Fox Sports’ NFL A-Team Preps For an Unusual NFC Championship
Right before the kick-off in the New Orleans Saints playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccanneers last week, Fox Sports' Jay Glazer reported that Saints quarterback Drew Brees would be retiring after the season. The news forced an adjustment by the Fox team that broadcast the game. Speculation about Brees' future has been circulating all season. But the new apparent certainty of that future would have to be addressed in case the Saints lose and end their season and Brees' career. After New Orleans fell 10 points in the second half of the fourth quarter, top announcers Troy Aikman and Joe Buck turned to Brees' legacy.
"You sit on this report the whole game," Buck told Variety. “Because the game was the way it was, which ended up being 10 points, you can start pulling the lid off and getting involved. But there is a balance, like anything else, when you host a live event. You have to weigh the historical perspective against what happens in the field in front of you. "
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This entire season has been a balancing act for Buck and the rest of Fox 'A-Team, which in addition to Thursday Night Football, covers the network's national NFL broadcast every Sunday. Deciding when and how to move from action on the field to discussing the imminent retirement of a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback is one of the myriad conventional challenges they face during a game. But this season - one that ends for them after the NFC championship game on Sunday that the Bucs face the Packers in Green Bay, Wisc. - You will encounter them amid the coronavirus pandemic and the sweeping changes it has brought about in their work.
Like many people, the Fox crew now works in a remote working environment. Meetings are mostly conference calls. (They try to avoid zoom as much as possible.) Intel collection exercises like attending the practice the week before a game or getting up while warming up on the buttonhole trainer and player are out of the question.
For Buck, a small but tangible difference was the seating arrangement. At the beginning of the season, he and Aikman were separated by a glass partition in the broadcast booth. After a couple of weeks the glass went away. You're now sitting at a social distance from one another, out of reach.
"When I know Troy is talking to our producer in the headset with a talkback button in the truck and I'm not sure he can hear me, and I'm making a point that he should pick up in years past, I could get his arm." Pack up and say, 'Hey, listen because I want you to respond,' ”says Buck. "It's a minor thing, but I miss it."
Aikman, the Hall of Fame quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys' 90s Super Bowl winners, has spent much of the past three decades in NFL stadiums. "That's probably the biggest difference - there are no fans in the games," he says. "So getting in and out of the stadiums is different, it's easier. You don't really see anyone when you walk into the building. It's unusual."
Buck and Aikman have been standing friends since 2002. "We've been working together for 19 years now," says Aikman. "There were times when, for some reason, we couldn't see each other until we got to the stand on match day. But I never worried he was ready and he wasn't worried about me either. We leave it just crashes and it works for us. "
During the week, Buck and Aikman will be communicating in a text thread with reporter Erin Andrews, who joined their team in 2012. For the announcer and analyst, the booth remains in the same environment as it was before COVID. But reporters have seen their world change radically.
When Andrews learned before the start of the season that reporters would not be allowed on the sidelines, at first she couldn't imagine how she and others could get their jobs done.
"I'm honest, the first day I heard about this, I cried because I was worried that Fox would get rid of the side journalist," she says. Fox assured her they were working on a solution.
That solution was to get reporters into the "moat" - the stretch of now empty seats just behind the sidelines. It's a sub-optimal perch, as Andrews learned in November when she was the only radio reporter to work the Packers 'game against the Indianapolis Colts, and she was behind the Packers' sideline when Colts quarterback Philip Rivers was injured.
Ordinarily, Andrews would have run across the end zone to get to the Colts sideline and gather information about Rivers' injury.
"Now I have to run up the stairs, run through the hall," she says. "You're scared. You want to stay healthy, you don't want to meet anyone, you have to wear your mask. You don't want to be around people. So it's a lot. And I'm used to doing it 40 to 50 times during a game to be transported across the field. "
Tom Rinaldi, who joined Fox this month and worked as the second reporter with Buck, Aikman and Andrews during the playoffs, struggled to adjust to the moat after covering college games at ESPN - where he was at Sugar die Bowl was allowed to roam the sidelines in December.
But Rinaldi sees some advantages to the moat, even amid the obvious disadvantages it causes.
"You can see some things that may not be seen at the field level," says Rinaldi. “You may not be able to hear that much or have so much freedom of movement. But you could be observing something from a different point of view. "
Andrews took advantage of this point of view last weekend when she spotted Bucs star receiver Antonio Brown talking to coaches before halftime. Then, as the team went into the locker room at halftime, she saw quarterback Tom Brady go over to Brown to check on him.
"If I was on par with guys, I probably wouldn't see it," says Andrews. “But you have a great perspective. I'm not saying that I want to be in the moat for the rest of my career, but it was interesting to jump into a story right away. "(Brown sustained a knee injury and won't play against the Packers.)
That Andrews and the rest of the team would even be in the stadium was never a given. Buck, also Fox's leading MLB play-by-play announcer, called several baseball games remotely during the pandemic delayed season. Many broadcasters were forced to do the same when covering the NBA's bubble season in Orlando, Florida.
"I think you can play a good game remotely," says Buck. "I may be in the minority." However, he notes that announcers in the field can notice things that they can never see at home with monitors and TV feeds. “Would people miss it? Probably not. You don't miss what you don't know. But I think it was an advantage to be in the actual stadium. "
At Green Bay, Buck, Aikman, Andrews and Rinaldi will focus on how the Packers' offensive plays out against the young Bucs defense. "I haven't seen anyone stop what the packers are doing," says Buck. "I'm not saying Tampa Bay can't, but they'll have their hands full."
Regardless of whether the Packers or the Bucs advance, the season for Fox 'A-Team is over after Sunday. (This year's Super Bowl is on CBS.) The ending is bittersweet, but it also brings some relief.
"It was hard," says Andrews. "We're so grateful that we had our jobs, and we're so grateful that the NFL got through this. But I don't want to travel at all until I get this vaccine. I don't want to see a plane for a while. But I do I don't want the game to end either. It was a big distraction from everything. So I'm kind of relieved, but I can't wait to get started again. "
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