By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 13, 2008 3:30 PM
They really don't keep detailed records on these sorts of accomplishments in the broadcasting business, but one of the most impressive streaks in the history of sports on television is about to end this weekend when John Madden will stay home in the Bay Area and sit out Sunday's night's Tampa Bay Buccaneers home game against the Seattle Seahawks in central Florida.
For the first time since he began calling games as a color analyst for CBS Sports full-time in 1980, Madden, now 72, and working games for NBC on Sunday nights, will not be in action for an NFL regular season game, a remarkable run the network said is now at 476 games.
Eat your heart out Brett Favre, but Iron Man Madden has never missed a regular season week in an NFL football booth in 28 years. Not for illness, not for wedding anniversaries or big birthdays, not even for flat tires or mechanical breakdowns on his "Madden Cruiser" in the middle of Nebraska on its cross country trek to the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
Madden will be replaced in the NBC Sunday night booth this Sunday night by Cris Collinsworth, arguably the best studio football analyst in television who normally serves as the co-host with Bob Costas for NBC's "Football Night in America" Sunday pre-game show. Collinsworth also has done game color for years and will be seamless fit working with play-by-play man Al Michaels. But it will only happen this week because of some extenuating circumstances.
It wasn't exactly Madden's idea to take a deep breath and a day off this weekend, but when NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol first broached the possibility with him last spring, Madden said he'd have to think about it. Ten days ago, he spoke with Ebersol again and told him it might not be a bad idea.
"I wasn't reluctant as much as I was 'let's wait and see how it goes,'" Madden said in a telephone interview Monday. "Last year we had a couple of tough (trips). I still enjoy the travel, but you'd like to be home once in a while. I've got five grandchildren. It's a quality of life issue. The 49ers and the Raiders not being good also has hurt, because you never get a home game. Even when L.A. had a team, I'd get to be home. When you see the grand kids, it's like they've grown two feet. So I'd like to check in once awhile, and this is a good chance to do that."
Ebersol first thought about giving his man a blow when the NFL television schedule first came out last April. He saw that NBC would have a game in Jacksonville on Oct. 5, followed by a game in San Diego this past Sunday (Oct. 12), followed by an Oct. 19 game in Tampa.
Madden's fear of flying is well-known, as is his preference to get from game to game and occasionally home in Northern California on a specially outfitted bus with his personal driver. It's got a kitchen, steaks in the fridge, surround sound, flat-screen TVs and, perhaps most important of all, a bed with the exact same mattress Madden sleeps on at home, the better to nod off any time he chooses without waking up with his spine twisted like a pretzel.
If Madden would have done all three games, it would have necessitated a cross-country haul this week from Jacksonville to San Diego, followed by another jaunt back over the Rockies and east to Tampa starting next Monday, all within the space of 14 days. He had a similar run of travel last year, and Ebersol said he didn't want him to have to do it again, no matter how soft and comfy that mattress may be.
If there is a seventh game in the American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Rays, it is scheduled in Tampa the same night the Seahawks and Bucs will be playing in the same city. That surely would fragment the television audience by cutting into the eyeballs watching the football game around the country, another factor in Ebersol recommending to Madden that it seemed like the perfect storm of circumstances for him to spend the weekend at home.
And no, Ebersol laughed, the price of gassing up the bus has nothing to do with it.
Madden has been around the often cutthroat television business long enough to be a tad suspicious, even if he is now in the third year of his initial six-year contract to do Sunday nights for NBC. Ebersol said Madden asked him point blank, "do you have another agenda going?"
In another words, would Madden be NBC's Wally Pipp, permanently replaced by the network's Lou Gehrig/Chris Collinsworth the first time he took a day off?
"I said no, absolutely not, I want you for all six years of this contract," Ebersol said he told Madden. "We are a much better organization with John and Cris. To me, it's just a week to rest my best player. It's like giving your best starting pitcher an extra day off in the rotation."
"I don't remember asking him that," Madden said, "but he did tell me he wants me for the whole six years. I mean, this is what I do. I've done it all my life. I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I've done nothing else but football. If it ever gets to the point where I don't love it, I won't do it. The travel, the film study, talking to players, going to practice. It's like my hobby. It's still exciting to me. I love it. It's a way of life for me."
Ebersol said he also was looking ahead to when the league's flex schedule kicks in during Week 11, allowing the network to opt out of its previously scheduled Sunday night game and pick a contest that may be more compelling to viewers. But on three straight flex weekends, starting with the Redskins playing the Cowboys at FedEx Field on Nov. 16, Madden may well have to make two semi-cross country trips in a 14-day span anyway.
After what should be a compelling Dallas-Washington matchup, NBC is scheduled to do another potentially blockbluster game, with Indianapolis heading to San Diego on Nov. 23. That will be followed a week later by Chicago at Minnesota, which likely will also have significant playoff implications and not be replaced by another flexed game.
Travel by bus over that stretch also could be dicey, what with winter weather a possibility, particularly crossing the Rockies to get out to San Diego, then back again to Minneapolis unless the network flexes out to a better game, which now seems highly unlikely.
"Look, I think that John is not only the best game analyst in the history of sports, he remains the best analyst on televi sion," Ebersol said. "I just think it's smart thinking to do it this way."
Collinsworth at some point way down the road may well be asked to move into Madden's analyst chair for Sunday night games when (or if) Madden decides to park the bus permanently. But at the moment, Ebersol said Collinsworth wants no part of going on the road to a football game every weekend. He has children very much involved in high school and youth sports, and Collinsworth said in an interview several weeks ago that working in the studio on Sunday allows him the joyful freedom to see them in action every week, and do a little coaching on the side, as well.
"Cris will tell you he wants his life to stay exactly the way it is right now," Ebersol said. "So let's be very clear about this. I had one goal in mind when we (NBC) got football in April of 2005, and that was to lock up the two best analysts in football. John is the best game analyst, and no one has been better in the studio than Cris Collinsowrth. We're better off having them both, and that's exactly how it's going to stay.
"You know what's so interesting about John? He reveres young people. He'd rather hang around with the production assistants and the athletes. And he gets so charged up for the football season. In the spring, he can't wait to get back into the circus, and I see no sign of that waning."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.