Thursday, August 30, 2018
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for our Football Night in America media conference call where we will preview the 2018 NFL season. Since its inception in 2006, FNIA has been the most watched studio show in sports. Joining us today is NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood, our new studio host for FNIA Mike Tirico, and analysts Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison.
SAM FLOOD: Thanks, everyone, for joining us. It’s exciting to get football back rolling for real. For us it starts on Saturday where Mike Tirico is hanging out now getting ready for that Notre Dame-Michigan game, so we’re excited about that, but we’re really thrilled that the football season for the NFL is starting with this new gang in the studio.
The past 10 years seems like yesterday that the show was re-launched with Tony and Rodney as the lead analysts, with Dan Patrick in the studio. Dan was an amazing teammate and friend for the past 10 years as we built this show into what it’s become, and we’re excited now to pass the torch to Mike to lead these gentlemen in the studio. He’s been warned about both Rodney and Tony, how to make sure they have some fun and tell you what’s going on. There’s no better group to watch a football Sunday with than these guys.
For all these years, we’ve sat in a room and watched the games, and you’re ahead of a play when you’re listening to Tony and Rodney. They’re telling you what’s going to happen, why it’s going to happen, and both of them will have the adjustments that make sense for the two teams. It’s our belief that this has become the show of record for the NFL, as Chris mentioned, the highest-rated studio show in all of sports television, so we’re proud of that. We’re proud of continuing that tradition, and everything I saw in the rehearsal this past weekend tells me we’re in great shape with Mike at the helm. With that, I throw it off to South Bend’s Mike Tirico.
MIKE TIRICO: Here only, not resident just yet. Good to be in South Bend. Great to be on the call with everyone. I’ll keep it brief so you can get to your questions and more importantly hear from Tony and Rodney, which is the priority for us, not just here but on the show during the year.
Privileged to be a part of this on the road for the last couple of years, and I’m really excited about coming back into the studio. Dan set a very high bar. I’ll hopefully be able to continue that along with the guys along the way. I think the uniqueness of this show — as I’ve hosted studio shows before for many years at ESPN and have hosted all of our stuff at NBC, including the Olympics — obviously, the unique part of this show is that it recaps the day, as Sam said, but it also serves at the same time as the pregame for the Sunday night game, which is always that marquee match-up of the week.
It plays both sides of the fence, and we use it throughout — if you’re a football fan, as soon as your late game ends or even before that, you come hang out with us. Hopefully you’ll see everything that happened, not just the highlight but the context and perspective of Tony and Rodney, who are two of the most respected voices in the game, and then get the flavor for Sunday night with William McHugh on the road, Al, Cris, Michele and the whole gang. Thrilled to be a part of this team. Look forward to the start of the season, and I guess we’ll turn it over to Tony to hear from Tony and Rodney.
TONY DUNGY: Thank you, Mike. I just want to start out by saying awesome to start my 10th year with Rodney. He’s been a teammate of mine longer than I’ve had any teammate before, and it’s been a real pleasure and honor to work these last nine years with him. We’re excited to have Mike with us, a special talent, and as much as we miss Dan, Mike is going to bring something to the table that we’re going to just really enjoy.
Fired up about that, and for me, I always look forward to this time of year. I want to see which team is going to gel, which couple of teams are going to gel and become the teams that we look to see in February. As I said last week as we were kind of getting started, nobody was thinking Philadelphia at this point last year, and they ended up being the champions. There’s another Philadelphia out there, and we need to find out who that’s going to be. That’s kind of what I’m looking forward to start the year, but it should be a lot of fun. I will turn it over now to Rodney.
RODNEY HARRISON: Good afternoon, everyone, and first I’d like to start off with just thanking Dan Patrick for all the help and all the guidance that he had and impacting Tony and my career off the field, all the help, all the guidance, everything that he has done.
I’d also like to welcome in Mike Tirico, just a tremendous pro, a guy that’s so unselfish, a guy that whatever he can do to help us, he’s willing to help us, a guy that loves football. I really appreciate that from Mike.
And of course my teammate Tony Dungy, who’s helped me tremendously. We’ve grown to become almost like really, really good friends. I almost look at him as a father figure, a guy that’s well respected, but I also have to thank Sam Flood ultimately for believing in us. If it weren’t for him, we would not be here.
I know there’s a lot of story lines. Obviously the new quarterbacks, so much wealth of talent from the draft. The thing I’m looking at is kind of what Coach is looking at, who’s going to be that team, kind of like very similar, and Coach said it last week, like Philadelphia. There’s a lot of teams out here. I live in Atlanta, I know the Falcons are very excited. They feel like they could be one of those potential teams that are contender; the Rams; Green Bay obviously, with Aaron Rodgers back and healthy; and the Minnesota Vikings. So there’s going to be four or five teams right there competing for an opportunity to win a championship.
