The 2021 NFL season will kick off tonight with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking on the Dallas Cowboys. Four days later, the first Monday Night Football broadcast of the season will air as the Las Vegas Raiders will play their first game in Sin City with fans in the stands, hosting the Baltimore Ravens. It will also mark the beginning of the second year of the Steve Levy/Brian Griese/Louis Riddick partnership in the booth.
The trio was tapped to lead ESPN's marquee broadcast in 2020 after the network struggled to put together an attractive announcing crew for viewers over the previous two years. As one can imagine, it was obviously a challenge to work together for the first time with the coronavirus pandemic looming in the backdrop.
The three are familiar with one another and had appeared on broadcasts together in various iterations in the past, but the lights of Monday Night Football are among the brightest in the business. Few broadcasts are as scrutinized. It's already hard enough to come together as a group and quickly build the chemistry required to put on a quality show, and even more difficult when no in-person meetings or run-throughs were permitted.
But everybody went through different versions of that struggle last year. The MNF crew is no different. What made their partnership unique for a major broadcast, and what made it even more impressive that they were able to find success in 2020, was the three-man booth. Traditionally, football broadcasts feature a PBP commentator and a color commentator. It's why all the legendary names in football broadcasting come in pairs. John Madden and Pat Summerall. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. Jim Nantz and Tony Romo.
You get the point. A duo in the booth is what both audience and analysts are accustomed to. The line between harmony and cacophony is razor-thin with a trio. It is a delicate process, a difficult dance to have three unique and individual personalities shine on a football broadcast. And there is no margin for error on this stage.
Despite all that, despite those obstacles, Levy, Griese, and Riddick were good enough to get the callback for Year 2. Levy explained how the ESPN team navigated everything to The Big Lead in a conference call on Wednesday.
"In your standard two-person NFL booth, the roles and the timing are really defined, right; play-by-play guy goes to the whistle and then the analyst jumps in until they break the huddle, set the formation, those kind of things," Levy said. "In our booth it's obviously very different. I know exactly when I'm speaking, but I am amazed, and I'm in the booth with these guys, I am amazed how Phil Dean, our producer, communicates with Louis and with Brian and virtually never stepped on each other.
"I don't know how they organize it. It is television magic. But it speaks to a lack of ego, also, on the part of both Louis and Brian, and Phil Dean coordinating the whole thing."
Riddick and Griese's ability to gel is what will ultimately define this MNF broadcast. As two color commentators, each brings a unique perspective to the table for the viewers. But it is not a simple task to ensure they don't overlap when speaking. Griese provided more background on the art of meshing with Riddick.
"After a play happens, Steve is done calling the play, and I might hit my button to talk to the truck to tell Phil the angle or what I wanted to talk about in a replay, and Louis might be doing the same thing at the same time. So Phil is getting two voices into his head, into his ear at the same time having to listen to two and make a split-second decision as to which direction to go," Griese explained.
"Then Louis and I have to kind of react off of that, and Louis and I sometimes have hand signals or non-verbals. Louis will tell me he's really high on something or I'll listen to his pregame, what he's interested in talking about, so I'll defer to that. When I'm hot on something, I have to be able to communicate to him.
"There is a lot of air traffic control, if you will, that has to happen pretty much on every single play that you hear us come in to talk. That's kind of how it's worked."
It isn't easy. But the crew got it done under the most difficult circumstances one can imagine for a football broadcasting team. Though the pandemic is not quite in the rearview for the world, things will be a little closer to what we remember as normal in the 2021 season.
Levy, Griese, and Riddick are glad for it as they attempt to build on what they've already accomplished in their sophomore season of Monday Night Football.