The other day, Cris Collinsworth, color commentator for NBC Sunday Night Football, was sitting in a cramped room in his basement in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. In a light-blue Polo and slip-on shoes, he gave off the aura of a suburban dad. Collinsworth is a suburban dad. But today, as on most afternoons beginning in late summer, he’d waved goodbye to his wife, Holly, and marched past a collection of memorabilia from his playing career. Collinsworth was watching tape.
Collinsworth had a clicker — called a “cowboy remote” — in his hand. On a large monitor above eye level, he was watching the Arizona Cardinals defense; below that, a second monitor showed a page of data from Pro Football Focus, a website in which he’d bought a majority stake; below that, a laptop showed an application called Game Day, into which Collinsworth and an associate had recorded factoids and statistics about every player on the Cardinals roster. Collinsworth narrated the action on the top screen softly and deliberately, as if he were recording an audiobook. Let’s listen:
If I’m not mistaken, I think they have — is that five safeties on the field? They’ve got Mathieu, Johnson. There’s Jefferson. I think Johnson’s all the way back. Yep, Johnson’s all the way back. Buchanon is right in the middle of the field. … Oh, that’s the other one, Chris Clemons.On the monitor, the five safeties backpedaled or charged at the quarterback, then retreated to their former positions. Collinsworth was rewinding the tape again and again.
Here’s the problem, though. A little bit of a read blitz. I’m going to guess Clemons had Antonio Gates in coverage. Saw him block. Then Gates slips out late. And there’s nobody on planet Earth to cover him now.Collinsworth’s voice was being recorded. The resulting file — whichSunday Night Football coordinating producer Fred Gaudelli calls a “tutorial” — would serve two purposes. It would help Collinsworth prepare to call the Cardinals’ preseason game against the Raiders that weekend. It would also get distributed to key members of NBC’s Sunday Night Football crew, who would try to absorb as much as they could.
♦♦♦For seven years running, Collinsworth has won the Emmy for best Sports Event Analyst. Any good NFL writer, however, would reject this metric as a measure of quality. So here’s a better one: Every Monday, Aaron Schatz’s Football Outsiders runs a feature that breaks down the weekend’s games. “One of the things we found is that we tend to not have a lot to say about the Sunday-night game,” said Schatz. “Collinsworth has already pointed out a lot of the stuff we would normally point out.”
Color men are usually the comic foils of NFL writers. “You’re exactly right, Joe …” — hyuck, hyuck. On his best days, Collinsworth is like the writers’ TV analogue. His perch on Sunday Night Football proves something exhilarating: That the flood of analytics and tape study and hard-headed thinking that has enriched NFL writing in recent years hasn’t gone completely ignored by TV. Just mostly.
In 2011, a Wall Street Journal study found that Collinsworth and Al Michaels said fewer words per minute than any other NFL broadcasting team. Indeed, it’s often what Collinsworth doesn’t say that’s striking. He refuses to adopt the catechisms of 40-plus years of NFL announcing — e.g., “It all starts with the offensive line …”
“If you said, ‘What is the most important aspect of winning football games?’” Collinsworth said, “I don’t think I could give you an answer to that question.”
Also striking are the small but unmistakable pauses you hear on Sunday Night Football when Al Michaels finishes his play-by-play. These are instances of Collinsworth taking an extra second to stare at the field and consider what he has just seen.
“Sometimes, I just can’t figure out what they’re doing,” he said. “I find myself sitting there like Boris Spassky or something, studying it.”
When he’s alone in his basement, Collinsworth can indulge such reveries. (“Yep, Johnson’s all the way back.”) When he goes silent on Sunday Night Football, leaving the show’s 21 million viewers in a state of analytic limbo, the next voice Collinsworth hears in his headset is from Gaudelli. “What are you doing?” Gaudelli will say. “Wake up!”
♦♦♦GEORGE GOJKOVICH/GETTY IMAGESBoomer Esiason and Cris Collinsworth with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1987.
In his natural state, Collinsworth is half-thoughtful, half-caustic. But as an announcer, he cycled through several iterations before he arrived there — or back there. It’s a journey that illustrates the reward structure we writers place in front of TV people, and how they and their producers react to it. With unexpected vulnerability, Collinsworth told me, “You can’t believe how hard it is to be yourself.”
Even as a young wide receiver with the Cincinnati Bengals, Collinsworth was already thinking about ways to communicate. His head coach, Sam Wyche, noticed that Collinsworth had a tic in team meetings. A coach would explain an offensive concept or play. Collinsworth would usually understand it on the first take. But he would look around the room and spot a player with a furrowed brow. Collinsworth would ask the coach to repeat the statement, pretending that he was the one who didn’t understand.
