NFL Network vs. Big Ten Network in the dead zone

July 3, 2009

Slow doesn’t begin to describe this time of year for college athletics and the NFL. Having covered both for a significant period of time, I can tell you everyone associated with the NFL is on vacation during the July 4 holiday. Likewise, college officials usually are as far from campus as possible.

It’s only reasonable to expect two networks exclusively televising pro football or college athletics to struggle for relevant programming this time of year. To examine this, I went through the entire television schedule of both the NFL Network and the Big Ten Network beginning with Sunday, June 28 and ending on July 4. Here are my observations.

Both networks repeat programming the same way Clear Channel recycles songs and news stories on the radio. The Big Ten Network repeated programming 45 times during this week. That includes four telecasts of “Big Ten Legends: Lloyd Carr” and four airings of the 2009 Big Ten men’s tennis tournament. The NFL Network is much, much worse. It replayed its programming 90 times during the seven-day period.

The Big Ten Network is required to show campus programming, and this is the perfect time of year to do so. There were three airings of Purdue’s “Boiler Bytes,” and Northwestern’s “Student Concerto Competition.” Iowa varied its campus programming with shows on vitality, sustainability and “Getting Ready for the Boom.” I presume that’s a euphemism for the alarm clock to wake us from that programming, but I digress.

The Big Ten Network has done a good job of trying to shake up its replays by instituting campus-specific programming on different days. There have been (and will be again on July 12) Iowa days when the network airs past games in which Iowa was victorious.

During this sample week, the Big Ten Network devoted a day for Wisconsin. The programming included a 1999 Rose Bowl victory, a big basketball win against Maryland in 2000 and the annual hockey grudge match against Minnesota. There also was campus programming on the common cold (aahh-chew), international relations (is this the fishing zone between the U.S. and Canada?) and the mind of a psychopath (Wisconsin’s own Jeffrey Dahmer?).

On July 4, the BTN will air the league’s greatest football games of 2008, plus other football-related programming. Good move. Overall, it was a decent week for the network, which slowly is building its resume as one of the better sports networks on television.

The NFL Network is the reigning repeat champion. No other network outside of Headline News repeats its programming more than the NFL Network. It’s a shame because the NFL Network has so much potential.

During the June 28-July 4 sample week, the NFL Network was fairly predictable, based on past years. Sundays are filled with 90-minute replays from four games during a 2008 weekend From noon Sunday through 6 p.m. Monday, those replays ran 16 times.

The NFL Network’s daily trademark, “Total Access,” is a one-hour news/feature show that airs every weeknight at 6 p.m. Unfortunately, it re-airs and re-airs and re-airs some more. The Monday version aired 10 times. The Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday versions aired 12 times each. That’s way too much programming time to dedicate to one 60-minute show.

The network also re-airs other programming at an alarming rate. Tuesday night, the network showed two 30-minute and one 60-minute episodes of “NFL Game of the Week.” Those shows then re-aired nine more times.

On Monday nights (and usually on the following Saturday), the NFL Network airs a “Classic Game” with its original broadcasters. Unfortunately, many of the classics go back to 2008 or 2007. Since the 1970 merger, there have been 9,061 games NFL games played — 8,680 regular season, 381 postseason.

The NFL Network did schedule a weekend dedicated to its Emmy-winning documentary series “America’s Game.” Beginning at 5 a.m. on July 4, the network will air each episode of its Super Bowl champion series, followed by its “Missing Rings” series. That’s a tremendous idea, but the network should have started it earlier in the week to expose those fans who have yet to see it.

What the NFL Network does, it does well. It just doesn’t do it enough and it is much too repetitive. When Brett Favre returns again expect nothing the network to destroy all of its programming to show his first Packers’ game, the Monday night game following his dad’s death, the Packers’ Super Bowl XXXI win and last year’s Jets-Patriots Thursday night game on NFL Network.  The network did it when he retired, when he un-retired and then when he retired again.


NFL Network’s “Missing Rings” a hit

September 23, 2008

The quotes are just as powerful out of context as they are slotted in their correct sequence.

“You gotta be able to live with losing,” former Minnesota Vikings Coach Bud Grant said. “That’s the hardest thing — to get over it. You can’t let it eat you up.”

Grant said that during in the latest installment of “America’s Game: Missing Rings,” which profiles the 1969 Minnesota Vikings. That team won 12 straight games during the season — an accomplishment no team had done in the previous 35 years. It led the NFL in points scored, points allowed and was the least penalized.

