ESPN should change up its lead broadcast team for 2011 NFL Draft
Trey Wingo-led group outperformed Chris Berman's team in draft
ESPN executive answers criticism of analyst Steve Young, more
NFL Network executive discusses highs, lows of broadcast
In sports television there are few segments more irksome than those featuring contrived arguments. ESPN has had its share of spectacularly annoying examples in this genre, and the summa cum laude of such nonsense came a few years back when the network pitted Sean Salisbury, a loquacious ex-quarterback with a my-way-or-the-highway style, against longtime NFL reporter John Clayton, a bespectacled, John Hodgman look-alike nicknamed "The Professor." The segment, dubbed "Four Downs," came off so comically forced that it usually mitigated the moments Clayton and Salisbury made salient points.
The painful memory of those segments flashed back Saturday as I watched Mel Kiper and Todd McShay duel during the final four rounds of the NFL Draft. Whereas Clayton and Salisbury's battles were about as convincing as Rocky V, the divergence of opinion between Kiper and McShay felt organic and, just as important, the context was relevant to the discussion at hand. As an array of college prospects flew by, I found myself really enjoying the dynamic between host Trey Wingo, analyst Ron Jaworski and the two draft gurus. Everyone on the set knew the subject cold. There was no excess yelling or screaming, and no shtick. I felt like an adult watching, and it felt good.
The Saturday show concluded the NFL's first three-day and primetime draft, a programming change that could not have gone better for the league and its TV partners. The draft was watched by a combined 45.4 million viewers on ESPN, ESPN2 and NFL Network, an increase of 16 percent from 2009 (39 million viewers). It was the most-viewed first round in ESPN's 31 years televising the event, and the coverage (which aired from 7:30-11:20 p.m. ET) averaged 7.29 million viewers on the network. The three-day telecast averaged 3.717 million viewers on ESPN, the most-viewed draft in the network's history. While commissioner Roger Goodell would not officially commit to a permanent primetime shift when SI.com interviewed him Friday night, it will be stunning not to see a similar format in 2011.
That brings us back to ESPN's coverage, and its final day in particular. There's no question the Saturday telecast is a much different broadcast. You can miss podium picks, there's no reaction shots to consider, and analysts can really chew into a discussion. So I recognize the first round is the harder production when I make the following recommendation:
ESPN should make the quintet of Wingo, Kiper, Jaworski, McShay and Jon Gruden its main draft team for the 2011 draft.
Wingo lives and breathes the sport 365 days a year as the host of NFL Live; he runs an efficient and professional show that allows the analysts next to him to make their points. But the main reason I favor him over Chris Berman is that I feel Berman is too much an agent of the league.
No doubt there are those who enjoy Berman's showmanship and passion for the draft. There's an argument to be made that his job is simply to pilot the ship. That's fair, but I'm a selfish viewer and I want my pilot to ask tough questions of league people and players without taking into account whether he or she will be at a golf outing hosted by that player the following week.
McShay and Kiper have developed chemistry and respect each other on-camera. Jaworski is one of the most prepared analysts in the history of the game; I never feel cheated when I watch him. Gruden has fantastic insight into the league -- especially offensive players -- and he's energetic and prepared. Yes, he's too Johnny Positive when it comes to draft picks, but Kiper and McShay can balance that. My cast is not a referendum on Tom Jackson. He should remain part of draft coverage in some form, a thoughtful commentator whom I respect even when I disagree with him.
Do I think we will ever see this crew? I do not. There's a marketing component to all of this and ESPN wants stars such as Berman on its most-watched platform. But Jay Rothman, the network's senior coordinating producer for its draft coverage, told SI.com Sunday night that the coverage next year will change somewhat out of necessity.
"I'm probably going to suggest that we drastically reduce our number of on-air people for next year," he said. "I'm talking about Thursday and Friday night. It's hard to stay true to the draft and not miss a pick and still give a little background on the players. I'm not saying we did a bad job. You do the best you can. But it is unscripted. It's not a clean and polished and pretty show like Sunday Countdown or NFL Primetime. Things get backed up. I don't want to say I was frustrated, but there is frustration given the speed of it all. My thought is to bring down the talent level big-time and keep it snappy."
There were certain talking points that arose from ESPN's and NFL Network's coverage last weekend, especially if you monitored the coverage on Twitter. On Sunday, I contacted Rothman and NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger to get them to address some viewers' concerns. Rothman first:
Rothman: "Steve has a lot to add. I guess I would not give ourselves an 'A' for being completely balanced on that set. But when it comes to the quarterback, Steve has a lot to say. He's a really smart guy. But I'd have to go back to the film and really dissect it. I guess there could be times when any one of our guys could have gone off on tangents. But I think Steve is a brilliant guy and when he has something to say, he'll say it."
2. Was Gruden too positive about draft picks, especially with the guys he worked with on Gruden's QB Camp?
Rothman: "Jon is a passionate guy. He is a really upbeat, positive person. He's one of those guys who finds the good in everyone and he loves his quarterbacks, as you know. Jon is not a ripper, per se. He's not a negative guy. But I think he can be constructive. That's just who Jon is. If you sat down with him and watched tape with him, he could do positive and negative evaluations. Maybe he could be more constructive or objective, but Jon is a guy who likes to find the good in people. He lets other people be the naysayers."