Wednesday, August 29, 2018
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to today’s Sunday Night Football conference call. Joining us on today’s call are Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. Next week they begin their 10th season together in the SNF booth; sideline reporter Michele Tafoya; our new rules analyst Terry McAulay, who joins us after 20 seasons on the field in the NFL which included three Super Bowls; and our executive producer Fred Gaudelli.
FRED GAUDELLI: Thank you, everybody, for joining us today. Excited to get started on season 13 of Sunday Night Football, a package where we’ve had some unprecedented television success. Excited to be back with Al, Cris and Michelle, and I’ll just turn it over to Al.
AL MICHAELS: Freddy, it’s an honor, privilege, and it’s a thrill for me, one more year to do this with Drew Esocoff, who has been our director now going back to the Monday night years. This will be 19 years with Drew. It’ll be the 18th year with Freddy, 10 years with Cris. I think it’s 11 years now with Michelle, three at ABC and eight at NBC, and I can only tell you that we drive each other. We have had the No. 1 show on television now for seven consecutive years, which is a source of tremendous pride, and a lot of the people who you don’t know about and don’t see and don’t get in the spotlight like our camera operators and tape operators and all of those people are — I know every crew likes to say the best of the best, but our people are phenomenal. You talk to some of our camera people, and they know as much about football as any of us do. They follow the game religiously, and I think that’s why the show sings every week, and we’re very, very proud of it and obviously want to keep it going, and hopefully on to an eighth year of No. 1 in primetime television. Partner, what say you?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Some might argue the cameramen actually know more than we do. We are excited. Obviously I love being with this entire crew, too, but we have just a great way to start the season this year, Atlanta-Philly. If you think back to we did the playoff game here, and it was the last-second pass to Julio Jones that was incomplete, or else we would have had the Falcons going forward and no “Philly Special” and none of the things that came with it.
And really this Atlanta defense was the last bunch to shut down Philadelphia’s offense because they went on an explosion over the next two weeks in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl.
And then we come right back on Sunday, and it’s going to be amazing, Aaron Rodgers not only back from injury, but we’re just seeing now with the new contract exactly what all is going to be possible now. They’ve got a new defense. Mike Pettine over there on the defensive side, two exciting new young cornerbacks on the outside, Joshua Jackson, Jaire Alexander, and they’re going to take a shot at this new-look Chicago Bears offense, Mitch Trubisky. I’ve had a chance to watch him in the preseason a little bit, and with Nagy running the show now. I think they are going to turn some heads this year as far as what they’re capable of doing on offense. We’re excited for both of them.
And I’m excited to turn it over to — unbeknownst to me, Michele Tafoya is a songbird. She actually sang to us on the air the other night, brilliantly I might add, and Michele, our brother, our sister, our best friend, our confidant, we love traveling every week with her, and I will turn it over to her now.
MICHELE TAFOYA: I think someone might argue it was more like a hyena than a songbird, but it was fun, comparing Cris to the three Dallas Cowboy announcers that are on the other major broadcast networks.
I always look forward to the first week. That Thursday night is electric. This group, Al said it best, we continue to just push each other, and that’s what makes every single week so exciting. We try to get better every single day, every single week, and there are some fun story lines with — I always enjoy the rookie story lines and the coaching change story lines. Usually have a lot to offer.
And we’ve got a new song this year, so I can’t wait until the Carrie Underwood song comes out; that’s always like a thrill. So we’re all just exited.
TERRY McAULAY: I am extremely honored that Fred asked me to be part of this team. As a referee in the NFL, I always loved working with and had tremendous respect for the Sunday Night Football production. Now that I’ve seen it in action, I’m even more impressed. The professionalism, the attention to detail, and really the determination to provide the best product in sports broadcasting is really prevalent throughout the entire organization. I’m looking forward to sharing maybe a behind-the-scenes perspective on the rules, as well as the officials that make up the third team on the field. I’m really excited and can’t wait to get started.
Q. This is a two-parter for Cris. You touched on the Bears a second ago, and I know you’ve spent some time with Ryan Pace and the team this preseason. I’m curious, what are your biggest questions about Trubisky this season, and what do you see are the biggest obstacles for them getting out of last place in the NFC North?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: For Trubisky, just how soon can he figure it out. This is a new offense. It’s a group that I think has a lot of weapons and a lot of potential. But it’s a lot to put together when you’re playing the biggest obstacle, which is playing against Aaron Rodgers and playing against the Minnesota Vikings’ defense and the Detroit Lions and Matthew Stafford. This is a very legitimate — I think you can argue maybe the NFC South may be the toughest [division] out there. But this is a very, very difficult division to try to get out of.
