- Steve Levy, Brian Griese, Louis Riddick and Lisa Salters
- Lee Fitting, Senior Vice President of Production
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. We’re excited to have everybody here for the
Monday Night Football conference call. We’re joined by Steve Levy, Louis Riddick, Brian Griese, Lisa Salters and the senior vice president at ESPN of production, Lee Fitting. We’re going to start with some opening statements. Each one will say a few words and then we will get to questions shortly after that.
We get the season underway this coming Monday in Las Vegas for the Baltimore Ravens at the Raiders. Lee, let me turn it over to you and get us started.
LEE FITTING: Thanks, Derek. I want to start by thanking everyone, A, for taking the time out to join a few minutes in what I’m sure is a busy week for all of you, and second, for showing the interest in Monday Night Football as we get ready to kick off here in a few days.
I know I speak for the entire group; we are excited for this upcoming season and to tee it up on Monday night. Just wouldn’t be right for me to start this call without acknowledging the efforts of everyone from last season.
It was a super challenging year for everyone, notably everyone in the business as we sit here today, but for this group in particular, a group that was together for the first time in front of the camera, behind the camera, et cetera, and dealing with everything that COVID sort of threw their way was a remarkable effort.
That’s in large credit to the leadership team we have in place with Steve Ackels and producer Phil Dean, director Jimmy Platt. We have an unbelievable operations crew led by the great Steve Carter.
On top of that, you put together a new announce team that was unable to spend any time together outside of the booth, and what that group accomplished was truly remarkable. I just wanted to say thanks once again for that group and acknowledge it in this setting, that A, just tons of gratitude, and B, just the effort and the final product was remarkable. So thank you for that.
As we turn to this year, this group has been laser focused on the upcoming season. We go into the season with a ton of momentum. We had a great off-season, an off-season that we’re really proud of. We have a new deal with the NFL which is exciting that kicks in a few years.
We had an incredibly successful NFL Draft in Cleveland that sort of helped bring sports back to the quote-unquote, norm, which was awesome.
Now we ramp up to the season, one in which for our company, ESPN and the Walt Disney Company, is our biggest ever. I’m sure many of you are aware we have 17 Monday night games this fall, we have the two Saturday week 18 games, and then of course we have the wildcard.
You see the faces here of Monday Night Football, Steve and Brian and Louis, they’re back for another year. We’re thrilled with the booth. Like I said, the challenges that we all faced last year and the product they put on the air was awesome.
Lisa Salters, I think it goes without saying, but Lisa has been a stalwart of Monday Night Football. She’s entering her 10th year on the sidelines, longest-tenured reporter on Monday Night Football. Anytime you see Lisa Salters is a good day, and we’re thrilled to have Lisa back on the sidelines.
And of course, John Perry who in my estimation sets the standard in rules analysts in the business will be back in the booth again this year.
That’s our cast. That’s our crew. That’s our plan on ESPN One this year. I want to briefly touch on the MegaCast plans for this coming Monday night and then I’m going to turn it over to Steve.
We are carrying the game across five networks. The main telecast will be on ABC and ESPN, which is great for all of us. Deportes of course will carry the game. On ESPN+ we’re bringing back our second edition of Between the Lines. I’m sure most of you saw the announcement earlier today, again, on ESPN+, and then this summer we announced the Manning alternate telecast, which will be one of 10 this coming Monday, and that will air on ESPN2.
Again, I’ve been lucky enough, fortunate enough to be around MegaCast in the college space and now the NFL space since its inception. The beauty of the MegaCasts are they are additives. The beauty is we can try different things, we can experiment and we can innovate, and that’s what we plan to do with these two broadcasts on Monday night.
But the biggest takeaway here is that they are additive. Everything starts and ends with the main telecast and branches out from there. These broadcasts will be a continuation of our experimentation around our biggest signature events like we’ve done with the College Football Playoff, the wildcard and now week one.
So it fits within the company’s mantra of trying to serve all sports fans all the time, anywhere with anything they’re looking for, and we’re going to continue doing that on Monday night.
So that is the groundwork. I know it’s a lot. I know that’s a lot of me. I’m going to pause here. Happy to answer some questions on the backside. But I’m going to take a breath now and hand it off to the man that calls the action for us, Steve Levy.
STEVE LEVY: Thank you, Lee. So wait a second, the Mannings are going to be doing Monday Night Football on ESPN2 at the same time? I hadn’t heard —
LEE FITTING: Forgot to bring that to your attention.
STEVE LEVY: Wasn’t aware of that.
Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see many of you, see your faces, see a lot of your names. I feel like I know a lot of you people, and we appreciate what you do for the sport and sports broadcasting, as well.
Most excited about two things. I think you’re going to hear a lot of the same stuff from Brian, Louis, Lisa and myself. Most excited, number one on the list, about this upcoming season is the crowd. This is all about the fan. This has been the fan’s game forever. We missed them dearly last season.
You finally get this gig, and all you hear about is you think — the music, right, the great Monday Night Football theme, and then the roaring crowd coming out of that music, and our great director Jimmy Platt just cutting up, crazy fans everywhere and just roaring and signs and people going wild for their teams, and we just didn’t have it. It was so odd last season. We’d be right before kickoff, 60 seconds before the kick, and Brian, Louis and myself were looking at each other and there was nobody in the stadium. It was just a bizarro world.
Obviously the crowd, the real crowd, not a curated audio, real crowd will make the soundtrack behind us all sound a lot better, and the other thing is also being with this great group that Lee documented, so many men and women that work on this show. We just did not get a chance to hang out, and we’ll get a lot closer to normalcy this coming season.
It’s about the people. It’s about the people that will be in the stands and the people in the booth and the people in the truck and getting in touch with all those people again this season. That’s what I’m most looking forward to, and a stellar, stellar schedule, and the rhythm that is Monday Night Football, the workweek that really never ends and yet it always starts again on Tuesday on the flight home and the preparation, and we get to call one of the biggest NFL games of the week every single week.
With that, again, for the most part, we’re all rookies around here except for Lisa Salters, and she takes it over from here. Lisa?
LISA SALTERS: Thanks, Steve. I mean, every time I get to go to do a Monday Night Football game I feel an honor. Even though there were no fans in the stands last year, for me every time that iconic music comes through my IFB, it just gives me chills.
