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Why the Bills-Dolphins battle of top AFC teams didn’t get CBS’ top broadcast crew


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A pair of 2-0 teams. The betting favorite to win the Super Bowl. Stars all across the field, including MVP candidate Josh Allen.

On first glance, you might have expected Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, and Tracy Wolfson to be at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., to call Sunday’s Bills-Dolphins game. It’s a reasonable supposition. But here is what you likely don’t know: CBS Sports executives informed their NFL broadcasting teams in August where they would be for the first three weeks of the NFL regular season.

“I think people think that we are throwing darts up at a board and putting broadcast teams wherever, but there’s a lot that goes into it,” said Kevin Harlan, who called the Bills-Dolphins game alongside Trent Green and Melanie Collins. “(CBS Sports executives) have multi-person meetings where they’re looking at (coverage) maps, trying to figure out where our games will go and what teams will draw the best audience. Clearly, when you have Nantz and Romo as our signature team, they want to put them with the best teams, as they should. The rest of the crews all kind of fall in line after that. CBS decided not to make a change. We’re thankful for that. But we would approach this game if was 0-2 versus 0-2 the same exact way.”

I spoke to Harlan and game producer Ken Mack earlier this week, prior to Miami’s wild 21-19 win, about landing what I think most would agree was the signature CBS game this week. I was curious how a crew normally calling the No. 3 or No. 4 game in a given week felt about getting (at least in my view) the marquee game. (As it turned out, Nantz and Romo called a memorable Sunday game too — the Colts’ 20-17 win over the Chiefs.)

“It’s just by luck and just by the draw that we got this game,” Harlan said. “I don’t know anyone could have forecast that it would be this kind of setup. It was determined before the season even began. We kind of got lucky, and that’s basically it. But sometimes it can be the reverse. We’d go into a preseason, they’d award our first four games, and we’d be like, ‘This game is going to be outstanding.’ Then you watch the first two or three games and it’s 0-3 against 0-3. The reverse has happened not just to us, but to every crew. When you have predetermined assignments, you kind of have your fingers crossed. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t think when I got on the plane after calling a game on Sunday and start thinking about your game the next weekend, you are always glad to see those teams win.”

The group got an eventful game, including the awful images of Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa being hit in the second quarter and then stumbling upon getting up. Players dealt with cramping and heat issues all game. The cruelty was hard to watch at times. I thought Harlan and Green could have gone much deeper on whether Tagovailoa should be back in for the second half.

The broadcasters were at their best on the botched snap by Buffalo at the end of the first half. Harlan initially thought the Bills had called a trick play — a la Dan Marino in 1994 on the famous fake spike play — but then he and Green acknowledged they did not see the fumble initially and dissected what had happened after replay showed the botched center snap. (I always like when a broadcast team acknowledges they missed something the first time.) The late moments of the game were memorable from Mack and the broadcast truck, including a safety on a team blocking its own punt and Buffalo offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey slamming down his notes and headset upon time running out on the Bills.

Last week, the Harlan-Mack group called Miami’s wild 42-38 win over Baltimore, which included 28 points from the Dolphins in the fourth quarter. They opened the season with the Chargers’ 24-19 win over the Raiders. Thanks to the invaluable 506 Sports website, which posts NFL coverage maps weekly, you can see how the Nantz-Romo game (Chiefs at Colts) had the biggest coverage area for CBS versus Bills-Dolphins.

“I think there was a lot of talk that Nantz and Tony would go to the Chargers-Raiders game that we did Week 1,” Harlan said. “In a lot of people’s minds, that might have been the best game in that window. But (Patrick) Mahomes is such a captivating player that, at least early in the season, people cannot get enough of him.”

Mack has produced Harlan’s NFL games for the past three years and has worked with Harlan on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for years. He previously produced NFL games with Greg Gumbel and Green, and prior to that, produced the team of Harlan and Rich Gannon. So there is a lot of familiarity with the crew. Mack said having the Dolphins the week before helps with the pacing of a broadcast from the broadcast truck end. But teams can also change week to week. So Mack, director Jim Cornell, and associate director Chris Burns had to be ready for whatever comes.

