CLEVELAND — He is, in his own words, as green as can be. Rex Ryan is a rookie again in the National Football League, and he is making plenty of rookie mistakes. He steps all over a first-quarter promo being read by broadcast partner Beth Mowins and he’s struggling to find the proper wording on replays. Later on in the broadcast, Ryan will offer a spirited defense of Giants backup quarterback Geno Smith, saying Smith has all the tools to be a starter in the league. A couple of plays later, Smith throws an interception.
Of course, there are some promising moments too. After Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul snags a tipped pass on the Browns’ opening drive, Ryan delivers terrific insight for viewers. “If there is a negative you can say about [Brock] Osweiler, it’s that he gets a lot of balls tipped even for a big quarterback,” says the former Jets and Bills coach, in perfect sync with the replay of the interception. “You teach your defenders when they tip the ball, to the tip the ball up in the air.”
If you don’t remember any of these moments, don’t be alarmed: You never heard them. Ryan and Mowins were at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland on the night of Aug. 21 as part of something rarely written about in sports broadcasting stories:
The practice game.
The broadcast team of Mowins and Ryan has called two practice games on-site during the preseason—Browns-Giants in Cleveland, and Bucs-Jaguars in Jacksonville on Aug. 17—to get as many reps as possible before working the Broncos-Chargers game in Denver on Sept. 11, the nightcap to ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” season-opening double-header. The game, airing after the conclusion of Saints-Vikings, has significant meaning in broadcasting: It is the first regular-season NFL game called by a woman in 30 years, and only the second time in the history that a woman has done play-by-play for a regular-season NFL game. (Gayle Sierens called the Seahawks-Chiefs in Kansas City for NBC in the final week of the 1987 season.) Mowins will also call multiple NFL games for CBS this season, with her first assignment for that network being Browns-Colts on Sept. 24.
The Browns-Giants assignment was a quick turnaround for Mowins, who took a red-eye flight from Oakland to Cleveland following her call of the Raiders-Rams preseason game on Aug 19. Mowins has called Oakland’s preseason games since 2016.
“Beth is doing the exact same job she has always done, just on a bigger stage,” said Tim Corrigan, who has produced the late “Monday Night Football” doubleheader game for the past 15 years and is also the lead producer for ESPN’s superb NBA Finals game coverage. “Clearly she will be a big storyline, but we are asking her to do what she is already exceptional at. As for Rex, we are asking him to talk about football, which he might be pretty good at it.”
The MMQB shadowed Mowins and Ryan in Cleveland on August 21 to get insight into what goes into a practice game broadcast.
“It’s all new to me, but they tell me to be myself, so that’s what I’m going to be, for better or worse,” Ryan said. “The game is easy. I am taking my own all-22, if you will. But for me, it’s when I am supposed to look at the monitor, those types of things. I’m lucky to have Beth. She’s awesome. She really is a pro. I have 30 years’ coaching experience, so I am not a rookie in the game, but I am a rookie in the booth. I’m following her lead and I trust her.
“It’s also a big opportunity for her, and I don’t want to mess it up.”
The preparation for a practice game is much the same as a regular broadcast. Announcers meet with each head coach and with select players leading up to the game. In Cleveland, the ESPN crew had an additional meeting on game day. Nine hours before kickoff, Mowins, Ryan and Corrigan headed to the 23rd floor of The Westin Cleveland Downtown to meet with three NFL officials, including Wayne Mackie, the NFL’s vice president of officiating evaluation and development, for an informal seminar on rules changes for 2017, as well as some of the new medical procedures the league has adopted. After the meeting, Ryan was thinking about what he would focus on when it came to the Browns.
“For Cleveland, what can you brag about?” Ryan said. “They are 30th in the league in damn everything. At least with Tampa you had a quarterback with potential stardom and some other stuff. This game is tough: Do we focus more on the play-by-play or talk about the players and the organization?”
