Inside NBC's production truck for Super Bowl XLIX's wild finish
Longtime NFL producers such as Fred Gaudelli will tell you that while you aim to document every play to perfection, the play you truly must document to perfection is the one that people will be talking about years later. During his three decades in sports broadcasting, Gaudelli has produced hundreds of NFL games as the coordinating producer of Sunday Night Football, and before that as a producer on Monday Night Football for ABC and ESPN. He has produced five Super Bowls, including Sunday's. But he has never experienced a final 1:11 of game action like what we saw Sunday night in Arizona.
Heck, it was unlike anything any of us have ever seen.
"Agony and ecstasy -- that’s what it is at that moment when the [Malcolm Butler] interception comes," said Gaudelli, speaking from NBC’s production trailer outside University of Phoenix Stadium about 20 minutes after New England’s thrilling 28-24 win over Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. "The line was split right there. [Game director] Drew Esocoff and the rest of our replay people, that’s what we are trying to show at that moment."
NBC added about 15 extra cameras (for 40 total) for this year’s Super Bowl -- including additional 4K cameras -- to ensure they got the defining view of a critical play. So here was the situation facing Gaudelli, Esocoff and broadcasters Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth shortly after 10 o’clock on the East Coast:
New England 28, Seattle 24. The Seahawks had the ball on the Patriots’ 38-yard line with 71 seconds left. First down and history to go. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson launched a ball down the field. Esocoff’s cameras followed. Viewers then heard from Michaels that the pass to Jermaine Kearse was incomplete.
"Russell in the pocket. Russell for Kearse. And it’s broken up again… and, is it, but somehow, did he wind up with the football?"
That was followed by Collinsworth suggesting the ball had been deflected by Butler before falling into the ground. He then corrected himself upon the airing of the first replay. Then Michaels and Collinsworth described the play and realized they had witnessed an all-time catch. That was followed by a second replay, then a shot of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady looking on in disbelief. After Seattle called a timeout, Gaudelli cued up another replay of the catch, with Collinsworth now on his game, talking about the previous Super Bowl catches (Mario Manningham and David Tyree) that had killed the Patriots. Gaudelli then aired Tyree’s catch from Super Bowl XLII, which was also played in Glendale. That was followed by another view of the Kearse catch, and Seahawks owner Paul Allen looking like he had just seen a rainbow. It was an excellent sequence.
What was going on in the production truck? Upon watching Kearse’s catch live, Gaudelli thought that the receiver had miraculously made the play. He turned to his spotter: Did he catch that? Nobody said anything at first, then Gaudelli and others quickly noticed that the official was marking the ball down the field.
"The first thing that came into my mind was the catch by Green Bay’s Antonio Freeman on a Monday night game in 2000 in against Minnesota," Gaudelli said. "I remember Al saying, 'He did what?' So as soon as Kearse made the catch, I told someone to cue up the Tyree catch. That was the first thing that popped into my mind. The last time the Patriots were here, Tyree made this incredible catch. So we went with that replay."
Coming out of the replays, Collinsworth smartly informed the audience that Seattle still had to score. He also informed them that the Patriots had to stop running back Marshawn Lynch -- a tough assignment. The next play Lynch ran from the 5 to the half yard-line. That started a discussion of whether the Patriots should let the Seahawks score quickly. As the Wilson took the snap, the clock struck 25 seconds. Here was the call by Michaels.
“Play clock at 5. The pass is ... intercepted. At the goal line by Malcolm Butler. UNREAL!”
Gaudelli said he knew immediately that NBC would have excellent replays of the game-winning interception because there was an isolated camera on Seattle receiver Ricardo Lockette and Butler during the play. They also had isolated cameras on the middle of the field.
"At that point once you show the interception, then it is about the reaction," Gaudelli said. "Brady’s reaction was unbelievable. So was Pete Carroll’s, and I feel bad for him because he has to live with that one probably forever. I thought Cris did a great job. He read the play."
