On a pivotal third-and-nine in the third quarter Sunday afternoon, Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith dropped back as the Houston defense brought pressure. The Texans' Kareem Jackson and J.J. Watt converged on Smith, sacking him for a big loss.
“Here comes the blitz,” said CBS announcer Greg Gumbel, “And there goes Alex Smith, down at the 40-yard line.”
It was a routine play — until it wasn’t.
The camera flashed to a flexing Jackson before locating Smith laid out on the ground. As the camera zoomed in on the fallen quarterback, Smith took off his helmet.
“Alex Smith is down,” analyst Trent Green said.
Smith grabbed his shoulder pads at his collar. He put face in his hands. He pulled his jersey over his face.
“Alex Smith is in a lot of pain,” Green said.
The telecast then showed a replay — “Here is what happened to Alex Smith . . .” Gumbel said — and the CBS audience watched as Jackson and Watt sacked Smith and Smith’s right leg wrenched at an awkward angle. After the game, the Redskins announced Smith had broken his tibia and fibula on the play.
CBS then immediately cut to commercial, and the broadcast did not show another replay of the gruesome injury.
“We’re not going to show you the replay again,” Green said as Tress Way punted the ball on fourth down. “It’s a bad lower-leg injury, and you can understand why Alex was in the type of pain he was in.”
Harold Bryant, senior vice president of production at CBS, was in New York watching from the control room when the injury occurred. He discussed the play with his team — most of whom were on-site in Landover, in the production truck — and said they collectively reached the decision not to show another replay. They relayed that decision to Gumbel and Green, who voiced no disagreement.
“It’s a philosophy thing,” Bryant said. “It’s a horrific injury, and we described it in-depth and documented it, and as a group we felt that was enough. We made a judgment call and felt it was documented properly. You could see the anguish on his face and on the players’ faces.”
The CBS production team has discussions ahead of the season about how to handle difficult injuries, like the one Smith sustained. The moment Sunday was similar, Bryant said, to when Louisville guard Kevin Ware broke his leg during an NCAA tournament game in 2013 that was aired on CBS. Ware leaped to block a shot and then landed awkwardly, his leg buckling under his weight.
Bryant was executive producing that game as well, and the broadcast showed two quick replays — the injury wasn’t shown live — and then not again.
“It’s something we have discussions about,” Bryant said. “How we’re going to cover these moments, and on Sunday, the preparation kicked into action — unfortunately.”
He added: “If people want to go find video of something like that, they can find it.”
Smith’s injury was reminiscent of a similar moment 33 years ago to the day, when Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann suffered a broken leg on a sack by Giants star Lawrence Taylor. During that telecast on ABC, Theismann’s injury only became apparent after Taylor gestured wildly for medical attention.
“I don’t believe Lawrence Taylor would have reacted that way unless Theismann was really hurt,” said announcer Frank Gifford on the broadcast.
As the camera showed Theismann on the turf, ABC’s production team watched the video and decided that the best view of the play came from a new advancement in TV: the reverse angle, as Bob Goodrich, the game’s producer later explained to Washingtonian.
“The director and I thought the reverse angle was the best way to describe what happened,” he said. “We played it for ourselves two or three times, and we played it for the announcers to make sure we all agreed. They said, ‘Make it a little slower so we can show it and analyze it.’ ”
“Let’s take a look at our reverse angle camera,” Gifford said on the broadcast as the replay rolled.
The slow-motion replay showed Theismann’s leg bend grotesquely, and the other announcers in the booth — Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson — can be heard reacting to the horrific sight.
After a commercial, ABC showed a second replay with Gifford commenting, “If your stomach is weak, I suggest you don’t watch.”
It was 20 years before Theismann, who on Sunday said he had to turn away when he saw Smith go down injured, could watch replay of his own frightening injury. He said in a radio interview six years ago that he was glad high-definition TVs weren’t in homes in 1985.
My injury “was somewhat unique and I really feel like it changed the course of the way we view injuries today,” Theismann said. “You’ll see so often when there’s somebody really hurt on the field, they’ll immediately go to commercial, and they don’t show the reverse angles.”
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