The Vikings’ episode appears at 9 p.m. (CST) Thursday on NFL Network.

Only the Vikings’ records and statistics fail to matter on the NFL’s scrap heap of history. The Vikings lost Super Bowl IV to the Kansas City Chiefs 23-7 and are forgotten along with the rest of history’s losers. It’s a familiar tone with the Vikings, who lost three more Super Bowls over the next seven seasons. The Vikings’ best team in 1998, which finished 15-1 in the regular season, will appear on a future episode as well.

“America’s Game: Missing Rings” features five of the NFL’s best teams to never win the Super Bowl. Along with the 1969 and 1998 Vikings, the five-episode series features the 1990 Buffalo Bills and the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals. The first installment, which debuted Sept. 18, showed the 1981 San Diego Chargers.

The “America’s Game” series ranks at the top of all sports documentaries, featuring every Super Bowl champion. If it’s possible, from the first two episodes, the “Missing Rings” might be better. These losing teams were even more colorful than most of the Super Bowl winners and their deficiencies were more pronounced. By the end of the episode you know the team is going to lose, but you kind of hope it doesn’t. You ask the same “what-if” questions as the team’s fans.

The 1969 Vikings episode begins with the Vikings’ transition from expansion franchise to NFL superpower. It focuses on the perpetual arguments between first coach Norm Van Brocklin and first (and future) quarterback Fran Tarkenton. Then both left, and Grant took over in 1967. He then brought in Joe Kapp, a Mexican-American, from Canada to play quarterback.

Kapp was all bravado at QB. He and his teammates joked about his throwing style, which Kapp said didn’t include using the laces. “He threw some passes that looked like ducks but they made it into the hands of the receivers,” Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall said.

The episode deals with race issues from the era, which seemed to avoid Minnesota. It included a fight between Kapp and linebacker Lonnie Warwick — “That’s what Tequilla can do to you,” Grant said. The episode documents Kapp’s seven-touchdown performance against NFL defending champion Baltimore and the ferocity of the Vikings’ defense, known as the “Purple People Eaters.”

The fierce Minnesota weather and Grant’s disciplinary style of coaching also was highlighted. But what everyone remembers is the season’s end, a loss to Kansas City. Narrator Tom Selleck appropriately describes the day for the Minnesota faithful:

“A Viking hot air balloon lost its way, and careened off course. In the first half, the same could be said of the team.”

Grant and Kapp opened critiqued the loss with pointed remarks on the passing game.

“We didn’t really have a sophisticated passing attack,” Grant said. “We were ahead in most of our games and we really didn’t have to come back.

“Our passing game wasn’t good at that point.”

Kapp said: “I don’t think we were quite as smart as we needed to be as play callers in that game. I didn’t go to the pass on first down … I could critique it to death.”

The loss hurt the Vikings’ Marshall as much as anyone. He started in all four Super Bowl losses, and despite efforts from former coaches and teammates touting him as one of the NFL’s best-ever, those losses tarnished his — and the Vikings’ — legacy.

“Those were four opportunities that we had to prove that we were the best in the world, and we didn’t do it,” he said. “We got beat and in some games we got beat soundly. You never get over things like that. It haunts me every day.”

This series has possibilities for future episodes. Copy editor Sam Paxton, who follows NFL Films as closely as I do, and I looked into other installments of “Missing Rings” that could be just as rich as the first two episodes. They include:

1979 Houston Oilers, which lost two consecutive AFC title games to the Pittsburgh Steelers

1999 Tennessee Titans, the former Oilers that lost on the game’s final play to St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXIV

1991 Detroit Lions, a losing franchise that sneaked past everyone to the NFC title game

1980 Cleveland Browns, the best-known “Kardiac Kids” that lost on the infamous “Red Right 88” pass

1986/87 Cleveland Browns, a team that lost AFC title games in heartbreaking fashion to John Elway’s Denver Broncos

2003 Carolina Panthers, a team that went from 1-15 to the Super Bowl in two seasons and nearly knocked off an NFL dynasty.

This series leaves you wanting more at the end of every episode. It’s the very best of NFL Films.

“America’s Game” returns to NFL Network

September 3, 2008

The latest installment of “America’s Game” returns to NFL Network tonight with a one-hour documentary on the 2007 New York Giants. These documentaries — one for each Super Bowl champion — are among the best in sports television history. That’s likely to continue tonight.

