MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to today’s Sunday Night Football call. We’re joined by the on-air team of Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya and executive producer Fred Gaudelli. One week from tonight, NBC starts its 11th season with the Sunday Night Football package. The Denver Broncos host the Carolina Panthers in a Super Bowl rematch, and then three nights later it’s the Arizona Cardinals host the New England Patriots on the opener of Sunday Night Football. All four teams in last year’s Conference Championship games will be playing on NBC on kickoff weekend. We’ll start with an opening comment from each of our speakers before taking your questions.
FRED GAUDELLI: It’s great to be starting the second decade of Sunday Night Football. I think the first decade, definitely the most amazing thing that happened to me in my career, and I think one of the most amazing shows in the history of television, when you think five years, we’ve been the No. 1 show on television. We look forward to the second decade. We look forward to more success, and I turn it over to Al Michaels.
AL MICHAELS: Thanks, Fred. It’s a thrill for me, too, obviously to be a part of this package since it got under way back in 2006. The great thing about this is that — and we say it every year on this call — the schedule is terrific. There’s no question about that. We have some gangbuster marquee games, but I love the mystery that surrounds the NFL, the fact that you just don’t know what’s going to happen. I look at the early part of our schedule, and we’re going into Denver, and of course the question now is who is Trevor Siemian, Peyton Manning is retired, a guy who’s never thrown a pass in the National Football League, was a seventh-round pick as a quarterback. There’s a great deal of mystery surrounding that team as they try to win a second straight Super Bowl championship.
We go to Arizona, where Tom Brady isn’t going to play, which creates even more interest in a game like that because people want to know about Jimmy Garoppolo. And then, while it’s no good obviously for the teams involved to lose Teddy Bridgewater, that’s the next week. We’ve got Green Bay at Minnesota, what are the Vikings going to be without Bridgewater? We go to Dallas. They don’t have Romo. So it’s going to be Dak Prescott. Do they bring Roger Staubach out of retirement? The great thing about all the games that we do is that there’s a great story involving every one of them, and it seems to be the case week upon week, and this year figures to be no different.
We’re the No. 1 show on television for five years in a row. American Idol holds the record at six, so obviously there’s that big carrot that’s being dangled in front of us, and there’s nothing we’d love better than to tie that record. Ironically, I live in West Los Angeles and I run into [All in the Family Producer] Norman Lear every once in a while at our favorite restaurant and I was kidding him when I last saw him that we have now tied them for second place, five years in a row being No. 1, so I want to be able to come in with a foam No. 1 finger next year and wave it at the great Norman, who will be 95 years old at that point and take over that No. 1 role.
A lot of things in play for us. Looking forward to it. Very exciting, again, and here’s Cris.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I guess that means I play the role of the ‘meathead’ here. What a great way to start the season for us. To get the final four teams, I don’t think that’s ever happened before. To get Cam Newton, Superman, the reigning MVP and going against Trevor Siemian, who has surprisingly to a lot of people won that job and a guy who’s only taken one snap in his entire NFL career but stands behind a defense that was so intimidating a season ago that basically carried this football team through to a Super Bowl championship, and how much of a chip on the shoulder that defense has. Their feeling is that, ‘oh, my goodness, Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler, they’re both gone. What are we going to do? We’re going to do exactly what we did last year, which is win games on the defensive side of the ball.’
And then, of course, the biggest story of the past two seasons really is what’s happened to Tom Brady. Like much of America, he will be sitting by watching the broadcast and judging Jimmy Garoppolo and how he’s doing and playing against Carson Palmer and a team that a season ago really — I don’t know how Al feels about it — but maybe the most exciting game that I’ve ever been a part of other than maybe the Super Bowl where New England won in that last second. But to see how this team can bounce back and continue to play because at one point in the year last year, I thought Carson Palmer was playing better than any quarterback that was out there. So many weapons, so many exciting players on that side of the ball.
