This year’s edition of the College Football Playoff National Championship saw ESPN roll out no less than 14 different broadcast feeds for fans to enjoy. Some were rather simple, like the “basic” call on ESPN featuring Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, and all the usual bells and whistles you’d expect. Some were chock full of disorienting camera angles, like the spider cam and pylon cam feeds on ESPN3.
And some let you watch people watching the game. Like last year, ESPN offered multiple broadcasts geared towards the analysis (or lack thereof) of the game itself. Of the five broadcasts in HD on most cable systems, four of these feeds were dedicated to watching people watching the game – ESPN2’s Film Room, ESPNU’s Homer Broadcast, ESPNEWS’s Voices setup, and SEC Network’s Finebaum Film Room (which we unfortunately didn’t have someone covering, which is a shame because it seemed to get plenty of good feedback on Twitter).
The most traditional of these broadcasts was the Homer Broadcast, which featured Joe Tessitore “moderating” game discussion between Tajh Boyd and Barrett Jones. The least traditional was Voices, which was laden with off-topic discussion and would drive fans wanting to watch the game with no outside distractions insane.
So what worked, and what didn’t? Here’s a brief breakdown.
Normal Broadcast – ESPN
The on-air talent was great, while the production truck had a rough night.
First, the voices: Remember when Chris Fowler lacked the coursing-through-your-veins energy which defines great play-by-play broadcasters? It’s a distant memory now.
It’s not as though the national press was wrong to criticize Fowler after his first season as Brent Musburger’s replacement as ESPN’s No. 1 play-by-play voice in college football. Fowler simply didn’t capture moments the way Brent, Mike Tirico, or Sean McDonough more regularly manage to do. The criticism was accurate; hence, it wasn’t unfair.
That said, Fowler — like anyone else stepping into a new role after doing something else for decades — certainly deserved time and space in which to grow. Monday night, he grew. He rose to the moment in what was a memorable national championship game.
The thing I’ll always remember about this broadcast is that when Kenyan Drake and O.J. Howard made the defining plays of Alabama’s win over Clemson, Fowler’s cadence and urgency were worthy of the occasions. People remember when broadcasters are up to the task of calling a game the right way. Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit gave viewers a broadcast they could trust.
ESPN’s coverage did possess a glaring and not merely minor flaw, however: Much as Turner/TBS often fail to show moving screens or off-ball foul-call replays in NCAA tournament regional finals, instead focusing only on scoring plays or “sexier” replays, ESPN fell into this same trap.
You might recall two plays from the second quarter in which Alabama used questionable blocks (they might have been in the back) to spring runners. One was a big gain up the left sideline in Clemson territory. The other was a flat pass to receiver Calvin Ridley in the Tide’s own red zone, with 43 seconds left before halftime. Ridley ran a few yards backward, behind the line of scrimmage, before going across the field to his right.
Both plays deserved to be replayed, so that viewers could see if an illegal block had occurred. Neither play received such treatment. In a national title game, with so many cameras and resources available, those were unforced errors from the ESPN production truck.
Good on-air talent, inconsistent truck. That’s the ESPN broadcast in a nutshell. (Matt Zemek)
Film Room – ESPN2
The film room was solid again this time around, with coaches Pat Narduzzi, Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain, Willie Taggart and Larry Fedora all delivering some solid Xs and Os-heavy insight. Narduzzi and Muschamp stood out for their insights on the teams’ defensive schemes and what went wrong on certain plays, often figuring it out within seconds. Some of the best analysis came from the discussion of both teams’ up-tempo offensive packages and how to counteract those defensively, with Narduzzi’s comment that “you’ve got to simplify what you’re doing” summing that up.
McElwain offered some unique formation insights and brought a good offensive mindset; the way he and Narduzzi broke down what went wrong for Clemson’s defense on Alabama’s first touchdown was a highlight. Taggart shone at times, such as with his discussion of trick plays before those became a key factor, but was sometimes too cliché-heavy and focused on momentum. Fedora didn’t really stand out for the most part, but he added some useful insights here and there and was better than Matt Millen. All in all, this was a solid group of coaches, and one not afraid to be critical when necessary, as with this third-down play from Alabama QB Jake Coker.
ESPN’s Chris Spielman and Brian Griese did a good job of keeping the conversation going and getting the coaches to explain some of their more complicated terminology. There was still a lot of jargon at times, but a. that comes with the turf here, and b. that’s why we have Chris Brown. This feed also provided some excellent humor, such as the line about Alabama running back Derrick Henry being “more of a Heisman Trophy-winning guard right now” at a point where he was being used as a blocker.
The one weakness of this feed was ESPN’s decision to keep the talk going through commercial breaks, which was executed very awkwardly at the start, with several coaches being cut off mid-sentence. (This has been proposed as a potential TV cliffhanger resolution method, though.) The cuts became smoother as the broadcast went on, though, and the transitions were much less jarring near the end. All in all, it was a great broadcast for those interested in the strategic side of football, and one that provided a tremendous amount of information on why certain plays and schemes worked or didn’t. (Andrew Buchholtz)
Homer Broadcast – ESPNU
This had train wreck potential written all over it, but thankfully with Joe Tessitore calling the play-by-play on the field with former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and former Alabama center Barrett Jones as his “analysts,” it actually worked out well. Joe Tess, Boyd and Jones walked from sideline to sideline to get clear vantage points of the action. While Boyd and Jones didn’t trash talk, they did bleed Alabama Crimson and Clemson Orange. And for Tessitore to call play-by-play from the sidelines and at times, walking through media, players, guests and VIP’s was quite impressive.
Dave Pasch was a host stationed high above the field setting the scene coming out of breaks. Kaylee Hartung interviewed former Alabama and Clemson players and got some TV gold at the outset when Mark Ingram cheered out loud during Derrick Henry’s first touchdown.
Was it mind-blowing TV? No, but it was different and gave fans of both school some familiar faces. Will it come back? Who knows, but give ESPN credit for trying something new. (Ken Fang)
ESPN Voices – ESPNEWS
The ESPN Voices telecast on ESPNEWS was a train wreck, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Last year’s ESPN Voices broadcast featured Jay Bilas, Aaron Boone, Julie Foudy, Barry Melrose, Mark Schlereth, and Michael Wilbon sitting around watching the game, eating, having a grand ol’ time, and we loved it. This year, the only holdover was Bilas, and he was joined by the SportsNation crew of Michelle Beadle, Max Kellerman, and Marcellus Wiley, ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman, and the breakout star of the Megacast, ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas.
Wait, Teddy Atlas, breakout star? That’s right – Atlas brought out plenty of stats and cogent analysis (!!!!!) of the game and seemed to be the only one paying attention for all four quarters while his colleagues talked about eating boogers, Beadle’s past as a waitress, ties in soccer, and Wiley’s water jug with chewed gum at the bottom. Early on in the game, I compared him to the guy who goes to the Super Bowl party with the firm intention of actually watching the game as opposed to enjoying the party.
Plus, he was talking about gambling enough to make Brent Musburger and Al Michaels blush. Combine that with Twellman bringing up prop bets on more than one occasion, and I’m sure some ESPN suits were getting a little bit nervous at the prospect of pissing the NCAA off by daring to insinuate that fans bet money on these games.
Next year, ESPN should truly embrace the sideshow atmosphere of ESPN Voices and bring back Atlas and Bilas along with Musburger, Dick Vitale, a traffic cop like Beadle, and another ex-athlete. It would be an absolute trip, and would represent how the Voices telecast has evolved since its disastrous, Cheryl Hines-flooded debut in 2013. (Joe Lucia)
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