For generations of NFL fans, John Madden was the grandfatherly expert they could count on every Sunday to commentate the biggest game of the week on CBS and later Fox. For those younger, Madden’s aura will still larger than life as the namesake of their favorite football video games. Alongside Pat Summerall and Al Michaels, Madden became, in many ways, the face and voice of the NFL through the 80s, 90s, and early 00s. The All-Madden Team, the Thanksgiving Day turduckens, all the catchphrases… all of it part of an NFL broadcasting legacy that remains unmatched (even if all the Brett Favre love got a bit much).
While there were likely many “what-if” decisions along the way that could have prevented the Oakland Raiders head coach from becoming a name brand when he retired from the league in 1978, one career option that presented itself could have altered his impact immensely. In a recent NY Daily News article by Bob Raissman, it sounds like Madden had initially made a handshake agreement to become the host of HBO’s “Inside the NFL” instead of pursuing a career as a game commentator.
Per Raissman, HBO Sports’ Seth Abraham had received a tip that Madden was planning to retire and wanted to get into broadcasting. At that point, he reached out and arranged a meeting with Madden in San Francisco.
It was supposed to be just a breakfast meeting but Madden, a huge boxing fan, spent two hours talking about the sweet science. By the time they got to talking “Inside the NFL,” Madden was hesitant. He didn’t want to replace his friend Len Dawson, who was co-hosting ”ITNFL” with Jets radio voice Merle Harmon. Abraham placed a call to the show’s producer Tim Braine who assured Abraham that Madden, who refused to fly, could do the show from Oakland while Dawson would be in Kansas City. Harmon would be gonzo. The conversation went on through lunch and dinner. After much food & gabbing, the two men settled, and shook hands, on a two-year deal. Abraham returned to New York a happy man until his phone rang.
“It was John’s agent, Barry Frank,” Abraham said. “He said, ‘you don’t think a handshake deal is going to stick. I’ve got a signed five-year deal for John at CBS.’
“And that was the start of John’s illustrious career,” Abraham said. ”I guess I can always say I almost got him.”
The move could have changed the entire trajectory of Madden’s career. While “Inside the NFL” was certainly a well-regarded NFL program, its placement on pay cable would have limited the impact that he could have had on the popular culture. He would have been reaching a fraction of the audience he spoke to each NFL weekend. That would have tamped down the commercial requests, appearances, and demands. It’s also hard to believe that the host of a cable show (in the 80s) would have garnered enough status to eventually be asked to put his name on a video game series.
Of course, it’s also possible that Madden could have done “Inside the NFL” for a few years and then moved over to commentating, putting him back on his path. But perhaps then he doesn’t end up in the same booth as Pat Summerall and we never get the iconic NFL pair for decades to come.
Not that “Inside the NFL” suffered without Madden. The long-running NFL show was an HBO mainstay until 2008 when it moved to Showtime. Now, it’s moving to Paramount+, the rebranded streaming service from Showtime’s parent company. While it doesn’t have the legacy that Madden made for himself in broadcasting, it’s made the careers of many other broadcasters who hosted or made a stop there before moving on to other things.
But who knows how it would have been different if John Madden had become the host back in 1978. For both him and the show.