Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Zurawik: NFL Network delivers telecast worthy of prime time in Ravens' loss Thursday

One thing you have to say about the NFL Network’s coverage of the Ravens’ 34-23 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday night: The channel did not try to do it on the cheap.

The NFL Network gave it everything any broadcaster could: a high-energy pregame show, a strong telecast with a veteran team in the booth and two solid sideline reporters, plus enough cameras to capture every play that mattered. And then, a postgame production that replayed the moments that mattered.

Don’t get me wrong. The NFL Network is in-house, boost-the-product, homer television. You won’t hear two words of criticism of a league that has been losing a lot of fans the past few years in part because of its head-in-the-sand stances on social issues millions of Americans care passionately about.

But don’t come looking for sociology on Thursday nights, and you won’t be disappointed. The NFL Network goes all-out to make its telecast worthy of prime time, both as a sporting event and entertainment.

Maybe two sideline reporters doesn’t sound like a big deal to you. But it was only a few years ago when I had to get a soap box week after after week on this blog and complain about CBS Sports not giving Ravens telecasts even one sideline reporter.

We get one every week now on CBS, and the telecasts are much better for it, especially with confirmed injury reports.

Both of the sideline reporters, Kristina Pink and Erin Andrews, did good work Thursday night. Andrews seemed to get more out of Ravens coach John Harbaugh, based on her recap of their halftime conversation, than any reporter I can think of lately. I welcomed her update on the injury to linebacker C.J. Mosley and how that was affecting the defense in the first half, according to what Harbaugh told her.

Fox Sports broadcasters Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are as smooth, informed and easy to take as any team in professional football. Neither has anything to prove anymore, and they are supremely comfortable with each other in the back-and-forth rhythm of play-by-play and analysis.

I like Aikman’s willingness to call out poor play. And he called out Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco several times for missing open receivers. I needed to hear that.

On the other hand, like a lot of former players in the booth, Aikman can get a little too strong in his comments and act as if he knows what he doesn’t really know.

Case in point, with 9:26 left in the first half, the Ravens brought rookie Lamar Jackson in as quarterback and flanked Flacco out as a wide receiver for a play.

“Joe’s not going to say anything, but I can tell you deep down he doesn’t like it,” Aikman said of such plays. “I don’t think Joe is real thrilled about some of the things within that system with Lamar Jackson in the offense.”

But then, in the fourth quarter with 14:16 left in the game, Aikman told viewers he didn’t really know what Flacco felt about plays and packages that put Jackson in as quarterback.

“I’m just telling you, I don’t know whether Flacco likes it or not,” he said to Buck. “But my experience with other franchise guys, there’s no way.”

So, which is it, Troy? Do you know what Flacco feels “deep down” about Jackson’s involvement in the offense, or not? I say that, because the claim you made in the second quarter was kind of a big one, and it sounded to me like you were trying to walk it back in the fourth quarter.

That said, I enjoyed the telecast Thursday night. I liked all the energy, talent and first-rate production skills that the NFL Network brought to the game.

The game ended badly for Ravens fans, but it was a good sports telecast and evening of prime-time entertainment.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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