“The job calls for being as professional and as prepared as possible,” Harlan said. “We work as a team. Our crew’s motto is, ‘Don’t let go of the rope.’ Everybody pulling on that rope is as important as the person in front and the person in back. If someone in our group of 40-plus people that we travel with lessens up on their grip, it affects everybody. Not to sound cliché or corny, but that really is true. If an audio guy messes up, it affects the broadcast. If our graphics person messes up, that affects the broadcast. We’re one of 16 crews doing NFL games, and that is enough of a badge of honor and responsibility that we all feel like we want to be at our best regardless of what the record says going into the game.”

The broadcast team will be in Las Vegas next week for Broncos at Raiders. The strength of the AFC, particularly the AFC West, means most teams at CBS have a chance for a good broadcasting schedule this year. But. Harlan says, given the accessibility of the NFL, he thinks every crew is a national crew.

“Every game is seen basically any place at any time that people want to see them,” Harlan said. “So some weeks, if a game is going to just five percent of the country, there’s still a ton of people across the country that are watching that game or getting updates on RedZone. I think all the crews feel the same. The percentage your game is going to is kind of irrelevant now.”

• After this column was published, we received the viewership numbers for Amazon Prime Video’s second regular-season NFL game — Cleveland’s 29-17 win over Pittsburgh. According to Amazon Prime PR and Nielsen, the game averaged 11.03 million viewers including local markets. Amazon’s first-party measurement had the numbers at 13.6 million viewers when you include alternate telecasts, Twitch and other means. Last week’s Nielsen said Amazon averaged 13.0 million viewers for the Chiefs-Chargers game. My read: It’s another good number for Amazon. A decline was expected, but they held last week’s number pretty well.

• Excellent deep dive by Tripp Mickle on Apple’s relationship with the NFL. Apple will sponsor the Super Bowl halftime show and continues to have negotiations with the NFL on Sunday Ticket. On this note: The league announced on Sunday that Rihanna will headline the Super Bowl LVII halftime show.

• My colleague, Kalyn Kahler, wrote a piece last week following the Browns-Steelers game that examined something that regularly happens on NFL game broadcasts — the lack of specificity and depth when it comes to issues that look unfavorably on the league. There are fans who suggest that the game is not the place for such discussion. I’m not here to change your mind. But none of this should be surprising because at its core, the networks are partners with the NFL. They are in business together, especially on game coverage. Where Kahler focused on Deshaun Watson, I would highlight this question: How far can a media rightsholder partner go criticizing NFL owners on a game broadcast? That’s a question I posed recently to Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports who has an extensive news background (he once ran CBS News) and comes from a family (his father was famed sports broadcaster Jim McKay) with journalistic bona fides. It’s from this column.

Here is how McManus answered: “I don’t think we’ve ever pulled punches when there’s a storyline that we need to follow no matter how controversial it is,” McManus said. “I think the league expects us, and our audience expects us, to be objective. Obviously, you take these on a case-by-case basis, but I think if there were a story that reflected bad on an owner, or if one of our commentators had an opinion on that, he or she would be free to express it. Having said that, we don’t go out of our way to unearth dirt on NFL owners or players. But if that becomes part of the storyline, it becomes part of our coverage. We try to have our announcers, generally speaking, pay attention to what’s happening on the field, although if something happens off the field that we think affects the game or affects the team, I don’t think we’re shy about covering that.”

As I wrote then: It’s a well-thought answer, and I appreciate McManus taking the question. But you be the judge: When is the last time you watched an NFL game where game announcers were critical of ownership? Not some cursory remark about “a troubled offseason” or “distractions” but an in-depth conversation on an issue of relevance involving an owner. Would a piece such as this one published last week by The Washington Post writers Mark Maske, Nicki Jhabvala and Liz Clarke ever be discussed during a Commanders game with depth? I’ve racked my brain and nothing has come up. If you can think of some, let me know in the comments.

