The NFL’s New Thursday Night Crew

Bob Costas and Tony Dungy on the QB situation in Dallas, fixing the Rooney Rule and where football will be in 25 years
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In advance of the NBC’s first Thursday Night Football broadcast—the Panthers beat the Saints, 23-20, last night in Charlotte—Bob Costas and Tony Dungy spoke at a media luncheon in Manhattan about all things football. Costas explained why he thinks NFL ratings will recover and where he thinks football will be in 25 years, while Dungy talked about fixing the Rooney Rule and Dak Prescott’s rise in Dallas. Here are their thoughts in full:

What has influenced the decline in ratings this season? Will the news buzz generated with Donald Trump’s upcoming presidency continue to distract viewers from the NFL even now that the election is over?

COSTAS: The presidential debates were specific events, so you don’t have that, which impacted one Sunday night and one Monday night. Also overlapping with it was an uncommonly interesting and compelling baseball postseason, culminating with the Cubs. Game 5 at Wrigley actually got a higher rating than a very good Eagles-Cowboys matchup on Sunday Night Football and a game that went into overtime, but that is also understandable because it was the World Series and a historic World Series. Perhaps, had Clinton won, there would be less buzz around the implications; there are no longer specific events like debates that go head-to-head with football games, and the baseball postseason is over. So those two elements have gone away. One is completely gone away, the other is 90 percent gone I would say.

DUNGY: I don’t think the Kaepernick movement or player protests have impacted the ratings, but obviously the election has. You’re talking about a once-every-four-years event that is going to shape the direction of our country—people should be distracted by that. You hope they would be. It is a short window and we will see what happens this second half.

Now that Trump has been elected, will that spur more players to take political stances?

DUNGY: Well, we saw Mike Evans on Sunday. He did not stand and he said it was related to the election, he said he was disappointed in the election.

Twenty-one of the last 22 first-time head coaching hires have been white. How do you think the NFL needs to reinforce the Rooney Rule?

DUNGY: I think what we have to do is get people to think outside the box regardless of the rule and where it is. Take your time, exhaust the search and look at everywhere. Obviously, if you are well known, it is easier to become a head coach, and that is what we’ve seen from the minority hirings: Jim Caldwell, Lovie Smith, second time around coaches, they do have a track record. But finding those young, good coaches, it takes a little work and to me, that is what I would encourage, not necessarily the rule, but encourage people to do that research and don’t hurry the process. To me the great thing about the Rooney Rule, it was supposed to slow people down, but now what people have done is they say OK, let me just go ahead and quick-interview a couple of minority candidates and then get on with my business of hiring who I want to hire. Pittsburgh is a perfect example of how to do it right. They had two very good candidates on their staff, and everyone is saying, let’s just hire one of these two and get on with it. But Dan Rooney said, let me do some exploring. He didn’t know Mike Tomlin at all, but he searched around and brought Mike in for an interview and said, There is something I like about this guy. And now they have been to a couple Super Bowls.

Have you specifically been involved in talks with the league about ways to improve the application of the Rooney Rule?

DUNGY: We have talked a lot about minority hiring and diversity and how to encourage that. I don’t know if it is legislation per se; I think the idea behind the rule is very good, but I don’t think the spirit of the rule is being followed, so we have to find different ways to do that. But I do think it is important for the NFL to uncover that hidden talent and to find people in a lot of different areas—not just the traditional, well who has been a head coach before? Who are the top coordinators? There are other people who are very talented that you hope they’ll uncover. John Harbaugh is a great example. Harbaugh has done a tremendous job and he didn’t come up through the ordinary lines. Ozzie Newsome says, Hey, I know this guy is a special teams guy, and he’s coached a little bit on defense, but this is who I want as a leader. So thinking outside the box, determine what you want, knowing what you want and then trying to see who best fits that. That’s where you have success.

Are the executive search firms and agents involved in today’s hiring process complicating the search in a way that it hadn’t in the past?

DUNGY: I think what is hurting the process is so many owners don’t know what they are looking for. I’ve talked to people who have asked me to recommend a coach, and then when I ask what are you looking for? They say, I don’t know, just recommend somebody that is good. I tell them to go to Dan Rooney and ask Dan how he’s done it. He’s hired three coaches in 40 years; he’s never had to fire a coach and they’ve all won a Super Bowl, because he has a formula of what works for him. He hires young defensive coordinators who think in the Pittsburgh mentality. So now if you tell me that, I can give you 20 or 30 names. But if you don’t know, I can give you the best coach out there and it may not work for you. I think that is the problem. So many of these owners and general managers that I have talked to aren’t sure what they want.

How many phone calls each year do you get from teams asking for coaching recommendations?

