CHARLOTTE — For three hours on Sunday night, 45.7 million Americans tuned into FOX’s broadcast of the NFC Championship Game. They watched Troy Aikman and Joe Buck narrate and analyze the Panthers’ 49-15 rout over the Cardinals as Cam Newton clinched a Super Bowl berth and a half-dozen local kids snag game-used footballs.
What America didn’t see: 18 cameramen, lively production trucks, countless texts between fathers and daughters, hundreds of hours of film study, and a manila envelope holding the secret to Ron Rivera’s maturation as a head coach. For three days leading up to the game, The MMQB embedded with the FOX broadcasting crew to lift the veil on what goes on behind the scenes.
11:45 a.m. Friday — Panthers practice facility
The seven members of FOX’s NFL A-Team assemble in a cramped, gray meeting room. They unpack laptops, unfurl packets of notes and drape winter parkas over the backs of folding chairs. “Feels like we never left,” says director Rich Russo, who broadcasted a game here five days ago.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton walks in, sporting post-practice sweats and a fur trapper hat. Everyone perks to attention.
“Oh my goodness, Cam,” says reporter Erin Andrews. “Where did you get the hat?”
“Now that is a statement piece,” play-by-play man Joe Buck adds.
“Mind if I get a pic?” asks Troy Aikman, the quarterback-turned-analyst.
“Of course,” Newton laughs, posing for a shot that lands on Instagram.
“Nice,” Aikman says, settling back to the round table. “OK let’s get to it. What do you see in Arizona?”
The pre-production meeting is a sacred essential for the modern broadcast. Coaches and players are summoned for ask-me-anything-style sessions rooted in trust. Newton knows his information is used judiciously, only to inform the crew’s work during the game.
The quarterback leans back in his folding chair and compliments his upcoming opponent: “They have so many athletes!” He then discusses his mentor, Warren Moon. “I think one of his regrets was that he was so serious, that he didn’t enjoy the game as much when he was in it,” Newton says. “So when people watch me play, I want them to say, ‘Damn, he’s having so much fun. He makes the game fun.’”
“You’re having fun giving those kids footballs,” Aikman says.
“Oh my god,” Newton says. “It’s crazy.”
“It’s kind of turning into the Lambeau Leap,” Aikman suggests.
“Exactly!” Newton gushes. “I’m hoping it can become a tradition here, long after I’m gone. The Sunday Giveaway.”
“Can you see the kids lining up as you enter the red zone?” Buck asks.
“The traffic behind the goal post is ridiculous,” Newton says. “I can start seeing them when I’m at the 50, no lie.”
“Wait,” Russo intejects. “When you’re at the 50-yard line, you can start seeing the kids congregate?”
“Yup,” Newton says.
Russo stares at producer Richie Zyontz across the table, raising an eyebrow. His message is obvious: This could make good television.
12:30 p.m., Friday — Same meeting room
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, tight end Greg Olsen and corner Josh Norman each cycle through, their discussions lasting between 10 and 30 minutes. Even general manager Dave Gettleman, wearing basketball shorts and flip-flops, pops in for an impromptu hello.
Quarterbacking these meetings, Aikman consults his list of prepared questions. The crew has broadcast four Panthers games this season, and familiarity drives thirst for new perspective. Twenty minutes into coach Ron Rivera’s session, Zyontz makes an announcement.
“I just texted John Madden to see if he wanted to tell you anything,” Zyontz reports. “This is what he responded: ‘Tell Ron I’m proud of him, no bullshit.’ ”
Rivera smiles. “Wow,” he says. “That really means a lot.” Before the coach leaves, he asks Aikman to follow him into the hallway, where he hands him a manila envelope. “This is something I want you to see.”
10:45 a.m. Saturday — Second floor of the Ritz Carlton hotel
The Knicks play the Hornets tonight, and in a 1,000-square foot conference room glowing with sunlight, coach Derek Fisher lectures Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony about defense. In an adjacent room, Aikman is seated at a long table, fiddling between his MacBook Air, iPad and a 60-inch monitor—his version of a walk-through.
When Fisher, a Cowboys fan, learns that Aikman is on the other side of the wall, he asks a Knicks employee to reach out to FOX because he wants to say hello.
