Media Circus: 32 Thoughts on the Opening Weekend of the NFL

What was the reaction to Tony Romo's debut and will NFL ratings continue to sink after a bad 2016?
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Welcome back, NFL. Here are 32 NFL media thoughts/reported items for the opening week of the NFL season.

1. Networks will always downplay the impact of social media—especially if the sentiment is negative about their broadcaster—and CBS Sports execs have said repeatedly that they advised new analyst Tony Romo not to overweight what he read on Facebook and Twitter because they expected it to be negative early. Network officials were monitoring Twitter on Sunday during Romo’s broadcasting debut and could not have been more pleased by the overwhelmingly positive reaction for Romo’s work during the Raiders-Titans game. CBS Sports execs were particularly surprised (and very happy) to see employees of competing NFL rights-holders praising Romo’s work. “Was I pleased today that I read some positive things? Yes, I was,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “But as I’ve said before: There will be a plethora of critics because there always are and I don’t think you should look too closely at social media. If you are the QB of the Dallas Cowboys, you already have a lot of people who don’t like you to start with. We all know how critical people are on Twitter. I said to Tony: “Don’t pay attention to the negative, mean-spirited stuff on Twitter. Pay attention to the intelligent, well thought out and well-meaning stuff that comes from people in the business.”

2. I wanted to get a reader to evaluate Romo’s performance because I thought that could be insightful for you compared to the 50th person in the sports media to have a take.  When I asked for volunteers on Twitter, I heard quickly from Mark Lauderdale from Gallatin, Tennessee, which is approximately 30 miles north of Nashville. Mark is a longtime Titans fan and retired after 42-plus years as a manager for RR Donnelley, the world's largest commercial printer. He said his company closed their plant operations in March, so he took his retirement. Mark tweeted that he thought Romo did a decent job in the first half, with some issues of talking too fast and talking over partner Jim Nantz. He sent me his review at the end of the game:

As for Tony's performance, my earlier comments about his first half performance stand. However, after what appears to me to have been simply butterflies along with a bit of constructive feedback, his second half was far stronger. His game analysis was spot on, I felt. His timing with Jim Nantz got much better. While he didn't criticize either of the QB's harshly, I didn't detect any hesitancy in doing so.

The comparisons to Phil Simms are inevitable. However, Phil's game calls had gotten stale and it showed to any average fan. Tony was certainly enthusiastic about the game today. He got better as the game went on, calling what he was seeing much as he would have as a quarterback. It was a breath of fresh air from Mr. Simms.

Overall, I give Tony a solid B for his performance. I really think he will settle in and do very well. There's certainly room for improvement, thus no A today. I trust you find this critique helpful. I'm very experienced with giving performance reviews. There's no reason to give gushing reviews for a first-time performance. He definitely prepared and it showed.

Thanks, Mark. Thoughtful review. Mark recently lost his wife, Rita, of 40 years. Give him a follow here if you want to have some football conversations.

3. Romo got big laughs last month during the annual seminar for CBS’s NFL personnel when he explained to a roomful of new colleagues that he wanted to reach out to Phil Simms—the analyst who Romo replaced—but missed Simms couple of times by phone. When Romo finally reached Simms, here is what Simms told him.

“So Phil picks up the phone,” Romo explained, “and says, “Tony Romo, you son of a bitch ... ”

Simms explained what happened next.

“I really couldn’t even be serious because I started laughing as I was saying it,” Simms said. “I knew it was him because he had called and I saw the number. There was not going to be any tension between us. He asked me some things and I offered no advice. I told him he will have 80,000 people telling you what to do but in the end, it is about how you see the game.”

4. The NFL Today began with a cold open from longtime host James Brown that sent viewers immediately to CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor covering Hurricane Irma. That report was immediately followed by the NFL Today cast (Brown, Boomer Esiason, Bill Cowher and newcomers Nate Burleson and Phil Simms) offering their personal connections on Irma. The studio show then moved to analyst Steve Tasker for a report from the Texans-Jags game, the league’s biggest game of significance given those that suffered in Harvey. It was a thoughtful and journalistically cognizant opening 10 minutes. Really well done.

