Saturday, when it is articulated by Cris Collinsworth, does not sound precisely as Saturday should. It sounds more like Satur-dee, whether Collinsworth is referring to the day of the week or to the 295-pound Colt (first name: Jeff) who snaps the ball to Peyton Manning. It's a verbal tic from which Collinsworth's four children—two daughters and two sons, all of whom are in college or high school—derive great amusement. "They TiVo his games," says Holly Collinsworth, Cris's wife of 20 years, "and if he says it, they'll watch again and again, and they'll laugh and laugh."
"Oh, my gosh," says Collinsworth. "They wear me out."
It may be that the harshest critics of the 50-year-old Collinsworth's performance in his first season as the in-game analyst on NBC's Sunday Night Football are the adolescents with whom he shares his northern Kentucky home. That is no small accomplishment: Having been handpicked by NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol to replace a certain bus-traveling, turducken-gobbling savant who forever changed the way football is analyzed, Collinsworth holds the most-watched, most-scrutinized gig in sports broadcasting. "When anybody asks me about taking over for John Madden, I say, 'I can sum that up in two words: career ender,'" says Collinsworth, who was anointed as Al Michaels's boothmate after the 73-year-old Madden retired in April. "You never want to be the guy that follows the guy, right?"
And yet the Madden-Collinsworth transition has been seamless. Viewers have flocked to Sunday night this year; SNF is the second-highest rated show of the fall season, right between NCIS and Dancing with the Stars, and viewership has climbed 18% from 2008. Michaels, who was Madden's play-by-play partner for seven seasons, is bullish on the talents of his new colleague, who has won eight Emmys, seven of them for his work as a studio analyst on NBC and HBO. "He's Mantle replacing DiMaggio," Michaels says. "They share a lot of the same skills: They're phenomenal analysts, and they see the big picture, always. When John was on the air, you knew it was John and you knew the game was big. If Cris wants to have a 20-year run, he'll be thought of on the same terms."
Not one of the 30 suits, size 42 long, that hang in Collinsworth's closet is made of linen, but in most other ways Collinsworth's mien is reminiscent of that of a country lawyer. He is tall (6'5") and lean, generous with a grin and a chuckle, and it is not difficult to imagine him sliding into the role of an in-the-flesh Atticus Finch, as a rural town's civic leader and moral compass. In fact, Collinsworth enrolled as a part-time law school student at Cincinnati in 1987, as he was winding down an eight-year career as a wide receiver for the Bengals that included three Pro Bowl appearances.
Collinsworth earned his J.D. in 1991, but because his broadcasting career took off around then—he began appearing on HBO's Inside the NFL in 1989 and started as a game analyst for NBC the following year—he still hasn't taken a state bar exam. By 2005 he was teamed with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on Fox's No. 1 NFL team (he jumped from Fox to NBC's Sunday-night studio show in 2006), and over the years he gained a reputation for melding sharp-eyed analysis with blunt assessments of the chaos taking place on the screen. Like any respectable country lawyer, he is quick to speak up when he perceives that something has occurred that should not have. Collinsworth called for commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend Patriots coach Bill Belichick in the wake of the 2007 Spygate scandal, and he immediately jumped on Belichick's now-infamous decision to go for it on fourth-and-two from his own 28 in the Patriots' Nov. 15 loss to the Colts. ("To me, that's outrageous," he proclaimed.)
"You're not supposed to be a buddy," Collinsworth says. "You're a former player, yes, but in some ways as a broadcaster you're Benedict Arnold: You've crossed over to the other side. When push really comes to shove, I'm working for the people watching."
Collinsworth backs his opinions with a nuanced knowledge of the game. Wide receivers are not, by and large, known for their X's and O's acumen, and very few have had extended careers as game analysts. (Just one other current NFL analyst, former Bills star Steve Tasker, played any wideout.) Collinsworth is an exception in a profession generally populated by ex-quarterbacks and ex-coaches. "Cris was always one of those guys who learned beyond his position," says Sam Wyche, Collinsworth's coach for his final five seasons as a Bengal. "Many receivers don't study the rest of [the game] because they think it's irrelevant to them. Cris read coverages just like the quarterback did."
Collinsworth is naturally intelligent and personable, but a central reason for his success is the time he logs in a windowless, 10-by-15-foot room in his basement. Collinsworth spends the majority of his weekdays there, watching and rewatching game tapes, usually with a foot propped up on the desk and Rascal Flatts playing in the background. Collinsworth and his longtime assistant, Andy Freeland, assemble some 300 notes each week, only a fraction of which he will ever refer to on air. Says SNF producer Fred Gaudelli, "Cris sees both sides of the ball, and he's able to see what's happening—everything—as it's happening."
Or sometimes, before it happens. Witness the Steelers-Ravens game on Nov. 29, when Pittsburgh, behind backup quarterback Dennis Dixon, trailed 14--10 with 6:45 remaining. Before that evening Dixon had thrown one NFL pass, but he had driven his team to the Ravens' 24. "How much do you trust Dennis Dixon?" Collinsworth asked. "If you're going to run him, this would be the spot."