When you talk about opening weekend, what better than the four best teams in football from a season ago, and we get them all. So exciting time for us.
Turn it over to the pride of Minnesota, Michele Tafoya.
MICHELE TAFOYA: Do I get to choose whether I’m Edith or Gloria in this scenario? I kind of like Edith. I have the schedule in front of me. I just feel privileged to be part of this group. I mean, every single person that works on Sunday Night Football works extraordinarily hard every day, and we just keep trying to elevate our game every day, and so it’s just a privilege to be part of that.
I can tell you that if we have Dallas at the Giants as we’re scheduled to on December 11th, it could be anywhere from 30 to 44 degrees because on my schedule here I have the average temperatures for every single game so I know how to dress out there on the sideline. It’s just another terrific, terrific schedule. I don’t think I can really add anything more to what everyone has already said, so I’ll let it go at that.
Q. Al, on the Sunday Night Football schedule, I don’t see the Los Angeles Rams included, and there’s one Thursday Night game in mid-December, but that’s in Seattle. Is there any way you can flex out of your schedule and somehow get to the Coliseum to somehow see a game this year?
AL MICHAELS: Can you help me? Yeah, I mean, after 30 years of doing the primetime game, 20 on Monday and 10 on Sunday and not having a team in my city since 1994, I thought, well, maybe possibly, could it be, whatever, and no, that’s not the case. But you know, the great thing about flex is that you never know. We could wind up in the Coliseum in maybe November or December. I don’t know what the Rams are going to be this year. There’s a lot of excitement around here. That’s all I know, in this town. Everybody is happy to have the Rams back, and sooner or later I’ll get to do a game in my hometown, I hope.
Q. Did you get season tickets?
AL MICHAELS: My son has six of them, so unfortunately I will not be going to any of the games with him. I said, just get home for the start of Carrie Underwood, would you?
Q. I was going to ask, there’s so many storylines involving the Panthers, of course, but one that I think could end up factoring in their whole season is playing these two and starting these two rookie cornerbacks right out of the gates. Cris, I’d be curious your thoughts what kind of was a very big gamble by Dave Gettleman letting Josh Norman go and how do you see the Panthers rolling with these two rookie corners?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Well, you know, I’ve been watching Ron Rivera’s defenses and Sean McDermott’s defenses for a long time now, and the one common factor that I think all of them have is that they make explosive plays out of the secondary, and I don’t think that’s any accident. You’ve got a defense that’s built around incredibly powerful defensive linemen, incredibly fast and talented linebackers, and so that’s where they’re going to spend their money. But what has consistently happened with these defenses is that Ron and Sean have the ability to make you believe you have something, so you may catch three out routes and four hitches and start thinking, boy, this is easy, and all of a sudden they put the magic wand out there, and this is the one they’re going to rotate over the top, and I want that cornerback at the snap of the ball, as soon as that wide receiver starts to sit down, don’t worry about him going by you, we’ve got that covered, and they’re going to have a pick six.
So while I think that Josh Norman had an incredible season last year, and I certainly don’t want to take away any of his success, at one point I think we put it on during the game, the quarterbacks would have had a higher quarterback rating if they had just taken the ball and thrown it in the dirt instead of throwing it to Josh Norman’s side, but they had a great year.
I think they believe that somebody they set up in that same way is going to have that kind of success this season in the secondary.
Q. Jumping off on Al’s point about the mystery at the start of the season, it does seem like there’s kind of a high number of top players who are going to miss the first few weeks, looking at obviously Peyton, Brady, Romo, Bridgewater, Calvin Johnson, et cetera. I just wondered if that feels disproportionately high to you compared to previous years and kind of whether that signifies the league is in a bit of a transition, and if so, how you think that’s going to play out?
