If you tune in ESPN’s NFL studio shows this season, you might wonder: Where the heck did everybody go? Did Mike Ditka take a wrong turn on his way from the cafeteria to the studio? And did somebody misplace Keyshawn Johnson, Tom Jackson, Cris Carter and Ray Lewis?
Wholesale turnover at ESPN, and a significant change with the NFL’s Thursday package headline the NFL’s offseason TV news.
A look at what viewers can expect this season when viewing America’s highest-rated TV programming.
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▪ What’s on: Road games of AFC teams on Sunday afternoon, plus a few crossover NFC games and five Thursday night telecasts. Also, Vikings-Lions on Thanksgiving.
▪ What’s new: For the past two seasons, CBS produced the entire 17-game Thursday package, with nine games airing on CBS and NFL Network and the others airing only on NFL Network.
This season, CBS and NBC will share the Thursday package. CBS will produce nine Thursday games in September and October, with five of those simulcast on CBS and NFL Network and the four others airing only on NFL Network. NBC will do the exact same for nine November/December games. Commit this to memory, because there will be a quiz later.
• Announcing teams: Top seven teams return intact. Jim Nantz-Phil Simms, Ian Eagle-Dan Fouts, Greg Gumbel-Trent Green, Kevin Harlan-Rich Gannon, Spero Dedes-Solomon Wilcots, Andrew Catalon-Steve Tasker-Steve Beuerlein, Tom McCarthy-Adam Archuleta, Carter Blackburn-Chris Simms.
• Comment: CBS decided to stick with Phil Simms as its lead game analyst, even though it is sensitive to criticism of Simms in recent years. He remains CBS’ best option for the position, though a third analyst in the booth would help. Peyton Manning would have been a terrific addition to the Nantz/Simms booth, but Manning decided not to do TV this season.
▪ What’s on: Road games of NFC teams on Sunday afternoon, plus a few crossover AFC games, and Redskins-Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
▪ What’s new: Chris Spielman, a well-regarded college football analyst at ESPN in recent years, moved to Fox for an NFL analyst role, alongside Dick Stockton on the No. 6 team. … Jocular sideline reporter Tony Siragusa wasn’t renewed. … With Randy Moss moving to ESPN, Fox hired former Bears cornerback Charles Tillman for the 11 a.m. pregame show that airs before the network’s noon pregame show, with Colin Cowherd, Dave Wannstedt and Charissa Thompson joining Tillman on that late-morning program.
▪ Announcing teams: Joe Buck-Troy Aikman, Kevin Burkhardt-John Lynch, Kenny Albert-Darryl Johnston, Thom Brennaman-Charles Davis, Chris Myers-Ronde Barber, Stockton-Spielman, Sam Rosen-David Diehl.
▪ Comment: I like the Spielman hire; he consistently offered cogent analysis on college games. Fox’s analyst depth has improved considerably the past couple of years with the additions of Davis (who moved over from college games), Barber and Spielman.
▪ What’s on: Sunday night games, plus the Thursday night Panthers-Broncos opener; Pittsburgh-Indianapolis on Thanksgiving and five other Thursday games in November and December.
▪ What’s new: NBC acquired the nine-game late-season Thursday night package; five of those nine games will air on NBC and all nine will air on NFL Network. NBC hired Mike Tirico away from ESPN to call those games with Cris Collinsworth, but the NFL then informed NBC that it must use its Sunday night announcing team (Al Michaels, Collinsworth) to work the Thursday games, too, because the NFL made that a prerequisite when it awarded NBC a share of the Thursday package. NBC mistakenly thought the NFL would approve Tirico calling the games on Thursdays, Michaels on Sundays.
The NBC Thursday games (besides Thanksgiving): New Orleans-Carolina Nov. 17, Dallas-Minnesota on Dec. 1, Oakland-Kansas City on Dec. 8, Los Angeles-Seattle on Dec. 15 and Giants-Philadelphia on Dec. 22.
Announcing teams: Michaels, Collinsworth and Michelle Tafoya on Sunday nights; Michaels, Collinsworth and former ESPN reporter Heather Cox on Thursday nights.
▪ Comment: Foolish and heavy-handed would be two ways to describe the NFL’s insistence that whoever is announcing NBC’s Sunday night games must also call NBC’s Thursday games. That means Michaels, 71, will need to work more games than he prefers. Instead of calling Thursday games, Tirico will replace Bob Costas as NBC’s on-site host for Sunday games, with Costas hosting on Thursday nights.
▪ What’s on: Monday night games, including a double-header in Week 1: Pittsburgh-Washington and Los Angeles-San Francisco
▪ What’s new: A lot. Sean McDonough succeeds Tirico as the play-by-play voice on Monday Night Football, alongside Jon Gruden. … Charles Woodson, Trent Dilfer, Matt Hasselbeck and Randy Moss replace Lewis, Carter, Johnson, Ditka and Jackson alongside Chris Berman on Sunday NFL Countdown. Jackson and Ditka left by choice; the others were not renewed. … Hasselbeck replaces Lewis — alongside Steve Young — in the role of on-site pregame and postgame MNF analysts.
▪ Announcing team: McDonough, Gruden, Lisa Salters
▪ Comment: McDonough is a capable, accurate, no-frills play-by-play man who will competently replace Tirico. Not sure the new Sunday studio crew is appreciably better.
▪ What’s on: 15 Thursday games, plus Dolphins-Jets on Saturday night, Dec. 17, Cincinnati-Houston on Saturday night, Dec. 24 and Baltimore-Pittsburgh at 4:30 p.m. on Christmas (a Sunday). Of those 18 games, five also will air on CBS and five also will air on NBC.
▪ What’s new: Cynthia Frelund, a former manager of business development at Disney, was hired as an analytics expert, a role she previously held at ESPN.
▪ Announcing team: NFL Net will use aforementioned announcing teams from CBS (Nantz/Simms) and NBC (Michaels/Collinsworth) to call their games.
▪ Comment: Of the eight games that will air only on NFL Network, most are ho-hum, including Dolphins-Bengals, Jaguars-Titans, Atlanta-Tampa Bay, Cleveland-Baltimore. But NFL Net does get exclusivity on the aforementioned Bengals-Texans and Ravens-Steelers games during Christmas weekend, which should produce big numbers….
Rich Eisen, Michael Irvin, Marshall Faulk and Steve Mariucci host the NFL Network pregame shows for all Thursday games, before CBS and NBC bring in their own talent for the 8 p.m. segment of the pregame: James Brown, Bill Cowher and Deion Sanders for CBS games; Costas, Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison on NBC games.