As for the new constitution of The NFL Today, I really liked the pacing of the show, particularly how they rotated each studio member to talk on a different subject via a box in the right corner. I also liked the decision by the producers to have Simms talk to Romo on-air prior to the game given that Romo had replaced Simms. “Don’t be nervous,” Simms told Romo. “Only 50 million people are watching.” Newcomer Burleson is an excellent addition, an intellectual voice in a genre that still tends to locker room-it-up way too much. Very smart too of CBS to have all its games go to Houston for a moment of silence for Harvey victims.

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5. Two very strong moves by NBC Sports on Sunday. First, they had information to donate to the Red Cross on the score scroll during Football Night in America. They also decided to stream the Cowboys-Game to all given the recent storms in Texas and Florida

6. Each NFL Today analyst agreed that Colin Kaepernick should make the case for himself publicly, with analyst Bill Cowher being the most outspoken on the subject. Cowher dismissed the idea that Kaepernick was being blackballed by NFL teams. He said the reason Kaepernick was not playing was due to his play last year, and question marks about his passion for the game. Said Cowher: “Are you really committed to wanting to come back into the National Football League and re-establish yourself as a National Football League player? Are you really committed to your craft? Are you going to take the opportunity that any team might give you? Don't let the contract stand in the way. Your agent can put performance clauses in there that if you play.  You will get paid. Colin, your silence speaks volumes. And I just wonder, maybe the platform is more important to him than his play on the field. And you know what, Colin, prove me wrong.”

The show’s take was overwhelmingly pro-ownership. None of the analysts discussed the specific quarterbacks with far lesser resumes that had been signed over Kaepernick and the idea that Kaepernick (and this is just my opinion) has to publicly justify his passion after playing in the league for six consecutive years is absurd. Interestingly, during Football Night In America, Mike Florio reported that people close to Kaepernick told him that the quarterback has not spoken publicly because he did not want his words to be more of a distraction. Can’t win.

7. Here is the segment in full. Opinions will be all over the map on it, as they are on Kaepernick.

8. It’s impossible to tell what Sunday NFL Countdown will be ultimately be given one of the main studio analysts (Rex Ryan) appeared on a giant screen above the cast members as if he was President Snow in The Hunger Games. (Ryan is calling Monday Night Football in Denver on Monday.) Because it’s ESPN, which has a doctorate in self-reverence, Countdown spent the early part of its show referencing its cast, including showing photos of Adam Schefter in college, a feature (with dramatic music) on Schefter being an honorary captain for the University of Michigan football team on Saturday, and footage of host Sam Ponder showing off a great arm as a quarterback. It was a contrast to watch ESPN against CBS when it came to Hurricane Irma.  (To be fair: It was a very good speech from Schefter to Michigan’s players). The best moment of Countdown on Sunday was a quality discussion about how the Falcons will react to last year’s Super Bowl loss. Ryan was interesting on how that loss could be an anchor, and Charles Woodson referenced his experience with the Raiders in 2003 when after playing in the Super Bowl, Oakland lost Rich Gannon and Rod Woodson to injury and finished 4-12.

9. The host of Sunday NFL Countdown in the current construct has a lot of work given multiple sets, intros and outs, and discussion points. I thought Ponder did a nice job given this is her first year working NFL content.

10. On this note: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an NFL host walk a set more than Ponder did on Sunday. ESPN remains a little too obsessed with its studio space. Producers strangely used their on-site reporters very sparsely.

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11. Fox’s new No. 2 team debuted on Sunday in Chicago with Kevin Burkhardt pairing with analyst Charles Davis and reporter Pam Oliver. I think that group is going to be very good. This was the crew Jay Cutler was going to work with prior to his opting to play for the Dolphins this season. Other Fox moves include former ESPN NFL analyst Mark Schlereth joining a team with play-by-play announcer Dick Stockton and sideline reporter Shannon Spake. Here is the list of Fox’s announcing crews for 2017:

•Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Erin Andrews.

•Kevin Burkhardt, Charles Davis and Pam Oliver.

•Kenny Albert, Ronde Barber and Kristina Pink.

•Chris Myers, Daryl Johnston and Laura Okmin.

•Dick Stockton, Mark Schlereth and Shannon Spake.

•Thom Brennaman, Chris Spielman and Peter Schrager.

•Sam Rosen, David Diehl and Jennifer Hale.