To be able to do this gig for a 10th season, it’s just a remarkable opportunity, one that I don’t take for granted, and I’m really looking forward to this season, Steve, like you said, just being able to be around my team: Steve, Brian, Louis, Phil, Jimmy.
When I look back at last season and think of the work that the Monday night crew did without really ever being together, it just seems like it was a bad dream, but still, the product was great, I thought. I would go back and watch the games and think, wow, these guys are really good at what they do.
If you’re telling me that you guys were that great and still you felt a little bit of a letdown because the fans weren’t there, then our audience is in for just a huge treat on Monday night and for the next 18, 19 weeks because I thought that you guys did an excellent job. You guys are funny. I just can’t wait to be around you in person.
Now, I liked you even when we weren’t in person, so I’m hoping that it’ll be more of the same when we actually get to hang out and be around each other. But for me, I’ve always said that my job is I’m an extension of the booth. I serve at the pleasure of the booth. Whatever I can do for the guys up in the booth to make their jobs easier, to enhance the fans’ experience, that’s what I’m going to do, and I’m happy to be back on the sidelines this season because it sure is a lot easier to tell observations about a game when you’re actually on the field.
Looking forward to that. Looking forward to being around the guys, and looking forward to year No. 10.
Louis, you’re up.
LOUIS RIDDICK: You got it. Thanks a lot, Lisa. Thanks, everybody, for being here. Obviously, the interest in Monday Night Football is unprecedented. It’s been this way forever. It’s been this way since — I remember being a boy back in southeastern Pennsylvania watching the game and begging my father to let me stay up until at least halftime to watch the Cowboys and Tony Dorsett and all my heroes, and it is kind of surreal that this is now what we get to do. Not that we’re being forced to do or have to do, this is what we get to do, and it’s a privilege to be a part of Monday Night Football in some way, shape or form. It is the brand as far as I’m concerned, as far as professional football is. It’s the pinnacle. It’s the Everest, it’s the mountaintop. We all are very lucky, lucky people to be able to be a part of it and be a part of this brand and represent it.
Just touching quickly on last year, oftentimes on Zoom calls that we had for production meetings I would try to emphasize to everyone from my perspective to really sit and kind of like take stock of what it was that we were accomplishing in the environment that we were accomplishing it in and that no one would ever know just how difficult it is to have that many different moving parts all come together for a broadcast for three and a half hours and make it look like it was just a walk in the park or that it was very easy. No one would ever know just how difficult it was, and that spoke to the talent that is Monday Night Football and all the people who have been a part of it for years and years and years.
I would be disappointed in myself if I didn’t bring that up here to all of you, just how much I’ve really valued the professionalism, being that last year was my first time being on Monday Night Football, of all the people who make Monday Night Football what it is but you never see, because they are all rock stars and they are all studs, and to be able to do what they did in that environment, quite honestly it’s unprecedented, obviously, and it’s spectacular.
Spinning it forward to this year, there’s no question we saw week one of college football just how much fans mean to the game and how much it means to the players, how much it means to the fans themselves and how much it’s going to mean to the broadcast booths.
It’s going to be surreal being in Vegas. No fans have been in that stadium for a professional football game, although they’ve used it for college football games already, and we all know how crazy Raider Nation can be. I know it very intimately from my time in Oakland, and these people are champing at the bit to absolutely lose their mind when the gates open for that game.
It’s going to be — it’s going to take some conscious effort I’m sure on our part to make sure we keep our composure because for me I know it’ll be very emotional, just like it will be for fans because it’s a long way away from last year. I could not be happier to be back with the crew that quite honestly in the booth and with Lisa, as well, that came together last year without ever spending any time together, and that’s not an exaggeration.
Heck, Phil Dean, I remember seeing — I’ll tell you guys a quick story. I saw Phil Dean after the New Orleans game last year against the LA Chargers, saw him at the hotel outside the lobby, and he’s like, hey, Louis, how you doing, and I looked at him, and he’s like, Phil. I was like, damn, I didn’t know you were that tall. I didn’t even recognize how big — literally it’s the first time I saw the guy in person. That’s how the whole year was. Just very much so operating in your own silos.
This year we get to be around one another and really take in everything that is professional football on a Monday night stage, and we get to call it and document it and be a part of it and bring it to people. I’m just ready to go, man. Anybody who knows me knows I’ve just really been sitting in this office watching tape and trying to keep my composure, and can’t wait to get to Vegas.
Brian, it’s all yours, man.
BRIAN GRIESE: Thanks, Louis. I’ll be brief.
I don’t know if Lisa has spent a lot of time with Steve Levy, but she may take that back if she spends a lot of time with him. Louis and I will be fine, but Levy is an acquired taste, Lisa, so tread lightly there.
I am so honored to be a part of this team, and I’ve been a part of teams my entire life, and I am a lot happier guy when I get to work with a team that I respect and that is not afraid to roll up their sleeves and do the work.
I echo what everybody else has said with respect to our unique team on Monday Night Football, and again, share my gratitude to Jimmy and Phil and Steve for their leadership. They really had the toughest job of all of us last year. Every single week there were fires to be put out, curve balls thrown, people that couldn’t work, that could work. It was a puzzle every week.
I’ll be eternally grateful to those guys for what they did last year to put this show on each and every week.
I’m excited to be back with the team. I think we had some great conversations in the off-season. We actually had an off-site we went to in Charlotte where we sat down and watched tape from a year ago. It was one of the first times we were together and had a chance to review what we did well, what we didn’t do well and be authentic with each other, learn from each other, accept feedback, constructive feedback both ways, and I think that’s only going to make us better.
Honestly I’m excited because there’s so much room for us to improve as a team, not just being in the same room together and developing that chemistry, which is so important, but just understanding how to do the job better.
I’m excited about that. The schedule speaks for itself. We can dive into that if you wish. But I’m really humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to do this again with everybody.
- This is for Louis. Two-part question about the Ravens. First part, what do you expect to see from Lamar Jackson this year? What are you most interested in seeing that first week? And second part, if their offense does come out of the gate a little slow because of the injuries, do you think their defense is good enough to carry them for a few weeks this year?