Having said that, though, the RPO is something I thought I understood a year ago, and I really didn’t. The depth of how difficult it is to defend this, the pressure that it puts on inside linebackers and safeties to make decisions on how they’re going to play the run, how they’re going to play the pass, how they’re going to read offensive linemen that are run blocking when it’s a pass, throwing in behind them, it’s a really difficult scheme. I ran the triple option as a quarterback in my freshman year of college, and we all used to believe that as a quarterback that if I got it right, they couldn’t stop it, right, because you leave one person unblocked, and so that gives you an extra blocker at the point of attack, all those different things.
So in the same way here, you’re asking a linebacker to do two different things: To play the run and to defend the pass.
I know teams are going to be better at it. I know they’re going to come up with new ways to defend it. But I’m really anxious to see how much Matt Nagy brings over from Kansas City because Kansas City was one of the most exciting offenses. Really last year it was Kansas City and it was Philadelphia who had sort of mastered this art. So I’m really anxious to see how far along and how quickly they can get there because it’s an offense that creates a lot of open throws, which is going to help a young quarterback.
Q. Cris, I just wanted to talk to you about the Patriots’ offense. If you look at the big stories of the off-season, it doesn’t look so great. They lose Danny Amendola and Nate Solder and Dion Lewis, Tom Brady and Gronk skipped the entire off-season program, now they can’t find a wide receiver, their first-round picks are banged up. What should be the level of concern about the Patriots’ offense?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: They still have No. 12 back there, right, and every time I do this…I’ve done this before, I’ve been on television many times at the beginning of the year and gone, oh, boy, woe is the Patriots, here they go, and this is going to be the year that some — and every year they’re either in the championship game or the Super Bowl. So I’m not taking the cheese just yet. I get it. I understand that there are some issues with this team. I really liked Isaiah Wynn that they lost. I was so sad to see that because he was such a force in college and really enjoyed watching him play.
And I’m curious to see how all these backs are going to play into the mix and what that might mean for the passing game coming up. But there’s no question that they’re going to have to find some help at receiver, and Gronkowski, who obviously didn’t play a whole lot in the preseason, Chris Hogan — there’s guys there, but in the short-term, they’ve got to come up with some answers. But if you’re in that position and you’ve got No. 12, you’ve got to feel at least pretty good about your chances of figuring it out.
Q. And they still have McDaniels there, too, obviously.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Yeah, and we underplay that, but the idea that there’s continuity on the offensive side of the ball, you know, where Belichick doesn’t have to bounce between both sides to help, you know. I think that’s a really significant thing, that he now can just rely on Josh, and I’m sure he’s probably — I think he — I don’t know this, but I think he kind of balances between all three. I would imagine he’s spending a little bit more time with the defense this year.
Q. Terry, so the helmet rule was called, the penalty was called 51 times in the first two preseason weeks and now just nine times the last week. Do you think that’s from the NFL making that little adjustment to the rule? What do you think is going on with that rule right now?
TERRY McAULAY: I absolutely do. I think that when they added the words incidental and inadvertent for actions that were not to be called, that told the officials to focus on making sure you get the ones that are forcible, punishing, that are obvious to everybody that need to be out of the game. So it may have been a combination of other things, players playing better, coaches coaching their players better, but I think if this is where we’re headed, we’re going to be okay with it very early. It’s still a work in progress because officials need to learn to instinctively read and react to this type of hit that they’ve never looked at before as a foul, so there is going to be some learning curve yet to come, but I think they’re in a much better place than they were a week ago.
