Monday night in Carolina, we had the most controversial finish of the 2013 NFL season. If that holds up, it'll be the second consecutive year in which ESPN's Monday Night Football will broadcast the season's most controversial game, because Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden were also in the booth when Seattle beat Green Bay on the now-infamous "Fail Mary" last September.
Tirico and Gruden handled both moments extremely well, and it only reinforced for me how much better ESPN's national NFL product has become than most if not all of its competitors.
Here's a general transcript of the broadcast after referee Clete Blakeman announced that there'd be no penalty on Carolina's Luke Kuechly for pass interference against Rob Gronkowski on the final play of the fourth quarter, giving the Panthers the victory over New England:
Tirico: "No foul, game over. And the Panthers with the win. Interesting end to that one. We'll get a lot of looks at it. Brady wants an explanation."
Brady [picked up by ambient mics the moment Tirico stops talking]: "That was f—ing brutal, Clete!"
Tirico: "And you can see how Tom's furious. If you threw a flag there, how do you just pick it up and say no interference? And Ryan Mallett continues to talk with Blakeman. Here's Kuechly tearing Gronkowski down."
[Short delay while replays are shown]
Tirico: "Gerry Austin, our official in the booth is here. Gerry, what do you see there?"
[Austin offers his professional take, which garners criticism because it defends the call on the field.]
Gruden: "I see the linebacker with his arms all over the tight end. No wonder he can't make a play on the ball.
Tirico: "Ball's in the air, he's trying to come back. Don't know if he would have gotten there because of what Gerry said. In any case, it is a Carolina win. Both teams are 7-3 and Lisa Salters is with Cam Newton.
[Salters gets Newton's take before they sign off.]
In a very short window between the end of the game and the beginning of SportsCenter, we get strong takes from Tirico and Gruden, a multitude of quality replays, a separate take from a former official and we hear from a sideline reporter and the winning quarterback. We also get a sound-up of the game's most famous quarterback cursing out the referee.
Again, Austin was a little bit vanilla, but I didn't think his analysis was all that bad. He pointed out — correctly, I believe — that were was "no chance" for Gronkowski to catch the ball. And keep in mind that there's no holding once the ball is in the air. It wasn't black and white, and Austin's breakdown still added to the broadcast whether you agree with it or not.
Tirico is the best traffic cop on TV. He explained everything succinctly and made sure to bring in all available parties for comment and analysis. Most importantly, he knew to shut up when the cameras were tracking Brady and Blakeman as they jogged off the field.
Let's flash back to that Fail Mary play from Week 3 of last season. The replacement officials completely botched the final play between Seattle and Green Bay, awarding the Seahawks a touchdown despite the fact Russell Wilson's final heave to Golden Tate was clearly intercepted by M.D. Jennings. Here's a general transcript of the broadcast, starting with at the moment in which two officials made conflicting signals — one touchdown, one touchback:
Tirico: "We must have a definitive call. There was (only) one touchdown signal."
[That definitive call is made and it is announced that the play is under review.]
Tirico, immediately: "The Seahawks have won. You can't go to replay to determine who caught the ball, so that call was made on the field."
Gruden: "How does M.D. Jennings not get credit for the interception I have no idea."
Tirico: "It looks like Jennings has the ball there. Let me bring in Gerry Austin, as it looks like Seattle's in celebration mode here."
Austin: "Jennings has the ball, he's bringing it in. When he gets to the ground he's got it against his body, and Tate then pulls it away."
Tirico: "This is the most bizarre sequence you'll ever see at the end of a game. Let's watch the feet of Jennings — they're certainly in bounds. He had more of the ball as he comes down. And like you said, it's against his body."
Gruden, bringing the analysis to the next level (seriously): "Golden Tate gets away with one of the most blatant pass interference calls I've ever seen, M.D. Jennings intercepts the pass and Tate's walking out here as player of the game. Unbelievable."
Austin: "By rule, there must be an extra point try."
Gruden, after more replays show a clear push-off from Tate and what looks like a pick: "For the life of me I don't understand how M.D. Jennings doesn't have an interception there."
Austin: "Jennings has the ball and his arms to his chest. Tate his hands on the ball, but Jennings has the ball to his body. It appears to me that would be an interception."