LOUIS RIDDICK: Yeah, I think with Lamar, obviously, every question surrounding him is going to have to do with when people are able to contain him and keep him in the pocket, whether that be as the game is even and it’s tightly contested or when they fall behind, what has his progression looked like now in terms of his development, being able to beat you from the pocket.
I think he has been on a nice steady trajectory since he came into the league as far as things such as his off-target percentage has decreased every year, which means his completion percentage is going up when he’s in the pocket and he’s getting more and more comfortable with everything. Based upon what you guys are saying down there in Baltimore what he’s looked like in training camp, he looks like he’s continuing to improve that, and I would expect that to improve all throughout this year, and I would hope that he has a good game doing that out here in Vegas in a couple days, that he shows people that he is a guy who has worked very, very hard, put in the time to go ahead and become a better all-around passer and be the kind of guy who can beat you in multiple different ways, which is what John Harbaugh and Eric DeCosta and Ozzie Newsome had envisioned when they drafted him in the first place.
The defense, can they win a game for Baltimore early in the season? Can they really be the team that carries the load? I mean, be a phase that carries the load for the team? Yeah, I believe that they can.
I think the one thing that you’re going to need to see from Baltimore is up front making sure that they are taking care of the run and then being able to rush the passer with effectiveness. It’s not necessarily producing a bunch of sacks, but making sure that they’re able to disrupt passers, and we will see whether or not they have the people coming off the edge, whether Justin Houston still has what he has had his entire career, whether Odafe Oweh continues to unlock all that beautiful talent that he has as an athlete, which is just freakish, and we saw that at Penn State.
And then in the back end, what is obviously the strength of this football team, the secondary, if those guys can hold it down and give the defensive front more time to get after the passer when they can get people into 3rd down situations. I think all that stuff will come together for them. Wink Martindale is one of the very best defensive coordinators in this league, a guy who deserves a head coaching job.
So I think they’re going to have to play off of one another in all three phases, kicking game, as well, which you know John will have them raring to go and ready to go. But I think this is a football team that obviously you are going to have to contend with for 60 full minutes because that’s their DNA, and I would expect nothing less.
- What worked last year for you guys in your first year?
STEVE LEVY: You know, everybody wants to cover sports media, as you know. What worked? I think, first of all, we did have the benefit of having the Monday Night Football game even prior to last season, that second game of the double-header. That allowed us to get a feel. Obviously, Griese and I have done four years of college together, and Louis and I had done a lot of SportsCenter stuff both in Bristol and on the road, SportsCenter at the Super Bowl, but actually getting a game under our belt, that first game, the last home opener in Oakland for the Raiders, I think that really helped get us going and helped us understand what this booth could be like, what we can do, the magnitude that is Monday Night Football, and then I think we carried a little bit of that over into the full schedule.
It’s one thing to know — and we didn’t have any preseason games. Look, nobody had any preseason games last year, so we didn’t have that. So it took a little ramping up, and you know, what really worked was getting better each and every week, and that’s really from everybody on the crew, everybody in the truck, everybody in the booth. We won’t make any excuses for what we had to deal with a season ago because everybody was dealing with a pandemic. So we’ll always be judged by whatever is coming through that television screen and those speakers, and I think we all really feel that we needed to steady the Monday Night Football ship and get better every single week, and I think we accomplished that.
Now this season I think the next thing is let’s take a big step now. Let’s go out and try to be great this whole season, taking everything into account.
It was a progression, and I think we’re certainly headed north and in the right direction. That’s what I would say.
- Going off what you just said, where do you think you can improve? Where do you guys think we’re going to see that lift? Of course, you’ll be around each other pregame and all that stuff. Where do you think we’ll see that lift this year compared to last?
BRIAN GRIESE: I can take a shot at that. I think like I mentioned a little earlier, we got together in the off-season and talked about the areas where we were solid and we can build. We talked about areas where we can definitely get better and learn from each other.
You know, we’re not under any false pretenses in understanding there’s three voices up there, and that’s different. I think one of the things that we took away and I know that I took away from a year ago in watching those tapes is we can talk less but say more.
That’s not an easy thing to do, but I think with three people up there, nobody wants to hear wall-to-wall talking, especially now that fans are going to be back in the stands and we’re going to want to capture that emotion from the fans after a big play or after a touchdown.
That’s one tangible way I think that we can continue to grow and get better and improve is saying more but talking less, and keeping the depth and breadth of the analysis of the game and preparing the fan at home before the game as to what to watch for and during the game to project a little bit more forward and anticipating what’s going to happen, or what are the things, the elements that are going to affect the outcome of a game. Those are two areas that are concrete to me where we can get better.
LOUIS RIDDICK: I was just going to add real quick, I think as a group, because of Brian’s and my background and because of how good Steve is of balancing it between both of us, I think the thing that we did well and that we’ll get even better at is continuing to play off of one another and give you the entire scope of what is happening on the football field from all perspectives.
I think you’ve seen that in snippets and then you saw it increase as the year went on as far as detailed analysis, whether it was called for offensive play, whether it be quarterback play, wide receiver play, offensive line play, and then on the defensive side, whether it be defensive line play, coverage schemes, wide plays broke down.
I think that’s something that we are uniquely qualified to do, and we just need to be very judicious and expedient with it so we’re not overloading people. But at the same time giving them a full comprehensive view of what is happening on the field.
The only other thing I would say is what we’re going to get better at I think is just being more conversational and hearing us play off of one another and really talking the game through, whether that be in the open or as the game is happening coming out of halftime. I think you’ll see that it will be something that you’ll enjoy listening to, and it’ll be very informative, it’ll be educational, and we want to entertain people along the way, and I think we’re very much so dead set on making sure that happens.
- For Lee, there’s always been a lot of talk about the Mannings and Peyton especially coming on board and doing broadcasts. Did you feel a need because the attention the Mannings kind of bring to talk to Steve and Brian and Louis, the idea that they’re coming on but you guys are still the lead team? Did you do that, and if so, why, or if so, why not?
LEE FITTING: We absolutely did do that prior to the announcement. Didn’t want them reading it in a press release that we were doing another show alongside them or an additive show for 10 of the weeks. So we did tell them.
