It was true last year, and it was true again Thanksgiving night: No one does the NFL like “NBC Sunday Night Football.”
From the opening aerial shots making even old Baltimore look all glittery and glam, to Bob Costas welcoming tens of millions of viewers to M&T Bank Stadium, NBC made the Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game seem like the only place in the world to be Thursday night.
After weeks of CBS Sports, what a pleasure it was to be in the skilled veteran hands of coordinating producer Fred Gaudelli, director Drew Esocoff, play-by-play announcer Al Michaels and analyst Cris Collinsworth. And, oh, yeah, we even got a sideline reporter with NBC: Michele Tafoya, one of the best in television.
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There’s a reason “Sunday Night Football” is the most popular show on American television, and it goes beyond the network getting to pick the best games. It goes beyond even the outstanding technical competence of Gaudelli, Esocoff and Co. NBC’s words and pictures pump up viewers from the get-go.
Practically the first words out of Michaels’ mouth in his opening were: “The place is jumping.”
Collinsworth followed that by talking about “all the raw emotion in this building” and saying: “The night is all about the emotion in this place.”
And then to Tafoya interviewing Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on the sideline, asking him how his team would deal with what is “obviously a lot of noise” from some of the loudest fans in the league.
Who wouldn’t want to stay tuned to be part of that? And what Ravens fan wouldn’t get amped up?
And then the cameras and the director took over.
During “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Esocoff gave viewers great close-ups of the “Play 60” kids who were on the field with singer Zendaya. You saw the excitement and emotion in their faces.
Escocoff next cut to some of the players — like rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, standing with his eyes closed, using the music and emotion to take himself to the mental place he needed to be.
The most surprising thing about “Sunday Night Football,” after you’ve been subjected to CBS, is the team chemistry between Esocoff, Michaels, Collinsworth, the cameras and the replays. I didn’t see NBC miss a replay in the first half.
They clipped the Steelers’ botched second-quarter field goal as they went to commercial. But they gave it to viewers in full as soon as they returned to the game.
In the Steelers’ opening series, when nose tackle Haloti Ngata stuffed a run up the middle, the replay was up before the players had unpiled, with Collinsworth telling viewers, “Haloti Ngata uses a swim move to get in the backfield.” The words and pictures were in perfect sync, and they instantly explained to the viewer why the play was a bust.
As Ravens and Steelers players started shoving in that opening series, Michaels commented: “We’re a minute and a half into the game, and already we have this.”
Instead of some phony, high-sounding pronouncement about keeping emotions in check, Collinsworth came back with: “And I like it.”
With 9:25 left in the first quarter, running back Ray Rice missed yet another block while quarterback Joe Flacco was trying to pass, and Esocoff had it up for a replay instantly, with Collinsworth explaining how the play is drawn up. There were two possible pass rushers for Rice to block, he said, and Rice had chosen the wrong one.
And again, on the touchdown pass to wide receiver Torrey Smith in the first half, Collinsworth explained how cornerback Ike Taylor expected inside help.
“But the help did not help,” Collinsworth said, as the exact images of Taylor releasing Smith to the inside played on the screen.
Watching the pictures and seeing them match up perfectly time and again with the words describing them is like seeing a double play in baseball made look easy.
That same kind of grace was on display with Michaels feeding statistics into his play-by-play. I didn’t know the league-average yards per carry was 4.2, or that Rice was averaging only 2.9 this season. I knew Rice was performing poorly, but no one at CBS or Fox quantified it for me. The only team worse than the Ravens in that statistic, according to Michaels, was Jacksonville — something no one else on TV told me.
That’s what you get with Michaels between plays, instead of blah-blah-blah or uneasy silence.
The defining moment of NBC's passion to get it right came with 1:59 left in the third quarter when after several replays they finally captured Tomlin essentially interfering with a Jacoby Jones run up the sideline in front of the Steelers bench. Not only did NBC get Tomlin stepping toward the field to try and influence Jones' path, but it also got him smiling a wicked little smile after his dirty deed. Brilliant work.
It’s easy to overlook the local guys when the greatest crew in football comes to town, but WBAL’s pregame show from 7 to 8 p.m. deserves a few words of praise, too.
Maybe the countdown clock was a bit much, but Gerry Sandusky and Pete Gilbert were rock steady and almost as good as Michaels and Collinsworth in getting you hyped for the game.
Jennifer Franciotti’s interview with tailgaters who were carving up a deep-fried turkey and screaming that the same thing would happen to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was, well, kind of unforgettable. I loved it in all its over-the-top, crazed-fan intensity.
Good work, WBAL-TV.