Simms struggles for CBS in eventful broadcast
The craziest Super Bowl broadcast in history ended at 10:44 p.m. ET on Sunday night, punctuated after the final whistle by the Most Valuable Player of the game greeting millions of CBS viewers with a very audible, "F*****g awesome."
Most viewers will likely describe the broadcast differently, a game that included a 34-minute power outage, a brutal performance by game analyst Phil Simms, and heroics from sideline reporters Steve Tasker and Solomon Wilcots, who anchored the CBS coverage at one point in the semi-darkness of the Superdome.
In a Super Bowl first, CBS lost the feed to its broadcast booth when the power went out at the stadium at 8:37 p.m. ET after Baltimore defensive end Arthur Jones sacked San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick for a loss on second down with 13:22 left in the third quarter and Baltimore leading 28-6. Said Simms on the air at the time: "Good no-throw though by Colin Kaepernick. He is going to throw this down the middle to Vernon Davis. Watch. Boy, look at the safety. His anticip......"
And then he was gone, along with announcer Jim Nantz. The CBS cameras stayed on the field, then switched to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, then to a shot of a half-dark stadium, then back to Harbaugh and Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, and finally to Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. All viewers heard for about a full minute was the sound of the crowd singing. CBS then went to break, with households everywhere wondering what had just happened in the Big Easy.
When CBS returned to the broadcast, there was a graphic on screen that said "Stadium Power Outage" accompanied by Tasker, who reintroduced himself to America as the new host of the Super Bowl. "Welcome back to New Orleans," Tasker said. "This is Steve Tasker. Sideline reporter for Super Bowl 47." Tasker then told viewers that half of the power at the Superdome was out, and described the scene around the stadium. He explained that no one was hurt (though this was clearly a guess) before CBS went to another set of commercials. Tasker then came back and accurately predicted that the power outage would impact the Ravens' momentum. He passed the baton to Wilcots, who reported from the Ravens sideline. Both Tasker and Wilcots kept their reporting wits about them under improbable circumstances, and kept CBS from an alltime meltdown.
In an interview with SI.com late Sunday night, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said his production truck had no communication with his announcers immediately after the outage. "Finally, we got Steve and Solomon up but we had no communication with Jim Nantz," McManus said. "Once we did get communication with Jim, he could not see any monitors. He could only hear us sporadically. It was a scramble to figure out what had happened and to do the best job covering it."
McManus said 11 of CBS' 62 cameras were working during the power outage (three cameras above the field and eight cameras on the ground) and they used what they had to show players on the field. The pregame crew hustled back to its on-field set, and James Brown, Bill Cowher, Dan Marino and Shannon Sharpe went into extended filler time. (Boomer Esiason was absent because he was serving as the analyst on radio broadcast for Dial Global). Cowher and Sharpe were very good here, with Sharpe hammering home that the momentum was going to favor the Niners after the break. Tasker and Wilcots continued to provide reporting, with Tasker remarkably revealing that he had told Niners coach Jim Harbaugh how long the delay would be while Wilcots said Ravens coach John Harbaugh had told him the same thing.
Where CBS needed to do a better job of was identifying for viewers what they were seeing during the power outage. For example, CBS never told viewers who John Harbaugh's wrath (a delight for lip readers) was directed at during the outage. (ESPN analyst Andrew Brandt on Twitter identified the man as Mike Kensil, the league vice president of football operations.) There was also no NFL official on the set to explain what had happened, which would have been invaluable information. McManus, who had a long sting as the head of CBS News, said the network passed all information it received from the NFL moments after it got it and that we "were trying to get information aggressively." Brown reported on air that a league spokesman (he gave no name) had said the power was returning and the league "was pleased with how the power was being ramped up."
In scramble mode, Brown eventually corrected how long the delay would be (his initial time of the delay was off) and CBS created a helpful real-time power outage clock. Tasker continued his excellent reporting and also echoed Sharpe that the delay would benefit San Francisco. Finally, Nantz and Simms came back on the air at 9:06 p.m., and play resumed four minutes later.
