Thursday night football: Great show, hate the hype

Baltimore Sun reporter

From the Z on TV blog:

A two-hour pre-game show, and more than six hours of non-stop coverage. I swear, there were times Thursday night when I thought I woke from a coma and it was Super Bowl Sunday already instead of the first week of NFL Thursday Night Football.

My goodness, but the NFL sure does know how to put on one hyped-up, league-celebrating broadcast on Thursday nights. Watching it, I couldn't help but both marvel at how well the NFL sells itself and what a willing and sheep-like audience we have become for what they are selling.

But let's begin with the game. What a terrific start to Thursday Night Football. It was a fantastic contest to watch -- a nail biter to the final seconds. Too bad the Ravens had to lose -- and I had to listen to Matt Millen and Joe Thiesmann for nothing less than four hours.

Let's be fair, Theismann did have some truly sharp insights -- like his explanation of the way Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez "slowed down" just enough on a key fourth quarter play to draw contact and a pass interference penalty on the winning drive of the game. On the field, it was as Theismann said, a moment of nuance within nuance, and Theismann was absolutely right: The veteran receiver made the call happen with his body control and veteran smarts.

On the other hand, Theismann called the Ravens the "Raiders," and no one corrected him. And near the end of the game when he could no longer avoid calling Haloti Ngata's name, it became clear after about the third try that Theismann was never going to get it right. And there was apparently no one in the control room to speak it into his ear so that he could mimic what he heard and get it right.

And even when a pronouncement by Theismann turned out to be dead wrong, it didn't slow him down one bit from continuing to make them with the absolute assurance of a blowhard or fool.

Exhibit A: Within half a second of Theismann telling viewers the Ravens were going to "run left" on the next play, they actually ran a reverse to the right that gained 19 yards. Theismann fell for all the false indicators the Ravens gave the Falcons that they were about to run left. Not a moment of explanation or admission of error from Theismann.

A few plays later, Theismann predicted that a penalty was going to go against the Falcons for linemen downfield too far on a screenplay. But in fact, the call was facemasking on the Ravens.

And on it went with Theismann. But I was happy to be reminded that one-time Washington Redskins receiver Art Monk was his "security blanket" when he played quarterback. Who cares in the middle of an epic struggle like the one on the field at the time?

Matt Millen did every bit as a fine a job in the booth Thursday night as he did running the Detroit Lions into the ground in recent years. Twice he talked about Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco having "happy feet." Flacco had some issues Thursday night, but I don't think "happy feet" is one of them -- and I don't think Flacco deserves to be labeled with the negative connotation that accompanies the term.

But all that said, the NFL Network still provided an evening of terrific TV entertainment. It was beyond engaging -- I was out of my chair, on my feet and talking non-stop to the TV during most of the fourth quarter.

On the other side of the the coin, though, I realized during the two-hours of pre-game what putty I have become in the hands of the NFL. It was only in listening to pre-game host Rich Eisnen interviewing Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, that I was reminded how much P.R., propaganda and pimping goes on during the broadcast of an NFL game on the NFL Network.

Eisen asked Goodell about league security earlier in the day having interviewed a former sideline reporter for the New York Jets who has alleged that quarterback Brett Favre sent her inappropriate text messages and Internet images. As Goodell assured Eisen that the league was going to take all the time it needed to be scrupulously thorough and get the investigation right, I realized how much spinning was being done all night long to protect the image of Favre, a tremendous TV box office attraction for the league despite the obvious erosion of his skills at age 41.

During the more than six hours of game-related telecast, viewers were also treated to portions of an interview that Steve Mariucci, part of the NFL network broadcast team, did with Favre. The two are longtime friends from Green Bay where Mariucci once coached when Favre was a young player for the Packers. The interview was a friendly one to say the least.

I know this isn't Watergate. What the NFL Network was doing Thursday night was telecasting a football game packaged as prime-time entertainment. It does that well. The ratings will be great, and the young, male demographics will be through the roof. I'm the guy who has been writing the stories this fall saying NFL football is the new reality TV -- It is all over the prime-time landscape and it whips whatever competition it faces.

But I wish the NFL Network would leave the faux sports journalism behind -- and not insult my intelligence. I would rather have the NFL Network ignore the stories like the one involving Favre and the former sideline reporter for the Jets than load the dice and spin the the story so that the league and one of its biggest TV attractions wind up being shamelessly celebrated when we don't yet know the facts of the case.

A prediction based on Goodell's words and the way the Favre case was carefully and gently handled by the NFL Network last night: We won't get a ruling from Godell's office until the season ends, Favre retires or his team, the Vikings, is eliminated from playoff contention.

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