Tom Brady’s 10-year, $375 million deal with Fox could be one of the best investments in television history. Or it could be one of the worst. Regardless, it solidified the going rate for a transcendent football star to sit in the booth and, possibly, offer somewhat guarded platitudes in an effort not to offend friends and coworkers.
During the recent mad rush to acquire on-camera talent, television networks seem to have forgotten the lessons of the last 15 to 20 years in media: that stories from nontraditional perspectives often have the best chance of breaking through. Whether that was Bill Simmons decades ago writing from the perspective of a maligned Boston-area fan or Pat McAfee now, shouting about topics of the day beet red in a tank top, standing out amid the noise takes some courage and willingness to be oneself.
While I understand this is not what the NFL wants—the push to bring Troy Aikman to Monday Night Football was, essentially, an effort to get the games to give off a more prestigious sameness to the ESPN product after years of unsuccessful tryouts and dangerous, mobile game calling atop a supercharged ATV that blocked out fans—it may not end up being a shared desire of networks everywhere.
Common knowledge among those who cover media and broadcasters themselves suggest that broadcasters should be out of the way, which, like any truism, is only as accurate as we believe it to be. Announcers like to say they should be out of the way because they are trying to be like every other announcer who has previously been out of the way.
So let’s challenge the status quo with a list of broadcasters who would almost certainly cost less than $375 million, but might end up giving us something more than just a big name in the booth. They could help us rewrite our expectations for watching a football game on TV.
1. Jason Kelce
Kelce’s Mummers Parade–inspired (and perhaps Bud Light inspired) Super Bowl victory speech may have placed him on our collective radar as a beyond-football personality, but the truth is that Kelce has always been a thoughtful, well-spoken and deeply insightful person who just so happens to play football. Offensive linemen are largely ignored when it comes to the latest round of Broadcaster Monopoly and save for Joe Thomas, we don’t hear a great deal about ascending talents in the business who came from the front five (though Ryan Harris was great during the Notre Dame spring game, and we should all be listening to him as well). The lack of offensive line talent in the booth does readers a massive disservice because so few players outside of that position group can properly analyze offensive line play. It’s why we benefit from having former NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz as part of the regular football conversation online as well. Kelce adds a certain, modern gruffness that would make a game-viewing experience wonderfully unpredictable. One could imagine a stuffed suit worrying about Kelce’s ability to wax eloquently during a truly symphonic moment of football and my counter would be: Who cares? We love ordinary people. Part of the charm of our favorite media personalities now is that they remind us of people we hang out with. I would much rather see the Eagles’ center unhinged upon viewing a stunning Patrick Mahomes deep ball than some canned comment from a polished former player who is hoping to squeeze in a round of golf at Loch Lloyd.
2. Andrew Whitworth
Whitworth is an expert storyteller with a unique NFL experience. The Walter Payton Man of the Year winner has achieved rare crossover success thanks to his time in Los Angeles (how many offensive lineman can say they’ve been on Ellen?) and was better with a microphone in his hands 30 seconds after getting smashed by the Bengals offensive line for 60 minutes than many color commentators are with a week of preparation. We marvel at Tom Brady’s ability to play into his mid-40s and obsess over the mysticism of his diet and are somehow significantly less impressed at the fact that Whitworth has not taken so much as an over-the-counter ibuprofen since 2013 (according to The MMQB’s Greg Bishop). Whitworth toes the perfect line between polish and humility, a big presence with a bear hug of a southern accent that wouldn’t get old over the course of 60 minutes. Whitworth would have a lot of insight into the modern NFL, having played for the two archetype modern franchises. In more than a decade with the Bengals, he saw the trials and errors of the slow build, family business process. On the Rams, he learned about the all-in approaches that are reshaping front offices everywhere.
3. Mark Sanchez
Sanchez is already doing games for Fox and, as SI’s media expert Jimmy Traina has pointed out, is a bit of a budget Tony Romo stylistically. However, I’d encourage his booth partners, and other networks, to consider the pure depth of chaos he endured as an NFL quarterback. His experience inside the Jets’ firecracker run to two AFC championship games, his resulting humility in experiencing the incredible highs and lows of being considered a franchise quarterback and then getting benched for Greg McElroy and life as a post—Jets journeyman are all incredibly valuable perspectives that could enhance the storytelling power of a broadcast. As someone who covered Rex Ryan’s Jets, I’m often asked some version of: My goodness, what was that like? Sanchez has so much to offer in that regard.
4. Ndamukong Suh
Suh is fascinating to listen to when it comes to the intricacies of line play. At the Super Bowl, I listened to him talk for a bit about how Animal Planet made him a better defensive player, and how intimately he studied the details of opponents to become one of the game’s most notorious instigators and agitators. Suh is worldly, with experience as a knowledgeable investor with Warren Buffet connections and is a great communicator with fans on social media. For example, his experience in seeing his family battle the recession made him more open about sharing his wealth advice online. Suh would likely be as generous with tales from his days as one of the most feared and innovative players in the NFL. A player with broad interests and experiences only adds to the value of a broadcast, especially deep in a game that has no meaning, pinned against the backdrop of something far more significant going on in the world at the moment.
