It's Sunday night in the NFL. Joe Montana has just been sacked by Ray Nitschke. Jim Brown has just rumbled over Lawrence Taylor for a touchdown. The undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins have just scored against the 1983 Oakland Raiders. And Mike Singletary has just predicted his Chicago Bears will pound Roger Staubach and the Dallas Cowboys.
Do not adjust your sets. This is not a test, only the latest joint venture between ESPN and NFL Films. It's entitled Dream Season, a high-tech, computerized attempt to ignite old arguments over which was the greatest team of the past four decades.
Dream Season is the brainchild of NFL Films czar Steve Sabol, who chose 20 of pro football's alltime best teams for his four-division "league" and then dived into a project that consumed thousands of hours. Sabol, 46, fed reams of player and team stats into a computer and programmed it to create four quarters of probable plays—in essence, "games." There will be 60 games during the six-week "regular season," which began airing on Sept. 3.
Sabol next "visualized" key portions of the games by scouring thousands of old film clips of real games, airbrushing jersey numbers and splicing together enough footage to make it seem as if, for instance, Bill Walsh's San Francisco 49ers were going up against Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers—in reality an impossibility since the two men coached during different eras. "It's a little bit Salvador Dali, a little bit of Woody Allen's Zelig and part Who Framed Roger Rabbit" says Sabol. "I first approached Roger Warner, CEO of ESPN, about this two years ago. He wanted to know what kind of medication I was on." No wonder. Each of the featured games took nine weeks to produce.
Sabol is the color analyst, and Merrill Reese, who in real life announces Philadelphia Eagle games, calls the play-by-play for the featured game on Sunday evenings. The telecasts include key drives and scores, pre- and postgame shows, old and new interviews with players and coaches, and, during half-time, highlights from the week's nine other games. At the end of the regular season, the division winners will advance to the Fantastic Four, after which the two finalists will meet in, of course, the Dream Bowl, on Oct. 29. Only Sabol and a few colleagues at NFL Films know the outcome.
Sabol's creativity, sense of humor and penchant for detail add a touch of verisimilitude to the action. For instance, during the game between the '77 Cowboys and '85 Bears in Week 1, we got a quick sideline shot of Staubach and wide receiver Golden Richards both mouthing, "What's he doing?" when Chicago defensive tackle William Perry enters the offensive huddle. And after the '66 Packers meet the '84 49ers in Week 2, Walsh and Lombardi shake hands near midfield. Dream Season also has some interesting quirks, such as Weeb Ewbank coaching against himself when the '59 Colts meet the '68 Jets, and Norm Van Brocklin playing quarterback for both teams when the '51 Rams take on the '60 Eagles.
Dream Season is already sparking considerable debate among players and coaches. During production Don Shula called Sabol to ask how his '72 Dolphins were faring. Staubach got on the phone after watching a short promotional clip. "All I saw was me getting sacked and throwing an interception," he says.
Neither Sabol nor ESPN expects to make money on Dream Season, and interest could fizzle after the first couple of telecasts satisfy the curiosity seekers. Still, after being assured that he also threw some touchdown passes, Staubach says he's thrilled about having a shot at another championship. "My son, Jeff, was nearly three years old when we won the Super Bowl in 1978," says Staubach. "This way he can see me play live."