As of this moment, only about 40 million homes receive NFL Network. That means the majority of football fans across the nation won't be able to watch the cable channel's coming-out party: the Thanksgiving night matchup between Denver and Kansas City. If you're one of the unlucky die-hards who doesn't have access to pro football's house organ, you should feel angry and left out—and not just because you'll be missing eight live games this season. Surprisingly, the 24/7 NFL channel fills the long downtime between football Sundays with a lot of great programming.
NFLN's flagship show is the nightly Total Access, usually hosted by former ESPNer Rich Eisen, with Steve Mariucci, Jim Mora, and Deion Sanders, among others, along for amusement. While it is the SportsCenter of NFLN, it's also the network's most disposable show. Tuesday's broadcast, for example, led with news that former Saints backup Todd Bouman had been signed by Green Bay to replace Packers backup Aaron Rodgers. Even if that's the kind of stuff that quickens your pulse, that info is easily available elsewhere. So is the show's mix of analysis, debate, and opinion, which falls in a forest of similar programs on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN News, Fox Sports Net, Comcast regional programming, NBC, CBS, and Fox pregame shows, sports radio, the Internet, etc. This hour doesn't add anything new to the landscape, although to NFLN's credit, there isn't quite as much fake cackling and guffawing as there is in shows featuring Terry Bradshaw and his ilk.
The NFL Network isn't all warmed-over pro football boilerplate, though. The channel's best recurring show, NFL Replay, features 90-minute versions of the previous week's four best games. The traditional telecast is augmented by interviews, previously unseen camera angles, and sound bites from miked-up coaches. One of my favorite games of the season was the first Rams-Seahawks encounter. Seattle drove for a winning field goal at the gun, but not before sweating out a penalty that most everyone thought would result in a 10-second runoff, thus ending the game. (It didn't.) NFL Replay not only allowed me to drink in Rams coach Scott Linehan's hilarious "We won!!" reaction, and the "Wait, we didn't?!?!" follow-up, but mixed in his postgame press conference, a study in disbelief that his team had conjured a way to lose. If you want to be an informed fan, this is valuable stuff, especially if you caught only a few minutes of highlights from the weekend's out-of-market games. (Far more viewers are able to receive the NFL Network than subscribe to DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket.)
Point After, which holds down midafternoons, also cuts through the punditry white noise. In a fast-moving three hours, the show whips around to various coach and player press conferences and locker-room soliloquies. While plenty of this is boring, generic stuff, it's worth it to tune in for the give-and-take between a room full of reporters and the icy Bill Parcells. And if you're sick of seeing the same few guys every day on SportsCenter, it's nice to watch interesting players without instant name recognition get to break through the Terrell Owens/Chad Johnson/Peyton Manning/Tiki Barber flying wedge.
That's not all. For front-runners, there's America's Game, a mammoth series that counts down the best Super Bowl champs of all time. For historians, there's the archival footage repository NFL Films Presents, an underrated show often pre-empted during its ESPN run. And for, uh, game-show buffs, there's NFL Cheerleader Playoffs, in which assorted Heathers and Ambers are given a chance to step away from their usual milieu and compete in the 40-yard dash and Scattergories-type mental challenges. It is compelling television, I assure you.
Now, for a warning: If you're not careful, the NFL Network will drive you insane. Sure, the locker-room interviews in Point After are entertaining for a while, but I sincerely hope that nobody's watching for the full three hours. After tuning in all day, I've learned that one's appreciation of the NFL Network decreases in proportion to the amount of time spent with the channel. If you need a fantasy-football fix, for example, it's great to dip in for a while and check on the latest injury reports. But after a few hours, the self-referential ads for the channel you are already watching will drive you buggy. When you can recite the network promos by heart, it's time to get back to mowing the lawn.
Thursday night's Chiefs-Broncos game is not only the NFL Network's first shot at broadcasting a live, regular-season game. It's also the channel's first crack at programming for the casual sports fan. NFLN's choice of announcers, Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth, is certainly promising. Collinsworth knows the rule book, can analyze the X's and O's as well as anyone, and is that rare figure able to retain his likeability even as he rips fan favorites. Gumbel is another rarity in big-time sports TV—an unknown quantity, at least when it comes to doing play-by-play.
While his brother Greg is a veteran game caller, Bryant has always positioned himself as above the mere play-action pass. This image was cemented on the eve of the season, when he opined on his HBO show, Real Sports, that outgoing Commissioner Paul Tagliabue should show Roger Goodell "where he keeps Gene Upshaw's leash." The implication being that Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association, was a harmless puppy in labor negotiations when pitted against his masters at the league offices. Masters who, incidentally, happen to be signing Gumbel's NFL Network paychecks.
Much ink has been spilled divining Gumbel's motivation for biting the hand that feeds. But whatever shockwaves the commentary caused will be minor compared with a similar bomb dropped on the league's own network, on Thanksgiving night. I'll be on the lookout for a YouTube moment, and I'll be back in this space on Friday for a quick review of the telecast. Happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy the game!
[Update, Nov. 24: If the tryptophan from your Thanksgiving turkey didn't get you drowsy, the Kansas City Chiefs' 19-10 victory over the suddenly desperate Denver Broncos sure did the job. Give the NFL's newest broadcast duo, Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth, credit for staying awake, and on top of the big storyline of the night—Denver QB Jake Plummer's ineptitude and likely benching a week from Sunday. The Snake's performance isn't likely to garner him any job security, but Gumbel did well enough to shake any questions about his worthiness for the booth.