production is, and I know what a bad production is. That was not a good production, let’s just put it that way. But the game, the game overwhelmed everything.

VRENTAS: In your book that came out in November, You Can’t Make This Up, you write fondly of the sports landscape of Los Angeles you grew up on. Do you think we’re finally about to see a return of the NFL to L.A.?

MICHAELS: It’s hard to say. But I feel this way: It’s closer than it’s been in a long time. And obviously it is closer because the owner of the St. Louis Rams, one Stan Kroenke, who I know very well, has partnered with the people that have the adjacent parcel of land at the old Hollywood Park site in Inglewood and have these plans to build a stadium. So the next question is, does this mean the Rams are coming here? And that is the big question. The way it goes right now, the league has thrown its body over the Los Angeles market. Can a team move here without league approval? I guess they could try to and then open themselves up to lawsuits. Al Davis did it back in the early ’80s, he basically told the league, “Hey, the hell with you, I am moving my team here,” and he did go to court, and he won that battle, too. The league wants to avoid that. We are in a different time right now. If I had to guess, I don’t think Stan would fight it if the league declined to give him the permission to move here. I just don’t know what is going to happen. The market is great; I think if I’m the NFL, I want a team in L.A., I probably want two teams, and this area can support it, there’s no doubt about it. I think they’d want to play the Super Bowl here as much as they could. What better place to play the Super Bowl than Los Angeles/Hollywood. There is a 95 percent chance you are going to play it on a beautiful day. It would be a great place to have a Super Bowl, to build a world-class stadium here. That’s the only thing that has prevented L.A. from getting a team. We haven’t had a facility. The Coliseum is a dinosaur, and the Rose Bowl is not fit for the NFL with the way we know it. So there’s never been a question in my mind that if it were built, L.A. would get a team and probably two. But again, we’re now back to the politics of the situation. What is the league going to do? Are they going to give Kroenke or anybody else permission to move to Los Angeles? That’s the big question right now.

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VRENTAS: You have had a unique view of the NFL over a period of decades. With that perspective, what do you see the league looking like in another 30 years?

MICHAELS: That’s a great question, and I don’t know. But I do know that the health issue is a very, very important issue right now on a number of levels. The game is so physical. We all know about concussions, that’s come obviously to the forefront now over the last five to 10 years. I feel that the most dangerous thing for the league would be if parents and/or grandparents, whoever is raising these kids who want to play football, don’t let them play football or totally discourage them from playing football. That would be a major problem. I think what the league has done, and rightfully so, is every new rule has been put into place with safety as the primary concern. Can they make this a completely safe game? Impossible. These guys are too big, too strong, too fast. So there will always be injuries, but can they do something about this concussion problem? They have to. Because otherwise, I’m just hearing it more and more now, and I’m even hearing it from former players: Would you let your kid play football? Now that’s an issue. That’s a problem. And if that becomes an epidemic, then you have a whole other issue. If they get through this and you still have all these kids playing football and high school football, and college football is as big as it is, and the league is able to survive that, I still see 30 years from now, I would say football will still be the national pastime. And one of the reasons is it is the perfect, perfect television sport. Perfect. It looks so good on TV. Look, I love hockey; I am a huge hockey fan. But I have to be in the arena. In the building, hockey is spectacular. On TV, it’s eh. It’s good, and it has gotten better and it looks better than it ever has, and people like Mike Emrick are terrific, but it is just a different experience. Football is better on TV than it is live. Hockey is much better live than it is on television.

VRENTAS: Do you think the league is doing enough, from your vantage point, to address the health and safety concerns?

MICHAELS: They’re trying, they really are. You have all these things you didn’t have a couple years ago: Concussion protocol, passing tests, neurologists at the game, officials making sure somebody comes out of the game if they sense that they can’t continue. And teams, their feet are being held to the fire on these issues right now. We have come a long way in the last three years but there is still a long way to go.

VRENTAS: You know both of the teams in the Super Bowl very well—you’ve had them each on several broadcasts this season. What do you think America will be talking about the morning after the game?

MICHAELS: Hm. It’s so hard to tell. Going into it, one of the more interesting things would be, New England can beat you a lot of different ways. They can beat you by pounding it as they did against Indianapolis with LeGarrette Blount; they can beat you by not running the ball at all, as they did against Baltimore. It’s pretty fascinating the way Belichick brings his team to the game. And Pete Carroll is also pretty darn good at this as well. It is impossible to say how this game plays out, but I just look at this from the vantage point of 10 or 11 days out, it is a great matchup on so many levels and there are so many interesting things to talk about. One team’s offense against the other’s defense. How does special teams come into play? Do you run the ball, do you throw the ball? With Seattle, even if they slow down Marshawn Lynch, does Russell Wilson beat you with his legs? Richard Sherman is always a lot of fun to be around. It is great. This whole thing is terrific. But in terms of guessing what the storyline will be the day after the game, I’d rather go day-trading and try to pick some good stocks for tomorrow. Which, I love to do, but I have never been very good at. The same thing with football. You know why? We love it because we don’t know. We can talk until we are blue in the face, about all the things that might happen, but then we are always amazed after the game about what did happen.

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