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Behind the Scenes at MNF, Part III: The Game

I was fortunate enough to be invited to spend the day with ESPN as the Monday Night Football train came rolling into Philadelphia this week. Throughout the day, we'll take a look at one of the largest traveling shows in sports for the biggest program in cable television history (well, the cast of High School Musical was unavailable, so we're stuck with football). It's quite a production.

In part one, we looked at the personalities of Monday Night Football. Part two focused on the men calling the shots. In part three, as Playback often does, we look at the game as called by the trio in the booth.

booth_action8257.jpg(All photos by Dan Levy)

We discussed each personality in the booth in part one. But it's the interaction between those personalities that's so fascinating. Clearly the combination of Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser did not work. Enter Ron Jaworski, and in their second season together, Jaws and Tony seem to have developed a good rapport in the booth. If Tony's job is to spark debate and create talking points, Jaws plays a much better foil, as he never seems threatened or challenged by Tony's comments, no matter how inane they become.

See, that's the issue with Tony in the booth. His opening soliloquies are dead on each week. It's Kornheiser in print, he's just reading it to us. And we get the good stuff - his Blue Label, if you Pardon the Reference. But the problem is that Tony is a sportswriter. He tells stories and when he gets a story in his head, he tells it like a column. It has an argument and facts to back up that argument. That works in pregame, but it doesn't always translate to a game situation.

Take, for example, something Tony said in the first half of Monday's game: that the broadcasters must revisit the idea that McNabb is unhappy in Philadelphia after his benching a few weeks ago. Yes, that is an important topic to discuss, and it's topics like that which give Tony a lot of value and credibility in the booth. But there's a time and place, and as Jaws pointed out to him in rebuttal, the time and place to bring that up was not while the Eagles were successfully orchestrating a drive down the field.

In other words, sometimes the storylines dictate the game and sometimes the game dictates the storylines. Which is why, in a snoozer of a game like this one (the Eagles beat the Browns 30-10), the second half is where Tony makes his mark. Free-form discussion is what keeps whatever audience ESPN had around in the second half. Conjecture about the Browns coaching situation. Discussion about Andy Reid's tenure in Philadelphia and his relationship with the fans. Those are great second-half-of-a-blowout-game topics, and Tony is great at driving them. But in a 10-point game in the second quarter, his value is diminished.

booth_action8270.jpgThe Call
If it's possible to leave Tony out of the conversation for a moment, the tandem of Jaws and Mike Tirico are very solid in their roles. The best way from point A to point B is a straight line, Tirico takes that approach in the booth. He's straightforward, with little demonstrative cadence or signature schtick to take away from the game, or his partners, in the booth. He just does his job, gets in and gets out and lets the players tell the story and the analysts critique the players.

When Jaws referred to injured Browns tight end Steve Heiden as Eric Heiden, Tirico corrected the mistake for the viewer, not to undermine Jaws. Had Tony caught it, he'd still be making Bonnie Blair jokes.

Jaws is a unique person in football. He just loves the nuances in the game, and it comes out in his call. He would be as excited watching film the local rec league games as he is on Monday Night Football.

With all three in the booth, unlike on other networks, it's not about them. It's about the game. Yes, even with Tony, it's not about him, and in a way that may have been what led to his unfamiliarity in the role. And as we said before, he knows that:

"Am I better? I don't know if I'm any better. It still doesn't play to what I do best....I think the broadcast is better, so I'm a part of that. At worst, I'm just holding it back from being REALLY good, and at best I'm part of something that gets better all the time."

Meticulous Preparation
In a blowout game that the producers expected to be a blowout, they are able to get in nearly all their graphics, video packages and talking points throughout the game. ESPN dictated everything you saw from the opening scene flying over the city of Philadelphia to the closing whistle. Sure, there were big plays, and they adeptly captured them when a big play happened, but the overall storyline of the game was decided at 11 a.m. and not in prime time.

Of all the graphics put on the screen, all but a handful were created in advance and set in queue to use whenever appropriate. They were meticulous. Which doesn't explain this:

In the production meeting they had video of DeSean Jackson's near-touchdown in Dallas on MNF in Week 2. Jackson should have scored, but hot-doggedly dropped the ball before crossing the goal line. Now, there would have been NO reason to bring that up on the telecast, other than to say, "Hey look, the Eagles have been on Monday Night earlier this year." There was no context outside of the ESPN world of "we own sports and this happened on our air."

While the package was shown to the staff, Tirico and producer Jay Rothman both mentioned how a play like that will never happen again. After that game, they said, every head coach would go to their team and show that play to ensure it didn't happen to them. Well on Monday night, it HAPPENED AGAIN. Asante Samuel picked off a pass at midfield and while running for a score, hot-doggedly dropped the ball before crossing the goal line. It was inexplicable. The replays were spot on, showing exactly where he let go of the ball. Now, he picked it back up in the end zone for the score, but the replay package that was prepared for no other reason than in the case something like that happened again was NEVER SHOWN. Tirico brought it up before cutting to a break, but they never went back to that play again. And they had it prepared.

I don't know how often graphics and video packages are scrapped. I assume quite often, but that was taylor-made for this scenario. But barring that one play, the rest of the game was spot on. Again, with a clunker of a second half, it fed right into Tony's strengths.

Conclusion
You either like Tony or you don't. Of all his jobs, does his work in the MNF booth fall at the bottom of the list in terms of quality? Sure. He knows that. But he's getting better. And contrary to what some people believe, he works very hard at it. They all do -- from those behind the scenes to those in front of the cameras. And the hard works comes off favorably on the telecast.

By Dan Levy  |  December 18, 2008; 4:03 PM ET  | Category:  MNF Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Behind the Scenes at MNF, Part II: The Puppeteers | Next: Behind the Scenes at MNF, Part IV: Actual Scenes

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