Q. I know it’s a couple weeks before you have the Lions against the Patriots, but Cris, have you seen Kerryon Johnson? Just some thoughts on what the Lions have with that rookie running back. And two, they’ve put such a big emphasis on the ground game this off-season, and Matthew Stafford has never had a running game in his nine NFL seasons, so if they finally find some success there this year, what could that mean for him in this offense?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I mean this as no insult to Kerryon Johnson, because I did, I watched the game the other day, and I think he’s going to be a good player. I really do. But there’s something about LeGarrette Blount in that offense. I know what the story lines were in Detroit last year, right; they couldn’t convert in 3rd and short and red zones and they weren’t tough enough and blah blah blah. LeGarrette Blount, when you’re sitting back waiting to play a Matthew Stafford pass, which when you played the Lions, that’s all you cared about, you’ve got to handle that, you’ve got to handle Theo Riddick out of the backfield, got to handle Golden Tate one-on-one, Marvin Jones down the field. That’s what you have to handle.
What I think that people won’t appreciate until they watch a little bit more of it is Frank Ragnow. Ragnow is in my opinion the best that we saw in college at the center position. And when you get that kind of a young man in there right off the bat and you have the ability to spread the field and you have somebody that can throw it like Matthew Stafford, and oh, by the way, you’ve got to handle 250 pounds of running back coming at you because the tendency when you play defense against this bunch is you want speed at linebacker, right, you’ve got to be able to handle the passing game and getting your drops and playing man coverage and do all that. But usually those speed guys at linebacker don’t want to tackle too many 250-pound guys, especially when they can’t stick their head in there and try and take them down that way.
So we haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll just tell you this: We haven’t seen it in Philadelphia on offense yet, we haven’t seen it in Atlanta on offense yet. It’s preseason, and preseason is exactly that. It’s meaningless. It means zero. So if they’re four weeks into it and struggling on offense, we’ll have another conversation. But I think the pieces are in place for this thing to be pretty special on offense.
Q. This is year 10 for Stafford, sort of the midpoint of his career. You’ve watched him for a while. How much has he evolved as a player in that time?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: A lot. You know, I mean, he gets it. He definitely gets it. He knows what he’s doing out there. He’s a dynamic leader. He’s unafraid. He plays hurt. He does all the things that you want as a quarterback. I think as an organization, they just need one big step. They needed that Dallas game to go their way in the playoffs and make it to the next level and to have a year where T.J. Lang stays completely healthy and Taylor Decker and they just can get going, just get something going on the offensive side of it because if they can — everybody says the same thing about the Detroit Lions, right? Oh, boy, all the talent in the world, they just haven’t put it together, and now you’ve got a new coach. But you’ve got the same offensive coordinator.
So it wouldn’t stun me at all. I mean, they’re going to have to match points in this league. You’re going to have to match points with Aaron Rodgers to try and get out of there alive, and you’re going to have to consistently be able to play great offense to beat the Minnesota Vikings’ defense. So that’s where we are. You know, their offense needs to be what the Green Bay Packers’ is. They need to have the ability to out-score people on a weekly basis.
Q. Is the success for the Texans predicated on the basic simple things? Can their quarterback stay healthy and continue to improve, or is there something else that needs to happen for that team to have some success this year?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I don’t want to answer all the questions if anybody wants to jump in, but we got such a tease last year with Deshaun Watson. What he did in a really short period of time was like Dak Prescott in his first year, right? People were like, wow, this is a first-year quarterback putting up and only throwing four interceptions and all that kind of stuff. It’s a little bit like Carson Wentz here in Philadelphia. How much is Deshaun Watson going to be Deshaun Watson? How much is J.J. Watt going to be J.J. Watt? Mercilus?
Are they back to what they were? Are they some halfway point or three-quarter point or 80 percent point? I just don’t know that. I just don’t know where this team is. And then it’s always going to be a little bit about this offensive line.
You know, but you’ve got a guy — DeAndre Hopkins makes plays that make you jump out of your seat every single time you watch him play. It’s amazing some of the plays that he makes.
To me, it’s about what percentage of those star players are we going to get back. Are they what they were, or are they some portion of that?
Q. Question on the Cardinals for Al and Cris: What did you like about what you saw from the Cardinals in Dallas, and is this team capable of doing a surprise and winning nine, ten, more games than that?