AL MICHAELS: I don’t see it, in terms of volume, as any different than it’s been for the last few years. It seems that way because everything now is bigger and broader on social media and all the shows, so it gets talked about a lot more than it was 10 or 15 years ago. I mean, but you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Last year one of the big, big injuries early in training camp was with Carolina, and they lost Kelvin Benjamin, who had a tremendous season in 2014, and of course with Cam Newton at quarterback, he’d be the centerpiece, but Benjamin was going to be so important, and all of a sudden it looked like Carolina was going to go from maybe a nine-win team to a six-win team, and the next thing you know they win 15 and get to the Super Bowl.
You don’t know how it’s going to work out. But every year people say, well, aren’t there more injuries now than there used to be? Without looking at it scientifically, it just doesn’t seem that way to me. There are always a lot of key injuries early on.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I can think of Jordy Nelson last year, Adrian Peterson a few years ago — it just seems like every year to start the season, it’s part of it. But it’s an amazing sport that you really have to keep up with now not only the health of the players but the discipline of the players and the number of really star players that will miss the beginning of the season. I think the National Football League has taken a very strong stand on what they consider appropriate conduct, and obviously if you’re willing to suspend Tom Brady, you’re willing to suspend anybody.
I’ve never seen a sport more scrutinized. I mean, maybe soccer. I don’t know enough about it, around the world, has that same sort of all-encompassing kind of approach. Maybe it’s fantasy football. Maybe it’s daily fantasy football. But people know so much about the ins and outs of these 53-man rosters. It’s crazy sometimes to get into conversations with not just men but women, as well. They have such a deep knowledge and really deeply-rooted opinions of what the league is doing and what they’re doing. It’s a unique sport, and I think it’s bigger, and I think it’s more interesting today than it’s ever been.
Q. My question is for Michele Tafoya. Watching the Games in Rio, you were doing some of the biggest interviews really live with Phelps out of the pool and all that. Did you get to take a break at all, and when you were doing those, did you kind of compare them to some of the football games you’ve done or Super Bowls or anything like that?
MICHELE TAFOYA: Yeah, it’s hard not to compare your experiences professionally with different athletes in different sports. This was very different because it was race after race after race. You’re going — and these are individuals competing alone. They’re fresh out of the pool. They’re exhausted. Not that NFL players aren’t when they’re finished with a game, but they’re spent from this amazing sprint they just put themselves through, and it’s highly emotional. In most cases they just found out they had won an Olympic gold medal or silver medal or whatever, and so that joy is — it’s their Super Bowl every race.
So in that regard, it was different, and it was an historic performance by this USA swimming team with that thread running through it of Michael Phelps calling it his last, and we’ll say calling it his last. I do believe it is, but there are others who don’t.
So it was unique. It was fun. It was constant. The action was constant. It was one after another after another with the interviews, and so it was a really thrilling, exhilarating, fun assignment is what I can say.
I did get a week home, which is more than some people did. A lot of our crew came straight back from Rio to Miami or Orlando for our first preseason game, so I felt lucky that I got a bit of a rest.
Q. I wanted to ask Al, Cris and Michele, if you could talk about yesterday Tony Dungy made a remark that the problem for the Panthers here in Charlotte is not so much a Super Bowl hangover but the fact that everybody is gunning for you and you get everybody’s best shot. I’m just wondering if the three of you agree with that, and what you expect out of this team this year.
AL MICHAELS: Well, that’s always the case. You have a target on your back if you’ve been to the Super Bowl, certainly if you’re the Super Bowl champion you do. So that’s to be expected. I think one of the big differences with the Panthers would be that most of their existence going back to when they were formed and first started playing I think in 1995, they have not been considered one of the teams to beat. They did go to a Super Bowl early in the 2000s, of course, and had some success, and then last year, to win 15 games and then to win a couple of playoff games was tremendous, exceeded all expectations.
