If you tune into ESPN’s NFL studio shows beginning Sunday, 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 chance 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:
• What’s on: Road games of AFC teams on Sunday afternoon, plus a few cross-over 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 Net and the others airing only on NFL Net.
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 Net 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 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 television this season.
• What’s on: Road games of NFC teams on Sunday afternoon, plus a few cross-over 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. pre-game show that airs before the network’s noon pre-game 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 Net. Also, Mike Tirico --- who moved over from ESPN --- will replace Bob Costas as the on-site host for Sunday night games, a move Costas was comfortable with. Costas will host the Thursday package.
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: Al Michaels, Collinsworth and Michelle Tafoya on Sunday nights; Tirico, Collinsworth and former ESPN reporter Heather Cox on Thursday nights.
• Comment: It’s ridiculous that the NFL wouldn’t allow Tirico to call the Thursday games, insisting instead that NBC uses the same announcing team for Sundays and Thursdays. But Tirico (and Doug Flutie) will announce two December games when NBC has Thursday, Saturday and Sunday games.
• 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 pre-game and post-game 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 than the old one.
• 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 (Tirico/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 over 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; Bob Costas, Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison on NBC games.
For an in-depth look at ESPN’s changes, please click here... Twitter: @flasportsbuzz