Collinsworth was the most presentable guy on just about every team he played for. In 1987, when the NFL players went on strike, quarterback Boomer Esiason became the Bengals’ spokesman. “I came off as an angry millionaire trying to fight The Man,” said Esiason. “I remember saying to Cris, ‘There’s something about you that people like. You can deliver the same message I’m trying to deliver, but they won’t be nearly as mad.’” The disctinction would later reappear in the booth: Esiason worked unhappily with Al Michaels for two seasons of Monday Night Football; Collinsworth, who is deferential to Michaels in the extreme, said he and Al are the best of pals.
But beneath the placid exterior, Collinsworth was a questioner, a needler. “Blunt, I think, would be a better word,” said Wyche. “He’d say, ‘If I’m going to be running this route this way, it might be better to take it a couple yards deeper.’ Honestly, the more I think about it, I think he might have done that so I could appear to have thought of it myself, and so that I could save face.”
Even then, Collinsworth was fascinated by Howard Cosell. He onceattempted an impression in front of the old muckraker; Cosell flattered him and made him a go-to interview. But Collinsworth’s attempt to match Cosell’s dark wit turned sour. “He was doing an interview with me before a game,” Collinsworth said. “He introduced me to his wife. I did an old, standard line: ‘Well, it’s clear you married way over your head, Howard.’ I don’t know if I said it wrong, or he misinterpreted it, but he got incredibly mad.” The two men never spoke again.
When Wyche cut him in 1989, Collinsworth told the press, “I don’t feel cheated.” Collinsworth had a sunny career ahead. He’d started going to law school while he was still a Bengal; if he’d used his degree, he said he would have liked to have been a tax attorney. A sitting U.S. congressman asked him to run for office. But announcing beckoned. Three weeks after he was cut, he got an offer to file features for Inside the NFL. He accepted, and later inherited Bob Trumpy’s sports radio show on Cincinnati’s WLW. Every night, that likable voice was echoing all over town.
♦♦♦Today, sports Twitter cries out in unison when a TV announcer says something dumb. Back in the ’90s, this dyspeptic power resided in only a handful of newspaper sports TV critics, like the Boston Globe’s Jack Craig and USA Today’s Rudy Martzke. The critics had an abiding suspicion that NFL color analysts, typically retired athletes, were softies. It was “what Howard Cosell called the jockocracy,” Collinsworth explained. “Where all the players do is take care of their buddies and the coaches.”
Every week, Martzke tallied analysts’ “strongest comments”; the announcers with the sharpest elbows got promoted. After a time, the criticism began to direct the art. The ’90s was the era of brawlers like Trumpy, Dan Dierdorf, and Randy Cross.
As a sports radio warrior, Collinsworth learned that he needed to push listeners’ buttons to thrive in a hot-take world. “It was a fistfight every night in talk radio,” he said. “People thought that you said, ‘OK, here are the phone lines,’ and those phone lines just lit up. Well, they don’t. … I think in my early television days, I was in the same mode. I probably was gonna make sure they hit their trigger points a few times.”
Collinsworth had the reputation as a guy who made ’em mad as the enfant terrible on Inside the NFL, where he was cast opposite soothing vets like Len Dawson, and as a color man on NBC, where he landed in 1990.
Collinsworth was the low analyst on the totem pole at NBC, often assigned the worst game of the week. (Once, given just six seconds to preview a Patriots-Bengals game on NFL Live, he told host Jim Lampley, “The loser gets the no. 1 draft choice. Back to you, Jim.”) He learned these were precious reps that allowed him to fail in relative anonymity. He also learned how easy it was to tweak a coach. Bill Belichick, struggling in his first go-round, with the Browns, was a frequent sparring partner. When Collinsworth was the subject of a celebrity roast, Belichick declined only because he was committed to a family vacation. It stands as a YouTube tragedy.
“I always thought early on, that’s not the Cris Collinsworth I know,” said Esiason, who’s now a panelist on Showtime’s Inside the NFL. “The Cris Collinsworth I know is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever been around. But sometimes he was overly serious.
I guess that’s what they wanted him to be at NBC.” It was as if Collinsworth had overinterpreted the critics’ demands. Years later, a New York Post critic wrote that Collinsworth “has a little too much Bill Walton in him.”
In 1991, Collinsworth met a computer systems engineer named Andy Freeland, who would become his most important collaborator. A few weeks ago, I found Freeland in the new Cincinnati headquarters of Pro Football Focus, surrounded by unadorned walls. He’s a thin, friendly man who looks like he has given himself to the digital realm. His motto is, “To me, every problem looks like a computer.” Freeland convinced Collinsworth that the tools of the color analyst’s trade — back then, info from media guides and basic statistics — could be put into databases, so that Collinsworth could access them quickly. Even if Collinsworth still hadn’t yet found his onscreen persona, at least he had more digital firepower than his competitors.
When NBC lost its football rights in 1998, Dick Ebersol, the network’s sports chieftain, told Collinsworth to go to Fox. “He said, ‘You should go learn how to do the Fox humor-entertainment,’” Collinsworth said. “‘You can do the other stuff.’” On Fox NFL Sunday, Collinsworth was cast as a yukster opposite Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long. He probably logged fewer fake laughs than his colleagues. But during this period, he alsodeclared, “I’m thoroughly convinced that people want info-tainment.”
