Note: Rich Eisen is not filing his weekly column this week because he is on the road promoting the release of his new book, "Total Access: A Journey to the Center of the NFL Universe" (St. Martin's Press). Following is an excerpt from the book, in which Eisen chronicles the birth of NFL Network's eight-game package:
By late November 2006, NFL Network had plum begun running out of things to do for a first time. Our obvious first occurred with our first broadcast at 8 p.m. EST on November 4, 2003. Eleven weeks later, we held our very first broadcast from a Super Bowl -- the Patriots vs. Panthers battle in Houston. Then, one by one the dominoes fell: NFL Total Access at the Owners Meeting; NFL Total Access at the Rookie Symposium; NFL Total Access at Hall of Fame Induction Weekend; NFL Total Access at Kickoff 2004 in New England. Then in 2005, more milestones fell with our first coverage at the Pro Bowl and the Scouting Combine and Training Camp and another season Kickoff in New England. In April 2006, we took our Huggies off (to use the Parcells vernacular) with a major first for NFL Network -- live, gavel-to-gavel coverage of (even though no one actually uses a gavel at) the NFL Draft.
None of us knew it at the time, but during each and every milestone passed along the way, we were all just merely rehearsing for The Eight Game Package.
Sounds mysterious. Sounds like one of the subheadings from Pulp Fiction, like The Bonnie Situation or The Gold Watch. For years, The Eight Game Package did seem as mysterious and elusive, even though no one ever felt compelled to bring out the gimp.
At any rate, I'm talking about actual, real-live, bona fide regular-season National Football League games. Games in which players suit up and smack each other around for three hours and the result then counts in the standings. Games like the ones you watch on NBC or CBS. Or Fox or ESPN or, once upon a time, ABC and TNT.
You see, during the first three years of NFL Network, we aired no games of that sort and in the eyes of many had no bona-fide TV network of which to speak until we did. But that all changed one glorious day frozen in time (I'm beginning to sound like John Facenda) when then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue delivered the extra large proclamation from Super Bowl XL in Detroit: the league had created a new package of eight primetime contests to air on Thursday and Saturday Nights over the final six weeks of the season. And, starting Thanksgiving Night 2006, the exclusive home for these games was to be NFL Network.
Now, every single one of us who hitched our respective wagons to NFL Network from the start always dreamed of the day we would have exclusive broadcast rights to NFL games that counted. Suddenly, in just three short years, the dream was reality. But not without much angst because there were quicker turnarounds involved.
When the league awarded the new Sunday Night Football package to NBC in April 2005, the Peacock Network had fewer than 17 months to get ready for its first game -- widely considered in the business to be a terribly short time. On the day NFL Network received official word that we, if you will, got games, we were exactly 299 days removed from kickoff.
The Eight Game Package was born.
Atop the NFL Network flow chart, a calling-all-cars-type situation ensued. Overnight, NFL Network suddenly required a remote production unit to go with a studio production department meticulously built over three years. Two days before Tax Day, we had Remote Department Employee Number One - longtime ABC Sports producer Mark Loomis. It was now his job to fully staff eight separate 21-camera high definition football broadcasts all to take place during a span of six weeks -- an incredibly demanding schedule that, as of his hiring date, began in a mere 224 days.
Two weeks later, we had our two-man announce booth in place -- Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth, who I believe collectively own one trillion Emmy Awards. However, they also owned contracts with other TV networks -- Gumbel with HBO and Collinsworth with both HBO and NBC.
But, as I've come to learn in this business, if Titans of Sports Television wish to make a deal, they will. And NFL Network execs and HBO and NBC pooh-bahs eventually made one to clear Gumbel and Collinsworth for NFL Network takeoff. Gumbel would call all eight games (five on Thursdays, three on Saturdays) but NBC commitments would prevent Collinsworth from two of the three Saturday games. None other than former Chiefs and Rams head coach Dick Vermeil would fill in there. Everyone was fired up.
My role in The Eight Game Package? Host of the pregame, halftime and postgame shows, along with Deion Sanders, Marshall Faulk and Steve Mariucci for all eight games… on location. Yep. We took these shows on the road. Which meant a lot of TV, a lot of travel, a lot of postgame revelry and, occasionally, some brutally quick turnarounds to return to Los Angeles for appointed rounds on Friday and Sunday studio shows there.
Or to paraphrase a great TV show…
In the NFL Network Eight Game Package, the sports fans are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the four hosts of Total Access on Location who deliver the fun and the hard-working men and women behind the scenes who make it all possible. These are our stories.
Game 1: Broncos at Chiefs, Thanksgiving Night 2006
Country music recording artist Jessica Harp neared the crescendo of our national anthem. Standing on the sideline on 20-yard line in Arrowhead Stadium, I looked to my right and saw Marshall Faulk giving me that look again. Eyebrows raised, you-know-what-eating grin as if to say: Here it comes.