AL MICHAELS: I think they are. I think that what’s going to be fascinating is to see how the quarterback situation plays out. You know you’ve got Sam Bradford. He’ll start on opening day. We all know Sam’s history. Can he stay healthy; that’s the big question. But I’ll tell you what, I really like Josh Rosen. I think what he said after he was the fourth quarterback drafted, that everybody else, in effect, I’m paraphrasing, made a mistake, you might regret it, I think he’s special — I live in LA so I got to watch him a little more than normal. Tremendous arm, and we had him in a meeting the other day, and he’s a special guy. He’s very smart. He really gets it. I think he got short of a bad rap when it was put out there that maybe he didn’t care that much about football. I think that’s a bogus assessment, and I think one of the more interesting things the other day when we told the story on the air, he had a chance to go back to UCLA last year because he didn’t put himself out there for the draft until after Chip Kelly had gotten the job, and he met with Chip, and Chip, he told Rosen, I’m with you either way. If you want to come back, that would be great, love to have you. If you want to go to the NFL, I’ll help you in any way I can in that regard. So Rosen was very impressed. Rosen also told us that he’d grown up as a Philadelphia Eagles fan, even though he grew up here in Southern California, and then when he was walking out the door and he’s thinking, man, Chip Kelly, I could play for him, maybe I’ll come back, and then he said, but I couldn’t let emotion get in the way of logic, which I thought was a fascinating way to put it.
So I look at this team, Wilks, the pedigree is defense, they looked really good obviously the other night. What was it, 16 turnovers? Not that the preseason means that much. But the defense is good; you’ve got David Johnson. And I said it at the top of the show last week, this is a team that could surprise a lot of people.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Yeah, I’m trying to not be as enthusiastic as I was coming out of there the other night because I know what the Cowboys played or who they played, right. Let’s just take it for what it was, that it was a giveaway by the Dallas Cowboys trying to get healthy for opening day. So it was a little frustrating because I wanted to see the Arizona Cardinals tested, because in the first two games, they had something going on, and the thing I like about this team with Al Holcomb’s defense, when Buchanan and Bynes got back in the lineup, they were a completely different team than we had seen on tape, completely different, and that was about Olsen Pierre, Corey Peters, Nkemdiche, Golden, some of the guys that are definitely going to help them. But they have three safeties that are top-notch. They have Patrick Peterson, who is arguably the best. If Jamar Taylor can be that other guy finally that they’ve been looking over there for it seems like since I’ve been calling games here lately, but this secondary could really be something special, and I think the discipline of what they’re doing — I can tell you right now what they’re going to be. They’re going to be a run-first, David Johnson, pound-it-in-there football team, and they’re going to be a defense that is going to have eyes on the football. We’re going to see more interceptions like Patrick Peterson got in that game because he’s going to decipher things, he’s so smart; Antoine Bethea is so smart; Budda Baker is all over the field. So they’re going to be a team that is going to be harder — like you’re going to watch them on film and go, oh, we’ve got answers for all that, right, they’re not that complicated. And then you’re going to go play them, and you’re going to be surprised. You’re going to be a little stunned by how good they are and how disciplined they are, and on offense they’re going to run the ball. And if David Johnson can stay healthy, everything else comes off of that.
This is a run blocking offensive line. They are not pass blockers, they are run blockers. But if they can run it as well as I think they can, all their play action is going to be — they’re going to have time to throw it, and Sam Bradford is, if not the most accurate quarterback other than Drew Brees, he’s second. So that’s what they’re going to be. And so far it looks good.
Q. With the federal ban on sports betting struck down and the stigma removed a bit, I wonder if the fans can expect any changes to the game broadcast, and do you think there might be more overt recognition of sports gambling during games?
FRED GAUDELLI: In all the broadcast deals, there’s specific language about gambling. Obviously the deals were done before. I think it’s now legal in four states in America, but at this point, we’re going to honor the deals, and there won’t be any specific gambling messages on our air this year. But then again, late in the fourth quarter, I have a rascal up in the booth.
AL MICHAELS: You know, I’ve had a lot of fun with this through the years coming in a back door, a side door or whatever, different ways to use the English language. People know what I’m talking about. But in the past when I would do this, it was almost as if the fans would think, hey, you know, he’s not supposed to do it, but that’s kind of cool. Now it’s going to be out there. So now that gambling is legalized — but I think Freddy summed it up perfectly. We’ll have a little bit of fun with it, and I know Cris will be prodding me to get myself into a lot of trouble, right, partner?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Nobody can do it better, Al.
Q. Al and Cris, you guys had a little bit of fun the other night with all the former Cowboys being at the top of the network [NFL TV teams], but is there a reason for that do you think?