"I think under very, very difficult circumstances -- and remember we were trying to get all of our equipment back -- I think our guys did a very good job with limited information, and for a while, very limited production resources," McManus said. "I'm not sure what else physically we could have done. I thought our production team did an excellent job documenting what went on the field in a very good way."
That's the CBS Sports take. We'll get to ours now as we hand out the grades for one of the more memorable sports broadcasts in some time.
"A mix of football and entertaining. Hopefully, there'll be some laughs and some newsworthy segments, too. Each hour we hope to give you a sprinkling of stuff."
-- Eric Mann, Super Bowl Today producer.
CBS is the most conservative of the networks that broadcast the NFL, and such ethos served it well on Sunday. Recent pregame shows by Fox and NBC at times have bludgeoned viewers with a wave of celebrity-infused Seacrestization nonsense. On Sunday, CBS kept the focus on storytelling, and its pacing during the four-hour pregame was strong. Last year NBC delivered too much cross-promotional nonsense and too frequent cuts to celebrity interviews. That was absent this year and CBS deserves credit for that.
The network started out well with an emphasis on access -- Esiason and Sharpe reported from inside the Ravens locker room shortly after 2 p.m. ET; Marino and Cowher did the same with the Niners. While some media writers decried Esiason and Sharpe walking the streets of New Orleans handing out Pizza Hut pizzas to people willing to yell "hut, hut, hut," I found the commercial excess so ridiculous that I was amused by it.
Much better was CBS' use of current players Larry Fitzgerald, Clay Matthews, Charles Tillman and Russell Wilson as one-day analysts. All were poised, thoughtful and likely have a career somewhere in broadcasting should they work at it. Fitzgerald was particularly good.
There were some notable features on the telecast but none better than the pieces on Colts coach Chuck Pagano (produced by Charlie Bloom) and O.J. Brigance (produced by Deb Gelman). They worked because CBS allowed each of the subjects to tell the story rather than insert a reporter on-camera to push the narrative. CBS got Pagano's wife, Tina, and daughters Tara, Taylor and Tori, to narrate his piece, and it was powerful stuff on the journey of a family fighting cancer. Brigance has been profiled deeper and better by ESPN, but his story of perseverance never gets old. CBS predictably showed Ray Lewis' pregame speech (which was warranted) but it was interesting how intense a reaction it provoked out of Esiason. "If I am the 49ers, I am sick and tired of Ray Lewis," Esiason said. "This is not the Ray Lewis Super Bowl."
What didn't work? CBS, seduced like most networks by a mini-football field on an outdoor set, missed badly with those segments because its talent was too often drowned out by the crowd. Better to let Tilman or Wilson explain inside the stadium what makes the Baltimore defense so stout or why the Niners read-option is so tough to defend.
Sharpe's interview with former teammate Lewis was mostly a love-fest. He did ask about "the incident" in 2000, but it wasn't a direct question and couched ultra-safely by asking Lewis what he wanted to say to the victim's family. (Then, back on set, Sharpe delivered a hilarious line about his own interview. Quoth the former Raven: "Steven Spielberg doesn't write scripts like this in Hollywood.")
Esiason said he wasn't sure he bought Lewis' answer (if you could call it an answer) and said the Ravens linebacker had a complex legacy (which Sharpe inexplicably disagreed with). "He was involved in a double murder and I'm not so sure he gave us all the answers that we were looking for," Esiason said. "He knows what went on there. ... I appreciate you going down there and asking him that direct question. I'm just not so sure that I buy the answer."
Brown's interview with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was a layup for the Commish, and a single question on the Rooney Rule was softballed like the Home Run Derby. Brown can be a very good interviewer when he wants to be, but this wasn't it and he was admittedly hurt by some of his questions being edited down. Goodell's final line from the segment "I do predict the Harbaughs will win" was very funny.