After a couple hours of free time, Mowins and Ryan arrived at the stadium a little more than two hours before kickoff. Ideally, a new broadcast team should spend as much time as possible together to foster camaraderie, which is why the two share a ride to FirstEnergy. Ryan and Mowins first met at a production crew dinner before calling the Florida State spring game in Tallahassee on April 8. Despite knowing each other just a short time, they already have an easy conversational tone, and it’s clear they respect each other.
“Going to out to dinner with Beth and Rex in Jacksonville, I realized they are a really interesting and entertaining listen,” said ESPN event production producer Josh Hoffman, who produced the Tampa Bay-Jacksonville practice game. “I laughed a lot listening to them at dinner. I thought, if we can entertain the viewer in the same way it will make for a great show. The goal for the rehearsal game is to become comfortable enough in the booth to document the game and still have the same kind of conversation they have in person.”
Normally an NFL announcing team would go down to the field for last-minute conversations with coaches, players or officials, but given that this is a practice game, Ryan and Mowins head directly to a steamy auxiliary broadcasting booth overlooking the end zone on the west side of the stadium. It’s a two-star hotel compared to the five-star booth Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden have on the 50-yard line that night. ESPN is airing an actual “Monday Night Football” broadcast at the same time that Mowins and Ryan are doing their rehearsal.
About 45 minutes before the broadcast, Browns public relations executive Rob McBurnett meets with Ryan and Mowins to go over a number of items, including the trickiest pronunciations on the Cleveland roster. “[Rookie linebacker] Kenneth Olugobe, that one is all yours,” Ryan says to Mowins.” There is something deeper to this: Ryan is dyslexic and said he would lean on Mowins for certain names that troubled him.
McBurnett tells the broadcasters that second-year cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun is playing well and will get plenty of reps. That note turns out to be important. Boddy-Calhoun ends up being one of the key players of the night—his second-quarter tackle of Odell Beckham Jr. prompts the Giants star to leave the game with an ankle injury.
Tonight’s practice broadcast booth will house seven people: Mowins, Ryan, B.J. Casserly and Russ Dlin, who have served as the spotter and statistician for the games Mowins has called over the past four years; audio engineer Todd Paluszak; video engineer Jeff Cave; and a reporter for The MMQB. Corrigan will work out of one of four ESPN broadcast trucks situated on the ground floor of the stadium.
Practice games are a common part of broadcast networks’ training process. Last April Fox broadcaster Kevin Burkhardt auditioned Jay Cutler at Fox Sports’ studios in Los Angeles, with the two re-calling the Christmas Eve game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals off of 32-inch monitors. Before Alex Rodriguez’s debut as an MLB game analyst, Burkhardt and Rodriguez called a pair of six-inning practice games at those same studios.
“The point was simply to get Alex comfortable with the process and feel of doing something he hadn’t done before,” Burkhardt said. “We already had a very good rapport with each other from the studio, but this is just so different. I think [the practice games] were extremely valuable to both of us in a lot of ways. It certainly gave him an idea of what to expect and maybe most importantly the cadence of doing a game. The idea of having a lot of time to get your point across was a great exercise, unlike the studio, where you have 25 seconds to make your point and get out. It also gave me an idea of some things I could do to help him through his first-ever game, like when to ask questions or how to read his body language.”
In Cleveland, Ryan’s body language gives it away: He is not yet comfortable with the replays being provided. But there is a reason. He and Mowins are using the replays shown on the live ESPN broadcast, replays ordered up by Gruden. That will change in Denver when Ryan gets to tell Corrigan what he wants to talk about.
“It’s tough when you are not in control of the replays,” Ryan said. “But having Beth there has made it easy. I just want her to tell me when I’m not supposed to be talking or tee me up when I should. She knows all this stuff and has been through it a million times. If I was doing this with a novice like myself, it would honestly be a disaster.”
What becomes clear very quickly is that the rehearsal broadcast is much more important for Ryan than for Mowins. Between her college work and calling preseason games for the Raiders, Mowins has worked more than 100 football games.