12. I thought Fox’s new NFL graphics were awesome—a clean, simple and strong score bug. They debuted in the preseason.

13. Everyone I spoke with who works in NFL television circles thinks NFL ratings are going up this season. For instance:

“I think the NFL has front-loaded the schedule to make sure there are attractive games in almost all the windows,” said NBC Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli. “I will be surprised if they are not up.”

“I honestly think that the [Donald] Trump effect last year had a huge impact on our ratings and those of others,” said ESPN Monday Night Football executive producer Jay Rothman. “I really do. We got clobbered. The first debate we had the 10-year reunion of the reopening of the Superdome in New Orleans, which we worked really hard to get that game, and unfortunately the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton was the same night. We got crushed. I really think just the Trump phenomenon had a huge effect throughout the course of last fall during the presidential campaign. And you could look at the network news and the cable news networks, and it's proof of that.”

14. The NFL, however, did not get off to the ratings start it wanted. The Chiefs’ win over the Pats for the NFL Kickoff game last Thursday drew 22.2 million viewers across NBC and NBC Sports Digital platforms, down from 25.2 million for the kickoff game a year early. One significant caveat: Cable news and the Weather Channel last Thursday was up significantly with the coverage of hurricanes.

15. The commercial format for the NFL this year has changed. There will be four commercial breaks per quarter as opposed to five. The league found fans were more bothered by frequency than the length of commercials. Promos will be included in commercial breaks. “At times they were up to five, six and if networks got behind, seven, so you would have situations where there would be a score, an extra point, a commercial break, and coming back from a break, a kickoff and another commercial break,” Rothman said. “The league is avoiding these double-ups as we refer to them at all costs, and that's dreadful for everybody. So that's a big win. The league claims, and we hope it's all true, in terms of replay review and official reviews, with that being done in New York and officials no longer going under the hood, these decisions should come in a minute, minute, 15 seconds. In those situations, we'll be staying. We won't be using those as break opportunities. So there will just be less interruption of play. The breaks will be a tick longer. They will all be 2 minutes and 20 seconds in length, and we'll make up our sponsorship in that additional time per break, but again, less interruptions, better flow, better for everybody. Some different ad innovations that the league is offering partners, but the idea is to stay alive as much as possible and keep the games moving and keep the flow going.”

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16. What new technologies are coming? NBC experimented in the exhibition season with dual sky cams (two sky cams independent of one another, and one flying much higher than the usual heights). They say they will need the league to approve it for the regular season and playoffs.

ESPN said it has spent a lot of time with the NFL on Next Gen technology. “Everybody knows that each of the NFL players for the last three years has worn chips in their pads,” said Rothman. “There's chips in the footballs this year. We've worked really hard on mining what we think is some interesting data that will lead to interesting storytelling and documentation throughout the season, many of which really hasn't been on the air thus far.  We think there's some really interesting data that we can mine throughout the season that will be of use to fans, timely and relevant, so we're excited to dig into that.”

17. CBS made five changes to its broadcasting teams, most notably Romo at the top. The new lineup:

•Jim Nantz, Romo and Tracy Wolfson.

•Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts and Evan Washburn.

•Greg Gumbel, Trent Green and Jamie Erdahl.

•Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon.

•Andrew Catalon and James Lofton.

•Spero Dedes and Adam Archuleta.

•Tom McCarthy, Steve Tasker and Steve Beuerlein.

•Beth Mowins and Jay Feely.

18. CBS is very high on Burleson. “He has the advantage of doing a five-day week show on the NFL Network and lives and breathes football every day of the week,” McManus said. “This is now a sixth day. He has a great personality and perspective on the game. I think he will really help us.” He did on Sunday.

19. Here’s a long Q&A I did with Beth Mowins including the significance of being the first woman to call a regular-season NFL game since 1987. She will call the Chargers at Broncos tonight as part of the opening week Monday Night Football doubleheader. I also spent two days in Cleveland with Mowins and Rex Ryan for a profile on how broadcasters use practice games to prepare.

20. The NFL Network made a name change (as well as some personnel changes) on Sundays with its early show—NFL GameDay Morning (7:00 a.m. ET.) The show features Colleen Wolfe, Michael Robinson and Mike Garafolo and newcomer Steve Smith Jr. It airs from NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey.