Q. For Tony and Rodney, do you look at the Dolphins as one of the worst teams in the league, a potential wild card contender, or something in between?
TONY DUNGY: Well, I would have to say I get a lot of flak because I am a big fan of Ryan Tannehill’s, and I know he’s been up and down and he’s struggled with injuries, but I do believe he’s a talented quarterback that really once he feels comfortable — I don’t look at the Dolphins as being a playoff contender, I look at them being more of an 8-8 or 7-9 team. But if he can get on the road, if he can get hot, and if he can build his confidence, I think this is a team that can definitely play that spoiler type role, but I don’t look at the Dolphins as being that playoff type team yet.
RODNEY HARRISON: I don’t look at them as being the worst in the league, either. It’s just too early to tell. You have to see how teams are going to come together. They’ve got a talent base that they can win games. So I think they’re going to be a middle of the pack team, but we’ll see.
Q. For both Tony and Rodney, here we are a week before the opening game, and we haven’t seen the league really kind of get its arms around the whole anthem issue and how to move forward on that, either in cooperation with the players or not in cooperation with the players. Just what are your thoughts on where that stands, and how do you kind of see that playing out?
RODNEY HARRISON: I’ll let Coach answer that.
TONY DUNGY: Yeah, I think the league could do a much better job than they’ve done of working with the players and kind of embracing this and taking it away from the anthem itself and putting it on the issues. I’ve said several times if I were still coaching, I would have a meeting with my players, first meeting of the year, and say, hey, if you’ve got issues that you want to talk about, let’s come to my office, give me your issues, what’s going on in your communities, things you want to highlight, give me your solutions, and then I’m going to give you 15 minutes of my weekly press conference so you can get those out and explain exactly what’s on your mind and what the issues are, and how we can move forward, and let’s try to take it away from the anthem.
I think most players would welcome that. I think what they want is a voice. I think they’re trying to help their communities out, and I think the league and the players could do a much better job of working together and being that voice that does make things better.
RODNEY HARRISON: I’m just looking forward to seeing some football. That’s my answer.
Q. Coach, what would an offensive coordinator like Tom Moore do with a receiver like Julio Jones in the red zone, and for Rodney, any thoughts on Falcons’ safety Keanu Neal?
TONY DUNGY: Well, I’ll start with the Julio Jones question, and you definitely want to utilize him and see how defenses are going to try to take him away. I don’t think a great offensive coordinator would force every ball to him, but you would make people double cover him, make them tip their hand, and that’s going to help other people. But definitely you’ve got to use Julio, and the fact that he’s such a big target in the red zone, he’s got to be a factor, and I’m sure Atlanta is going to do that.
RODNEY HARRISON: And just to jump off what Coach is talking about, I would like to see him — even if they have to maybe every now and then force the ball a little bit more to him in the red zone, he’s such a big target, such a dangerous receiver, he should have more of an impact in the red zone. That’s something I would like to see the offensive coordinator do.
As far as Neal, I think Neal is a tremendous young safety. I think the biggest weakness — if I’m Philadelphia, I’m looking at exposing him in coverage. He’s a very big guy, he’s very physical, but at times you can see he has some stiffness in his hips, and he struggles to cover. And if one of my athletic tight ends — one-on-one opportunities, and really exposing his weakness, and that’s his biggest weakness as a safety is his inability to cover those tight ends one-on-one.
Q. Rodney and Tony, I just have heard people say over the years that when you first notice an older quarterback start to decline, they say maybe watch his legs, can he still move and can he still drive the ball down the field, and I was curious if you would agree with that thought, that maybe that’s the first thing that watch for, and I’d be curious what you see in that regard from Tom Brady.
TONY DUNGY: Well, I never thought Tom was a very fast, athletic guy. He actually looks like he’s moving faster and his pocket presence is a lot better than when I first came to the Patriots back in ’03. One thing that I would notice about older players is their will or their desire to continue to study and work hard, and I don’t think you have to worry about that with Tom. Tom is not in a position where he’s become complacent with where he’s at, what he’s accomplished in this league. I still think that Josh McDaniels, he’s come out this week and talked about how hard Tom works and how hard he prepares, and that’s something that really separates Tom from all the other quarterbacks. He still works like he’s a sixth-round draft choice out of Michigan, and that’s something to me that I always pay attention to with older players, especially older players that are more accomplished. I think Tom still has a tremendous work ethic, and he still has a tremendous desire to be great. I don’t think when you see Tom Brady start to decline, I don’t think it’s going to be something sudden like he’s going to jump off of a building or something like that. I think it’s going to be very slow.