“Cool,” Aikman says, when the message is relayed. “Whenever I’m done with this.”
On the flight home from Carolina to Dallas last Sunday night, Aikman re-watched his entire broadcast of the Panthers’ 31-24 win over Seattle in the divisional round. On Monday morning he downloaded the All-22 footage, as well as the footage from the Cardinals’ win over Green Bay. By Tuesday he had reviewed both, in their entirety, at least twice. Aikman, like Buck and the rest of the crew, also reads roughly 10 clippings a day, dispatches from Carolina and Arizona beat reporters.
By Wednesday, Aikman begins filling in his game board—an 11-by-7 inch oak tag printed with a depth chart, and extra space for notes. His neat, angular cursive would make any grade-school teacher swoon; his fact-checking is just as meticulous. He had read a clip, for example, that said Panthers corner Robert McClain—a midseason free-agent pickup—was targeted 14 times by Russell Wilson last week, allowing seven catches. “I know he was picked on,” Aikman says. “But am I absolutely positive McClain that was the responsible culprit for each of those seven catches?”
At the Ritz, Aikman revs up a playlist: Every throw Wilson made from last week’s game.
Aikman watches each one, sometimes rewinding five times to better understand the coverage. The entire process takes nearly an hour. “A-ha, look here,” Aikman says, zeroing in on a first-and-10 with 9:03 remaining in the third quarter. The Panthers are in zone. Wilson connects with Jermaine Kearse for six yards on a crossing route. “It looks like people credited this catch to McClain,” Aikman says. “But I think the safety, [Kurt] Coleman, should’ve pinched.”
Aikman replays it again. “Yeah, not McClain’s fault.” He strikes the note from board. The stat will not make the broadcast.
10:15 p.m. Saturday — 10th floor of the Ritz Carlton
After production meetings with the Cardinals, the crew discusses potential graphics, then dines, and afterward Joe Buck retreats to his room for his usual nightcap. A knock on his door, and Steve Horn enters.
A lanky man with shoulder-length gray hair and glasses seemingly permanently affixed to the tip of his nose, Horn is ubiquitous throughout the weekend. Calling him Buck’s right-hand man, or a stat guy, would marginalize his value. “Steve is someone who contextualizes,” Buck says, settling in behind his desk. “And where the average fan is so much smarter now than they were, say, when my dad broadcasted, that is so important.”
Horn rests on an ottoman and opens a six-inch binder. “OK, let’s talk Arizona storylines,” he says. “If the field is bad, let’s think of Bruce Arians. In dramatic arc to his coaching career, he has always been seduced by speed. Speed, speed, speed. It's going to affect him.”
“Right,” Buck nods. “What year was he at Temple again?”
“1983,” Horn replies, without pause. “The youngest head coach in football.”
“And he was on Bear—” Buck begins, only to have Horn finish his sentence: “Bear Bryant’s last staff, yes.”
Buck jots a note. He uses the same board template as Aikman, and it is filled with red, blue and black scribbles, some notes larger than others. On a typical game, Buck says, he will only use about 10 percent of his notes on air.
1:30 p.m. Sunday — Bank of America Stadium
Partitioned behind a black curtain, Rich Russo, the director, hands out packets to his 18 cameramen. “OK, last week was great—the images of the little girl with the football? Sometimes we take that for granted. That shot, it was all over the morning newscasts the next day. Really well done guys.”
The cameramen, mostly middle aged, are dressed in jeans, sneakers and hoodies. They listen intently. “Overall, with touchdowns, let’s stay with the hero until commercials,” Russo says. “Something to look out for this week: a wide-angle shot behind Cam as he crosses the 50, see if you can find the fans behind the goal posts. Alright, let’s go over assignments.”
For the next hour, Russo outlines specific assignments for each cameraman. There are contingency plans for contingency plans.
“You are following iso Fitzgerald for Cardinals and Ginn for Panthers, if either of them are out you slide to the low receiver…”
“You are tight shots on the interior linemen, KK Short and Star. If you see a corner about to go on a blitz, pan wide…”
“If Arizona is on a long drive and if we haven’t seen Cam in a while, make sure we check on Cam…”
On and on it goes.
