Thursday night brings audiences the first edition of NFL Network's Thursday Night Football in 2020. The Cincinnati Bengals, led by 2020 first overall pick Joe Burrow, take on former No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns in a battle to get to .500. Coverage will be plentiful, kicking off at 3 p.m. ET when TNF First Look airs, hosted by Andrew Siciliano.
When 6 p.m. ET comes around, Colleen Wolfe, Steve Smith Jr., Michael Irvin, and Joe Thomas take the virtual stage for the first time in 2020 for NFL GameDay Kickoff, the pregame show for Thursday Night Football the last few years. Usually at this time on Thursday, the crew is setting up their set on-site in whichever city is hosting TNF that night. This year, of course, everything changed. Now, Smith, Irvin, and Thomas will call in from their homes while Wolfe is, well, the lone wolf in the studio as their host.
It will be strange for everybody. On a conference call with reporters, Thomas said it'll be a challenge to keep up the energy level and keep audiences engaged without the in-person interaction that makes the show what it is, but he and his cohorts are excited for that challenge. But the preparation is pretty much the same for the analysts that make up the TNF pregame crew. It's the changes in how they want to execute the show that will require adjustments.
"My prep is actually pretty much the same as it's always been," Wolfe told The Big Lead. "It just is the fact that I don't have these guys right next to me so I can shoot them a look or, you know, see, their body language and their nonverbals. They're all so great because it's so loud whenever we do these pregame shows. So we sort of have come up with our own little like sign language, the way to talk to each other. And so I think missing a lot of that, yeah, we're probably gonna have some hiccups, but that's just sort of the reality that we're all in right now, is we're all dealing with talking to screens."
Steve Smith Sr. felt the same but noted that, similar to how Scott Hanson and his RedZone team have their daily routine interrupted, the absence of the discourse that only face-to-face interaction can bring will be felt.
"Prep, for all of us is the same. Because you have football, you have your team. You have your points and points of emphasis that you're talking about. It's no different than any other thing except our production calls," said Smith. "Tomorrow, production calls [are] via conference call. Versus when we were all together facing each other, and we can literally argue our points to each other to maybe change the question. We don't have that now."
The NFL GameDay Kickoff team had a dress rehearsal on Wednesday afternoon to try and work out any possible hiccups, as Wolfe noted. But she and the rest of the crew are confident they'll be able to maintain similar chemistry after spending last year on the road brought them together. It's the downtime before and after the show that they'll clearly miss the most. This is a tightly-knit crew who would normally spend a good amount of time with each other working through the challenges of traveling to different sites each week and bonding over the experience. Like for all of us, the human interaction that makes for the best memories have been taken away from this group.
In his opening remarks to reporters, Thomas lamented over that fact and said he'll miss the camaraderie the team has built up.
"The four of us on Thursday Night football really formed a pretty awesome relationship last year," he said. "So, personally, I'm really gonna miss the time that we had to spend together not only in front of the cameras, but the time that breaking bread after games before games the day after. But I think all of us are kind of looking forward to this new challenge of how do we make entertaining TV from basically mine and Steve and Irv's couch."
Smith was of the same mindset.
"We're on the road with each other so much. I know for Joe, his wife travels with him at times. Colleen's husband, John. My wife, Angie [travel with the crew]. So we don't have, you know, our significant others go and see that our coworkers' significant others," Smith said. "So it's just a little bit different. You know, some things that we took for granted last year that we don't have now so it is definitely going to be different."
NFL GameDay Kickoff will begin at 6 p.m. ET on NFL Network on Thursday night.