Sports

ESPN Picked the Right NFL Dorks to Talk to a National Audience

It wasn’t perfect, but Monday Night Football With Peyton and Eli provided what most football broadcasts cannot.

Payton and Eli Manning in boxes commentating a football game.
The Brothers Manning hosting Monday Night Football. NFL/Twitter

When a football player gets hurt, the broadcasters calling the game usually say exactly two things. The first is an obligatory well-wishing for the athlete’s health, and the second is a truism about how the player going on the shelf will “really test this team’s depth,” or whatever.

Peyton Manning is a little different than most broadcasters. He’s a football encyclopedia, and now that he’s been out of the NFL for five years, he can open his pages to the rest of us. So when the Las Vegas Raiders’ right guard, Denzelle Good, gets hurt on his team’s first series, Manning talks about the consequences in a perceptive way that most analysts would not. He notes that Good played between rookie tackle Alex Leatherwood, who was playing his first NFL game, and center Andre James, who just became the starter after the Raiders traded All-Pro Rodney Hudson. Good, a returning starter in his fourth year with the team, figured to be an important conduit for communicating line calls and helping his greener teammates figure out how to stop the Ravens’ punishing front. You, the viewer, can tell Manning knows how much that matters. And it pays off later in the drive, when the Raiders look discombobulated and botch a snap.

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Monday Night Football With Peyton and Eli is ESPN’s latest experiment in putting a live game broadcast on multiple channels at once, with different spins meant for different audiences. The network has experimented since at least 2006 with putting different feeds of the same games on different ESPN channels. The company’s press releases don’t typically break down how many people watch which feeds, though they indicate the main broadcasts on ESPN proper and ABC are (predictably) the most watched offerings. The alternate broadcasts on ESPN2, ESPNews, and the like are, as the Ringer’s Bryan Curtis recently put it, part of a “never-ending bid to attract new viewers—and retain existing ones.”

One of the internet’s favorite bits of programming in recent ESPN MegaCasts has been the Coaches Film Room. It’s become a regular feature during the College Football Playoff National Championship, and lots of us enjoyed watching coaches give informed analysis of play calls and the headset-throwing technique of a hopping-mad Nick Saban. But the Film Room can’t be for everyone, because even football coaches who are trying to speak to laymen will sometimes run into the translation problem inherent in being not normal people, but football coaches gathered around a table. It’s not easy to get knowledge out of these dudes that is both informative and widely digestible.

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The four-letter network might have cracked the code, though, with Peyton and Eli, in the first of 10 Manning-brother simulcasts over each of the next three seasons. The sport’s most famous brothers proved to be the right kind of football dorks to talk to a national audience. They talked in plenty of Xs-and-Os jargon, and you might’ve had a hard time following everything if you didn’t grasp the difference between zero- and two-man coverages. Even then, the Mannings tried to help you, and they helped some of the game’s finer points make fast sense in a way few broadcast analysts could emulate. They also drew on some of the cachet that comes with being senior members of football’s royal family. Combined with the Raiders and Baltimore Ravens providing a delirious mess of a game, the commentary made for a singular viewing experience as the Raiders finally got out of their own way to win in overtime. Here’s a broadcast highlight reel:

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The Mannings offer a window into today’s QBs that most of us in the football media cannot. Yes, there are the schematics, which they know better than almost anyone. They can tell you with pretty good accuracy when the defense is playing zone or man-to-man coverage, and then drill down a lot deeper than that. But it’s also a matter of access. When I want to tell you a story about what Lamar Jackson was like before he hit it big, I have to call his high school coach and look at some Hudl highlights. If Peyton and Eli want to tell you a story like that, they can just talk about the time Jackson showed up at the Manning Passing Academy. That’s the family’s annual QB camp, which at this point is more or less a papal conclave for those trying to make it at football’s key position. The famously slow, non-agile Mannings talked about how they taught Jackson to juke in the open field. I chuckled.

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Your mileage may vary on how much Manning rolodex-flexing you like. I personally didn’t need Peyton telling us an extended tale of how he reached out to Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman for a breakdown of a play and needed to convince Roman it was really him by recalling what kind of sandwich Jim Harbaugh ordered at a workout with Peyton and Roman in 2012 (when he was the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator). But it appeared Peyton did get the explanation he was after, so hey. Thank you for your journalism, No. 18.

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Being the Mannings also helps the guest-booking process, and this broadcast had one for each quarter in Charles Barkley, Ray Lewis, Travis Kelce, and Russell Wilson. The “famous people shooting the breeze with other famous people” genre has gotten stale for me, but the sheer volume of the brothers’ and their guests’ experiences was enough to hold my attention. Peyton and Lewis talked about how they calibrated their film-watching habits during their careers, and Lewis explained that QBs’ incessant film-crunching prompted him to step it up himself. Peyton informed me of something I hadn’t considered: that the gradual integration of field microphones into game broadcasts caused major information security issues for his offenses, as defenses were able to turn up the volume and match verbal cues to play calls. Eli and Lewis reminisced about a time that Lewis’ Ravens defense held the young QB to a 0.0 passer rating. Wilson bandied about ways to make NFL overtime rules more interesting (at least in his view), after Peyton cajoled him live on the air into hanging around for the extra football. The broadcast felt like a slightly more polished Twitch stream, right down to a fire alarm going off in someone’s studio.

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The broadcast could probably use a bit of refinement. On top of the fire alarm, guests’ microphones didn’t always work right, the Mannings didn’t seem to know how to naturally throw the show to a commercial break, and Peyton called the Raiders “Oakland” several times. (They no longer hail from Oakland.) But most of the rough edges were charming, at least in Week 1.

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The game remained the focus amid all the star power on the call. Late in the action, the Mannings and Wilson ran through the communication process between a QB, head coach, and kicker, as the offense tries to set the ball up on the hashmark that the kicker prefers. Manning introduced the world to what his teams called “burger routes,” which have a wide receiver go “In-N-Out,” as the Raiders’ Hunter Renfrow did to slither away from a defender at one point.

Future Peyton and Eli shows might not be as good as this one, partially because of the novelty of this being the first one and partially because this was a really good game. It won’t be new forever, and Lamar Jackson won’t be playing an overtime game in this time slot every week. It’s fair to wonder about how well the format will hold up with time. But it’s also fair to deduce that the Mannings—especially Peyton, who did most of the talking—are lively enough screen presences and smart enough football minds to keep it working well into the future.

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Once upon a time, ESPN wanted Peyton Manning to man the broadcast booth as a color commentator in the traditional game-calling format. That’d be fine. At CBS, Tony Romo has shown that recently retired QBs who know modern football inside and out can thrive in that setting. But I found more value in Monday night’s broadcast than I have in any football game I can remember. It comes down not just to the Mannings, but the format.

It felt vaguely like I was watching a game while sitting on a Zoom with friends—like Peyton and Eli were consuming the game more or less how I was, albeit with more knowledge, more screens, and more producers in their earpieces. The experience felt free of the formality that comes with the traditional structure of play-by-play calls and in-game analysis. I don’t think I’d want to watch the Super Bowl like that, at least not as the show stands now, because pomp and circumstance still have their place. But so does watching a football game casually, with the primary soundtrack coming from people who understand the subject matter better than almost anyone on Earth.

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