Again, this deal was something that was kept under wraps for a while at our urging and at Peyton and Eli’s urging. So it wasn’t until shortly before the deal was announced that we did tell them.
But I felt that we got everyone on the phone and sort of told them what the deal was. There were no secrets as to what we were doing. This is an additive broadcast. I keep using that word but I want to be clear there.
We’re looking to do something different with Peyton and Eli. That feeling is mutual. Peyton and Eli are looking to do something different, as well. I think it’s pretty clear that if Peyton or Eli wanted to be in a booth, they probably would have been in some booth at some network by now.
But they’re excited to do something like this that’s more casual, more conversational, two brothers talking ball as if they’re sitting in a living room or basement together where they can bring guests in and friends in and former teammates and current players and ex-players in.
That was sort of the description to our group. I hope that our track record with this group is strong enough that if it were anything different, I would have just told them it was something different.
But to answer your initial question, yes, we did have a conversation before the announcement came out. Did we keep them abreast through the entire negotiation, no, but that’s sort of standard business, again, full transparency, but those conversations did take place, and sort of how we and I like to do business is to be as transparent as possible when the time calls for it.
- My question is most likely for Louis and for Brian, as well. Question about the Patriots. Specifically, Bill Belichick had a really aggressive off-season, spent a ton of money in free agency, went out and got that quarterback in the first round, now he’s made him the starter for week one. Were you surprised with how aggressive Belichick was? What does it say he went out and made these moves and spent all this money, and in a weird way does Belichick have something to prove this year?
LOUIS RIDDICK: Well, I think Bill saw that 2020 was going to be different, that with the opt-outs combined with their salary cap situation, 2020 wasn’t going to be the kind of year — and all the different kinds of changes they were going through that it wasn’t going the kind of year he was going to be accustomed to, and he needed to play the long game a little bit.
That didn’t mean just flushing 2020 down the toilet, because you know this, if you talked to him last year like we talked to him, he was miserable, and he was grumpy about what was going on with his football team and how fundamentally he could not get it to play to the level that he’s accustomed to it playing to and that you knew it wasn’t going to sit well with him and he was going to come out of the gates firing once the 2021 new league year kicked off.
That’s exactly what he did. He kind of collected his thoughts, collected his assets and then deployed — then rather went out and really used them very judiciously in free agency in terms of the cap dollars that he had. He targeted specific positions that you know that historically he has gone after in the past and that that team has always been strong at offensive line, tight ends, defensive tackles. He got linebackers back, strong down the middle, build it inside out, front to back. That is a staple of New England. That’s exactly what they have always done. That’s how they have won all those championships for the past 20 years. That’s just what he does.
So I wasn’t shocked in the least. He’s a guy who has a tremendous amount of pride. You covered him his entire career. You know what he’s all about. You knew he wasn’t going to just sit idly by and put his tail between his legs and not come out with — I don’t know if it’s necessarily something to prove, but wanting his football team to look like it has always looked, which is like a contender, and last year it didn’t look like that.
I’m sure with someone who’s going to go into the Hall of Fame as fast as anyone maybe in the history of professional football, he has a lot of pride and he was going to make sure he did what he needed to do in order to get this team right, and that included getting a quarterback to set this organization up for the next 10, 15, 20 years, and he’s got that.
What he did with Mac as far as the decision between him and Cam should not surprise anyone because Mac fits of the bill of what Bill is looking for at that position as well as any quarterback that came out in this draft. It’s onward from here for them. They’re on to the season, and I would expect them to be contenders right out of the gate.
- Louis, Zach Ertz and Dallas Goddard are both coming into the season without contract extensions and playing out their final years. I wanted to get your take on that, and do you foresee Goddard or Ertz being re-signed in Philadelphia, and if so, will they reach the level of Jonnu Smith or Mark Andrews? Will they get that type of money?
LOUIS RIDDICK: Yeah, I think Dallas is the future there for them. He’s a guy who — he’s a little bit — from a height, weight, speed perspective probably brings a little bit more — I’m going to say a little bit more bulk, a little bit more size, a little bit more just overall athletic explosiveness to the position at this point in time in his career, and that’s not to take anything away from Zach because Zach has been absolutely phenomenal his entire career, but we know that Zach is closer to the end than he is to the beginning, for lack of a better phrase, and he’s probably someone who probably wants to move on and finish out his career potentially somewhere else.
That’s just the business of football, and that’s not something that we should be shocked by.
I mean, Howie and the guys there have always been the type to really try and spin things forward and be out ahead of things and do things that may be a year or two early rather than a year or two late. That’s what they are. They’re good at forward thinking things and kind of thinking through things like this as far as transactions are concerned.
So I think Dallas is the future, and I wouldn’t disagree with that thinking at all.
- Brian, Jalen Hurts is taking over as the starting quarterback this year. How do you foresee this season going about, and do you think he has what it takes to be the possible franchise quarterback from here on out for the next couple years after this?
BRIAN GRIESE: Yeah, I mean, this is a team that was rebuilding, especially the offensive line, and when you ask me how a quarterback is going to fare, the first thing I do is look at how well they’re going to be protected. That was a major issue a year ago, obviously when Carson was there and the same for Jalen. Jalen had more athletic ability that could mitigate that on a week-in and week-out basis, but for Jalen Hurts, who has the ability to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, and we know he has the leadership ability to do so, he needs a little bit more help.
They went out and got him some help at the receiver spot, and they’ve made some adjustments on the offensive line, but they were a long ways away up front a year ago, and that will be the answer to your question as to whether this offense has stability and whether Jalen Hurts has the opportunity to be successful; it starts up front.
- For the broadcast team, talk about the challenge of having to compete even indirectly with this Manning cast, and then for Lee fitting, with the NFL allowing sports betting ads during games this season, what is going to be your approach to the team talking on air about betting lines or odds? We know Levy likes to have fun on the air. I’d love to get your take on that.
BRIAN GRIESE: I’m happy to take the first part of that. You mentioned the word competing. I don’t really look at it that way. You know, I’ve known Peyton a long time. I don’t know Eli as well, but I’ve known him a long time, over 25 years, going back to — we came out of college at the same time, competed against each other in the NFL, and now he lives in Denver and we play golf together. He’s a good friend.
