When you look through the NFL broadcasting lineups for CBS, Fox and ESPN, the analyst ranks are still dominated by former players, but that's starting to change. After seeing the attention and plaudits Fox has received since bringing in former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira as a rules analyst for the last few seasons, ESPN and CBS have made their own moves to add unconventional analysts for their 2012 NFL coverage.
ESPN is bringing in an officiating expert of their own, Gerry Austin, who spent 16 years as an NFL official and is now the supervisor of officiating for Conference USA, while CBS is going a more unusual route, adding surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the man who operated on Tom Brady's knee back in 2008 and is currently the team physician for baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers. NBC is also prominently showcasing a couple of people who never played the game, creating a daily show for Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio on NBC Sports Network and continuing to feature Florio and Sports Illustrated's Peter King on their Sunday Night Countdown pre-game show. This isn't a complete revolution, as the traditional colour commentary roles are still filled almost exclusively by ex-players, but the increased roles for those who didn't play in the NFL are notable, and they say a fair bit about how the league has changed.
Pereira's hiring was initially seen as a gimmick by many, and his commentary certainly hasn't been well-received by everyone, but regularly featuring him on football broadcasts has changed the discussion somewhat. Yes, analysts opining on referees' calls have always been a part of game broadcasts. Pereira's appearances on Fox have helped to change some of the discussion from merely "that was a good call" or "that was a bad call" to specific things referees are trained to look for and take into account when making a decision. That doesn't make him infalliable, but adding a Pereira has paid off for Fox, and now ESPN's hoping to follow suit with Austin. If there's ever a good year to focus on officiating, this would be it given the controversy over replacement officials.
The addition of ElAttrache's another notable step. Concussion issues in particular have become a dominant theme across professional football leagues, and a respected surgeon chiming in will certainly elevate the discussion of those issues; what would really be notable is if he's willing to comment that certain players are returning to action too soon. For example, Wednesday's opener was on NBC, but it certainly would have been enhanced by an actual medical opinion on whether Cowboys' tight end Jason Witten should have played so soon after suffering a ruptured spleen, rather than just various thoughts on Witten's toughness and if this was the best move for the franchise. ElAttrache's also expected to explain and analyze injury reports for CBS, and that could be a crucial step forward, both for fans of individual teams curious how long their stars will be out and for fantasy football owners looking to make the best roster tweaks possible. ESPN has used injury analysts previously like Stephania Bell, and if ElAttrache brings a valuable new perspective to CBS' broadcasts, expect to see even more networks follow suit.
What's interesting in the larger picture is that these changes are addressing elements of game broadcasts and pregame shows that have often featured in fans' discussions more than traditional broadcasts. Discussions of officiating and injuries have long been minor parts of a game broadcast, but fans are extremely interested in them, and perhaps the networks are realizing that. It's also notable that they're bringing in people with credibility to discuss these matters on deeper levels, not just instructing the ex-players to "talk about the refs."
Beyond just technical expertise in specific areas like officiating and medicine, though, there's also a move to spotlight different voices, and that's what NBC does well with Florio and King. Love or hate Florio in particular (and there's plenty of people on both sides of that fence), it's notable to see a blogger given that kind of TV platform, and perhaps that's again bringing the broadcast closer to fans' interests. Florio's particular brand of NFL rumours and opinion certainly has a substantial audience.
If the trend continues, it would be interesting to see where networks go from here. There are certainly plenty of options: focus more on the fantasy football side by adding one or two legitimate fantasy experts to a pre-game show? (ESPN2 is expanding their excellent Fantasy Football Now pregame show this season.) Hire a Football Outsiders staffer or two to discuss their particular advanced statistics and what they say about a given matchup? Add further NFL bloggers with strong, unique voices? Whatever the next step is, it's refreshing to see networks realizing that it's not just former players who might have something to contribute to football broadcasts. We'll see if that trend continues.
when pereira was hired, i remember saying, "why wasnt this done before?" espn has a bad habit of hiring the most decorated recently retired players without any formal training. i am actually happy to see the networks expanding beyond explayers as at times they can be very biased. as an former ref wouldnt have any allegiances to any players or teams. it will only be a matter of time before on is in the booth full time.
I always thought FOX brought in Pereira because the FOX commentators were too stupid to figure out the penalties on their own, and weren't really sure what to look for on challenge replays.
Broadcasting skill is a very unique talent and is one that most people who are not expressly trained in the discipline can perform even adequately much less well. It takes years and sometimes decades of constant study and practice. Simply throwing someone untrained into the position, especially on a major league level, isn't going to work.
@KMBReferee @awfulannouncing ESPN has had a physical therapist (mainly on their fantasy football show) for a few years
Most Doctors on TV can speak in general terms as in "Let's explain what this injury is" and "here's how the injury is treated" and "usually, this injury takes six to eight weeks to recover from." That said, it will be hard for the CBS Doc to get specific due to exposure and out of respect for the docs treating the case. Remember, he can't get any inside info because of HIPPA. So, it will be insightful, but don't look for a whole lot of deep, inside stuff.