Pregame production meetings crucial for NFL broadcasts

Charles Davis remembers the first time he encountered Bill Belichick in a pregame production meeting prior to working his first New England Patriots game for FOX.

"I was nervous as heck," Davis said. "It's Bill Belichick, one of the best coaches the NFL has ever seen."

Davis knew all about Belichick's reputation for not being forthcoming in dealing with the media. He also wanted to make a good first impression on the five-time Super Bowl winning coach.

Much to his delight, if not surprise, Davis saw another side of Belichick.

"He gave me a great story about a high school guidance counselor," Davis said. "It was interesting. I got to see him in a different light."

The network pregame production meeting is a ritual performed before every NFL telecast. The announcer, analyst, and producers meet with the respective head coaches, assistant coaches, and select players, usually the starting quarterbacks. The sessions can take place at the training facility for the home team or at the team hotel the night before the game for the visitors.

These are viewed as data gathering opportunities for the TV crews. The discussion revolves around strategy, personnel and injury updates, insights about the opponents, and other items. Often it is nuts-and-bolts football, but it also could get personal, as was the case with Davis' first visit with Belichick. The idea is to give the announcer and analyst a deeper reservoir of information to use during the telecast.

"It's a fascinating part of the week," said CBS' Jim Nantz. "You have access to coaches and players that not everyone else has. It is fascinating to see how the coaches handle the production meetings. It can run the gamut. Some will tell you everything."

Nantz said former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan was "absolutely great" during pregame production meetings. Ryan, now an analyst for ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown, laughs in remembering how he made his public relations staffers squirm on occasion.

"I would say you could use this, you can't use that," Ryan said. "After I left, (the production teams) said, 'That poor PR guy. Rex probably took several years off his life.'"

Ryan, though, felt a sense of duty to share information with the announcer and analyst.

"I thought it was important for them to be prepared," Ryan said. "If they can have a better broadcast, that's good for the league and that's good for the fans."

Former Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, now an analyst for CBS, also had the same approach.

"I wanted to help them do their job, make it easier for them," Arians said.

Davis appreciates the inside perspective as an analyst. It gives him a better sense of how to react to certain situations that come up in a game.

"It helps me to know what a coach is demanding out of a certain player," Davis said. "It helps to get a handle on what a team wants to do."

The one cornerstone to the production meetings is trust. Nantz says it is "expected and demanded among the coaches."

The trust extends beyond saying something that the coach didn't want revealed on a telecast. It also includes not sharing their team's information with other coaches and general managers around the league.

"You've got to have some level of trust," Ryan said. "If somebody violated your trust, you wouldn't give them anything again. It doesn't happen. These guys are professionals. They know what they're doing."

For instance, prior to Super XLIV in 2010, New Orleans coach Sean Payton told Nantz and analyst Phil Simms that he intended to try an onside kick at some point during the game against Indianapolis. Sure enough, with the Saints down 10-6, they recovered a surprise onside kick on the second half kickoff. It was considered the turning point in New Orleans' 31-17 victory.

"If what Sean told us gets out, that play never happens," Nantz said. "Sean trusted that we wouldn't say anything. When it did happen, we were better prepared to analyze it."

Both Nantz and Davis agree that Payton is a cut above in regards to coaches handling production meetings. Davis said the coach goes through the entire depth chart, providing the crew with highly detailed information.

"Payton is as good as it gets," Davis said.

What about Belichick? "He's good," Nantz said. "He knows (the production meeting) comes with the territory. In some years, we're doing half of their games. It gets back to the trust. He and (Nantz's current partner Tony Romo) have established a great rapport. Bill and Tony draw up plays that go way over the play-by-play guy's head."

Nantz and Davis declined to give an extensive ranking of coaches and players. There are relationships to consider for future production meetings.

Nantz, though, likes to tell a favorite story about how production meetings can put a player on a network's radar.

Nantz said: "A few years back when I was playing golf with Al Michaels, he says, 'I've got a question for you: What current player would make the next great NFL analyst? He said, 'I've got a guy.' I say, 'I'm going to surprise you with my guy. Tony Romo.' Al said, 'That's my guy.'"

In 2017, CBS hired Romo as its lead analyst to work with Nantz.

"Tony dazzled people in those production meetings," Nantz said. "You could see his passion. Everyone just knew he would be terrific in the booth."

Ratings surge: Through Week 12, NFL game telecasts are averaging 15.8 million viewers, up 5 percent from 2017. NFL games have accounted for 19 of the top 20 and 46 of the top 50 most-watched shows on television in 2018.

Viewers feasted on the NFL during the Thanksgiving weekend. Last week's games averaged 20.3 million viewers, up 15 percent from Week 12 in 2017. NFL games ranked No. 1 against all competitive programming in 27 of the 29 NFL home markets.

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