I’ve already texted back and forth with him about this, and I’m looking forward to having some fun with him going back and forth on a week in and week out basis and bouncing ideas off of him and having a dialogue that could be really interesting and fascinating to see where that goes.
I think it’s good to have him in the fold, and I look forward to seeing kind of what they come up with. I’m sure there’s going to be back and forth, hey, the Monday night guys said this, Peyton said that, and I think there’s an opportunity to have fun and interesting and deeper dialogue that comes out of that.
LEE FITTING: I’ll jump on there and answer your question about sort of the gambling world as we know it. I guess the simplest answer is that the main telecast is still designed for the mass audience, and to date, gambling remains a fairly niche audience. We’d be crazy not to think and realize that that niche audience is growing. We recognize that, obviously.
However, we feel that the main telecast and gambling should be a deviation right now. We also recognize the opportunity that gambling provides. Along with that comes a responsibility that we have to serve those fans.
But however — you’ve been doing this for a while, and we all know that things don’t change overnight. They’re gradual, especially with something like this that has been a quote-unquote, no-go for a long period of time.
I think it’s safe to say that we’re all moving in a direction to serve the gambling fans, but I can also say that we want to get there smartly, and the goal is not to be the first, but it’s to be the most successful in this area for the longest amount of time.
We want to be smart about where we experiment and where we push, and that’s why we’re doing the Between the Lines show on Monday night on ESPN+, which is a great area to try to innovate and try to experiment.
But as far as the main broadcast goes for this coming season, we’re not going to get into that territory.
- Brian, with all the injuries the Ravens have had on offense, J.K. Dobbins, a lot of guys banged up in the wide receiver group over the summer, how much-increased pressure or challenge is it going to be for Lamar Jackson? He’s always been the headliner for that group, but how much of an increased challenge does that put on Lamar Jackson this year to even carry this offense even more?
BRIAN GRIESE: Well, certainly I think that some of the injuries — a guy like J.K. Dobbins is irreplaceable. He was going to be such a focal point of this offense after what he did taking over for Mark Ingram a year ago. His explosive nature and his durability were going to be featured in this offense. There was no question that that’s a blow.
I think that this is the first time that Gus Edwards has really had the opportunity to carry the load, and I think Gus Edwards has every ability to do so. He just was lacking the opportunity to be the main focal point.
I’m really excited about Ty’Son Williams, too, a guy that nobody really knows around the league who’s going to get his shot now that Justice Hill goes down.
I think in those two guys they’re going to have solid production at that position. The injuries that you mentioned to Bateman and Boykin, I think those are going to be first quarter of the season. They’re on IR, so they could return for the Broncos game. I think they’re going to get better at the receiver position.
But it’s always going to come down to Lamar Jackson, and I was encouraged by what we saw in the wildcard game a year ago. It wasn’t pretty in the first half of that game, but he found a way to make the play, to get the momentum sparked, as he always has.
I think this offense was motivated in the off-season by what happened in Buffalo, and they know they have to be better in the playoffs on the offensive side of the ball. So they made some adjustments up front which I like.
Obviously re-signing Mark Andrews was a big deal, but this offense is going to continue to be the most unique in the NFL, the most difficult potentially to prepare for on a weekly basis because it is different, and they’ve proven that they run the ball better than any team in the history of the game on a consistent basis. So that will take some of the pressure off of Lamar, and he continues to get better as a passer.
This is the NFL. The pressure is always going to be on the quarterback and maybe even more so on Lamar because of what he does with his legs. I don’t see that changing this year.
There’s so many things I could ask you about the Browns really, but I wanted to zero in on the defense and specifically Jadeveon Clowney. What’s your view of him? I know the injury history is long, but at age 28, what do you think he can give the Browns, and how do you think he and Myles Garrett might be able to play off each other?
LOUIS RIDDICK: Well, I think Jadeveon has always been someone who, from a run game perspective, has been one of the best edge setters, point-of-attack players as you have seen in the league since he’s been in the league. He’s super strong, plays with tremendous leverage, has great competitive qualities, so he’ll fit in from a culture perspective.
As far as his playing style and how he will continue to raise the level of the effort and toughness of this defense, he’ll fit right in that way. Whenever you’re lined up on the opposite edge of a guy like Myles Garrett, you’re going to want to prove something both to yourself and to your new teammates as far as being able to hold up your end of the bargain because we already know that Myles is going to hold up his. Myles, if you just look at his Instagram and look at the way this young man is put together and the work that he is putting in, this guy is a stone-cold freak, and he is going to absolutely, barring anything unforeseen and unfortunate, going to have a whale of a year. An absolute whale of a year.
Now, what does that mean from Jadeveon on the football field? Look, he’s played with other great players during his time down in Houston so he knows what it’s like for the attention not necessarily to be on him on the money down, on 3rd down, and he knows he’s going to get some long runs up there in Cleveland because people are going to be paying so much attention to Myles Garrett.
The wildcard is what you said: His availability, his durability, his ability to stay on the football field and produce for 17 weeks.
If he can do that with this football team in that environment, which is an environment where it’s now become about expectations, not hope anymore but expectations of greatness, he will have one of the best seasons of his career.
The question always is, though, with Jadeveon, how long are you going to have him? Is he going to stay on the field? Is he going to be able to stay available? If he can do that, I’m sure they’ll be very, very happy in Cleveland with the return on the investment that they’ve made in him.
From last year, whether it’s audio-wise, video-wise, what you take from last year that you acquired last year that gave you a new lens on producing these telecasts this year?
LEE FITTING: We’re looking to have real audio, not sound and fans, as Lee has mentioned before. You know, but with no fans in the stands across just about all sports last year, and I should start by saying that Jimmy Platt is better suited to answer this question than myself, but camera placement and experimentation and different spots in a venue was a win last year. Some efficiencies were a win last year. Stuff that we may not have tried if it weren’t for the COVID world that we’re all forced into.
We were able to be smarter in certain areas. A majority of our people this year will be on-site, just about all our people, but there still will be some folks in Bristol. Our hand was forced in that direction last year, but frankly, it made us better and allowed people to work smarter and allowed people to work more efficiently. So we were able to do that and sort of take a few wins off of last year.