5. Malcolm Jenkins
Jenkins was a player who was always in the right spot at the right time. His ability to dissect a presnap tell and blow up a quarterback’s dreams in real time was delightful to watch, especially amid Philadelphia’s run to its lone Super Bowl championship. Jenkins has been the face of efforts to change the NFL’s stance on issues of social justice and equality from the inside, has appeared on CNN as a political commentator and helped spearhead the creation of the Players’ Coalition, which has led to some substantive efforts on behalf of the league and its players to enact change in their communities. Jenkins could be off to bigger and better events in the world, but with the political landscape set to shift and intensify amid the 2022 midterm elections, Jenkins would be a knowledgeable voice who could relay a valuable perspective on how players are feeling as both employees of the league and as influencers with an important role in shaping public discourse.
6. J.T. O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan’s YouTube channel is a first stop for many trying to learn about the quarterback position. What I like about the former Saints, Packers, Bears, Vikings, Patriots, Panthers, Frankfurt Galaxy, Lions, 49ers, Bengals, Chargers, Raiders and Roughriders quarterback is that he brings us to his graduate-level understanding of the game quickly and doesn’t sugarcoat complex concepts. We’re either watching the broadcast to learn something at home, or we have the TV on mute while we thumb through social media and other various gambling apps. If the television is on, we might as well learn something. O’Sullivan would be the more granular answer to Romo: a guy who is not afraid to bring the masses deep into the weeds, which would be a valuable resource as we try and learn more about why certain offenses and quarterbacks succeed or fail. I think the career backup is infinitely more interesting and captivating than a player who has had so many large moments and opportunities in his life that a Thursday Panthers-Jets tilt is going to mean nothing. For O’Sullivan, Dan Orlovsky (who was just promoted to some booth duty at ESPN) and other quarterbacks who have experienced a kind of polar opposite lifestyle to that of Brady or Aikman, their realism is an asset to the television viewer who is trying to understand why a team is or isn’t attempting certain concepts. Hopefully, more players will put the care and patience into their own personal brands that O’Sullivan has after football, and hopefully more major networks take notice.
7. Frank Gore
There may not be a player who possessed a purer and less celebrated love of football over a long career than Gore. The 15-year veteran, who is now demolishing opponents as a professional boxer, may not seem like the ideal choice for a commentator, but Gore has a Rolodex of experiences to call back on and is likely a treasure trove of stories, from his origins as a running back on the eccentric Miami Hurricanes, through the Jim Harbaugh years in San Francisco, all the way to his unceremonious end with the Jets. I often go back to a piece former boss Peter King did on Gore, giving him a rare opportunity to look back on his life, his motivations and his fuel. The result was a stunning look at a player who phoned some of the best running backs in history, cribbed their secrets and used them to turn himself into a marathon man, completely defying the life expectancy of the brutal position he played.
8. A rotating cast of stars from the Women’s Football Alliance
We talk often about broadening the game but do little to promote football that isn’t played by men between the ages of 18 and 35. The Women’s Football Alliance is the longest-standing professional football league played by women. It stands to reason that there is a depth of personality and knowledge in said league that has not been significantly tapped by any mainstream holder of football rights (ESPN has aired some WFA games and a documentary highlighting some of its best players.) I think it’s time we open up the doors to more women who are fully capable of providing strong insight and analysis, and not simply making a handful of broadcasts that feature prominent women in the booth as some celebratory, once-a-year event. Incorporating professional women’s football would give viewers a chance to see the game through a fresh set of eyes. Allison Cahill has been playing quarterback for Boston-area franchises since 2003. She scored more than 1,000 points at Princeton as a basketball player and has won six professional championships in women’s football, along with four MVP awards over an 18-year career. There’s no doubt she has insight of substance to bring to a broadcast.
9. A rotating cast of comedians: Bill Burr, Tig Notaro, Mike Birbiglia, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Jim Gaffigan, etc.
We could learn from the Dennis Miller experiment. So much football-adjacent humor plays on the platitudes that soak every single broadcast. The predictable calls. The inability to accurately describe or address a serious situation. The desire to simply say “this guy right here is a competitor” after a gritty tackle. Comedians are the truth-tellers of our modern society and can help us expand on the idea that we’ve created a parody of our national pastime while actively trying to fend off the humor in it. Tossing to Frank Caliendo to do an impression of Jon Gruden is fine, but the best part of Caliendo’s impressions are how they draw out the absurdity in these characters that we all refuse to recognize. Imagine a good comedian with access to an NFL facility for midweek broadcast interviews. The material could elevate an unwatchable Thursday Night Football game into something we couldn’t miss.
10. A rotating cast of performance science experts: Steve Magness, Rich Roll, David Goggins, etc.
I recently started Magness’s latest book, Do Hard Things, and was entranced by his revisionist history take on the toughness-obsessed football culture and why we got it all wrong. His broader view of events like Bear Bryant’s Junction Boys is helping form the latest understanding of how coaches should relate to and motivate their players. These are the authors, coaches and icons who are inspiring most of the material coaches crib to get the best out of their team. Why not invite them into the booth to share their stories? So often, a coach is criticized for what they decide to do on a certain down. What about the team’s emotional state? It would be worth hearing something of value on what really generates effort and what produces flatness. Magness, Roll and Goggins have all written about the source of our internal drive, about great leaders and exceptional people. Having them put a coach in a psychiatrist’s chair during the week would be more instructive to us as a football-watching society than a decades-removed former player more interested in catching the red eye.
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