“That means she has called somewhere over 15,000 football plays,” said Mike Tirico, and one of Mowins’ mentors. “Beth doesn’t need the practice calling football games. The most value from these practice games will come in Rex Ryan’s familiarity with the mechanics of broadcasting a football game and the two of them building some timing. It is easy to say the right thing while watching from the couch, but these practice games give you the experience of doing it while listening to the producer in your headset, using the monitor and working within the flow of the game. But no matter what you do, nothing truly replicates the actual live broadcast.”
Tirico said he has done portions of five or six NFL practice games during his career, including for each new configuration of the “Monday Night Football” booth in which he spent 10 years. “Practice games have some value for establishing timing and chemistry when new combinations are put together. I truly think they are of most value for announcers who have not done live television game broadcasts before.”
Said Corrigan: “We are going to ask Beth in Denver do to the same thing she has been trained to do. Rex’s football knowledge is immeasurable, but it’s now about a new environment and promos, counting down a ref’s mic, commercial inventory, all of these things that he does not have in his head. The goals for a practice game are very simple: It’s strictly about getting a rhythm and finding a cadence for calling the game. That was tricky for this one because Jon and Sean were driving this game. They control everything. We were just being reactive about it.”
In the Browns-Giants game, Mowins finds her rhythm right away. It takes Ryan longer, but he improves each quarter. The night’s biggest moment for the crew comes with 7:32 left in the third quarter and Cleveland leading 10-3. Mowins and Ryan knew before the game that they would get to call a series that would air live on the MNF broadcast. It’s a good sequence, and Ryan benefit from being familiar with Smith. The duo calls 12 plays over five-and-a-half minutes before Mowins throws it to break after a Giants field goal.
Their colleagues in the booth clap. If they hit that kind of stride in Denver on Sept. 11, the broadcast will be a success.
“Our comfort level has gone way up, and I think Rex has a great understanding of the flow of the game and the contour of the game,” Mowins said afterward. “I think he is really looking forward to the opportunity to be in charge of what replays he wants to see, where he wants to take discussion. Doing practice games definitely speeds up the process between us and allows us to develop a chemistry off the air that we can use on Monday night. Now Rex can watch a lot of football in the next couple of weeks with a critical eye. He’ll be thinking, this is how I would describe a play, or this is when I want to get on the talk back [to the producer] and say, ‘Show me a replay of this guy’.”
Ryan had expected to be on with McDonough and Gruden during the fourth quarter of their broadcast, but Corrigan told Ryan that he was done for the night given that the main broadcast was behind with interviews. So Mowins, Ryan, Casserly and Dlin headed down to main production truck to meet Corrigan. Inside, Ryan watched Smith get intercepted by Boddy-Calhoun with 8:44 left in the game. “Red zone picks,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “That’s what happens we you throw off your back foot.”
(Ryan did something funny that we can’t pass up revealing here. While walking up the stairs of the ESPN production truck, he saw a big image of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on its side, among other historic NFL players. Ryan took off his sport coat and whacked the photo with his jacket. Then he laughed, telling the reporter following him, “I really do have more respect for that guy than anyone.”)
Three days after the Browns-Giants game in Cleveland, Corrigan, Mowins and Ryan met at the Chargers’ facility in Costa Mesa, Calif., to watch that team’s practice. Later they headed to a conference room in the facility to view clips of the Browns-Giants game. Corrigan said he liked the sense of timing between Mowins and Ryan and noted Ryan’s good instincts on when to talk and when to back off on something. Where Ryan struggled was when the replay did not match his initial analysis, and he was forced to change on the fly.
“I told Rex, “This is a going to be as hard as anything you will do in television—sitting in a booth, calling a game, and reacting to someone else’s pictures,” Corrigan said. “The game was directed and produced for Sean and Jon. It will be easier for all us in Denver.”
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