O'er the land of the free and the home of the….
It cascaded down from the throats of every single human in the capacity crowd of 79,409 and the rumble hit me directly in the pit. Marshall doubled over laughing. He knew I had never been to Arrowhead before and during the entire flight out from Los Angeles he swore to me that this place was, far and away, the best and loudest venue in the National Football League. Marshall enjoys being right.
It didn't take long to understand. At first Arrowhead blush, it's immediately apparent you're not in Kansas anymore, so to speak. (You're actually in Missouri.) Everyone at Arrowhead dresses in Chiefs red. Period. Not burgundy. Not burnt sienna. Not scarlet or crimson or maroon or vermillion. Red. It's a pre-requisite for attendance. I wouldn't be surprised if those not wearing red get sent home. Then there's the whole cheering in unison thing.
Here's how that works. Let's say Larry Johnson runs for 12 yards, which happens a lot. After the play, the public address announcer bellows "Larry Johnson gains 12 yards for a Kansas City Chiefs…"
Pause. Cue the crowd:
And I mean everybody belts that one out. It is, to be honest, freaking frightening. The first time that happened Thanksgiving Night, I jumped. Marshall got hysterical laughing again and Steve Mariucci came running up to tell me how he tried desperately to incorporate that "first down screaming stuff" in Detroit when he first became Lions coach.
"But the first two times we did it, only, like, ten people screamed out 'first down' so we ditched it," screamed Mariucci, moving three inches from my ear to be heard. "There's no place like this."
Despite being away from our families on Thanksgiving, we were all in a great mood. The games had finally arrived! We hit Kansas City two days before kickoff and found ourselves in the midst of a virtual heat wave -- a downright balmy 60 degrees. So, that night a few of us strolled the famed Plaza (where the city holds the traditional Thanksgiving Night lighting ceremony that annually attracts a crowd of 600,000) and grabbed some dinner. We were joined by the actor Paul Rudd, a life-long Kansas Citian and a long-time Friend of the Program. Paul was in town for the game, which was no surprise. One of the first celebrities to ever appear on NFL Total Access, Paul showed on our set draped in the game-worn Chiefs jersey of perennial Pro-Bowl offensive lineman Will Shields. He didn't want to discuss his upcoming movies Anchorman and The 40-Year Old Virgin but rather preferred to crow about the greatness of Priest Holmes and bemoan the Chiefs porous defense. We have a weekly Friday segment called "Celebrity Picks", in which TV actors and musicians and the like visit NFL Total Access to predict the winners of 10 games from the upcoming week of action. When Paul came on our set he nailed 7 correctly. And then there's his addiction to fantasy football. Paul is an enthusiastic founding owner in the annual NFL Total Access Hollywood Fantasy Football League, fielding a team called "Tastes Like Chicken." We knew our show had gained in popularity when Paul once got accosted in the men's room at a Chiefs-Ravens game in Baltimore by a man who pointed and screamed: "Hey! It's Tastes Like Chicken!" Yes, the man is quite popular, especially in his hometown. Pictures, autographs, handshakes the entire night and Paul graciously handled each and every one.
The day before game day, we taped a segment at Arrowhead for that Wednesday's edition of NFL Total Access. I entered the production trailer set up in the parking lot and noticed Mariucci hunched over a laptop computer. A report had just hit the internet stating that the struggling Arizona Cardinals had not only already decided to fire Dennis Green at season's end, but had begun preliminary talks with none other than Steve Mariucci to replace Green. While the Cardinals did eventually fire Green immediately after the 2006 season (on New Year's Day no less!) Steve had not been contacted whatsoever. You could see it in his face.
"And I would know if the Cardinals called me because Denny and I have the same agent," said Mariucci.
Now, nothing chafes a coach more than speculation about another coach's job -- unless that coach's name is inaccurately mentioned in a speculative report as a possible successor. That really chafes a coach. Football coaches truly do belong to an unofficial fraternity where they're all incredibly protective of one another. If one coach is portrayed in the media as going after another coach's job, that's the lowest form of muckraking conceivable in the eyes of The Fraternity. Mariucci immediately called Green to let him know the story wasn't true on his end. Later on, he eagerly refuted the report in the NFL Total Access segment we taped. (The Cardinals eventually hired Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.)
That night, the entire production crew gathered for a Thanksgiving dinner at McCormick and Schmick's on the Plaza. Not exactly reminiscent of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, but it did the trick. All of us felt a great sense of family being together on the night before a momentous occasion in all our professional lives. Turkey gravy, red wine and good times flowed and once dessert (pumpkin pie or lemon pie) hit the table, it was clearly time for a speech.