“Remember,” Russo says at one point. “I don’t want you to be robots. Go with your instincts. I trust you guys.”
3:45 p.m. Sunday — The field
Wearing a self-heating hunting vest under a white sweater and wrapped in a Canada Goose parka, Erin Andrews walks on to the field. For the playoffs, FOX adds an additional sideline reporter, Chris Myers. He is assigned the Panthers; Andrews is on Cardinals duty. “Coach!” she says, spotting Arizona offensive coordinator Chris Goodwin taking a pregame lap. “How are ya?”
Andrews spoke to a close friend of Carson Palmer’s during the week, who said the quarterback battled intense nerves before the Green Bay game. Andrews asks Goodwin: “What’s the vibe? Have you seen anything different from Carson this week?” She feeds the response to Zyontz and the booth, in case they need it in the broadcast.
“A lot of people think my job is being an ambulance chaser,” Andrews says of reporting on in-game injuries. “I see myself as the eyes and ears of the sideline.”
“People don’t realize,” Russo says later, “she’s actually yapping in our ears all game. Even if she doesn’t make it on air, her information tells us where to put cameras or information to feed Troy and Joe.”
During the Josh Norman-Odell Beckham meltdown game, it was Andrews who insisted that an isolation camera follow Beckham on the sideline. “Odell Beckham is going ballistic guys,” she told them. “Get someone on this, ASAP.”
Information, however, is imperative. Her worst fear is flying home the next morning and realizing she missed something big. She and Russo have conducted at least a dozen informal postmortems on the Panthers-Giants game, including yet another one at a bar on Friday night over beer.
“She actually told me that she saw the bat incident in pregame,” Russo says.
“And I’m kicking myself,” Andrews explains. “Because that was the story after the game, and we didn’t have it!”
“But here’s the thing,” Russo rationalizes. “We made that decision in the truck. And how could we have known that altercation would carry over as the storyline of the game?”
“I know,” Andrews says. “But, ugh!”
6:43 p.m. — The booth
Aikman and Buck are armed with their boards, two monitors apiece, and a spotter pointing out who makes the plays. Dave Schwalbe waves a depth chart in Buck’s peripheral vision after each down; Scott Snyder does the same for Aikman; and Ed Sfida computes stats. Horn paces behind them, also wearing a headset. Standing nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, it’s a minor miracle nobody jabs an elbow into someone’s ribs.
The window is open, but their 200-square foot enclave is toasty.
Buck pops in a Halls cough drop; Aikman gulps water. They fist-bump right before the broadcast goes live.
After 14 years together, Buck and Aikman communicate almost entirely non-verbally. Between plays, Aikman scrolls back to plays on his monitor, sometimes zoning out of Buck’s play-by-play, or listening to Zyontz, the producer, in his ear.
Before Buck tees up Aikman, he’ll often tug at his arm to make sure he’s ready.
When Aikman speaks, he has a tendency to shift the weight from his left foot to his right foot. He clears his throat nearly a dozen times a quarter, each time pressing a “cough” button that mutes his microphone.
Buck rarely stands still, leaning against the table in front of him, nursing a cup of tea and grabbing for more Halls.
During timeouts, both men often grab their phones and text their daughters (they each have two) about schoolwork and what time they’ll land back home. “It’s incredible to me,” says Mike Pereira, the former NFL VP of Officiating and FOX rules expert, who joins them in the booth through the playoffs. “The ease in which they operate, their calmness. I would be freaking out.”
7:46 p.m. — The booth
Having Pereira in the booth is a postseason luxury. Usually he’s on set in Los Angeles, monitoring multiple games. If producers want to do a hit, there’s a process for bringing him on the air: They make sure he’s seen the play, confirm he’s available, coordinate with his on-site producer and then work him into the broadcast. When Pereira is sitting six inches to Aikman’s right, the process is seamless by comparison.
At a commercial break, Aikman taps Pereira’s shoulder and says, “Hey, that hit by Shaq Thompson, that should have been a penalty?”
“Exactly,” Pereira says.