• Fox Sports executives said upon hiring Tom Rinaldi that they would provide the resources for Rinaldi to do the longform work that he became known for at ESPN. They lived up to that on Saturday with this piece on Meechie Walker, who is battling osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer. Walker had offers to play college football from 10 Division-1 schools prior to the diagnosis. The piece, which aired during “Big Noon Kickoff,” was produced by Rick Thomas, edited by Joe Nargi, with production assistant Eron Iki doing a ton of work on it as well.

• Nielsen said Amazon averaged 13.0 million viewers for its first regular-season “Thursday Night Football” game. Per Sports Media Watch, that includes 602,000 viewers on Los Angeles Fox affiliate KTTV and 555,000 viewers on Kansas City NBC affiliate KSHB-TV. My colleague, Bill Shea, and I discussed what the numbers mean in the present and down the road. I also did a podcast with Boston Globe media writer Chad Finn on Amazon’s initial numbers and what to expect later in the season. That podcast includes an interview with Fred Segal, the author of “Freezing Cold Takes: NFL. Football’s Most Inaccurate Predictions And The Fascinating Stories Behind Them.”

• You might have seen posts on Twitter on Saturday claiming that Fox Sports was banning signs about analyst Urban Meyer for its “Big Noon Kickoff” show from Ann Arbor. Asked what the company’s policy was regarding signs brought to “Big Noon Kickoff” events, a Fox Sports spokesperson said, “Our policy is the same as it’s always been — no inappropriate signs. Pretty simple.” Asked specifically if there was a “no signs about Urban Meyer” policy at Michigan, the spokesperson said, “There isn’t a separate policy. It’s just no inappropriate signs across the board.” Something to watch as the season progresses.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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2 minutes ago, HipKat said:

A pair of 2-0 teams. The betting favorite to win the Super Bowl. Stars all across the field, including MVP candidate Josh Allen.

On first glance, you might have expected Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, and Tracy Wolfson to be at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., to call Sunday’s Bills-Dolphins game. It’s a reasonable supposition. But here is what you likely don’t know: CBS Sports executives informed their NFL broadcasting teams in August where they would be for the first three weeks of the NFL regular season.

“I think people think that we are throwing darts up at a board and putting broadcast teams wherever, but there’s a lot that goes into it,” said Kevin Harlan, who called the Bills-Dolphins game alongside Trent Green and Melanie Collins. “(CBS Sports executives) have multi-person meetings where they’re looking at (coverage) maps, trying to figure out where our games will go and what teams will draw the best audience. Clearly, when you have Nantz and Romo as our signature team, they want to put them with the best teams, as they should. The rest of the crews all kind of fall in line after that. CBS decided not to make a change. We’re thankful for that. But we would approach this game if was 0-2 versus 0-2 the same exact way.”

I spoke to Harlan and game producer Ken Mack earlier this week, prior to Miami’s wild 21-19 win, about landing what I think most would agree was the signature CBS game this week. I was curious how a crew normally calling the No. 3 or No. 4 game in a given week felt about getting (at least in my view) the marquee game. (As it turned out, Nantz and Romo called a memorable Sunday game too — the Colts’ 20-17 win over the Chiefs.)

“It’s just by luck and just by the draw that we got this game,” Harlan said. “I don’t know anyone could have forecast that it would be this kind of setup. It was determined before the season even began. We kind of got lucky, and that’s basically it. But sometimes it can be the reverse. We’d go into a preseason, they’d award our first four games, and we’d be like, ‘This game is going to be outstanding.’ Then you watch the first two or three games and it’s 0-3 against 0-3. The reverse has happened not just to us, but to every crew. When you have predetermined assignments, you kind of have your fingers crossed. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t think when I got on the plane after calling a game on Sunday and start thinking about your game the next weekend, you are always glad to see those teams win.”

The group got an eventful game, including the awful images of Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa being hit in the second quarter and then stumbling upon getting up. Players dealt with cramping and heat issues all game. The cruelty was hard to watch at times. I thought Harlan and Green could have gone much deeper on whether Tagovailoa should be back in for the second half.