Tirico: "Seahawks win in the most bizarre finish you'll ever see. You need to try an extra point. The game is not over. Ruled a touchdown, they must try a conversion. … Lisa's standing with Russell Wilson, so Lisa, you go ahead first."
[Salters' first two questions pertain to the final play.]
Tirico: "Green Bay has left the field. This reminds me of a Buffalo game in New England [which he elaborates on] … Seattle would have to try a conversion by rule. However, we're watching the officials walk off the field. So they will not try the extra point. This is another rule mistake in enforcement in this entire fiasco of a referee situation. [The officials] are on now with the communicator. They're going to bring the Seahawks back I believe."
Gruden: "They should give Green Bay the game, is what they should do."
Gruden, who isn't a geography superstar: "There's no way Green Bay should fly 6,000 miles home after losing a game like this. That's what instant replay's for. I don't like the way this game finished. I have a bad taste in my mouth."
[We get about 12 more replays while the officials deliberate.]
Tirico: "I'm going to bring Gerry Austin back in here. Gerry, let's talk about the rule of simultaneous possession in a play. Simultaneous possession always go to the offense, even if the defense has their hands on it first?"
Austin: "That's correct. … But on this, all Tate has on it is one arm."
Tirico: "Pete Carroll's down on the field with Lisa."
[Carroll explains to Salters that the rules indicate they have to come back out and kick the extra point, alluding to the Buffalo-New England game Tirico had referred to earlier. The rest of the interview is gold.]
Tirico, bringing in the big picture: "We've said all the way through this, 'Gotta play through plays, gotta play through this play or that play.' When it impacts the end of a game and the outcome of a game, is this the impetus to change this lockout situation? We don't know. Time will answer that. But offensive pass interference, an apparent interception, simultaneous possession. A lot of things going on."
[Two days later, the lockout would end.]
Gruden: "This is comical to me, really. Mike, I tell you that's two of the worst calls at the end of a football game I can remember."
Tirico: "I agree with you, Jon. To get to the real specifics of the rule, it's not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control of the ball first and then the opponent subsequently gains control. So Jennings had it first, and then you have simultaneous possession coming down to the ground with control."
Gruden: "Controversy's one thing, but to me this is another."
Tirico: "I don't know that I could ask 11 of my guys to come out after I've been jobbed the way that they have."
[The extra point is kicked.]
Tirico: "Forty-three years of Monday nights, 92 years of the National Football League, and there have been some strange ones. But this one was right up there."
Could it have been handled any better? This time, we heard from a play-by-play man, two analysts, a reporter and two Seahawks. ESPN has more time to work with and more resources, and it shows.
Just for comparison's sake, I want to bring you the general broadcast transcript from what was arguably the second-most controversial ending thus far this season. The Jets beat the Patriots in Week 7, but only after a new, little-known rule was enforced on a missed field goal from New York in overtime. Here's how CBS B team Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf handled it, starting from the moment the controversial call was made:
Dierdorf: "Wow. Pushing the opponent into the pile?"
Gumbel: "The guilty party is the rookie, Chris Jones."
[Long period of nothingness.]
Dierdorf: "Well, let's…let's take a look at this. He's lined up right in the center…"
[Another, more abrupt period of nothingness, this time for 12 seconds.]
Dierdorf: "Is he pushing his own player?"
[Ten more seconds pass.]
Dierdorf: "You're not allowed to push your own player. This is him right here in the middle. Oh, that's what they're saying. They're saying he gets behind and he's pushing his own player up field. You can't get, like, two locomotives together, pushing up field. I don't believe I have ever seen that call."
Gumbel decides to speak again: "Wow, the Jets with a first down now."
At a crucial moment, Gumbel went one minute and 17 seconds without saying a word, while Dierdorf stumbled. To Dan's credit, his analysis was ultimately correct, but whether he was helped or not, it took him quite some time to get there. Gruden wouldn't have necessarily been better, but I'm confident Tirico would be been much more prepared for that moment.
The Jets kicked the winning field goal a few players later and Gumbel signed off almost immediately. We never heard from an NFL rules expert, because CBS is the only network with live broadcast rights that doesn't employ one. It did have a sideline reporter working that game, but Tracy Wolfson was not seen during the entire ordeal.
That's the difference between a top-notch operation and an ordinary one. With all of its resources at hand, Monday Night Football is certainly one of the best broadcasts in the NFL. You really begin to see it in those crazy moments, don't you?