It’s now almost forgotten that Collinsworth replaced John Madden once before: In 2002, he became part of Fox’s no. 1 NFL team with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. Collinsworth liked his partners but hated the three-man booth. “You hit a button to talk to the producer to tell him what you want,” he said. “At the end of the play, Troy and I would hit our button at the same time.” It was like competing in a game show to see who got to talk to America.
Ebersol lured him back to NBC in 2006 when the network got Sunday Night Football. After a tryout as John Madden’s play-by-play man — “it was almost the career-ender of all career-enders” — Collinsworth took a studio job and bided his time as Madden’s heir apparent. At Super Bowl XLIII, the NBC staff threw Collinsworth a 50th birthday party. Madden was thunderstruck. “He’s like, ‘I had no idea you were 50 years old,’” Collinsworth said. It was as if the successor were going gray while Madden played out the string. Within three months, Madden had retired. Collinsworth had the most enviable job in football broadcasting, and the unenviable task of replacing a legend.
♦♦♦ALBERTO E. RODRIGUEZ/GETTY IMAGES John Madden, Al Michaels, and Cris Collinsworth at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Hall of Fame induction in 2013.
Deone Bucannon, a 211-pound safety, was on the screen in Collinsworth’s basement. Let’s listen in:
Deone Bucannon, no. 20, is a guy you’ll see down there a lot. He is effectively a linebacker. Plays so much in that slot in there. … He really is going to be a linebacker this year. He still is going to get down the field some. But they really like him in that position.Five days later, when Collinsworth called the Arizona-Oakland game, he delivered that summation nearly word-for-word during the Cardinals’ first defensive series.
Al Michaels began the August 30 broadcast by asking Collinsworth if the Raiders were a playoff team. Saying “yes,” a minor fudge, would give a dreary preseason game some life. Collinsworth said, “Eh, I still think they’re probably a year or two away, don’t you?”
Collinsworth comes to the booth armed with an arsenal. Freeland wrote the Game Day app as a piece of proprietary software.
Instead of the clunky, analog boards analysts have lugged into TV booths for decades, Collinsworth and Freeland can add information on Game Day right up until kickoff. During games, Collinsworth views the data on a 13-inch laptop with a touch screen. The Game Day interface shows each player, often with phonetic spellings (“DAY-own Bucannon”), with one salient fact beneath their names (“1st round dime LB”). When saying Bucannon’s name during a game, Collinsworth might glance at the screen to make sure he’s pronouncing it correctly. If Bucannon does something great, Collinsworth will touch the name to bring up additional information that he and Freeland entered.
In the booth, Collinsworth also has a 28-inch touch-screen that houses a big, indexed document filled with notes that Collinsworth and Freeland have harvested from coach and player interviews conducted during the week. These notes may include longer, human-interest stories, or simply fully rendered versions of short notes in Game Day. For the Oakland-Arizona game, the document ran 38 pages.
Freeland acts as Collinsworth’s spotter, but the post is largely ceremonial. He and Collinsworth almost never speak during games. Freeland will occasionally hand Collinsworth a notecard to remind him of a topic to discuss coming out of a commercial break or at the start of a drive. But when Collinsworth is on the air, the analysis is his alone.
You can break down Collinsworth’s utterances into distinct types. When Collinsworth said during the Arizona-Oakland game that second-year linebacker Khalil Mack got one scholarship offer after his senior year of high school, that’s pure research — it’s probably the most repeated thing about Mack’s biography.
When Collinsworth said that Raiders coach Jack Del Rio wanted to get Mack more sacks in Year 2, that came from a game-week interview.
When Collinsworth said that the Raiders had two sacks in a preseason game that Mack did not get credit for, but nonetheless should get credit for, because he forced them — that is film study. The kind of film study that writers do.
A few years ago, Collinsworth found himself in a weekly coach’s meeting with his old adversary Belichick. He told Belichick that one of his linemen was playing both tackle and defensive end. Belichick scoffed: The guy was only playing tackle. No, Collinsworth said, he’d seen him playing end on film. Belichick returned a while later and admitted Collinsworth was right; with Collinsworth’s command of the film established, Belichick larded him with inside dope.
The Collinsworth of Sunday Night Football shows how the old hot-take model of TV analysis is slowly changing. “The entire environment of television is so different than the ’90s,” said Gaudelli, the Sunday Night Football producer. “All these 24-hour networks — people are criticizing people all the time, or building them up all the time.”
If hot takes no longer seemed unique, neither do we assume the ex-jock’s knowledge of the inner workings of the game. The new breed of football writer — the Schatzes, Barnwells, and Browns — revealed that TV talkers were doing a Regular Joe gloss rather than real analysis. Some analysts were holding back; some didn’t seem capable of real analysis at all.