But it’s around the efficiencies and it’s around the stuff in the venue, frankly, with full stadiums that we wouldn’t have been able to do in years past.
Obviously a lot of things going on here in Houston. I wanted to yet your thoughts on this unconventional rebuild by Nick Caserio signing dozens of veterans to one- and two-year contracts as opposed to just building up draft assets for a rebuild. Also your thoughts on this Bradley Roby trade to New Orleans today.
LOUIS RIDDICK: Yeah, I think Nick is someone who, being that he comes from the Patriot way, if you remember back in 2001 when Bill took over in New England, this was kind of some of the things that they did there to build up their roster, as well, which was getting very value-priced free agents and bringing them in and kind of letting them sort themselves out because they were trying to establish a new culture, they wanted to see what guys were willing to really just sell out and play for the love of the game, guys who could be foundational players in that middle tier of the roster, and then eventually they would start getting those higher-priced, higher draft pick type of players that really become the stars of their organization as time moved on and they continued to build out the rest of the football operation.
I think that’s kind of what he’s doing now.
On top of the fact that this is a very unique year, you know that the salary cap is down here in 2021. It will go back up in 2022. Many people are looking to 2022 to be one where they really strike in the draft and they strike in free agency again because they expect to have more money and more assets to play with for the 2022 season.
So this is kind of one of those years where it kind of falls right into the lap of a guy like Nick Caserio in terms of familiarity because New England were value shoppers in the early parts of the 2000s when Bill first got started there, and Nick kind of knows what that’s like. He’s kind of learned that way of team building.
So I think that’s something that’s not foreign to him and really shouldn’t shock you very much that he’s kind of taking that approach.
As far as Bradley Roby’s trade, I don’t necessarily know exactly what precipitated that move. Bradley has been somebody who has always had tremendous athletic ability coming out of Ohio State and then in the early part of his career with Denver. He’s always been someone who has tremendous physical skills.
Obviously, the Saints really needed cornerback depth, and this is a guy who in the right scheme with the right people and the right environment and with the right mindset can still play high-quality football.
You’re thinking, well, why doesn’t Houston keep a guy like that around. That’s something you’d have to ask Nick Caserio as to why that was a move that they made. But good luck to Bradley moving on and seeing if he can get his career on track to the point that he wants it.
Lee, this piggy-backs off the question before on sports betting. Given the success of the Between the Lines second screen broadcasts last year, what will be the gauge or the barometer on whether you will bring it back on a regular basis throughout the season?
LEE FITTING: Great question. There’s not a concrete answer there. I can’t say we have to perform like this to bring it back on a regular basis. It’s a little more complicated than that.
What I can say is it’ll be mutual between us and the league. What I can say is there will be plenty of discussions after the week one Between the Lines show, and we’ll see what the momentum is. What I mean by momentum is the feedback that we get, both internally and externally on the show, what we think that appetite is, how can we grow that appetite, and is that appetite there every week.
Again, I don’t have the answers to that now, but I know we want to push to grow this brand. The NFL has been interested in pushing to grow this brand, or frankly they wouldn’t have brought it back for week one after the wildcard game, and all the conversations between us, between the two parties, have been super positive.
But like I said earlier, we’re going to walk before we are run here. We just want to make sure we get it right. We’re not going to be careless in this space, and we’re going to be as smart as we can. But hopefully, more to come in that area.
Al Michaels has trademarked those subtle gambling references throughout the years. He had that call where he said, “that’s overwhelming” when Anquan Bolden caught a Hail Mary and he has that great back-and-forth with Cris Collinsworth on some people are happy and others aren’t. Do you ever plan on making one of those gambling references, or at this point are you kind of uncomfortable doing so?
STEVE LEVY: Well, in my second season on Monday Night Football, no, I’m not going to stretch out. I’m not ready to stretch out that far. I’m still taking direction from my bosses and from the NFL offices, as well. Al Michaels has certainly earned a lot of leeway in that department. He’s Al Michaels.
Listen, I’m certainly aware of the basics going into a game. Some of it is educational for me. I’ll look at it; I know what I think on a Tuesday going into the following game, but I’ll see what Vegas has. Hey, should we expect a high-scoring game or a low-scoring game, and those numbers are pretty close quite often. Quite frankly, I’m not sure, I really don’t know the answer, if Brian, Louis or Lisa even know or pay attention to that.
We did have an odds scenario last year in Philadelphia. The Eagles were out of the game, meaningless drive, they score a touchdown, and they go for two, and it had nothing to do — had nothing to do with the final score. There was no way they could get back in it. Wasn’t that kind of a one-score game. And the world exploded right after that. At that point I really wasn’t — I hadn’t locked into that piece of it. Of course, Van Pelt is going to follow us with a Bad Beat segment.
So we know what’s going on. I think I pay a little bit of attention to it just as part of my preparation, my normal preparation for the week, but he’s Al Michaels, and I’m Steve Levy, and I’m still going to take direction along those lines for the next 15 or 20 years probably.
My question is about the quarterback position. We’ve seen teams this off-season, the Rams and the 49ers come to mind, move on from or set the wheels in motion to move on from quarterbacks who have been starters for them and who they’ve had success with. People in those organizations have mentioned — talked about the need to go from good to great, and I think Kyle Shanahan made a comment about the difficulty of winning without a top-5 quarterback. I think those offenses had sort of had the perception of being able to support quarterbacks really well.
My question is if there’s anything you’ve seen in the league recently that’s kind of raised the bar for what’s expected at the position and what’s necessary to put teams in a place to compete with the top of the league at the quarterback position.
BRIAN GRIESE: Yeah, I think it’s a good question. I think the two teams that you referenced and the two coaches that you referenced in Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan have both been in the Super Bowl in recent history and are looking at their teams in particular and trying to think, what is going to get me over the hump to win that Super Bowl.
To them, yes, you mentioned that the offenses support quarterbacks, and both of those styles are very similar. They came from the same tree as Mike Shanahan and are dependent on the run game and play action.
But that only takes you so far. Ultimately when you get to the playoffs and when you get to teams that are as good if not better than you, it’s the quarterback play that typically puts you over the top.