Collinsworth voiced over how Butler beat Lockette to the spot. Then he went after Carroll. "I’m sorry, but I cannot believe the [play] call," Collinsworth said. "I cannot believe the call. You have Marshawn Lynch in the backfield, a guy that has been borderline unstoppable on this part of the field, I can’t believe the call.”
The replays kept coming, including Brady jumping up like a school kid and Richard Sherman’s face crumbling as if he had swallowed bad sushi. The announcers kept their wits about them during a brawl with 18 seconds left, and Esocoff’s cameraman followed the scrum from the end zone for all to see.
"Every once in a while, you think you have seen it all," Collinsworth said.
"No, you haven’t," Michaels responded.
"I will never get over throwing the ball in that situation," said Collinsworth.
"Neither will Seahawk fans," Michaels replied.
Gaudelli said during those final minutes the booth was calm. "Everybody knew what was at stake," he said. "This was one of the greatest Super Bowls ever. The truck was pretty much in control. We wanted to make sure we had the right angles and replay and that Drew was cutting the live pictures. I thought everybody was in sync."
When he spoke to SI.com on Sunday night, Gaudelli had not eaten for 10 hours. He said he planned to head back to his hotel for dinner, a couple of beers and his usual five hours of sleep. "I can’t really sleep much more than five hours a night," he said "I’ll be able to sleep, but I will be definitely jumping up early to find out what the ratings are."
The ratings are going to be a monster. The most-watched Super Bowl in history came last year, when 112.2 people watched Seattle’s blowout of Denver on Fox. This game is going top that significantly.
I judge a Super Bowl game broadcast, first and foremost, on how it handles the game’s signature plays, and I thought NBC did superbly in the final minutes. Yes, Michaels and Collinsworth initially missed the Kearse catch, but the booth and broadcast truck were in sync after that. The shots on the field provided viewers with narrative, and replays offered clear and defining views. Michaels and Collinsworth were also very strong on Seattle’s decision to pass at the end of the game. Viewers expect a lot out of NBC’s broadcast group because they have established themselves as the best production. This broadcast was solid, with a grade between A- and B+.
What did Gaudelli think?
"It’s hard for me to say because I have to go back and watch it," Gaudelli said. "I would just say that I thought Drew had a great night, I thought the announcers were having a great night and our crew was really in sync. But when you go back and watch, you will find things you wish you did differently. That’s just the nature of what we do. It will never be perfect, or as perfect as you want it to be. But I would say leaving the truck tonight I feel good about it."
Some additional thoughts on the game broadcast:
• The attention to small details is something that makes the Sunday Night Football production stand out, and we saw that prior to kickoff when Esocoff spied Lynch digging into a bowl of Skittles.
• Loved that the player intros included the kicker, punter and long snapper -- something that had not happened before. "I thought at the Super Bowl they deserved that," Gaudelli said.
• The network did not show Doug Baldwin’s touchdown celebration, which involved him squatting over the football as if he were sitting on a toilet. I thought that was a weak decision. NBC’s job is to chronicle the game and not play the morality police. Baldwin did not curse on the air. NBC felt the celebration was inappropriate. "He scores the touchdown and you see the initial celebration and you think he is done," Gaudelli said. "At that point, Drew is cutting around to other people affected by that touchdown. We showed the play-action fake of Wilson and how Darrelle Revis was picked by the umpire. I think in commercial I was looking at the celebration by Baldwin and I was like, 'Forget that. I’m not showing that.'"
• The camera picked up Sherman on the sideline mouthing "24" after Baldwin scored in the third quarter. The question was whether he was referring to the points on the board for Seattle or Revis, who wears No. 24. We never found out as viewers.
• Nice hustle -- literally -- by reporter Michele Tafoya to run down Butler for an interview after the game. "I just had a vision that I was going to make a big play," he told her.
The path to a successful Super Bowl pregame show is always the same: Find the healthy balance between entertainment (for the casual sports fans tuning in) and football (for the NFL fan who has been around weekly and gets incensed by Seacrestian nonsense).