Your humble narrator first took the floor. I've been known to spin a yarn or two. But not quite like our boy Mariucci. I knew handing the floor over to him next could provide for some good comedy. Therefore, after raising a glass to the success of the upcoming venture, I threw it to Mooch thusly:
"Now I would try and charge you up with a rousing speech, but there's someone in this room clearly more experienced in that department. Ladies and gentlemen, I now introduce to you the next head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Steve Mariucci!"
Eruption. Standing ovation. What ensued was Classic Mooch. Eyes wide. Arms flailing. Utter hilarity. The best part came when he interrupted his own heartfelt soliloquy about spending Thanksgiving with his "new family" by pausing to mention he still felt that way "even though I got pumpkin pie when I asked for lemon pie."
Not less than a minute later, with Mooch still on a roll, a waiter made a show of sliding a slice of lemon pie in front of Coach. Everyone lost it.
By night's end, Cris Collinsworth took the floor. So did our executive producer and fearless leader Eric Weinberger. Unfortunately, Bryant was feeling a bit under the weather. So, he spectated more than orated. He needed to conserve energy, anyway. We all did.
The first time I ever walked down a tunnel to step on an NFL field came on January 15, 1995. I was covering the 1994 NFC Championship game in Candlestick Park between the Cowboys and 49ers two months into my first TV job at KRCR-TV, the ABC affiliate in Redding CA. On that day, eventual Defensive Player of the Year Deion Sanders helped Steve Young and the 49ers get over the hump against Dallas. Now, almost a dozen years later, I strolled down the Arrowhead tunnel with none other than Primetime himself, getting ready for the biggest broadcast of my career. Before we hit the turf, Sanders turned to me and said: "Take us home tonight, Humble Host." Deion gives out nicknames to everyone he likes, including himself. He's "Primetime" and, once upon a time in his MC Hammer days, "Neon Deion." Mariucci is "Moochie." Even our researcher George Li has a Deion dubbing -- "Puddin' Pie" as in Georgie Porgie. Now, I had a nickname. I felt like pounding shoulder pads right then and there.
The show went down without a hitch -- although not without causing a ripple or two back in the league office. Towards the end of the show, during a commercial break, a light bulb lit over Marshall's head. We should all sign a football, pitch it into the stands to some lucky fan and then announce we'd be doing that at every stop in our eight-game tour. If people gather in expectation of owning the prized bauble, perhaps that might create some buzz for the show. A quality all-purpose idea from the all-purpose maven. So, we got a football and a silver Sharpie and, in the next segment, Faulk announced the so-called Marshall plan.
"Is this going to be a fine from the league?" I asked Mariucci.
"I'm sure it will be. You can pay it, Rich."
"You throw it, Rich!" Deion shouted.
"You want me to pitch it into the crowd?"
"Get it out there, Rich!" Marshall yelled.
So, from our set just off that 20-yard line in Arrowhead Stadium where Joe Montana and Len Dawson once slung it around, I stood up, unbuttoned my coat, cocked my arm and uncorked a wobbling duck perfect for a skeet shoot that landed into the sea of red 20 rows up.
"OHHHHHHH, that was ugly!" Deion yelped.
"A frozen rope, baby!" I countered.
"This is a quarterback controversy already!" said Deion, who called for Fran Charles, the anchor back in our Los Angeles studio.
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We had controversy all right. One of the NFL's many risk management experts watching at home frowned upon the exercise of a league employee pitching an oblong, yet pointed object into an unsuspecting crowd on live television. Apparently, some woman was actually suing the Arena Football League because a ball flew into the stands and clocked her in the head. Needless to say, word filtered down from NFL headquarters that our souvenir stunt had achieved one-and-done status.
Minutes after the Chiefs won 19-10, quarterback Trent Green sat on our set still in uniform. He was a fitting first guest of our first-ever post-game show because Green also happens to be the very first in-studio guest in the history of NFL Network. Green appeared on the inaugural edition of NFL Total Access, an appearance made possible by the fact that he was also booked on the same day for an NFL players edition of The Wheel of Fortune, which tapes just down the street from NFL Network's studios in Culver City. In this instance, Green had spent the previous 12 weeks spinning his wheels after taking a massive blow to the head in the Chiefs season opener. Despite winning his first game back, Green wanted to talk more about Lamar Hunt, the maverick Chiefs owner who hosted Thanksgiving Day games in his American Football League years and had spent the previous 37 years working on the game's return to Kansas City…only to miss this game. Hunt was in the hospital with a lung ailment that would take him 20 days later.
"Lamar, I hope you're feeling better," Green said. "This win is for you."
With that, Green trotted off and we were soon to follow. We all had a plane to catch. I had to get back to LA to host Friday's NFL Total Access with celebrity prognosticator Cedric the Entertainer, who eventually got 6 of out 10 correct. So, for those keeping score at home, it went Trent Green, one, Cedric the Entertainer, two, in as many cities in a span of about 12 hours. No time to bask in the glory. We soon had another game.