What a gift that one of the smartest football broadcasting ideas in recent memory had its debut during one of the dumbest NFL games anybody has ever seen.
Monday night was the first of 10 Monday Night Football games that will be called by Peyton and Eli Manning, with their version of the telecast airing on ESPN2 or streaming on ESPN+ while the main broadcast remains on regular ESPN. I probably won’t be watching that main broadcast anytime soon—it was much more fun to watch the Mannings squirm, sneer, and face-palm as the Raiders got to first-and-goal from the 1-yard line in overtime—meaning they needed to gain just a single yard on four plays to win—only to commit a false start and go backward before Derek Carr threw an interception:
The Mannings were joined by guests throughout the evening, concluding with Russell Wilson. The Mannings kept politely offering Wilson the opportunity to leave—but Wilson kept hanging out, as he was getting a kick out of watching the game with two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. (OK, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and one pretty good quarterback.) They sat and watched as:
- the Raiders tied the game with 3:44 left
- the Ravens hit a go-ahead field goal
- the Raiders hit a game-tying field goal to force overtime
- the Raiders thought they won the game on a walk-off touchdown
- the call was overturned, after which they went backward and committed a turnover at the goal line
- the Ravens, handed the opportunity to win the game, committed their own back-breaking turnover
- the Raiders won on a walk-off touchdown from Carr to Zay Jones
At the beginning of the night, the Mannings focused on scripted bits, like Peyton putting on a headset and pretending to be Jon Gruden while Eli sheepishly laughed, and Peyton putting on a helmet and pretending to be a quarterback while calling plays while Eli made fun of Peyton’s large head. They brought in Charles Barkley, and he and Eli made fun of Peyton for losing to him in golf. It was chuckle-worthy, but Peyton felt like a standup comic who just saw the red light flashing indicating their time was almost up, rushing from bit to bit, knowing he hadn’t done all of his material yet.
But as the game went on, the Mannings skipped the bits and just talked. The New York Post reports that by halftime, ESPN management told them to “focus more on football.” They broke down the defenses and explained what the quarterbacks might be thinking on various plays. They added recollections from their own careers—like the time Peyton tried to write an apology letter to a ref but couldn’t get his address because the NFL feared that he was seeking retribution for a call, or the surprising admission that “halftime adjustments” are essentially a myth since teams don’t actually have enough time to strategize in the relatively short breaks. They spent an extended period of time making fun of Kyle Boller, which might have been the most entertaining part of an entertaining evening. It probably wasn’t the best way to watch a football game for fans of one of the teams—the Mannings sometimes got so excited breaking down a particular play that they skipped over live game action—but it was fun to watch a game with them. It had the closeness and casual feel of a Twitch stream, except the two streamers were two of the most famous football men alive.
Monday Night Football used to be one of the highlights of the NFL week. Its peppy theme song became our National Football Anthem, and its announcers became legitimate celebrities. For decades, the weekly Monday night game was one of the most-watched American television broadcasts in any category, week in, week out. But things have changed. Now there’s a weekly Thursday Night Football game, and the NFL tends to put its best matchup of the week on NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast. And since 2006, MNF has been on ESPN rather than ABC. While it remains the most-watched thing on ESPN, cable broadcasts always reach significantly fewer viewers than broadcast. Of the three weekly prime-time NFL games, MNF has the lowest viewership. After watching 11 hours of football on Sundays, there’s one main reason fans are tempted to tune into mid-tier matchups on MNF—because we’re down 3.7 points in our fantasy matchups, and our tight end is playing, leading to three excruciating hours in which we watch that tight end score exactly 3.6 points.
ESPN has repeatedly tried and failed to make MNF stand apart. In the 16 years the network has shown the games, it’s run through four play-by-play announcers and eight color commentators. Particularly unpopular experiments include an announcing stint from Pardon the Interruption host Tony Kornheiser, who was better suited for witty quips than football analysis; recently retired, heavily hairplugged tight end Jason Witten, who was barely coherent and quickly unretired; and analyst Booger McFarland, who was asked to call the game from an elevated motorized chair on the sidelines. None lasted more than three seasons. Now, their crew features Steve Levy, Brian Griese, and Louis Riddick—all competent, which is a welcome change from some past teams but not a standout reason to tune in.
The answer seems to be secondary broadcasts, which networks have experimented with in the past few years. The most famous was the Nickelodeon broadcast of last year’s Saints-Bears playoff game, which attempted to inform younger fans about the rules and idiosyncrasies of the incredibly complicated sport, but there have been others: One of the most highly anticipated broadcasts of the college football season is ESPN’s “coaches film room” broadcast of the College Football Playoff, putting a bunch of active college head coaches in a room and letting them shoot the crap while hitting on the schemes and concepts of the game. The network also broadcast its NFL Live studio crew as they watched last year’s Ravens-Titans playoff game, which was also more entertaining than the traditional broadcast, because it simulated the experience of watching a football game with Mina Kimes.
The next logical move was a broadcast with the Mannings, who both have shows on ESPN+ called Peyton’s Places and Eli’s Places. The ManningCast wasn’t perfect—it was almost stunningly unprofessional. The Mannings were caught off guard literally every time the broadcast went to commercial, resulting in them hurriedly wrapping up their stories in 2.5 seconds before the break. The director had a hot mic, so viewers could hear him giving the Mannings instructions for most of the first half. At one point, a fire alarm went off, causing Eli to nervously chuckle with the worried energy of Ralph Wiggum realizing he’s in danger. There was a certain charm to the shoddily produced show—it really added to the feeling that we were just watching two guys watch a game.
They also glossed over the biggest story of the night. It was the first game for Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib since his offseason announcement that he is gay, making him the first openly gay player in the league’s history, but you could’ve watched the ManningCast without realizing its significance. The Mannings had ample opportunity to talk about this—Barkley wore Nassib’s jersey in support, and Nassib ended up making the game-winning play, an overtime sack that forced Lamar Jackson to fumble, setting the Raiders up for the walk-off touchdown. But I don’t recall the Mannings saying anything about it—if they did, it was a cursory mention at best. (Eli did mention that Carl’s brother, Ryan, was his backup on the Giants.)
Since Nassib’s announcement, many have expressed the seemingly supportive sentiment that a player being openly gay is such a nonstory that nobody needs to talk about it. But after decades in which gay NFL players remained in the closet, it is noteworthy that someone finally felt empowered to come out during their career—and he made the play of the game. Some will say it’s nice to have a broadcast where the personal lives of players aren’t brought up, but that wasn’t true of the ManningCast at all—they spent a significant amount of time breaking down what Wilson’s wife, Ciara, wore to the Met Gala and analyzed a picture of Jon Gruden’s wife, Cindy, from when she was a cheerleader at Tennessee.
But there was something special about getting to watch a game with the Mannings. Their anecdotes were fun, and their analysis was sharp. They were honest, both celebratory and critical of the choices made by players and coaches in a way that traditional broadcasters rarely feel comfortable doing. You could feel Peyton’s growing disappointment with Carr as he screwed up over and over again—which made the way he won the game, with a series of impressive throws, feel differently than it would have on a traditional broadcast. I’ll be watching, even if the next game is actually normal.