In both instances, Jimmy Garoppolo played solid football for the 49ers when they got to the Super Bowl, and you could argue that they did not win the Super Bowl because they didn’t get elite play from Jimmy Garoppolo. There were several plays in that game that if he makes, they win. You could say the same thing about Sean McVay.
I think they’re both looking at their situations and saying, we have to be better at that position. It can’t be a position that we manage. It has to be a position that drives us and that is a difference maker, and while both quarterbacks — and Jimmy is going to start this year. He hasn’t been discarded. If Jimmy starts and plays well, he’s going to be the guy.
Trey Lance will be a guy that filters in and they have different packages for, but clearly, in Los Angeles they’ve made the switch, and they’re all in on Matt Stafford and they believe that they have an elite quarterback that’s going to put them over the top.
I think it’s just a case in those two instances of coaches that are looking at not just being a good team and not being a playoff team but being a Super Bowl champion, and they needed to upgrade at the quarterback spot to do so.
LOUIS RIDDICK: I’ll just add this. From a personnel perspective, I think every front office, every general manager, every head coach, every offensive coordinator right now has this tremendous desire to get that guy that can transcend the perfect play call, the perfect scenario and can really — he can do the thing that they can’t teach. He can make the play happen that they can’t call.
That’s why there was so much debate about when San Francisco moved up to three and so many people who were running around like their hair was on fire when people thought it was going to be Mac Jones, because they thought, well, he can’t make those special plays, he’s exactly what we have here; he’s Jimmy Garoppolo; why would you want Mac Jones, blah blah blah. Why wouldn’t you want Justin Fields? Why wouldn’t you want Trey Lance? Et cetera, et cetera.
Now, what’s interesting is now that the preseason has played it outside and you see that Mac Jones is starting, all of a sudden you see the tides start switching back. Well, maybe Bill knows something that nobody else knows; maybe it isn’t just about those extra five plays. Maybe it’s just about decision making and accuracy like it always has been.
So it’s always going to swing back and forth because I’ll tell you this, if Mac Jones comes out and becomes Offensive Rookie of the Year and blows it up and New England goes — I was going to say 12-4 but that would be wrong, 12-5, 17 games, then all of a sudden people are going to go, hmm, maybe it is about decision making and accuracy and efficiency from the pocket and situational football.
That position garners more debate about what exactly that you need than obviously any other position in the NFL.
But the thing I’ve always said is, look, the guy who we just watched win the Super Bowl, he doesn’t make a whole lot of plays outside of structure, does he, but he sure does have a brilliant mind, and so did Drew Brees and so did Peyton Manning and all these other guys, and they won plenty of Super Bowls.
It’s interesting because scouts are enamored with the Trey Lance types, and I can see why. Trey is a great kid, and he’s probably going to be a great player and Justin is going to be a great player. But it always comes back to two things from all the people that I’ve always asked about quarterback play: Decision making and accuracy.
I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
How much of scouts coveting those guys do you think has to do with kind of Patrick Mahomes envy, just looking at that guy taking over the league?
LOUIS RIDDICK: Sure, that’s a lot of it, of course, because it’s new and it’s what we’re seeing now. Heck, Tom Brady wins a Super Bowl in January, February, and by the time we get to the draft, it’s like, those guys are relics. We won’t want that guy, even though he just won another Super Bowl. We don’t want that guy, we want this guy. We want it to look like this.
Of course that happens a lot, and that’s something we have to fight in scouting a lot of times. It’s about playing the game, right? It’s not just about athletic ability and flash plays.
Hey, don’t get me wrong, I think every team in the NFL outside of Kansas City would take Patrick Mahomes. There’s no question about that. It’s a fun conversation, isn’t it?
- Louis, you’ve done a lot of TV in your post-playing career, but the bright lights of Monday Night Football, that broadcast team are obviously something truly unique. I was just wondering how you would self-evaluate your first year as part of the crew and how you’re going to use that to build upon and attack the second year.
LOUIS RIDDICK: Yeah, there’s always a ton of room for improvement, obviously. There are so many things that are happening in the booth during a live broadcast, so many things to look at, so many different things to consider, and you have to be so light on your feet and make sure that you’re concise and informative and instructive and educational to what you’re saying there there’s always tons of room for improvement and I very much am looking forward to being more concise, being more educational, being slower with my delivery, be more aware of playing off of things that Steve and Brian are saying and being more conversational. There’s just so many things — I mean, I could run down the list of the kind of things that we have talked about.
That’s really in a nutshell — look, it’s a heck of a challenge. Being in the booth and being in the booth on Monday night is the pinnacle of broadcasting, and let’s not kid ourselves, it really is, and we understand the responsibility it carries and the scrutiny that comes with it.
I think all of us are up to the challenge of trying to be the very best we can possibly be, and we have a list of things we want to work on, and that right there is just a small snippet of the things that I intend to improve on and continue to improve on.
STEVE LEVY: If I could just jump in for a second, I would just like to add along those lines, Louis and Brian, in your standard two-person NFL booth, the roles really and the timing are really defined, right; play-by-play guy guys to the whistle and then the analyst jumps in until they get set in the next — they break the huddle, set the formation, those kinds of things.
In our booth, it’s obviously very different. I know exactly when I’m speaking, but I am amazed, and I’m in the booth with these guys, I am amazed how Phil Dean, our producer, communicates with Louis and with Brian and really virtually never stepped on each other. I don’t know how they organize it. It is television magic. But it speaks to a lack of ego, also, on the part of both Louis and Brian, and Phil Dean coordinating the whole thing.
It’s definitely trickier in a three-person booth, and I’m amazed every week when these guys do it the way they do.
BRIAN GRIESE: I don’t know if you guys want a little bit more of the Inside Baseball on that, but after a play happens, Steve is done calling the play, and I might hit my button to talk to the truck to tell Phil the angle or what I wanted to talk about in a replay, and Louis might be doing the same thing at the same time, and so Phil is getting two voices into his head, into his ear at the same time having to listen to two and make a split-second decision as to which direction to go.
Then Louis and I have to kind of react off of that, and Louis and I sometimes have hand signals or non-verbals to tell — Louis will tell me he’s really high on something or I’ll listen to his pregame what he’s interested in talking about, so I’ll defer to that. When I’m hot on something, I have to be able to communicate to him.