The broadcasters were at their best on the botched snap by Buffalo at the end of the first half. Harlan initially thought the Bills had called a trick play — a la Dan Marino in 1994 on the famous fake spike play — but then he and Green acknowledged they did not see the fumble initially and dissected what had happened after replay showed the botched center snap. (I always like when a broadcast team acknowledges they missed something the first time.) The late moments of the game were memorable from Mack and the broadcast truck, including a safety on a team blocking its own punt and Buffalo offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey slamming down his notes and headset upon time running out on the Bills.

Last week, the Harlan-Mack group called Miami’s wild 42-38 win over Baltimore, which included 28 points from the Dolphins in the fourth quarter. They opened the season with the Chargers’ 24-19 win over the Raiders. Thanks to the invaluable 506 Sports website, which posts NFL coverage maps weekly, you can see how the Nantz-Romo game (Chiefs at Colts) had the biggest coverage area for CBS versus Bills-Dolphins.

“I think there was a lot of talk that Nantz and Tony would go to the Chargers-Raiders game that we did Week 1,” Harlan said. “In a lot of people’s minds, that might have been the best game in that window. But (Patrick) Mahomes is such a captivating player that, at least early in the season, people cannot get enough of him.”

Mack has produced Harlan’s NFL games for the past three years and has worked with Harlan on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for years. He previously produced NFL games with Greg Gumbel and Green, and prior to that, produced the team of Harlan and Rich Gannon. So there is a lot of familiarity with the crew. Mack said having the Dolphins the week before helps with the pacing of a broadcast from the broadcast truck end. But teams can also change week to week. So Mack, director Jim Cornell, and associate director Chris Burns had to be ready for whatever comes.

“The job calls for being as professional and as prepared as possible,” Harlan said. “We work as a team. Our crew’s motto is, ‘Don’t let go of the rope.’ Everybody pulling on that rope is as important as the person in front and the person in back. If someone in our group of 40-plus people that we travel with lessens up on their grip, it affects everybody. Not to sound cliché or corny, but that really is true. If an audio guy messes up, it affects the broadcast. If our graphics person messes up, that affects the broadcast. We’re one of 16 crews doing NFL games, and that is enough of a badge of honor and responsibility that we all feel like we want to be at our best regardless of what the record says going into the game.”

The broadcast team will be in Las Vegas next week for Broncos at Raiders. The strength of the AFC, particularly the AFC West, means most teams at CBS have a chance for a good broadcasting schedule this year. But. Harlan says, given the accessibility of the NFL, he thinks every crew is a national crew.

“Every game is seen basically any place at any time that people want to see them,” Harlan said. “So some weeks, if a game is going to just five percent of the country, there’s still a ton of people across the country that are watching that game or getting updates on RedZone. I think all the crews feel the same. The percentage your game is going to is kind of irrelevant now.”

• After this column was published, we received the viewership numbers for Amazon Prime Video’s second regular-season NFL game — Cleveland’s 29-17 win over Pittsburgh. According to Amazon Prime PR and Nielsen, the game averaged 11.03 million viewers including local markets. Amazon’s first-party measurement had the numbers at 13.6 million viewers when you include alternate telecasts, Twitch and other means. Last week’s Nielsen said Amazon averaged 13.0 million viewers for the Chiefs-Chargers game. My read: It’s another good number for Amazon. A decline was expected, but they held last week’s number pretty well.

• Excellent deep dive by Tripp Mickle on Apple’s relationship with the NFL. Apple will sponsor the Super Bowl halftime show and continues to have negotiations with the NFL on Sunday Ticket. On this note: The league announced on Sunday that Rihanna will headline the Super Bowl LVII halftime show.

