Collinsworth Finds New Life on Showtime's 'Inside the NFL'

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to
Wednesday, September 17, 2008; 1:27 AM

When HBO decided earlier this year to pull the plug on "Inside the NFL," the long-running weekly talk and highlight show that actually began on free, over-the-air television 31 years ago, Cris Collinsworth was, by his own description, "stunned."

"I'm still stunned, and the guys at HBO who worked on it are still stunned," he said in a recent telephone interview. "I'm sure it was done for financial reasons. There's an abundance of highlight shows everywhere you look. Maybe the ratings didn't justify the costs. But even so, this was something that was on from the beginning of the (HBO) network, something people also identified with HBO.

"And everywhere I went, the fan reaction I kept getting wasn't just 'aaaaw, too bad." They were mad."

Collinsworth was particularly upset, if only because the show also provided his first job in television after he retired from a distinguished playing career as an elusive and cerebral wide receiver. He began in 1989 as an on-air reporter, and in recent years had become one of its most valuable assets.

Collinsworth is a clear-thinking, straight-shooting, and occasionally, contrarian and controversial co-host/analyst who always seemed to relish mixing it up with his fellow broadcasters. He also has never been shy or reluctant to take on some of the most powerful figures in the game, commissioners and haughty team owners included.

Once the HBO show was cancelled, Collinsworth at least could take some comfort in knowing that he was still gainfully employed in his other day/night jobs, as the same fearless studio host and analyst for NBC's Sunday night NFL games and as a game analyst for the NFL Network's late season Thursday night telecasts.

He also was thrilled to learn in June that "Inside The NFL" had risen from the dead zone of cancelled television classics after being rescued by one of HBO's main cable rivals, Showtime, in conjunction with CBS Sports, both under the CBS corporate umbrella.

Collinsworth initially approached NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol about the possibility of continuing his association with the show on Showtime. At first, Ebersol, a man he described as "my boss and my good friend," was opposed to his man working for yet another non-NBC affiliated network. He already had agreed to allow him to do the NFL Network games and Collinsworth said he was fully prepared to cut the cord with "Inside the NFL" and move on.

But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that the show also was still very much inside his head, as well as his broadcasting DNA. He had a family meeting with his wife and four children to talk about it, and they all agreed it was worth it to go back and ask Ebersol one more time if he might reconsider.

"It just kind of made me out of sorts not being part of it," Collinsworth said. "I mean, after 18 years, I felt like I even had some ownership in it. It had become a part of me, and it was very much a part of my preparation for the entire week. I just called Dick and said I really wanted to do this, and he understood. He's letting me do it, and I'm thrilled to be back with it. For me, it was just personal."

Collinsworth is the only holdover from last year's HBO show. Bob Costas has been replaced in the main host role by Washington native James Brown, like Costas, one of the smoothest operators in the television business. Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, who more than held his own on the old HBO show, nevertheless was benched in favor of former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, the lead game analyst for CBS Sports and, like Collinsworth, one of the most knowledgeable and classiest pro football experts on the air.

Cris Carter, now with ESPN, was replaced with rookie broadcaster Warren Sapp, who recently retired as an active player and soon will be high-stepping on ABC's hit show, "Dancing With The Stars." Sapp, often outspoken and occasionally confrontational with the media as a dominating defensive lineman, made no friends at HBO when he was hired by Showtime and said publicly that last year's show had become "bland" and "boring."

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