But we end the pregame review on an up note because it deserves it. The intro CBS used prior to the broadcast -- featuring cameos from Joe Namath, Lynn Swann, Don Shula, and Marcus Allen among other NFL greats -- was spectacular filmmaking and the best intro to a Super Bowl I've ever seen. Producer Pete Radovich started working on the piece the day after the AFC Championship and got Namath in Florida and many of the other NFL players in New Orleans. The pregame show gets a half-grade increase on that alone.
"We don't want people saying, 'Boy, I wish I would have seen this or why didn't we have that.' If we've had all the right replays, good graphics and the announcers have been spot-on, that is my definition of a good broadcast."
-- Mike Arnold, Super Bowl director
People will be talking about the broadcast on Monday (and beyond) and not for the right reasons. This crew has had much better games, and I say that knowing it faced challenges no other Super Bowl broadcaster ever has dealt with. The biggest problem on Sunday was Simms. He did not have a strong game, from his inability to let plays breathe (tweeted media critic and NBA All-Star Kevin Durant: "Feel like I'm playin madden, Phil Simms talkin to damn much.") to too often not providing clarity to the questions posed at him by Nantz. It took Simms forever to answer when asked if the momentum had changed during the delay, and on the final offensive play for the Niners, when Kaepernick's pass to Michael Crabtree fell incomplete after there was jostling between Crabtree and Ravens defensive back Jimmy Smith, Simms offered viewers confusion. He first liked the no-call by the officials, then he wasn't so sure. "The more angles I see, the more confused I get," Simms said. (And this was after he offered zero insight into what the play might be.) Finally, he conceded it would be hard to throw a penalty flag in that situation. (Shame, too because Arnold had great shots of how both Harbaughs saw the play.)
Minutes later, when Nantz asked him whether the Ravens should take a safety, Simms said he would not punt the football. He followed that by saying Nantz brought up a great point, followed by reaffirming his original position. (The Ravens ended up taking the safety and them punting.) It's simply hard to imagine Cris Collinsworth or Mike Mayock being so hesitant on such a big stage. L.A. Daily News sports writer Tom Hoffarth offers the transcript of Simms from the game's final plays.
What else? CBS offered nothing on the anti-gay comments from 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, who gave them enough of an opening given how often he was burned by Ravens receivers. The production also needed far more replays on the Ravens' fake field goal attempt with three minutes left in the second quarter. The crew offered one-and-a-half replays before heading to break, and upon returning from commercial, Simms strangely and dismissively said, "Listen, I'm not even going to second-guess the call. I understand why they did it. Everybody was up trying to block it but Patrick Willis strung the play out and it gave Darcell McBath just enough time to come over and stop the play short of a first down." (Thankfully, Nantz was on hand to act as the curious analyst, "Nine yards asking a kicker to get, that's a lot," Nantz said.) CBS eventually -- and thankfully -- gave viewers an aerial view of the play after the break, and it was a helpful one.
Wilcots reported during the power outage that CBS would eventually procure a league official or ascertain more information to determine what knocked out the power. That didn't happen, and no appearance by a league official on the broadcast really hurt, even with Nantz reading a statement from CBS in the fourth quarter about how it dealt with the issues at hand.
The broadcast was at its best at the start of the second half, with multiple replays of Baltimore's Jacoby Jones's 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. CBS had Jones celebrating in the end zone, shots of the Ravens celebrating on the sideline, Jim Harbaugh looking angry on the sidelines, and video of Desmond Howard's kickoff return in Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans -- a terrific sequence. Wilcots was quick on delivering information on Ed Reed's first-half injury, letting viewers know in quick order what was up after he left the field with a knee injury. That was excellent.
At game's end, right before Joe Flacco busted out his f-bomb, teammate Marshall Yanda dropped a "holy s--t, huh?" on Flacco and viewers. For those of us who love Boardwalk Empire, the language felt at home.
Of course, given all the craziness that happened, the tune-in at the end was likely huge. This Super Bowl may very well end up as the most-watched game in history, surpassing NBC's record of 111.3 million viewers last year when the Giants defeated the Patriots.