• My colleague, Kalyn Kahler, wrote a piece last week following the Browns-Steelers game that examined something that regularly happens on NFL game broadcasts — the lack of specificity and depth when it comes to issues that look unfavorably on the league. There are fans who suggest that the game is not the place for such discussion. I’m not here to change your mind. But none of this should be surprising because at its core, the networks are partners with the NFL. They are in business together, especially on game coverage. Where Kahler focused on Deshaun Watson, I would highlight this question: How far can a media rightsholder partner go criticizing NFL owners on a game broadcast? That’s a question I posed recently to Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports who has an extensive news background (he once ran CBS News) and comes from a family (his father was famed sports broadcaster Jim McKay) with journalistic bona fides. It’s from this column.

Here is how McManus answered: “I don’t think we’ve ever pulled punches when there’s a storyline that we need to follow no matter how controversial it is,” McManus said. “I think the league expects us, and our audience expects us, to be objective. Obviously, you take these on a case-by-case basis, but I think if there were a story that reflected bad on an owner, or if one of our commentators had an opinion on that, he or she would be free to express it. Having said that, we don’t go out of our way to unearth dirt on NFL owners or players. But if that becomes part of the storyline, it becomes part of our coverage. We try to have our announcers, generally speaking, pay attention to what’s happening on the field, although if something happens off the field that we think affects the game or affects the team, I don’t think we’re shy about covering that.”

As I wrote then: It’s a well-thought answer, and I appreciate McManus taking the question. But you be the judge: When is the last time you watched an NFL game where game announcers were critical of ownership? Not some cursory remark about “a troubled offseason” or “distractions” but an in-depth conversation on an issue of relevance involving an owner. Would a piece such as this one published last week by The Washington Post writers Mark Maske, Nicki Jhabvala and Liz Clarke ever be discussed during a Commanders game with depth? I’ve racked my brain and nothing has come up. If you can think of some, let me know in the comments.

• Fox Sports executives said upon hiring Tom Rinaldi that they would provide the resources for Rinaldi to do the longform work that he became known for at ESPN. They lived up to that on Saturday with this piece on Meechie Walker, who is battling osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer. Walker had offers to play college football from 10 Division-1 schools prior to the diagnosis. The piece, which aired during “Big Noon Kickoff,” was produced by Rick Thomas, edited by Joe Nargi, with production assistant Eron Iki doing a ton of work on it as well.

• Nielsen said Amazon averaged 13.0 million viewers for its first regular-season “Thursday Night Football” game. Per Sports Media Watch, that includes 602,000 viewers on Los Angeles Fox affiliate KTTV and 555,000 viewers on Kansas City NBC affiliate KSHB-TV. My colleague, Bill Shea, and I discussed what the numbers mean in the present and down the road. I also did a podcast with Boston Globe media writer Chad Finn on Amazon’s initial numbers and what to expect later in the season. That podcast includes an interview with Fred Segal, the author of “Freezing Cold Takes: NFL. Football’s Most Inaccurate Predictions And The Fascinating Stories Behind Them.”

• You might have seen posts on Twitter on Saturday claiming that Fox Sports was banning signs about analyst Urban Meyer for its “Big Noon Kickoff” show from Ann Arbor. Asked what the company’s policy was regarding signs brought to “Big Noon Kickoff” events, a Fox Sports spokesperson said, “Our policy is the same as it’s always been — no inappropriate signs. Pretty simple.” Asked specifically if there was a “no signs about Urban Meyer” policy at Michigan, the spokesperson said, “There isn’t a separate policy. It’s just no inappropriate signs across the board.” Something to watch as the season progresses.

Buffalo is not and will never be a glamour franchise. People across the country just aren't interested in Buffalo. Just imagine the NHL Winnipeg jets playing the Columbus Blue jacket's, are you investing 3 hours watching that?

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2 minutes ago, Very Wide Right said:

Buffalo is not and will never be a glamour franchise. People across the country just aren't interested in Buffalo. Just imagine the NHL Winnipeg jets playing the Columbus Blue jacket's, are you investing 3 hours watching that?

I dunno dude, I get a lot of people in the 'hood that see my Bills flag and start going on and on about them

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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Share on other sites

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