In a way, you know, you can sneak up on people. As I mentioned before, Benjamin got hurt in training camp, the expectations weren’t that high, and then all of a sudden, people are going, what happened, they won what? They won 15 games? So this year the expectations are, and I’m sure in Charlotte it’s got to be, hey, look, one more step, and that just comes with the territory. Once you have a lot of success like that, people expect you to be good every year.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Yeah, to me this is one of the most interesting teams. It’s the one team you don’t want to play when you see them getting off the bus, right? Even their quarterback weighs 260 pounds. Cam Newton alone, I feel like I could do the three-hour broadcast on. I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a player quite like him, MVP of the league, a guy that can throw it and is continuing to grow as a passer, but this ability of his to play fullback, to play halfback, to extend the ball across the goal line in harm’s way without fear of it getting knocked out of his hand in ways that I’ve ever seen before, hurdling and flipping over players into the end zone where ordinarily you go, oh, my gosh, I can’t get my quarterback hit, I can’t get hurt, and because I coached some high school football, one thing you know is that if the quarterback is involved in some way other than just handing the ball to somebody else, once he hands the ball off and then fakes or something, it is basically 11 on 10. But when the quarterback runs the ball, it’s back to 11 on 11, and you can block people in a way that you can’t if the quarterback is handing off.
Luke Kuechly to me is an unbelievable talent. I mean, this guy is so far off the charts now playing linebacker, and he seems to get better every year, Kony Ealy, the game that he had in the Super Bowl, Josh Norman, what’s that loss going to be? Mike Remmers, of course, what are they going to do differently this time around?
This is a story of a team that everybody just assumed was the best team in football. Everybody probably had them ranked as the No. 1 team in football. They were heavy favorites in the Super Bowl and came up short, and now we’ve got to see how they bounce back. I lost two Super Bowls, so I understand full well how hard it is emotionally to get back to that point where you go, oh, all I want to do is get back to the Super Bowl and have another shot, but you have to go to training camp and you have to do all the hard work and then you have to go through the preseason, then you have to win games. It’s like you just want to go back to that championship game and start again, but you’ve got to be willing to go through the grind of getting there, and that’s where they are right now.
MICHELE TAFOYA: I wouldn’t want to be an opponent of this team this year. You can say Super Bowl hangover, but I would imagine they are more motivated than ever when you come off a Super Bowl loss. No one would know that better than Cris. No one on this crew anyway would know that better than Cris. I’m not worried about a hangover for them. If I’m their opponent, I’m worried about an angry, really talented team.
Q. Cris, I’m curious if you’ve seen Matthew Stafford this preseason, how you think you’ll do in this no-huddle offense the Lions are going to run and then on the Lions’ season in general, how they can expect to do in the NFC North.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: It’s kind of been turned upside down in the last two days with what’s going on with Minnesota and Teddy Bridgewater. It’s hard for me to split out what happened in the first half of the season with Matthew Stafford and what happened when Jim Bob Cooter came in there. I can’t always explain it, but sometimes there are just personalities or there are systems or there are things that just work, and with Calvin Johnson not in the mix this time around, you think, oh, boy, they might really have a struggle to come back in it. But I saw what I saw in the second half of that season last year, and it looks like they’ve added to it a little bit, and we certainly have seen, we saw this year already in preseason what Adam Gase has been able to do with Miami. Ryan Tannehill looked terrific moving that team up and down the field in the no-huddle offense. But it does take time to develop.
What works in preseason against base defenses is not what you’re going to see in the regular season, but as a guy that lived in those no-huddle offenses, there are great advantages to being able to play that way. You are better at communicating in a no-huddle offense than those defenses are at dialing up blitzes.
Defensive linemen have to exert so much more energy than offensive linemen in trying to get to the quarterback that after four or five plays, they’re exhausted, and the offensive linemen are laughing at them because they’re the ones that have to create the work.
As a philosophical choice, I think it’s exciting and I think it’ll work, but we’ll see.
Q. Do you think Matt is the quarterback from the first half or the second half or some combination of the two?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: You have to say the second half, right, after what we saw in this system. But there’s no guarantee. I can’t tell you how many different times I’ve fallen in love with teams that I love in preseason or what they did in the last six games of last year or the last eight games in this case, and then it just doesn’t happen the next year.
