Must-see NFL TV
Just when I started to think that my boss had mistaken my workload for Peter King's,
he allowed me to spend Sunday at home for the first time this season.
The respite provided an opportunity to watch my favorite football show:
ESPN's NFL Matchup, co-starring Ron Jaworski, one of the NFL's most insightful analysts.
NFL Matchup remains best analysis available
Posted: Tuesday October 3, 2006 4:56PM; Updated: Tuesday October 3, 2006 6:07PM
Just when I started to think that my boss had mistaken my workload for Peter King's, he allowed me to spend Sunday at home for the first time this season. The respite provided an opportunity to watch my favorite football show: ESPN's NFL Matchup, co-starring Ron Jaworski, one of the NFL's most insightful analysts.
If you've never seen the half-hour show -- which has existed for more than two decades -- I'm guessing one reason is that it appears in the hinterland of sports programming (8:30 a.m. ET Sunday). Nonetheless, among the glut of football shows, Matchup stands out for the way it examines the chess matches that occur on the gridiron. By painstakingly dissecting footage not available to fans, Jaworski and co-analyst Merril Hoge often come up with contrarian conclusions.
Sunday, I watched the show with a greater appreciation because of a July visit to NFL Films -- which produces the show -- in its Mount Laurel, N.J., headquarters.
A high school kid sat by Jaworski's desk, analyzing the Dec. 18 game between San Diego and Indianapolis, which the Chargers won 27-16 to snap the Colts' 13-game winning streak. Using a yellow sheet, the assistant charted the plays involving wideout Brandon Stokley -- counting the number of times Indianapolis used a three-receiver set. The kid noted down and distance plus each result before giving the results to the show's producer, Greg Cosell.
That research is child's play compared to the homework done by Cosell and his crew every Tuesday during the NFL season. They act like conspiracy buffs viewing the Zapruder film: One segment might be reviewed a dozen times -- in slow motion and regular speed. It doesn't matter if the play is as banal as a defensive tackle jousting with a left guard. Overall, the show's crew spends the day watching up to eight hours of action.
Matchup -- which is hosted by Sal Paolantonio -- has access to the same film used by coaches -- the audio-free tapes are distributed by NFL Films. In contrast to what fans see on TV, the footage provides an overhead angle of the full field -- of all 22 players -- and a view from the end zone. So analyzing such film lets NFL Matchup see what's truly transpiring on the field. "We're trying to educate the fans," Jaws told me by phone Tuesday afternoon after a break from watching film. "But even players or coaches will tell us they pick stuff up from the show."
In Sunday's show, Jaworski expressed an inkling that Washington's offensive players were mastering Al Saunders' Yellow-page sized playbook. (Jaworski illustrated a play in Washington's victory over the Texans: a scissor screen - when two players crisscross in the backfield -- resulting in 25-yard touchdown after a short pass to Antwaan Randle El.) I remember thinking that Houston's feeble defense wasn't exactly a good gauge. But Jaworski was prophetic given that Washington exploded for 36 points against a normally stingy Jaguars defense on Sunday.
Jaworski's football acumen was confirmed by the author and historian, David Halberstam, in his most recent book: The Education of a Coach, a biography on Bill Belichick. Halberstam writes that Jaworski is more knowledgeable about X's and O's than anyone on TV: "kind of a Belichick of the media, taking the tape of a game afterward and running it relentlessly to study what had happened and perhaps more importantly, why it happened. You had to do that, he told colleagues, because otherwise there was so much small stuff you might miss."
I bet that the small stuff is the biggest reason that the show's fans find it appealing. Seeing highlights are fun, but it's also neat to find out why things happened.
I used to think it was a crock when, after a game, a player or coach claimed that he needed to review film before answering certain questions. But it's a valid reason. The coach's grades -- based on game film -- don't necessarily mesh with perception.
(If a cornerback looks like he blew coverage on a deep route, Hoge or Jaworski might explain that the defensive back's responsibility was actually underneath.)
Some of the show's heft stems from Jaworski and Hoge having a combined 23 years playing in the NFL. The duo doesn't engage in the contrived screaming matches that fill up much of sports TV. Yet when Hoge and Jaworski draw different conclusions, they display good chemistry with fun, lively debates.
The show's concept was hatched in 1984 by Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films who hired Cosell -- Howard's nephew -- as executive producer. And Matchup has been in its current format since 1994. Being broadcast at times like 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 a.m. Sunday isn't optimal for drawing viewers. But with the show entering its 22nd season, I guess there's hope for substance over style.
After safety Donte Whitner was named the NFL's defensive rookie of the month for September, he collected six tackles on Sunday to help Buffalo defeat the Vikings 17-12 in October's first game. So Buffalo doesn't look so bad for ostensibly reaching to pluck Whitner eighth overall. I won't pretend that I'd heard of the guy before the draft, but I didn't understand why the Bills got crucified for choosing an obscure player so high. They obviously did their homework. If an NFL team is convinced that a prospect is a future star, it's too risky to get cute and trade down a few spots to draft him at the "right" time. Let's just applaud the Bills and their septuagenarian GM Marv Levy, who's smart enough to be the only talent evaluator in NFL history with a master's degree from Harvard ('51) in English history ...
Philadelphia vs. Dallas isn't the only Sunday game featuring an ex-player against a team he departed in bad blood. LaVar Arrington's Giants host the Redskins for the first time since the linebacker paid millions to leave Washington. Thus far, the parting has been a wash: both sides have been mediocre without each other. Washington's defense is ranked 15th, which is low for a Gregg Williams-coached unit. The main reason from the drop-off seems to be that Williams's esoteric blitzes aren't as effective without cornerback Shawn Springs, who's hurt.
Conversely, Arrington isn't having the impact the Giants envisioned. He has zero sacks, forced fumbles and interceptions, and seems out of sorts in Tim Lewis' read-and-react defense. But Arrington's performance is little different from the other defensive stars on their 27th-ranked unit. Michael Strahan is sack-less and Osi Umenyiora has mustered only one ....
Was I the only NFL observer who wanted just the Cliff Notes version of the latest T.O. controversy? The thing I find most fascinating is T.O's track record with the professionals he hires to assist him. First, agent Drew Rosenhaus infamously called a press conference before making "next question" his mantra. Then there was Kim Etheredge's woeful performance as Owens' publicist. Her poor showing is the one thing about last week's developments that everyone agrees on. Next thing, T.O. will hire Jeffrey Skilling -- the former Enron CEO -- to do his taxes....
Until Vince Young was named Tennessee's starting quarterback, Steve McNair had been as befuddled as anyone about his old team's quarterback developments. If the Titans were going to deal McNair, why sign Kerry Collins and then trade Billy Volek? "I'm very surprised that it happened that way," McNair told me last week. "I'm very shocked of them letting Billy go." ...
E-mailer Steven O'Reilly in Naples, Fla. -- feeling that Albert Haynesworth's punishment wasn't harsh enough -- noted that Ron Artest received 55 games for his misdeeds. The NBA has substantially more games, but I see the point .... The most amazing factoid of the week: Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, who entered the league in 2000, threw his first career red-zone interception Sunday ...
Is there an SI.com jinx now? Soon after I pump up the Jaguars defense, it turns into a sieve against Washington. The unit will still finish in the top five. ... I wonder if Lions wideout Roy Williams will guarantee that Detroit wins a game this season.