I think I join most football fans who remain in shock that the Giants actually won the Super Bowl last year. With Michael Strahan as a key interview, I’m sure it’s filled with less coachspeak than any of last year’s Patriots’ players. The Giants certainly have an interesting story to tell.

The only issue I have with the recent “America’s Game” installments is the lack of context they sometimes provide to the viewer. If the Giants win one or more Super Bowls over the next 5 years, the 2007 season will be viewed differently than its current interpretation. That was true about the 2006 Colts episode and 2005 Steelers. But make no mistake: this series is worth watching, either on the NFL Network now or eventually on DVD.

Later this month, the NFL Network will start the series “Missing Rings,” which profiles five great teams that failed to win the Super Bowl. On Sept. 18, the series debuts with the 1981 San Diego Chargers, which lost the “Freezer Bowl” to Cincinnati in the AFC championship. On Sept. 25, the network airs the 1969 Vikings’ story. On Oct. 2, the network features the 1990 Buffalo Bills. Two other installments — the 1998 Vikings and the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals — will air later in October. I can imagine the depth of emotion and perspective of each losing team could make these episodes even more revealing than the “America’s Game” series. I hope NFL Films continues to make these documentaries into the future.

The NFL Network has streamlined its nightly lineup, with the “Missing Rings” series played on Thursdays, a Classic Game airing on Friday and its Top 10 series on Saturday nights. The network has plans to air the 1975 Hail Mary Game between the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 12. That game was bumped four times in August to accommodate breaking Brett Favre news. A few of the Top 10 episodes planned include Super Bowl performances and home-field advantages.

NFL Films’ “America’s Game” encore includes Vikings

July 10, 2008

Perhaps the 41 best sports documentaries ever made came from NFL Films in its “America’s Game” series featuring the NFL’s Super Bowl champions. Now, according to the Houston Chronicle, NFL Films plans to profile five non-champions in similar fashion.

According to the Chronicle, a five-episode series called “Missing Rings” will highlight five teams that couldn’t win the big one. Those include two Minnesota Vikings’ squads — the 1969 NFL champs which lost to Kansas City in Super Bowl IV — and the 1998 Vikings which finished the regular season 15-1 but lost the NFC title to Atlanta in OT. Other teams profiled include the 1990 Buffalo Bills, which lost to the N.Y. Giants on a last-second field goal; the 1981 San Diego Chargers, which lost in the AFC title game at frigid Cincinnati; and the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals that lost to San Francisco on a last-second drive.

It’s possible that those documentaries set to air this fall will be even better than the “America’s Game” series. History books are written by the winners. The same holds true for NFL highlight films. Often, the better stories come from the losers.

The upcoming series also got me thinking about the 12 best teams never to win the Super Bowl. Here are my choices:

12. 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers — After finishing 15-1 during the regular season, the Steelers needed OT to beat the Jets in the divisional round before stumbling to New England at home in the AFC title game. The Steelers had it all, including rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger, but he was no match for New England’s defensive experience.

11. 1986 Chicago Bears — The Bears finished 14-2 in the regular season, a not-too-shabby follow-up from its 18-1 Super Bowl season. But in-fighting and a major quarterback controversy kept the team from reaching its potential. It boiled over after QB Jim McMahon and his right shoulder were KO’d on a cheap shot from Packers defensive lineman Charles Martin. Coach Mike Ditka inexplicably chose rookie Doug Flutie to start a playoff game against Washington, which the Bears lost 27-13. Flutie threw three interceptions.

10. 2006 San Diego Chargers — The Chargers were the NFL’s most complete team that season, finishing the regular season 14-2. But in a monumental slugfest against New England, bad luck struck when a fourth-down interception by Marlon McCree appeared to seal the win. McCree was stripped by New England’s Troy Brown, who recovered the fumble, giving the Patriots a first down. New England later scored twice to win the game and knock out the league’s top scoring team.

9. 1990 Buffalo Bills — Three teams dominated the 1990 season (the 13-3 Bills, the 13-3 Super Bowl champion Giants and the 14-2 49ers). The Bills had the best team of the three and entered the Super Bowl off a 51-3 blitzkrieg of the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC title game. Had Scott Norwood’s 47-yard FG attempt moved slightly to the left with a 22-20 Bills’ win, the Giants might hold this position instead.

8. 2005 Indianapolis Colts — After a 13-0 start, the Colts were threatening the 1972 Dolphins’ hold as the only unbeaten team in history. But the Colts put their season in overdrive in December, losing two of their final three regular-season games. Then the Steelers’ ferocious defense backhanded the Colts in their AFC playoff matchup, 21-18.

7. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers — After starting 1-4, the Steelers won their final nine regular-season games. The Steel Curtain defense was astounding, allowing only 28 points and two touchdowns during their win streak. The Steelers blasted Baltimore 40-14 in the divisional playoffs before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland 24-7 when their three top running backs were injured.

6. 1994 Dallas Cowboys — It’s easy to forget how good the early 1990s battles were between San Francisco and Dallas. The 12-4 Cowboys were the two-time champs and had beaten the 49ers twice en route to Super Bowl titles. This time, Dallas fell behind 21-0 to San Francisco in the NFC title game. The Cowboys fought in vain before losing their three-peat chances, 38-28. It was the third straight season the teams had met in the NFC championship with the victor also winning the Super Bowl. Dallas rallied to win the Super Bowl the following season.

5. 1968 Baltimore Colts — The 13-1 Colts scored 28 points and gave up 10 on average that season. The Colts avenged their only loss to Cleveland with a 34-0 win in the NFL title game. So what happened? The heavily favored Colts ran into the supremely confident Joe Namath and the N.Y. Jets in Super Bowl III and fell apart. It was the greatest upset in NFL history.

4. 1983 Washington Redskins — The Redskins’ (14-2) only losses came by a combined two points. They led the league with nearly 34 points a game. John Riggins scored a then-NFL record 24 touchdowns. But they played flat against the Los Angeles Raiders in the Super Bowl and committed errors of every kind in a 38-9 loss. But if you still ask Coach Joe Gibbs or quarterback Joe Theismann about their best team, it’s always the 1983 version, not the 1982 Super Bowl Redskins.

3. 1978 Dallas Cowboys — The greatest Super Bowl matchup in NFL history pitted the defending champion Cowboys (12-4) against the 14-2 Pittsburgh Steelers. The game ultimately ended the argument about the decade’s greatest team and possibly history’s best dynasty. After trading touchdowns through the third quarter, tight end Jackie Smith’s dropped touchdown pass cost Dallas four points (the Cowboys kicked a field goal instead), which proved fatal in a 35-31 loss. Five Cowboys from that game (QB Roger Staubach, RB Tony Dorsett, OT Rayfield Wright, DT Randy White and Smith) are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It’s a shame a few others like safety Cliff Harris or wide receiver Drew Pearson aren’t there with them.

2. 1998 Minnesota Vikings — Nobody stopped the 15-1 Vikings during the regular season. The Vikings set an NFL record 556 points and scored at least 24 points in every game. The Vikings were led by rookie wide receiver Randy Moss, who scored 17 touchdowns. But the Vikings couldn’t put away the 14-2 Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game. Late in the fourth quarter, Minnesota led 27-20 and kicker Gary Anderson attempted a field goal. Anderson shanked the field goal, his only miss the entire season. Atlanta regrouped and scored to force the game into OT, which it eventually won. The loss shocked everyone in the NFL, including the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. In NFL Films’ “America’s Game,” Denver Coach Mike Shanahan couldn’t help but giggling relay to his coaches that the Falcons had won. Denver nearly lost its own title game and trailed by 10 points at halftime, in part because of Minnesota’s shocking loss.

1. 2007 New England Patriots — The best team ever … until 30 seconds left in the final game. The 18-0 Patriots simply ran out of steam and answers against the N.Y. Giants. The Patriots had immortality on the line and blew it. New England scored a whopping 589 points, winning every game but four by double digits. QB Tom Brady threw 50 TDs; Randy Moss caught 23 TDs. But New York’s front four kept the Patriots’ offense off-guard, and the Patriots never adjusted. When a late touchdown pass from Brady to Moss seemed to put New England ahead to stay, the Patriots defense couldn’t stop Giants QB Eli Manning. Manning’s touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 30 seconds left sealed the Pats’ fate as the best team to never win the Super Bowl. Had the Pats held a 14-10 lead, they’d be No. 1 on the real list.

Others worth mentioning: 1987 San Francisco 49ers (13-2 in strike year); 1990 San Francisco 49ers (14-2); 1984 Miami Dolphins (14-2); 1996 Denver Broncos (13-3); 1974 Oakland Raiders (12-2); 1975 Minnesota Vikings (12-2); 1988 Cincinnati Bengals (12-4); 2001 St. Louis Rams (14-2)