xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

NBC’s Mike Tirico on the Ravens vs. Steelers rivalry, Lamar Jackson, the 2020 season and more

NFL fans usually see Mike Tirico as the host of NBC’s “Football Night in America.” On Thursday, Tirico was supposed to step in for Al Michaels to call the Ravens’ Thanksgiving night matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers before the game was moved to Sunday, and then again to Tuesday night.

The Baltimore Sun spoke with Tirico to preview the game and discuss the NFL season to date.

Advertisement

This has turned into another week full of unexpected news with the COVID-19 positives affecting the Ravens. What has it been like to navigate this season with COVID-19 hanging as a specter over everything?

You get ready to either hit curveballs or foul them off and stay in the batter’s box, to cross sports. You’re going to have all these different events that will happen that you just try to be ready for, best as possible. You prepare for a game until you hear otherwise. You prepare to do a studio show until you hear otherwise. And you’re flexible. I think like the teams, we’ve learned that really nice football season that’s usually static was going to be changeable all year, and you’ve just got to be ready for it.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Has it changed the tone of how you guys talk about the game this year?

No, I don’t think so. Especially in the college football space, since I cover both, we actually have not been, as a general media … I don’t think we’ve been as understanding or fair. Seeing what the 18-to-23-year-olds are going through on campus, with testing, isolating from their college mates, not able to have them in the facility as often — it’s been very, very challenging in the college space. And I think you really do have to look at this season through a little bit different prism. On the NFL side, the NFL is probably being measured in the same ways that it has in the past. Teams that are struggling, coaches that are on the hot seat, are being considered as such, maybe with not enough appreciation for what a unicorn this season has been and will continue to be.

I always think of John Madden with his turkey leg, and this feels like a turkey-leg game.

Yeah. What I love about this rivalry when I was doing it on Monday night and now here — the rivalry, though extraordinarily intense, has always been off a foundation of respect. The teams really respect each other and you know you’re going to get their best shot. When Pittsburgh and Cincinnati was a rivalry, there were a lot of cheap shots and dirty stuff. You didn’t have that with Pittsburgh and Baltimore. You just had some of the most intense, hard-hitting games that you’d see year in and year out. So I’ve just always had phenomenal interest as a fan and as a broadcaster to watch these games, because of that respect.

Advertisement

Do you find this game any less compelling because the Ravens have been struggling of late?

I find it more compelling. Nothing injects a rivalry more than desperation. The Ravens, you’re talking about, forget the division, now you’re climbing up a slippery hill to get in the playoffs in an AFC where there are a bunch of good teams. And it sweetens it on the Pittsburgh side if you can damage your rival. I think if you’re in a situation like this where one team is desperate for a win and has to have one here soon, it only adds to the mix of what’s being served for Thanksgiving.

Along the same lines, Lamar Jackson was one of the signature stars in the league heading into this year. Now that things aren’t coming as easily to him, do you find him a more or less interesting story?

I think it’s more interesting, because now we’ve got to figure out what’s your next act. You had success with a certain group in a certain way, and whether defenses have gotten a better understanding of how to play you or the supporting cast around you is not as great as it was the year before, you’ve got to figure a way to still be at an MVP-type level. That’s always the beauty of sports. The great new thing comes along, and we all get excited about it. Then you want to see how does that athlete, how does that coach, how does that team grow in the brighter spotlight? I don’t think Lamar will shrink from it, and I think he’ll eventually grow from it. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a sidestep on the way back up the mountain. So it intrigues me; how will Lamar and how will this offense — because it’s not just one guy — improve? And this is a terrific defense that you’re playing. They were scoring points seemingly with ease last year and they were doing it with great speed, great tempo. It seemed like they were on the field for a few minutes and they’d score. It doesn’t seem like that same offense now, so how do they find that quickly? It’s a fascinating story, and if it doesn’t happen this year, it will just add a lot of intrigue for next year.

Do you find the NFL game more interesting to call with this new generation of quarterbacks who can seemingly do so many more things than the average quarterback we grew up watching?

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes. I was lucky enough that my first year covering golf was in 1997 at the 18th tower, which was Tiger Woods’ first full season. And so I got to see the whole Tiger era play out, and one of the reasons he was must-see TV for even the non-golf fan was that Tiger could do something with his next shot that you hadn’t seen before. And these quarterbacks, when they take the snap, the game just begins. So you want to see the next seven or eight seconds of rolling around, moving around, looking the other way, throwing downfield. They bring something to it you didn’t get when it was just a five- or seven-step drop and you’d climb the pocket and throw. So for me, it does add to the juice and energy. The ad-lib and unscripted moment, it’s usually what creates the great memories.

When you step in as the play-by-play announcer instead of the studio host, how does it change our connection to the sport for that week?

It’s a lot more intense. What I’ve learned getting back in the studio is it’s a nice, comfortable, easy job compared to doing the games, not that we’re building stadiums or constructing roads when we’re broadcasting a game. But the time-intensive nature is so much greater. You’re in the studio and you’re talking about 15 or 16 games around the league, so you’re not going to get into the great depth of who’s the sixth offensive lineman or who’s the gunner on the punt coverage. But in a broadcast, doing play by play, you are doing that. You’re unearthing information on every player on the active roster, you’re making sure you’re providing historical context on the series, what it means around the national picture, all that stuff. So there’s so much more depth and granular detail doing play by play than there is to the studio, where really you’re just kind of doing most of the circus stuff. I love them both.

Was there a rivalry you particularly looked forward to as a younger fan?

Well, I grew up in New York, so I loved the Jets vs. the Dolphins. That was always a fun game to watch. In college, I went to Syracuse, so when Syracuse played West Virginia in football or Georgetown in basketball — still to this day, Syracuse-Georgetown basketball games get me fired up. I think wherever you’re from, wherever you grew up falling in love with sports, there is some great connection to a rivalry. The cool thing about this one is it was built on two teams that were pretty good at the same time, with similar-style football. And I think what’s really cemented it for this decade or so if that you’ve had the same two head coaches. It’s hard to find, in this era of football, two head coaches in the same division that have run for more than a decade. Guys don’t stay all that long in one place, because usually, you have to win the division to stay around, right? But these two guys have stayed for more than a decade in the most changeover era coaching in the NFL has ever seen. I think that has given this rivalry the personality. Even though the players come and go, the coaches, the staffs, the front offices, the people who are at the core of this, they let everybody who comes in the building know how important Ravens-Steelers matchups are. A lot of these guys have grown up watching these games, so it’s continued to manifest itself in meaningful, close and physical football.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement