I know I will probably never hear a seriously negative word about the NFL on its owned and operated cable channel. But I have to admit, I almost always enjoy watching the Baltimore Ravens on the NFL Network.
I was reminded Thursday again of what a great evening of TV football the channel provided last Thanksgiving with the Harbaugh Bowl and the Terrell Suggs postgame celebration.
I love the energy and sense of camaraderie among Rich Eisen and his pre-game and halftime team of Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin and Steve Mariucci.
And while there is nothing spectacular about either of them, Brad Nessler and Mike Mayock come together to form one of the steadiest and most informative teams you will find anywhere this side of NBC’s Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth.
From his predictions to his explanations, Mayock is about 10,000 times more focused than Dan Dierdorf, for example, who often does the Ravens games for CBS.
Before the start of the game, Mayock told viewers, "Look for six to eight deep shots from the Ravens who might be the best vertical team in the league."
By halftime, the Ravens had taken four such shots by my count.
And he’s not afraid to call a player out.
Speaking of Cleveland Browns receiver Greg Little, Mayock said, "He’s a big good looking kid, but there’s no consistency. He drops too many passes."
With 2:18 left in the first quarter, the NFL Network cameras showed a pass going between Little’s hands.
"Do me a favor, catch the football," Mayock said.
Little dropped another at the end of the game that would have been six points for the Browns.
The first time Nessler called the name of Sheldon Brown, Mayock explained that Browns 11-year veteran cornerback was past his prime and while he was still solid on zone coverage, he was a "liability" on man to man.
Sure enough, at the start of the second quarter, Tandon Doss beat Brown in man to man coverage for a big play.
The NFL Network cameras are among the best in TV football. They seem to get more field level shots than any other network. And I got the sense that in the early going that the director was laying in more of those shots to mentally transport viewers from the space in front of their TVs to feeling as if they are in the stadium.
The NFL Network is superb when it comes to audio as well. I could hear Joe Flacco’s audibles as if I was standing on the sidelines. Really, in this regard, NFL Network might even be better than NBC Sunday Night or ESPN Monday Night Football -- and that’s high praise.
The best of the pre-packaged features included video and audio from inside the Ravens locker room with Torrey Smith after the team’s victory over the New England Patriots. The pictures of Smith inside a circle of his teammates as he thanked them for their support in the wake of the death of his younger brother were extraordinary.
There were mistakes. Mayock started to circle a Cleveland Browns receiver on the Telestrator, when the director cut to a tight close-up Ray Lewis. The number of how many games Joe Flacco has won in his first four years varied depending on which NFL Network announcer or analyst was talking Thursday night. One said 51, another 46. I might have heard 44 as well. Which is it, guys? That’s not a fact that should be very hard to confirm.
But that’s relatively minor stuff.
Like NBC, the NFL Network makes a real commitment to presenting coverage worthy of prime time.
That involves analysts like Sanders getting into town early to do fun features like the one he did in taking batting practice with the Orioles under the eye of his one-time major league manager, Buck Showalter. It was a graceful way to acknowledge the success of the Orioles without being hokey. I even liked Sanders putting on an Orioles baseball cap as the KFC "pre-kick" show ended.
Yes, I hate the over-the-top commercialization of such concepts as the "KFC pre-kick show" as opposed to the pre-game show. No one gets as commercial as the NFL Network -- no one.
But on a night when we finally got the real referees back, let’s not talk about the kind of NFL greed that subjected fans to the misery of the replacement refs -- or Thursday night games after Sunday night battles like the one the Ravens had this week.
For tonight, let’s enjoy this less than spectacular 23-16 Ravens victory -- and not focus on all the things that are not discussed or covered when the NFL’s owned and operated channel does a game.