So there is a lot of air traffic control, if you will, that has to happen pretty much on every single play that you hear us come in to talk. That’s kind of how it’s worked.
Brian, we’re coming up on the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 and I know that you played in that game for the Broncos against the Giants the day before 9/11, and I don’t know if you remember, but it was the first game at Empower Field, I believe Ed McCaffrey broke his leg in that game. I was wondering what you remember about that game specifically and then obviously the events that transpired the next day on 9/11.
BRIAN GRIESE: Yeah, I remember quite a bit about the game. As you mentioned, it was the first game in the new stadium. That was a very emotional game for everybody in Denver. Certainly the players but also the fans. Mile High Stadium was iconic, and I remember the festivities before the game and honoring some of the former players. John Elway was there, and obviously, it was a Monday night game that opened the season, and there was a lot of fanfare, and it was a great game. We played great on offense, and the only downer during the course of the game was Eddie breaking his leg.
I remember after the game thinking and asking about Eddie and he had gone to the hospital and he was going to have to have surgery, and so the first thing I did when I woke up the next morning on September 11th was to go to the hospital to see Eddie. I wanted to go see how he was doing.
We got there, and everybody remembers where they were when they were watching what was happening in New York with the world trade center, and I was right there with Ed McCaffrey in the hospital watching and thinking about the Giants who had just got on a plane the night before and probably landed four hours earlier. You couldn’t believe what you were seeing.
I think it’s pretty interesting. Will be a nice memory for the Broncos to open on the road in New York, and I’m not sure what they have planned on Sunday, but I’m sure there will be a memorial, a moment of silence and remembering that, but that night will always be indelibly marked in my head for opening a new stadium and the highs of that and winning the game and then the lows about eight hours later of waking up and seeing what was transpiring in New York.
I just wanted to quickly see if I could get Louis’s thoughts and your thoughts as well on Teddy Bridgewater, the quarterback situation with Denver. It seems like that’s going to be kind of the make-or-break for this team this year.
BRIAN GRIESE: Yeah, Steve and I do the Broncos’ preseason games, and so we kind of went back and forth with Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater and went to a bunch of their practices and watched.
First of all, I’m so happy for Teddy Bridgewater that he has this opportunity and what he’s been through. It’s been almost five years since he had that horrific knee injury, and he had the opportunity, he made the most of it in New Orleans, and then he goes, and he’s going to be the guy in Carolina, and it didn’t work out the way that he wanted nor the way the Panthers wanted.
You could tell talking to Teddy that he was pretty upset about the way it went down in Carolina.
So I think he understands and realizes the team that he has around him here in Denver. The defense is going to be really relied upon, especially early in the season, to hold this team together. They have some young talent on offense, obviously, at the skill positions.
I think people have forgotten about Melvin Gordon and what he can do. They went out and drafted on offense and gave some weapons in Javonte Williams in the backfield. Up front I feel like they’re better on the offensive line.
So Teddy, I think when you boil it all down, Vic Fangio, his job is on the line, and if your job is on the line and you know you have a good defense and you want to run the ball, you’re going to make the decision on the quarterback that has experience and that’s not going to take the risk and that’s going to give you the best chance to get a good start to their season, because if they don’t, Vic Fangio, the seat gets hotter and hotter. The last two years they’re 0-7 in September and that’s just not going to cut it this year if they get off to a bad start.
Louis, putting that GM hat on, looking at what the Buccaneers did with the front office, not only bringing all 22 starters back and doling out big money, but also the usage of the void years and not really handicapping themselves in the future with a contract, what were your thoughts on that? And to piggy-back off that, with Tom Brady’s recent comments about wanting to play for a while, and it’s been assumed that he would play to 45, but it seems like if he can do it he’s going to play longer than that, how do you manage that sustainability with big guys coming up in a Carlton Davis and an Alex Cappa, Ryan Jensen, Chris Godwin, all going to be looking for big money, as well?
LOUIS RIDDICK: Yeah, that’s a loaded question there. Jason Licht, the general manager, and John Spytek, who’s his second in command down there, two guys who I know very well – worked with John in Philadelphia, and Jason left Philadelphia right before I got there in the front office. They understand the whole balance of trying to win now and prepare for the future, taking the short- and long-term as well as anyone, and they’re trying to balance that out as well as they possibly can right now, meaning take advantage of this unique opportunity of being able to have 22 starters back off of a Super Bowl-winning team, having a quarterback now that is embarking on uncharted territory in a way that just has us all scratching our head and going, hey, can I get a little bit of whatever Tom Brady is drinking so I can feel like that and I can play like that and be like that at that age.
It’s challenging for them. There’s no question that there’s going to come a time where the salary cap growth is not going to outpace the kind of money that all these good players that they have that are coming up for second contracts, for big-money contracts, it’s not going to outpace what they want and what they’re going to be able to command on the open market, and they’re going to have to make some tough decisions.
That’s what GMs are paid to do. Quite honestly, they’re paid to make those tough decisions, and that’s why they need to continue to hit on their draft picks, they need to continue to find guys like the Tristan Wirfs and what they have uncovered this year in a guy like Joe Tryon, who could potentially be a top-10 value for them, although they got him with the last pick in the first round, which is just going to be amazing.
I think quite honestly he may be — there have been a lot of names thrown out there for the steal of the draft. Joe Tryon may be the steal of the draft based upon what Todd Bowles has told me that he has looked like down there as a pass rusher.
I think they are in a nice spot right now, which is this. They’re going to ride out this Tom Brady wave as long as they possibly can with one eye on the future, and they will make the tough decisions when the time comes about what positions are there that we need to prioritize and make sure these guys are non-negotiables, meaning we have to make sure we are very creative with how we structure their contracts to keep these people, and then some of the other guys they’re going to have to say, hey, look, we love the heck out of you but we just don’t have the money to pay all of you; go get what you can get on the open market.
If it doesn’t work out for them, of course, they would welcome them back into the fold if they fit into the long-term plans. But that’s just the salary cap era. That’s what everybody is trying to deal with, and that’s what Jason is going charged with dealing with.
So far so good, man. Really, they are doing a heck of a job and probably from a front office perspective don’t get enough credit.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you all for joining.
Contact: Derek Volner ([email protected]