As for finding that balance, I thought NBC did well. First, the addition of Ravens coach John Harbaugh was excellent. He was polished, animated and exactly what you wanted in a one-off Super Bowl guest. On the subject of the Ravens informing the league or the Colts about New England deflating game balls for an advantage, Harbaugh was clear in his denial. "I heard all that," he said. "I could not believe it when I heard it. It never happened."
Coaches and players often take such assignments as a way to pitch themselves as broadcasting candidates down the road. Harbaugh passed that test with flying colors.
"He has a seat at the Football Night In America desk if this coaching thing doesn’t work out," said pregame show producer Sam Flood, the executive producer of NBC Sports and NBCSN. "But I know he would rather play in this game next year. He was fun to work with today."
The other pregame highlight was an artful interview of Tom Brady by Bob Costas, who pressed the Patriots' quarterback on the Deflategate issues. (Costas conducted the interview with Brady at media day last Tuesday.)
From a transcript of the interview:
Costas: "Another question frequently asked, whether it be an equipment guy, a ball boy, whatever -- hard to believe that that person wouldn't deflate the ball beneath 12.5, the minimum allowable, without at least having the notion that that's how Tom Brady wants it, whether you told him that or not. Is that a fair assumption?"
Brady: "Absolutely, I think that’s -- absolutely -- you know, I could understand why people feel that way. You know, there's an investigation going on. I’m sure all the things will come out. It's been a lot of speculation. And I think that's what led to my hurt feelings. You know, hopefully the facts come out. And -- you know, we understand that -- you know, whatever happened, happened. And you know, it's not going to have an effect on this game. And you know, we can move forward."
That interview was followed by a discussion between Costas, Michaels and Collinsworth where Collinsworth forcefully questioned what he was hearing from Brady.
"There was too much wiggle room for me," Collinsworth said. "Honestly, after watching that interview I have more doubts now than before we interviewed him. When I interviewed Tom Brady I said, 'Listen, look me in the eye and tell me you did not remotely say anything to a ball boy, an assistant coach, somebody that may have interpreted that as I want you to go and deflate the balls.' He said, 'Absolutely not.' That [his answer to Costas] was the exact opposite."
Other pregame highlights:
• One of the best moments of the pregame came about two hours in, when analysts Tony Dungy, Rodney Harrison and Harbaugh offered what it was like prior to getting to the stadium for their Super Bowl. That discussion played in the background while live shots showed the Patriots and Seahawks heading into the stadium. Harrison said he started throwing up in the back of the bus prior to arriving for Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3, 2008 -- the game the undefeated Pats lost to the Giants. Great tidbit.
• Tafoya reported that the NFL declined NBC’s request to capture the game balls being inflated. The sideline reporter said that 108 game balls (54 from each team) would be used and that each team was allowed to practice with the balls until Friday, when they were turned over to Tony Medlin, the equipment manager for the Chicago Bears. Tafoya said the balls were in Medlin’s possession between Friday and Sunday. She also explained why so many footballs are used (for sponsors and giveaways). It was yet another example of an NFL sideline reporter who is a reporter first and foremost and a personality second. Nice work.
• Network partners do not want to embarrass the people they are in business with, but NBC had to request an interview with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for the pregame show if they were looking for credibility with viewers. That request was declined.
• The Adriana Lima interview with Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski produced Yao Ming-sized banality. Weir and Lipinski hanging out with the wife of Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was also a disappointment, given how great such a segment could have been with the skaters.
• The first sign of Deflategate chatter game 32 minutes into the pregame, with NBC using insider Mike Florio at an update desk followed by Dungy and Harrison repeating a lot of talking points from earlier this week. "If anyone in the Patriots organization had anything to do with the balls being deflated," Dungy said, "I think it severely damages their reputation and their legacy."