I try to take every single season as I’ll know it when I see it, but I don’t think anybody knows. You know, I really don’t. I kind of laugh at experts’ picks and all the different things. Get back to me at the end of September, and I’ll have a pretty good feel for it. But every year, every team changes. I mean, they fundamentally change. I mean, Calvin Johnson not being there fundamentally changes this football team.
I think we have to wait and see, but certainly they’re back in the mix now in a way that maybe I wouldn’t have imagined with the Teddy Bridgewater injury, but who knows how that’ll go, either.
Q. I wanted to get your take; do you think Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand up for the National Anthem was disrespectful, and how would you cover that if something like this happens on a Sunday Night Football game?
FRED GAUDELLI: I just think that, not to mirror what pretty much everyone else has said, but when you live in a democracy, you have to accept everybody has the right to do what they want to do. If we had a 49ers game — we don’t, but if we did — we would certainly cover it. I don’t think there’s any way you couldn’t cover it. It’s one of the biggest stories in America. But I just think that that’s his right, and that’s part of living in a free country.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: And I would agree with that to some extent, but remember that free speech is about the government can’t infringe on your free speech right. It says nothing about an employer and what they can do to your free speech right, right? You have the right to say it, but if you’re working for somebody, they have the right to do whatever they want, as well. So the NFL seems to echo exactly what Fred has been talking about.
My personal taste in the thing is I would defend to the death his right to say or do anything along those lines. Certainly we’ve all seen instances where there are situations that are horrible and somebody should stand up to those situations. But in the same way, I don’t think that Al or Michele or I would be right in espousing our political views on the air because we have that platform, and we certainly would have the right to reach 25 million people, and there’s no filter on us and we can basically say what we want. It still wouldn’t feel like the right thing for me to do. If Colin Kaepernick had held up a sign and walked up and down the street, that would have been the better platform from my standpoint, but I understand when people have these sort of raw emotions and they feel a need to express it, and that’s the way he chose to do so.
I think as a broadcaster, all we’ll do is say this is what he’s doing, and then you’ll have 300 million different opinions on whether it’s right or wrong.
AL MICHAELS: And as a broadcaster, we’re there to cover the story, so obviously as Freddie said, you can’t ignore it. He’s going to do it again apparently tonight in San Diego, so it’s ongoing, and I think everybody has kind of weighed in on his right to do this or how they feel about it.
I think what’s going to be very interesting in the next few days is the fact that before all of this happened, there was a question whether or not he was even going to be on the roster of the San Francisco 49ers, whether he was going to make the team, whether Blaine Gabbert will be the starter or did he cost too much money to keep around, so now you’ve got this thing going, as well, and it’s a 49er organization that’s going to have to go, wait a second, are we going to keep him, is he going to be a backup, is he worth it, is it too much of a distraction to us. That’s the thing that I think we’ll keep an eye on over the next few days. It’s going to be pretty interesting to see what happens with him and his future as a 49er, period.
MICHELE TAFOYA: And I would just chime in, echoing all that, but at the same time we’re going to be watchful on our sidelines and in our games. We don’t know yet if someone else is going to join him, and certainly the potential exists for that, so I think our guys will be open for that, as well.
Q. Quick follow-up to Cris’s point about the employer, do you think he hurt or maybe ended his career by exercising his right to free speech?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Well, to some extent, and without giving an opinion on what he’s doing, I think the fact that he’s willing to put his career on the line, which to some extent, let’s face it, most teams don’t like distractions, and to some extent he’s putting his career on the line, because if he were to get cut here, I’m sure there would be other teams, at least some, that would say, you know what, we’ve got enough distractions already on our team, we don’t need to add to it.
You know, I have some admiration for a guy that basically may be taking an action that he believes in that may end up costing him, at least indirectly, a job.