Twenty seconds later, Aikman is back on air, narrating over a tight shot of Arians complaining to an official. “Well, you see here,” Aikman says. “Arians is upset because he believed that should have been a penalty called on Shaq Thompson.”
8:06 p.m. — The production truck
Russo and Zyontz each have earpieces connecting to the feeds of Andrews, Myers, the booth, all the cameramen, and the graphics and sound teams. In a solo cave, audio mixer Fred Aldous fades sounds in and out. The men constantly stare at a grid of TV screens, each streaming different camera feeds. Spending 20 minutes in the production truck sounds like two live auctions and three police scanners trying to be heard the loudest. The following communications took place in just 30 seconds:
“Take it to commercial in 9.”
“There’s a lot going on here.”
“He just punched.”
“Go 10, go nine.”
“Carson Palmer is walking off…Panthers up 17!”
“10, stay with Carson.”
“He just punched.”
“No, ready 12...ready 12.”
“Anybody else proud of anything?”
“Ready gamma? Go Gamma!”
“Don’t worry about Arians, play it.”
“And he takes another one of those shots.”
Myers feeds the production truck: “I just saw Roman Harper, he said, ‘I just got hit in the eye.’ ”
“Get me a shot of Harper!” Russo yells.
“Wait,” Zyontz says. “What’s going on with Thomas Davis?”
“Davis,” Russo says. “Stay with Davis.”
“Lost ball! Lost ball! Let me see who has it!”
“Davis is walking to the locker room,” Myers says.
“Do we have a camera following him?”
“What about the fumble?
“Myers live from the locker room...”
8:20 p.m. — The production truck
After the two-minute warning, with the Panthers facing third-and-goal, the broadcast returns a wide-angle shot behind the goal post, then a tight shot of the children congregated in the front row hoping for a touchdown ball.
“The kids are lined up on the stairway for a souvenir,” Buck announces. “Here comes Cam. He got it. Touchdown!”
As Graham Gano attempts the extra point, Buck says: “The only question left is, which kid got the ball down behind the end zone?”
Carolina is up, 24-7.
“The bigger question is,” Aikman remarks. “How many kids in Charlotte don’t have a ball?” He continues: “[Newton] said when he gets down to the red zone, he can see them waiting at the fence there to get their souvenir.”
9:50 p.m. — The booth
As the fourth quarter winds down, all suspense has vanished. The Panthers are up 49-15. Aikman has pocketed a few anecdotes for situations like this. He circles back to a nugget Rivera revealed in the pre-production meeting: His biggest regret in his first two seasons—when the Panthers posted sub-.500 records—was not hiring an assistant who had former head-coaching experience.
“He really had a lot to learn,” Aikman tells the audience. “But the person who really helped him the most was John Madden. We’ve talked about it on previous broadcasts—the notes he took after the visits he made to John Madden—and Friday after our meeting he wanted me to see these notes. He copied them off and handed them to me. About 10 pages of typed-written notes, and it is an encyclopedia on coaching and how to run a football team.”
Jeff Gordon, the retired NASCAR driver and new FOX analyst, pokes his head in the booth, hoping to say goodbye to Aikman. “I can’t believe they stand for all three hours of the game” Gordon remarks. “And in dress shoes!”
10:05 p.m. — The field
Chris Myers weaves through a sea of hugging teammates and swarming photographers. He locks on to his target, and grabs his shoulder. “Cam,” Myers says. “Postgame!”
Some 30 seconds later they’re live for Newton’s first comments. At halftime Rivera told Myers that it was Newton who addressed teammates, and Myers asks, “Can you share what you said?”
“That’s confidential,” Newton replies.
“Millions are watching!” Myers prods. “They’re excited for this.”
Newton elaborates, his answer spiraling until he finally says, “We’re not over yet, I don’t know who we’re playing yet, but we’ll be ready to go in two weeks.” In Myers ear, Zyontz reminds him to keep the interview short. Myers had a few planned questions, but knew he had to follow up and let Newton know it would be the Panthers and Peyton Manning’s Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
“Cam’s reaction—that smile—it was so real,” Myers says the next morning. “He was truly so focused, he had no idea who had won that [Denver-New England] game. So much preparation goes into any given broadcast, but sometimes those unscripted moments are the ones that resonate most.”
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