• As long as networks hire recently retired ex-players, objectivity will always be an issue. Often, we see analysts struggle to be critical of former players and coaches. But sometimes that closeness pays off for viewers, as it did when Harrison read a text from his former teammate (Harrison called him: "My buddy") Brady saying, "I'm ready for the biggest game of my life. My mind is right. Our team is focused. Had a great week. We have a great gameplan. Watch out."
• Rarely do viewers get anything out of former coaches interviewing current coaches, and that was the case with Dungy interviewing Pete Carroll.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories
1. On Friday afternoon, Amy Van Dyken was back at the pool, a place that has served as her second home for more than three decades. At the Atlanta Games in 1996, Van Dyken became the first American female athlete in history to win four gold medals in a single Olympic games. She won two gold medals four years later in Sydney. In her post-athletic career, she went into broadcasting, becoming one of the few women to host a national sports talk show when she partnered with Rob Dibble on Fox Sports Radio a couple of years ago.
Her broadcasting career continued on Friday when she worked as a Pac-12 Network swim analyst for Cal’s win over Stanford. That she was at the meet was a minor miracle. Van Dyken suffered a spinal cord injury last June 6 in an all-terrain vehicle accident in Arizona that left her paralyzed from the waist down. When her husband, former Broncos punter Tom Rouen, found her at the bottom of a seven-foot drop, Van Dyken wasn’t breathing. She underwent risky spinal fusion surgery, and doctors prepared her for the worst. "My doctor said it was a possibility I would not survive the surgery, and there was a 72-hour period where I could go into spinal shock and die," Van Dyken said.
But she survived and now undergoes daily physical therapy. Her return to broadcasting was heavily chronicled over the weekend, and she said in an interview on Saturday afternoon that it was initially uncomfortable to be the subject of heavy media attention. (The Pac-12 Network ran this feature on her recovery from the accident.)
"It was really different because I was there to do a job and a lot of other people where there to watch me do a job," Van Dyken said. "It was a little harder to do prep work because we [along with on-air partner Jason Knapp] had a lot of people hovering around but I was excited to be back. It was just the normal nerves of being back on the air, and it felt so great to be able to do what I love to do, which is calling swim meets and being part of the media. Once that first race started, it was like nothing had ever happened to me. When I put that headset on, no one knew I was paralyzed unless they knew the story."
Van Dyken is a ruthless optimist, and that attitude clearly has helped her over the last seven months. Her husband thought it would be therapeutic to get a phone in her hand immediately after surgery, and Van Dyken started posting Instagram photos of her recovery. She said social media has been a huge motivator for her, especially people sharing their stories with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. "I am so appreciative that people care about my story to talk about, and I’ve heard from people who say it helps them if they are having a bad day," she said.
That upbeat attitude, she said, has always been there. As a child she suffered from severe asthma, and was occasionally hospitalized for it. "With that you learn that life sometime hands you lemons and you better make limoncello out of it," she said. "Enjoy yourself."
Along with broadcasting, Van Dyken said she is focused on the Amy Van Dyken Foundation, which she formed to give equipment to spinal chord patients who cannot afford it through their own means or insurance. The goal is to improve the lives of people with spinal chord injuries. She will return to the Pac-12 Network's airwaves for swim meets on Feb. 13-14 and will call the Pac-12 Swim Championships at the end of February.
"I am the same person and I can do the same things I used to do," Van Dyken said. "It might take me a little longer, but I can still do it and rock it out as well as I ever did. Stairs are a little more difficult for me, but I can still do them."
2. Chris Simms has joined his father in the family business -- for the second time. The younger Simms, who played in the NFL for seven years, is now an analyst for CBS, CBS Sports Network and Bleacher Report. Phil Simms, of course, is the lead NFL analyst for CBS Sports. Last week I had a long interview with them for The MMQB which featured topics such as playing (Phil) and working (Chris) under Bill Belichick, the legacy of Tom Brady, whether broadcasters should use the Redskins nickname and how Jon Gruden disliked watching TV analysis when he was a coach. The Q&A is here.
