ARLINGTON, Tex. — Two hours before the microphones go on, Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth sit in their NBC broadcast booth at AT&T Stadium.
Michaels, of course, is talking. This is what he has done professionally for more than four decades, and on this Sunday evening in October, his mind is wandering — topics ranging from travel to his interest in weather to the time Brett Favre told him about his granddaughter’s baptism. For now, it’s conversation; in a little more than two hours, when the week’s top-rated prime-time show goes live and the Washington Redskins kick off to the Dallas Cowboys, subjects like these might fill the seconds between plays.
“The game runs itself when it’s good,” the 69-year-old broadcaster is saying. “When the game is not good, you’ve got to look for the hooks.”
A few feet away, Collinsworth is studying. A former NFL wide receiver who has used similar abilities — quickness and an ability to adjust — to become a well-known analyst, Collinsworth is silent as he scans the dozens of pages loaded into a giant tablet screen.
“There’s no way you can learn all these notes,” he would lament a short while later.
As he scrolls, Collinsworth stops at teal and yellow highlights, where hints and criticisms stand out, quick references when the seconds matter. One young Redskins player is promising but “lazy”; a Washington veteran’s college coach criticized the player’s motor. And foreshadowing one of the season’s ongoing story lines, a question about quarterback Robert Griffin III’s abilities after offseason knee surgery: “Will speed ever return?” the highlighted text reads.
Moments like these are weekly rituals, most of them unseen by the 22 million or so who regularly tune in to NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” Michaels, Collinsworth and sideline reporter Michele Tafoya are the band leaders, and about 150 others work behind the scenes to bring the circus to town once a week. Usually, the tension is high enough with six days to prepare. This week, though, with two games to produce — both in the Baltimore-Washington area — the pressure is on.
Hours after the Steelers-Ravens game Thanksgiving night, the NBC crew will break everything down, leave Baltimore and settle again in Georgetown, where preparations will begin for the New York Giants-Redskins game at FedEx Field on Sunday. In less than 72 hours, the men and women who build one of sports’ grandest productions — extending 20 miles of wire and microphone cable, operating 29 high-definition cameras and 48 microphones — will hope one more Sunday night goes off without many surprises.
Or at least many noticeable ones.
On this October evening in north Texas, coordinating producer Fred Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff wait in their dimly lit mobile studio, monitoring 21 screens about two hours before kickoff. They have worked together on prime-time NFL games the past 14 years, the first six on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”
“Can you ask Al to put his headset on for one second?” Gaudelli says into a microphone a few minutes before Michaels and Collinsworth stand in front of a 153-inch video screen and record the promo for the following week’s game.
The previous evening, six members of the production team — Michaels, Collinsworth, Tafoya, Gaudelli, Esocoff and information director Ken Hirdt — met with four Redskins players and several coaches at a nearby Four Seasons hotel. These meetings act as the crew’s final cram session. Michaels tends to listen for personal stories, Collinsworth and Gaudelli for scheme and strategy details and Tafoya for subtle points to include the following evening as she logs her estimated four miles on the field.
“Listening is so important in those meetings — for the littlest detail,” Tafoya says. “Or just hearing things in a coach’s voice or watching mannerisms when he’s saying the words.”
As production meetings are ongoing, a team of videographers travels to locations throughout the host city on Fridays and some Saturdays, collecting recognizable views and cityscapes. Esocoff says this team works with local police, chambers of commerce and locals to identify locations and whether the schedule coincides with festivals or events, which he says “adds to the ‘bigness’ of the show.”
Among the challenges, though, is the NFL’s increasing trend toward secrecy. The league itself is mindful of broadcast partners’ needs — in 2011, the league finalized a nine-year contract extension with Fox, CBS and NBC, which reportedly pay the league a combined $3 billion per year for TV rights — but coaches and players, preferring to protect a supposed competitive advantage, often feel no such obligation.
Tafoya says that, although relationships with organizations’ key members can offset some of the hesitation, she remains “the last person they want to talk to,” particularly during previously arranged, off-camera halftime interviews.
“I feel kind of like a running back who’s having a tough time getting that long run,” she says. “But if you just keep going and going and chipping away and chipping away, eventually once in a while you get this great response.”
Throughout the October broadcast, Collinsworth refers often to the notes on the oversize tablet, and not surprisingly, Griffin’s effectiveness is a common discussion.
“That is one of those plays that, maybe a season ago, prior to this knee injury, could’ve been a big one,” Collinsworth says on air after Griffin runs for seven yards.
This, at least, was a topic the crew had prepared for, and it’ll undoubtedly be a theme of Sunday night’s game — which, as a December contest, was eligible to be “flexed” out of prime time.
For his part, Collinsworth says the broadcast never gets easier — after years in the booth, hours of film study and meetings that serve as a crash course on an NFL team’s season-long story. He jokes that earning a law degree in 1991 at least taught him to distill a semester’s worth of information into the most essential details.
But even now, Collinsworth says, he spends most Sunday nights lying in bed, wishing he had made one more point or had left out a point or observation he felt he forced.
“ ‘How could I say that?’ ” he describes as a common thought as the hours pass. “. . . The hardest thing to do is go to sleep.”
Not long before the cameras go on, Collinsworth looks toward the field. It’s almost showtime.
“You can’t prepare for it,” he says with a smile. “I’m hoping I get comfortable next week.”