Tony Gonzalez and the Pre-Game Wasteland

Tune in to an NFL pre-game show, and you will see a lot of laughter. That doesn’t mean the audience is laughing along. You’ll see plenty of “brought to you by Aleves”, a few gimmicky games of “Which [insert position here] has the Best Twitter Handle?”, and bleach blondes delivering updates in close-up shots that extend just far enough below their necks. What you won’t see is football analysis, even if that’s what your show of choice purports to be about. You’ll see plenty of former players and coaches who know the game, but they are not there to bequeath knowledge. They are there to yuk it up at one another’s expense (just like in the locker room!) make rapid-fire predictions,  and host segments whose names involve alliteration or puns. For the purposes of this article, I wish I could tell you more about what you will see on pre-game shows, but for years,  I’ve made sure the television is off until exactly 1 PM on NFL Sundays.

NFL fans learned yesterday that the newly retired Tony Gonzalez will become a panelist on CBS’s “The NFL Today” for the 2014 season, and that CBS’s pre-game show is called “The NFL Today.” Fresh off a spectacular 17-year career, in which he earned plenty of love from fans, Gonzalez is not a surprising choice, but he is a refreshing one. Looking at the rosters of the various pre-game shows on CBS, FOX, ESPN, and NFL Network, it seems the “analysts” are chosen more for their volume and bravado than for their insights. By all accounts, Gonzalez lacks those first two qualities, having cemented a reputation as a quietly consummate professional. One hopes that, as a student of the game whose football I.Q. allowed him to thrive even as his body wore down, Gonzalez will be part of a show that’s actually worth watching.
As a rare NFL star of Hispanic descent, and an athlete who essentially had his choice of playing two professional sports, Gonzalez should bring a fresh viewpoint to his work.  This 2012 interview reveals a man who projects confidence, but refrains from spouting off the sports clichés that most athletes fall back on. This type of frankness coupled with storytelling ability is exactly what a skilled sports analyst should deliver.
In addition to netting Gonzalez, CBS also took part in some addition by subtraction. Gone from the set of “The NFL Today” are Dan Marino and Shannon Sharpe. Sharpe’s equinepresence was not as irritating as that of his older brother Sterling, but everyone knows that offenses don’t have room to feature two tight ends, so the network did what had to be done. Marino never seemed comfortable in the analyst’s chair, and viewers will likely not miss his choppy delivery, his forced laughter, or the Dolphin-orange glow of his spray tan. With 2013’s pre-Super Bowl revelation that he fathered a child with a former CBS employee, it’s surprising that this move didn’t come much sooner. 
With Sharpe and Marino sent down through the trap door, CBS is left with a solid cast of contributors. Bill Cowher never seemed like the type who would excel in a television role, but he has been a capable provider of lucid, inside-voiced commentary, and James Brown is a serviceable master of ceremonies. Esiason is mediocre, but could improve if he’s surrounded by more articulate co-hosts having more intelligent conversations. The dual firing of Marino and Sharpe means that there is an open seat at the CBS desk, but it would be nice if CBS realized that less is more, and refrained from filling the vacancy. Chris Berman, the Robin Williams of sportscasters, had a nice rapport with the always-thoughtful Tom Jackson on ESPN’s long-running “NFL Primetime.” Berman and Jackson couldn’t be more different, and it was a pleasure to see Berman’s bombast in contrast with Jackson’s level-headed approach. On “Sunday NFL Countdown,” where The Swami shares face time with Keyshawn Johnson, Cris Carter, and Mike Ditka, the competition for attention is insufferable.

“Sunday NFL Countdown” comes off like PBS’s “Frontline” when compared to the abomination that is “Fox NFL Sunday.” Good ol’ boys Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, and Jimmie Johnson have appeared on the show since before television was actually invented, and boy, do they ever have a knee-slappin’, sound-barrier-breakin’, expletive-droppin’ good time. Michael Strahan, also the co-host of “Not Regis Anymore and Kelly,” is along for the ride, mostly content to listen to Bradshaw slur on about the contents of his flask.

Over on NFL Network, the presence of Warren Sapp, Deion Sanders, and Michael Irvin means that things are just as dire. The good news about the oversaturation of brainless football fare is that, if CBS’s hiring of Tony Gonzalez truly is part of a move toward higher-quality programming, the network should be able to carve out a niche for itself. Football has a solid base of hardcore fans who crave in-depth analysis. If CBS provides this type of material, the viewers will come.   
Ultimately, Tony Gonzalez’s success or failure on “The NFL Today” will depend on how willing he and his producers are to break from the expectations surrounding pre-game fare. It’s unlikely that Gonzalez has taken in too many of these shows during his career, but programs of their ilk are so ubiquitous that he’s undoubtedly familiar with their format and aesthetic. If he feels obligated to merely mimic the arm-waving, finger-pointing histrionics he’s seen from other former players who transitioned into the studio, his tenure on “The NFL Today” will be a missed opportunity. But if Gonzalez brings the full force of his intellect and character onto the show, and his producers allow him to flourish, then CBS will have a real chance to create something special. Until the network announces it’s hired Terrell Owens or Brett Favre to sit next to Gonzalez, fans should be hopeful.