21. Mike Tirico’s NFL role will continue to grow on NBC. “I don’t think I have to say anything about Al and Cris,” said Gaudelli. “They are widely seen as numero uno. Whenever Al decides to call it a day, the expectation of high quality announcing is not going to go away. It will be different just like it was when Cris replaced Madden but it will be high quality. The football audience already knows how good Mike is.”

22. Fox brass believes they can steal audience away from ESPN at the 11:00 ET spot. They added Michael Vick and Tony Gonzalez as studio analysts this year to go along with host Charissa Thompson and analysts Colin Cowherd, Dave Wannstedt and Cooper Manning. It will be interesting to see how the audience reacts to Vick.

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23. CBS was working on getting Mowins to call NFL games before the Monday Night ESPN assignment came up. “When someone brought up Beth Mowins name my thought was why hadn’t we thought about that before,” said McManus. “We had conversations with her agent who had a conversation with ESPN. It was a pretty easy process. ESPN was pretty supportive of giving Beth an opportunity. Given the NFL is the number one sport on television, think they were very gracious about allowing her to be associated with CBS.”

24. Romo will double up on games in a single week four times over the first nine weeks of the season. “We think it is all about the reps,” said McManus said. “The workload will be intense.”

25. Simms said he’s come to a good place on getting replaced by Romo. “I played 15 years in the NFL and went to Pro Bowl in my 15th year and someone replaced me,” Simms said. “I was let go. Hell. I was going to ask for a pay raise. Instead, they said get out. I haven’t thought about it like someone is doing my job. It is not my job. I am really happy with the way it worked out and I am looking forward to the studio. As time goes on I think I will be happy it has become this way.”

26. The NFL Network sent over its new studio shows for the 2017 NFL season. They include:

•NFL Power Rankings (Tuesdays at 6:00 PM ET with Colleen Wolfe, Elliot Harrison and Maurice Jones-Drew)

•21st and Prime (Tuesdays at 6:30 PM ET. with Deion Sanders and Amber Theoharis)

•NFL Playbook (Wednesdays at 6:00 PM ET with Rhett Lewis, Shaun O’Hara, Brian Billick and Daniel Jeremiah)

•NFL Players Only (Fridays at 6:00 PM ET with Terrell Davis, Maurice Jones-Drew, James Jones and DeMarcus Ware)

•TNF First Look (Thursdays at 3:00 PM ET with Andrew Siciliano)

27 Funny moment on Fox’s “The OT.” Co-host Terry Bradshaw gave player of the day honors to Falcons tight end Austin Hooper, but called him “Austin Cooper” The rest of the cast corrected Bradshaw and Howie Long deadpanned, “they [the Bears] could not cover either one of them.”

28. I thought this was pretty funny between Burleson and Simms.

29. NFL Today producer Drew Kaliski said that viewers should look for small groups of analysts on the NFL Today. “I think about that all time,” Kaliski said. “It’s very easy to just put five guys at a desk and do a show but that’s not always the best way to incorporate everyone’s opinions. You have to break the guys up. In my opinion, you have to put them in smaller groups—maybe two at a time—to talk about a topic. They go for three minutes as opposed to five guys at a desk, all talking about the same topic, one comment, one comment, one comment.”

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30. America’s most-watched Sunday morning pregame show.

31. Romo’s next broadcast comes next Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET for the Patriots at Saints. At 37, he is younger than both starting quarterbacks (Tom Brady, 40 and Drew Brees, 38).

32. Somebody take NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner to Las Vegas.

THE NOISE REPORT examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories

1. ABC’s Saturday Night Football broadcast between Oklahoma and Ohio State drew the highest overnight rating for college football this weekend, with a 5.3 rating. ABC’s coverage of Michigan-Cincinnati (2.8) and Pittsburgh-Penn State (2.7) were next up. Per Douglas Pucci of Programming Insider: Georgia-Notre Dame drew a 2.7 rating on NBC. ESPN’s coverage of Clemson-Auburn drew a 2.0 while USC-Stanford drew a 1.7 on Fox. Arkansas-TCU drew a 1.5 on CBS.

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2. Episode 136 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features ESPN SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne and longtime college football analyst Ed Cunningham, who opted this spring to no longer call college football for ESPN.