3. The NHL All-Star game ratings tanked, especially in Canada. The Toronto Star reported that the game drew 1.479 million viewers on CBC, nearly one million viewers fewer than the 2012 All-Star Game, which drew 2.454 million viewers, and down from 2011 (2.363 million).
3a. NBCSN drew 1.19 million viewers for the game, the lowest figure in the U.S. since 2009. Interestingly, via Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp, ESPN’s airing of Sunday NFL Countdown in that same window drew 2.29 million viewers.
3b. ESPN drew 8.77 million viewers for the Pro Bowl, the game’s lowest figure since it aired on a Saturday night in 2007. It drew 11.77 million last year on NBC.
3c. Via Karp: Fox drew 2.17 million viewers for Duke-St. John’s last Sunday (Mike Krzyzewski’s 1000th career win), the net’s best-ever college basketball audience.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur on the silent Marshawn Lynch, American Spartacus.
• Richard Sherman continues to impress. Read this.
• Via The Washington Post: How the Super Bowl halftime show went from college marching bands to superstars.
• SI’s Greg Bishop looks back on Dan Marino's 1984 season. Check out the amazing footage of ESPN's draft coverage of Marino.
• Terrific Bill Belichick anecdote here at the top of this story by John Canzano of The Oregonian.
• Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen examines Vine's impact on NBA viewing.
• ESPNW’s Jane McManus on domestic violence and the NFL.
• Washington Post sports columnist Michael Lee on Kobe Bryant once wanting to join the Wizards and Michael Jordan.
• Grantland’s Bryan Curtis examined the dynamic between Marshawn Lynch and the media.
• Brendan Prunty, for Rolling Stone, on a man who has gate-crashed over 30 Super Bowls.
Non-sports pieces of note:
•This story stayed with me all week: The Fire On The 57 Bus In Oakland.
• The Boston Globe’s Eric Moskowitz continues his tremendous work on Boston Marathon survivors.
• A Holocaust survivor's liberation story about departing Dachau.
• What can a pregnant photojournalist cover? A remarkable piece by conflict photographer Lynsey Addario.
• It never fails. The Economist obit is consistently brilliant writing. Check this week's out.
• Remarkable reporting by Washington Post reporters Adam Goldman and Ellen Nakashimae on the CIA and Mossad combining forces to kill a target.
• She was born with a rare facial defect. Surgeons hope to repair the damage with a 3-D printer.
• A Detroit man walks 21 miles to work every day.
5. In a first of its kind for the company, ESPN will provide live and on-demand coverage for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 (February 13 to March 28) over the Internet. Interested viewers can sign up beginning Feb. 3 at ESPNcricket2015.com, and all 49 matches of the tournament will be available live and on replay for $99.99. "To be clear - we strongly believe in the Pay TV bundle and its value and are still fully committed to it -- this is about continuing to provide new and additive digital products," said an ESPN spokesperson.
Re/code’s Peter Kafka first reported on this possibility back in November. "The move is important because it’s the first time ESPN will sell some of its stuff directly to consumers instead of wholesaling it to pay-TV providers," Kafka wrote. "And we are going to see more of this: ESPN already plans to sell a package of NBA games to fans in a couple of years, and may do the same with Major League Soccer (though not this year)."
5a. Verge profiled ESPN's multi-platform abilities, including an interesting video on how ESPN approaches change.
5b. NBC’s telecast of NFL Honors drew 4.7 million viewers, up 49 percent (3.126 million) over last year’s airing on Fox.
5c. Outside the Lines returned to ESPN from ESPN2 on Jan. 25 and averaged 677,000 viewers. The show averaged 171,000 viewers and 165,000 viewers on ESPN2 the previous two weeks, per Douglas Pucci of Awful Announcing.
5d. ESPN NFL anchor Suzy Kolber broke down when paying tribute to her late colleague and friend, Stuart Scott.