RODNEY HARRISON: Yeah, and the first thing I look at with quarterbacks is are you still strong in the pocket, do you go down easily, are you shying away from contact, and I don’t see any of that with Tom. I still see him moving around in the pocket. I still see him willing to take a hit if he needs to to deliver the ball. I saw him play on a very, very high level last year and didn’t see any decline.
Q. Mike, what are the differences between hosting at the studio versus on-site?
MIKE TIRICO: Well, it starts with just the volume of games, being in there watching the eight, nine, ten early games, preparing for the late games and doing the live show, keeping an eye on those late games as we’re on the air. So it’s more of an involvement in the entirety of what’s going on in the league that day as opposed to being on-site where you really spend more time — whether it was a feature, an interview or talking to folks on the field before the game trying to get some differentiating bits of information about the Sunday night game.
In terms of that, it will be different. In terms of just doing a show in the studio with analysts, I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of shows like that over time. It will just be getting used to working with Rodney and Tony. Our paths have crossed many times during my first few years at NBC, and I feel like I’ve known them forever, feel like I’ve worked with them for a long time.
I love being the sponge in the room and listening to those guys watch the afternoon games as they go on, and hopefully we can bring some of that conversation on the air to the fans when they come after they watch football on Sunday to find out not just what happened but why it happened. And what I love about Tony and Rodney, they don’t need to yell at you. They don’t need to add histrionics to it. Their credibility and their accomplishments are the weight for their words, and their words carry a lot of weight.
I’m reminded of the Thursday night games on-site, and the people who were playing in the game or coaching the game see Tony and Rodney there, and they want to come over and talk to those guys, pick their brain, find out something. These are two people who are so appreciated and admired in the league, and my job is to get some of how they watch football games out to the audience during our hour-and-change show every Sunday night.
That will be different for me, and I am very lucky to have the opportunity to help do that this season and beyond in the studio.
Q. Curious about your thoughts on the AFC South race and specifically what the Texans need to do other than somehow being able to assure that their quarterback, their defensive end and their linebacker this year get through the year without significant injuries?
TONY DUNGY: I think it’s going to be fantastic. Jacksonville has this tremendous defense and a great running back, and the question is how is their quarterback is going to play when the lights are on and when they really need him to play.
Houston I think has a tremendous team. I would look for them to make a lot of noise. If those three that you mentioned are healthy, they can be as explosive on offense and as dominating on defense as anyone, if (Whitney) Mercilus and (J.J.) Watt are back playing 100 percent, so they have a chance.
Andrew Luck being healthy makes all the difference in the world, and he’s going to make Indianapolis a team that you don’t want to play, and Tennessee won a playoff game last year. So I think you’ve got a well-balanced division. I would look for Houston if those guys are healthy to make some noise.
RODNEY HARRISON: Yeah, and I agree with Coach. I like Houston in this division. I have to disagree with him with the Indianapolis Colts and Andrew Luck. I think this is a team that may win five games. They’re very young. They have some young talent, but they just don’t have the experience and I don’t think they have a lot of playmakers.
As it relates to the Jacksonville Jaguars, I’m not sure how much I trust Blake Bortles at this point. The defense, Jalen Ramsey, he’s been in the news doing a lot of trash talking, which that’s something that I really don’t condone when it comes to — now your teammates have to answer questions about you, and when you run your mouth, you have to make sure that you play on that level.
But I like the Houston Texans, if J.J. Watt and the linebackers can stay healthy. But Deshaun Watson, I think people, they’re no longer surprised by the element of Deshaun Watson and what he can do on the football field. I think he’s proven that not only is he a runner but he’s a tremendous passer down the field. They have a lot of weapons, and if this team truly believes, I think they can take that next step, beat the Patriots and get to the AFC Championship. This is a team that I would not want to play, the Houston Texans.
MIKE TIRICO: I’m going to add one quick sentence: Health and road division wins, especially in this AFC South. If Andrew Luck is okay and the Colts are good at home and they become a more difficult out — think about these teams, they pack some really good defenses and offenses that can put points on the board. You could make the argument, given the wild card of Indianapolis, that the most entertaining division games might be the AFC and the NFC South this year, and when that happens, I think health obviously, but winning your division road games will be really big.
The AFC South is going to give us, if the key players are healthy, some of the most entertaining football games on Sundays this year. I’m really looking forward to watching those.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone, for joining.