In this podcast, Mayne discusses moving across country to host the 11 p.m. SportsCenter from Bristol, Conn.; how SportsCenter has evolved since the 1990s; how one can forge an untraditional career at ESPN; the role of comedy in sports television; why the company wants him to speak to media buyers; how he views mixing politics on his social media feed and those who tab ESPN as left-leaning; why he likes what Marty Smith is doing; his five-week marriage anniversary, and much more.

Cunningham discusses why he decided to leave his job as a college football analyst and why he no longer can reconcile being a cheerleader for the sport given the health concerns and trauma on the field; how ESPN’s layoffs impacted his decision; how much Iowa handling of former quarterback C.J. Beathard during the Outback Bowl drove him to quit; how Cunningham feels about Al Michaels and others not seeing their role in the booth as an ethical dilemma and much more.

2a. Here’s a piece I did on Cunningham’s decision, including thoughts from NBC Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli and ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas.

3. Episode 135 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast is a bonus podcast featuring best-selling author James Andrew Miller, who this week debuted a new podcast, Origins. The podcast focuses on the beginnings of things in culture, politics and other fields. The first edition of the podcast focuses on the HBO show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. All five episodes of the first edition are currently available.

In this podcast, Miller discusses why he chose to start his podcast series with Curb; how he landed the cast of the show including Larry David; why Curb is a significant show; why his podcast drops all five episodes at the same time; why Ted Danson was a revealing interview; the loyalty Larry David has engendered among actors and more. Miller also discusses sports media topics including the recent decision from ESPN to publicly discuss how it is doing ratings-wise against FS1; what that decision means in the marketplace; ESPN’s tennis coverage of the U.S. Open; the narrative ESPN is fighting on politics; the decisions ESPN producers must make for the U.S. Open; and more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunesGoogle Play and Stitcher.

4. Non-sports pieces of note:

•One of the best pieces of 2017: Evan Osnos on the risk of nuclear war with North Korea.

Via Holly Hartman of the Houston Chronicle: I downloaded an app. And suddenly, was part of the Cajun Navy.

•Via NYT Magazine’s Alice Yin: Statistics show just how profound the inequalities in America’s education system have become.

•Via Scott Shane of NYT: The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election.

From Casey Michael: How Russia Created the Most Popular Texas Secession Page on Facebook.

The Wall Street Journal’s Trump problem.

•The First White President, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

•MIT professor Vipin Narang‏, on why Kim Jong-Un wouldn’t be irrational to use a nuclear bomb first.

•Sunday front pages on Hurricane Irma, compiled by Charles Apple.

•From Mosi Secret of the New York Times Magazine: The first to integrate elite Southern prep schools, they entered a world of opportunity — and faced constant racism.

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Sports pieces of note:

•From Kyle Munson of the Des Moines Register: He's a black high school quarterback. 5 of his teammates were pictured in white hoods. It may get worse.

•SI’s Steve Rushin, on his Hall of Fame spouse, Rebecca Lobo. Great, great piece.

•Kudos to ESPN producer William Weinbaum for his dedication to the Magomed Abdusalamov story.

•Two Colin Kaepernick pieces worth reading including this from New York Times writer John Branch and this from Washington Post writer Kent Babb.

•A great first person from Cavs guard Isaiah Thomas for the Players’ Tribune.

The MMQB’s Robert Klemko‏, on a week in the wake of Harvey with JJ Watt and the Texans.

•Michael Schmidt of the New York Times broke the story of the Boston Red Sox caught using electronic devices to steal signs against the New York Yankees. 

•ESPN’s Graham Hays on Notre Dame women’s coach Muffet McGraw making the Basketball Hall.

•From Reid Forgrave of Bleacher Report: The Fall of Rysheed Jordan: How the Streets of Philly Swallowed an NBA Prospect.

•Sixty journalists at the Cincinnati Enquirer examined the heroin epidemic.

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5. SBJ’s John Ourand reported that ESPN will simulcast Monday Night Football in Spanish on ESPN2 for the first nine weeks of the NFL season. 

5a. US Open Women's Finals overnight ratings the past four years:

2017: 1.9 (Stephens-Keys)

2016: 1.0 (Angelique Kerber/Karolina Pliskova)

2015: 1.1 (Flavia Pennetta/Roberta Vinci)

2014: 2.9 (Serena Williams-Caroline Wozniacki