DUNGY: It’s usually one team a year or two, it just depends on the cycle and how many people are looking for coaches that year. I will get a call from a general manager or from a search firm, and I’ll recommend some guys. I’ll ask, Are you looking for an offensive coach or defensive coach? Young, old? What do you want? I hear all the time, We just want a good coach. That’s when it becomes hard because it is so broad and it’s got to fit with their philosophy and expectations.

Your name seems to be thrown around every year as someone who could fill a head-coaching position. Would you ever consider coaching again?

DUNGY: I would not and that is happening less and less, fortunately, over the years. I just don’t think I would be a good coach at this point because it takes so much energy and time. But that is usually how it gets started, people will ask me to recommend a coach and I say OK, I’ll send out a note for you. Then they will say, Are you interested? And I say, no, I’m not interested. What are you looking for?

Now that NBC has the next six-consecutive Thursday night games, how does that impact both of your schedules?

DUNGY: It is tougher on me with the family because for my usual Sunday nights, I leave on Saturday and come back Monday morning. But now, I am gone during the week Wednesday night, and Thursday, Friday, so it disrupts the carpooling and getting kids to different events. My wife Lauren has to do a lot more during the week now, but we know it is just for a seven-week period of time, so we will work our way through it.

COSTAS: I have been the one least impacted by it, because they gave me all of October off in order to concentrate on baseball. That meant, when I was at the World Series for MLB Network, when I wasn’t calling the games, but I was just there. So they gave me all that time off. Mike Tirico is running around doing some Thursdays, some Sundays. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth are doing multiple games. I am doing some combination of Thursdays and Sundays and Mike and I are trading off sometimes based on the geography. There will be a couple of times where he will do Thursday because it makes more sense for him to do it. And I will do Sunday because the game is in New York and I just have to roll out of bed to do it. It is a very sensible schedule and the one that is carrying the very least of the load is me. I am more than happy about that. 

Tony, what is it like for you to work on TV and have more of a life than you did when you were coaching?

DUNGY: It’s been good; it keeps me in the loop in football and keeps me associated with people I know. I enjoy games, but it is not all consuming. So I do get the weekdays to do things in the community and at home. And the offseasons are so much different. I have the flexibility, I’m not in draft preparation and offseason programs, so it is a much better lifestyle for me, and I still get the benefit of being around football.

When Michael Sam came out before the draft, you faced some negative attention for saying that you wouldn’t have taken Sam in the draft because of the potential distractions. What did you mean by that?

DUNGY: I really don’t want to go back in the past and stir things up. It’s a case-by-case basis. You evaluate every player that comes out, what they are going to contribute to their team. So I think I am best to leave it under the bridge and let people know what I said at the time, which was that everybody deserves an opportunity to play. If I am coaching, I’m not looking at excluding anyone, I’m looking at everything on a case-by-case basis.

Has Peyton Manning reached out to you to talk about working in television?

DUNGY: We have talked a little bit. What he told me is he is going to take his time and try to determine what he wants to do with his long-term future. I have recommended TV to him, but I don’t know if he’s listened to me or not.

Is Dallas is making the right choice by sticking with Dak Prescott?

DUNGY: I like the way Dallas is playing now and Dak has forced them to play a certain style that has been very beneficial to them. They are running the 40-second clock down and throwing very few incomplete passes and keeping their defense off the field for the most part. The style has been perfect, if Tony Romo could come back and play that style, he could play it very successfully, but that is not his game. So I think what Dallas has recognized is, We’re on an eight-game winning streak. We are playing a certain way and we need to continue to play a certain way. It makes sense to do it. What they’ll do if they run into a little bump in the road, I don’t know, but I would never take Dak Prescott out now.

COSTAS: I’m with him. You’re on a roll. Plus, guys get hurt. Romo will stay ready, his attitude has been beyond professional, it’s terrific.

Where will football be in 25 years?

COSTAS: The abiding issue for football is the nature of the game itself. We understand the excitement of it, all the virtues of it, but fundamentally, it is very, very dangerous. And it is one thing to talk about a knee replacement or a hip replacement when you are 50, it is another that league itself acknowledges—as of now—that between 25 and 30 percent of those who play football through to the NFL, will have some sort of brain trauma. That, what football will look like, in terms of how the game is played, how it is coached, how it is officiated, and how the public feels about it as you move from one generation to the next, and maybe fewer young kids are playing football and more and more parents are saying, I like watching football but I am not going to let my son play football, that I think is the biggest question about where football will be 25 years from now. As for myself, 25 years from now, I will be as old as Vin Scully. I was going to say that I won’t be part of the conversation, but I could be!

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