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Behind the scenes of 'Monday Night Football'

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CHICAGO -- On a glorious blue-sky October morning, about 30 members of ESPN's Monday Night Football production team gathered in a windowless conference room in a Chicago hotel. Jay Rothman, the executive producer for MNF, promptly kicked off the meeting at 10 a.m.

"God blessed us by having the Cubs play at 3 (p.m.) today," Rothman said. "God blessed us by having the Bears start Mitch Trubisky. It's Monday Night Football. It's going to be a beautiful night. Let's kick some ass."

Rothman, play-by-play man Sean McDonough, analyst Jon Gruden, sideline reporter Lisa Salters, and the rest of the MNF crew had been working on Monday's Minnesota-Chicago game since the previous Wednesday. As in "every waking minute," Rothman said.

All the preparations then get distilled even further during a 90-minute production meeting the morning before the game. The attire is casual -- McDonough is wearing his running shorts and Gruden sports a black Powerhouse Gym T-shirt -- but everyone clearly has on their game faces.

This meeting sets up the road map for that evening's telecast. It gives McDonough and Gruden a chance to center in on the storylines, and even rehearse what they might say. Rothman goes over potential camera shots with director Chip Dean, with input from Gruden to be on the lookout for particular players in certain situations. And it gives everyone a chance to point out a certain element they have missed, if that's possible given all the research that's already been done. McDonough received a 42-page report on the game, and that was just a starting point.

"It is the culmination of a million things that have gone on during the week," Rothman said.

"This is where we are being presented with the entrées," Gruden said. "Every week, we get a different menu."

This week's main course is Trubisky. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 was set to make his first start for the Bears.

"The world doesn't know about him," Rothman said in the meeting. "Let's make sure we do a great job telling his story."

Later, McDonough explains that Trubisky is a "textbook example" of MNF making a concerted effort to do more storytelling this year. "We're looking to humanize the player," he said. "Who is he?"

MNF won't just do it at the top of the telecast. Rothman tells his team they need to tell the Trubisky story again at some point during the second quarter. He uses the phrase "Start at zero." After the meeting, Rothman explains his reasoning.

"I'm a nut for studying ratings and viewership," Rothman said. "Maybe because of West Coast tune-in, but when we get to one hour, one hour, 15 minutes into the game, our audience doubles. We have to re-introduce the players to that audience. I always like to say we're not an express train. We have some stops along the way."

While Rothman is the conductor of the meeting, Gruden is the focal point. Once a coach, always a coach, he sticks to his role of trying "to teach the game."

Rothman calls Gruden, "Our energizer bunny, our football savant."

Gruden definitely makes his views known during the meeting. He tells Rothman that he thinks the open might be too positive about Trubisky. "He's in a dire situation going up against a tough defense," he said.

Gruden points out that the Vikings defensive line will play different to adjust to the speed and cutting ability of the Bears' small, but elusive running back Tarik Cohen. "The defensive linemen have to try to find him," he said.

Gruden likes Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford, but asks, "Is he healthy?" He is a big fan of Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, noting that the Bears currently are the only defense in the NFL that doesn't have a player who played in the Pro Bowl.

"He could take 11 of us, and he'd get us off the field a few times," Gruden said.

Gruden tells the team to watch out for Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo. "He'll rock your face," he said with particular relish. "He's an old-school player."

Gruden and McDonough then go through a series of graphics, voicing out loud what they might say about the content. ESPN's MNF graphics are elaborate ("The best in the business," McDonough said), and take hours to produce.

Yet a good portion of them never will be seen. Rothman said roughly only 30 percent of the storylines and information discussed in the Monday morning production meeting will be used later that night.

"We're just like the teams," McDonough said. "We're preparing for things that we think will happen. But there's always going to be things you don't anticipate happening. A lot of this stuff is just in case the game gets out of hand. Then we have some human interest stuff to go to. But the closer the game, the less the background stuff gets in."

McDonough definitely prefers a close game. Sure enough, a significant volume of the possible content never made it into the telecast thanks to Minnesota edging the Bears 20-17.

McDonough, though, didn't know if it would play out that way Monday morning. When Rothman adjourned the meeting around 11:30 a.m., McDonough looked at his watch. He had an hour free to take a pre-game run.

"Sometimes, you have so much in your head, you have to just go and clear out everything for an hour," McDonough said.

McDonough then headed out for some outdoor therapy. Kickoff was less than six hours away.

A life: Sam Mills is featured in the latest A Football Life. The film airs after coverage of Thursday's Philadelphia-Carolina game and will re-air Friday at 9 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Despite being small in stature, Mills overcame the odds to become a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker.

"Best player I've ever coached. Everything you want in a player, on the field, off the field. He's the best," said Jim Mora, Mills' former coach in New Orleans.

Extra points: Featured this week on TNF GameDay (NFL Network, Thursday, 6 p.m. ET) is the next installment of NFL Media's new series Life After Football, which profiles former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, who now owns and trains thoroughbred horses in Louisiana.

On ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown, Desmond Howard, one of the NFL's all-time best returners, crosses over from his college football duties to interview Kansas City Chiefs receiver and kick returner Tyreek Hill. Howard travelled to Kansas City for a demo on the art of the return with Hill.

Countdown also reveals the source of Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins' toughness –- Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, who was Cousins' pee wee football coach.

Week 6 announcer lineup

Thursday

CBS/NFL Network/Amazon Prime Video, 8:25 p.m. ET

Philadelphia at Carolina: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo

Sunday

CBS 1:00 p.m. ET

Miami at Atlanta: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green

New England at New York Jets: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts

Cleveland at Houston: Andrew Catalon, James Lofton

CBS 4:25 p.m. ET

Pittsburgh at Kansas City: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo

Los Angeles Chargers at Oakland: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon

FOX 1:00 p.m ET

Green Bay at Minnesota: Thom Brennaman, Troy Aikman

Detroit at New Orleans: Dan Hellie, Chris Spielman

Chicago at Baltimore: Sam Rosen, Ronde Barber

San Francisco at Washington: Chris Myers, Daryl Johnston

FOX 4:05 p.m. ET

Tampa Bay at Arizona: Kenny Albert, Charles Davis

Los Angeles Rams at Jacksonville: Dick Stockton, Mark Schlereth

NBC 8:30 p.m. ET

New York Giants at Denver: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth

Monday

ESPN 8:30 p.m. ET

Indianapolis at Tennessee: Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden

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