AL MICHAELS: I’m not sure there’s — those guys are good. I think Troy has done a great job for a lot of years. There’s no question in the minds of anybody in this business who had a chance to be with Tony Romo when he was a player that this guy was going to be great on the air, and he is. With Jason Witten, he’s another guy — maybe it’s something in the water down there. I don’t know.
But I think part of it, too, is that the Dallas Cowboys are obviously a team that everybody pays attention to. I think it’s a lot easier when you’re playing for the Dallas Cowboys to get recognized. You’re on national television a ton of times, more so than if you’re playing for Carolina, Jacksonville or whatever. So I think that has a little bit to do with it, but I think those guys are very worthy of where they are.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Nobody knows more about this than Michele. She interviews those guys down on the field. I’ll let her take it from here.
MICHELE TAFOYA: Yeah, I mean, it’s not surprising about Tony. He’s just that guy. In fact, let me rephrase that. He has surprised me a little bit about how quickly he’s taken to the booth and really owned the position. Troy I never got to interview on the field, but Jason is one of the all-time great people, one of the all-time great players, and I’m excited for him. I’m excited to see him grow and learn.
Q. Touch on how the Falcons have not been able to score much in the red zone and unleash all those weapons and whether you all consider that this young defense could be emerging as one of the top units in the coming season?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: If you can explain to me why Julio Jones hasn’t scored more touchdowns, I wish you would. I can’t answer that question. I mean, you would think that guy would be the greatest red zone receiver in the history of mankind. Now, I know he gets a lot of attention, it creates a lot of opportunity for Sanu and other guys, but it’s never made any sense. It’s just never made any sense to me, either. I just can’t explain that one. I have no idea.
Defensively, it’ll be good to see him back with Deion Jones. They obviously missed him greatly watching that game the other day. He’s that sideline-to-sideline presence. Although I will say I thought from a sure, physical presence, it was fun to watch him because it was almost like they were two different teams. Jack Crawford and Terrell McClain coming over are those sort of run-stuffing guys along with Derrick Shelby, and so they’ve got that sort of run-stopping, Butch Reed kind of unit, and then you’ve got the pass rushers, right, that they — and so a little bit like Philadelphia last year, these guys are going to be incredibly fresh. When you get Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett and some of these guys that can really get after the quarterback, Tak McKinley, and they don’t have to play 60 downs, they’re going to be in a whole different role.
But this is a team, as I looked at them, I still get a little nervous watching them stop the run. You know, I just — that’s one for me, this is a team that we know they can run the ball, and I think they’re just going to have to make sure they can stop the run.
The one guy that I don’t know how they’re going to get off the field, and I know he’s had some penalties and all that stuff, but that Damontae Kazee, he’s a headache waiting to happen. That is a dynamic player, and we all know Keanu Neal and those guys back there, but if they start getting stuck on trying to stop the run, Kazee is a force. That dude is a hitter.
Q. Is this the year that the Falcons — the team that hosts the Super Bowl this season happens to be the Falcons — is this the year that the Falcons will finally be the team that hosts the Super Bowl and wins it?
AL MICHAELS: I’ll just say this: The great thing about sports, in particular the NFL, you think you know but you really don’t know, so it truly is an unanswerable question. Last year the Vikings came really, really close. But the Falcons are clearly a Super Bowl contending team. Will it happen? Well, that’s why they play the games and why we have so much fun covering it.
MICHELE TAFOYA: I would agree with Al. Every season we go in and we kind of think we know what the general hierarchy of teams looks like, and then invariably somebody completely disappoints and somebody completely shocks us. It’s an impossible question. That’s what makes this league so great. Every week is — some things are a little bit predictable, but most things are not. We are still waiting for that moment when a host team gets to play in the Super Bowl. Let’s see where the chips fall.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I would give that one a definite maybe; how about that? You think about where the Atlanta Falcons have been the last two years. They’ve got a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl and don’t finish it. They’re on the, whatever it was, 5-yard line or something against the now world champion Eagles and are one completed pass, maybe one slip by Julio Jones away from moving on to the next round, and so it was the world champions that beat them barely in both games.
And last year, after the very close low-scoring game against the Falcons, then they go out and put up a big number on offense against one of the great defenses in the league and then beat the New England Patriots and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl. So if I’m the Atlanta Falcons, I’m thinking, we are a whisper away from possibly back-to-back world championships. So there’s no reason they can’t do it, but they’ve got to finish the deal.