By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
10:05 AM CST, November 25, 2011
It’s a good thing I like the Muppets, because there was no escaping them Thursday on the NFL Network.
Ads for their movie, “The Muppets” were all over the screen as sponsor of the NFL Network’s “Gameday” show that started at 10 a.m. from Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium. And then, Kermit and the gang were back as sponsor of the pregame show at 8 p.m. Every time I looked at the screen Thursday, I saw a furry, crazed character.
But that’s OK, and not just because the Muppets make me smile. They paid a big part of the cost of bringing viewers a day and night of high-energy, holiday-themed, focused and informed TV football Thursday. In fact, overall, the NFL Network delivered a telecast that was in a league with NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” and that is as good as TV football gets.
Much praise to Rich Eisen, Deion Sanders, Steve Mariucci, Marshall Faulk and Michael Irvin for their endurance if nothing else. They did 2 and ½ hours live Thursday morning on the air, and rarely faltered. And they were still bringing their A-games to the screen at 8 p.m. as the NFL Network cameras and microphones skillfully captured the intensity and excitement at the downtown stadium after a week of unbelievable build-up for a Thanksgiving Night showdown between the conference-leading teams of coaches John and Jim Harbaugh. The Ravens won 16 to 6.
Sanders was at his ebullient best whether joking in the morning show about his fear of “getting shanked” by Oakland Raiders fans when he went through the airport there for things he was saying about that team, or bringing an insider’s locker-room knowledge to what linebacker Ray Lewis means to the Ravens.
The Eisen-Sanders-Mariucci-Faulk-Irvin crew had a great post-game interview with Terrell Suggs, who was named winner of the "Pudding Pie Award" for his outstanding play, and one reason for the linebacker's expansive answers clearly was the respect he has for Sanders as a former teammate.
If Sanders gets an "A" for enthusiasm, Eisen gets a grade of “A-plus” for stamina. But more importantly, he also sets a smart tone for the shows he hosts without being pretentious.
How many other hosts could have worked a reference to Omar (Michael K. Williams) from “The Wire” into their commentary as the screen filled with an Inner Harbor skyline shot of Baltimore? And how many show hosts would be willing to let themselves be mocked as he was when the producers showed video of Eisen trying to dance and compared it with that of Sanders, Irvin and Faulk making some real moves? His self-deprecation is refreshing in the sea of jock and coach egos.
Most impressive was the way the producers turned around images and sounds shot for future installments of NFL Films and “Soundfx.” If the sideline shot and sound of Terrell Suggs urging his teammates to “let the world know your name tonight” didn’t get you amped up just before kickoff, you had to be asleep after eating too much turkey.
The real surprise of the day and night for me was the game coverage featuring Brad Nessler doing play-by-play and Mike Mayock as analyst. From the very first series, Mayock was crisp, clear and confident in explaining the game like no one this side of Chris Collinsworth.
At the start of the game, he zeroed in the matchup the Ravens were forcing with an outside linebacker on Anquan Boldin – saying the 49ers were going to lose that one all night if they didn’t adjust (they did after three completions). And the producers did a superb job of instantly turning around video of the completions to show the linebacker a step behind Boldin on his first catch.
Maybe it was because he agreed with my sense of what I saw on the screen, but I also liked Mayock’s willingness to call it like he saw it when it came to penalties – even if he was in disagreement with the referees. He did that on a “blocking from behind” call that went against the Ravens on a first half kickoff.
Mayock constantly delineated what went right and wrong with “point of attack” blocks made and missed on both sides of the line. His explanation and accompanying video of a four-yard loss by the Ravens who had been on the 49ers one yard line in the second quarter was textbook.
And I absolutely loved the way he broke down a running play by the 49ers, saying, “Hey Brad, did that look familiar to you? It’s the old Green Bay Packers sweep.”
Indeed it was, right out of Vince Lombardi’s playbook, and Nessler was immediately calling out the names of Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer, the great guards leading the way for Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung on those Packers’ plays.
“You got a trapper and a wrapper,” Mayock said as the video showed the pulling guards ala Thurston and Kramer.
There were flaws, of course. Mayock and Nessler were shown during the morning show in a canned interview that looked to have been taped the night before with them in parkas in front of a fireplace. It was stupid and lazy to air it with the weather being so fine and warm downtown at M&T. If you are going to go prime time, go all out. Get up and do a live shot that doesn't look like you're in Alaska when the temperature is headed toward 60 degrees in the city you are visiting.
But overall, the producers did a fine job of giving viewers a feel for the Baltimore and the excitement in the city for this prime-time matchup.
Crews went out to venues like the National Aquarium, and the images they captured were used as the cablecast went from game coverage to commercial and back to game. The aerial shots made Baltimore look all twinkly, bright and light on the holiday night.
The NFL Network gang got it: Omar and “The Wire” are only a part of Baltimore – not all of it. That’s an insight often lost on out-of-town cameras.