With 7:30 left in the second quarter of an otherwise forgettable October game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Cris Collinsworth said the name that had been on Fred Gaudelli's mind for at least five days.
The Steelers were trailing 14-3 at that point, and the game was threatening to go slack. At least that's how it felt to Gaudelli, the producer of NBC's Sunday Night Football and one of the most highly regarded talents in sports television. The Bengals had just scored a touchdown after forcing and recovering a Ben Roethlisberger fumble. In response, Pittsburgh, one of the worst running teams in the league, had decided to keep it on the ground. Jonathan Dwyer for 11 yards. Jonathan Dwyer for five yards.
And that's when Collinsworth noticed something happening along the Steelers' offensive line that casual viewers probably missed.
"Willie Colon inside," the color analyst said, "doing a nice job." Gaudelli, working the dials in a truck parked outside Paul Brown Stadium, had been waiting for this.
Last year, Sunday Night Football became the No. 1 show in America, the first time a sports program had reached the top ratings spot. Even in its heyday, Monday Night Football didn't touch the year-end No. 1 slot. This year, Sunday Night Football is still No. 1, with an average of 21 million people watching per week.
How'd NBC do it? I met with Gaudelli a few weeks ago at the network's home in Rockefeller Center to ask him that very question. Gaudelli is 52 and looks and sounds like a guy who has spent the better part of 30 years inside the "truck"—the production space outside a stadium where all these live games get packaged and prettied up. He has the solid build of a suburban dad, and he is a quick, lively talker with more than a little of his native Westchester in his accent.
There are a few obvious explanations for NBC's success. Sunday Night Football benefits from a deliriously good schedule (far stronger than ESPN's Monday night slate, which delivers 13 million viewers a week, eight million fewer than the NBC games). The NBC package—which features 17 Sunday-night games, the season opener, a Thanksgiving game, a wild-card playoff, and a Super Bowl once every three years—is loaded with ratings catnip: The Giants, the Patriots, the Steelers, the Packers, the 49ers and the Cowboys each appear three times this season. "The marquee has to have stars," said Gaudelli. "The schedule is a huge part of our success. You'd be foolish to think otherwise."
There's also the booth team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, the best in the business, according to Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch, and while your mileage may vary on Bob Costas, Tony Dungy, and the rest of the on-air talent, there is no denying the overall crispness of the production, the way everything looks and sounds sharper, the way it seems to see more than the other broadcasts. NBC has taken a time slot and turned it into something else—a big, noisy event, draped in bunting and heralded by trumpets, that takes great pains to illuminate all the small, complicated things that happen on the football field. How the network did that has a lot to do with what happened with 7:30 remaining in the first half on that night in October.
Each week before NBC's weekly game, Collinsworth sends a tape to Gaudelli. The tape serves as a sort of mini-scouting report that helps Gaudelli's production staff tease out storylines, prepare graphics, and determine where around the stadium the crew's cameras should go. In the run-up to Steelers-Bengals, Collinsworth zeroed in on Colon, an offensive lineman for the Steelers who was making the transition from right tackle to left guard.
"We had Pittsburgh in pre-season," Gaudelli told me, "and you could tell he was struggling. We had Pittsburgh on opening night in Denver, and he still wasn't there."
But by the time Collinsworth sat down to make his video for Gaudelli, Colon had begun to adapt. "Hey, Willie Colon looks like he's making this transition really nicely here," Collinsworth said on the tape, according to Gaudelli. "Look at this block, look at this block, look at how he sets his hip on this block."
It's Gaudelli's job to figure out how to arrange roughly 20 replay cameras, the ones that aren't focused on the snap. Those cameras are Gaudelli's means for expressing his broadcast philosophy, which centers on one question: What happened off the ball?
"The problem with football is people watch the ball," Gaudelli told me. "But there are so many things happening off the ball that determines where the ball goes-or doesn't go-and that's the biggest part of football. We really try to show off the ball so you can understand why certain things are happening."
For Steelers-Bengals, the interior offensive line seemed like a pretty good spot on which to train some of those 20 cameras. "Having done a million Steelers games and two Steelers Super Bowls, you know what their run play is. It's a guard trap," Gaudelli said. "There are only about four or five run plays in football and theirs is this one. And when Cris does the tape and points out, 'Hey this guy is blocking pretty well,' and Cincinnati's got a great defensive tackle no one knows about in Geno Atkins, then you say, 'OK, this week we're putting the camera here.'"
It was a smart decision. After Dwyer's five-yard run and after Collinsworth had mentioned Colon, Gaudelli cut to a replay shot from a cable cam behind the huddle. There, a viewer could see Colon sealing off a lane for Dwyer.
On the next play, Dwyer busted through the line for a 22-yard gain. A replay showed Colon throwing Bengals defensive lineman Robert Geathers out of the way. NBC had yet another camera angle that showed off Colon's block.
"This left guard is creating crevices in the Cincinnati defense," Gaudelli said. "So you do three or four replays in a row on the left guard, showing him knocking people into the secondary—that's off the ball. Madden was big on that. People can see the ball. Let's show them what they can't see."
Now Gaudelli and Collinsworth and Al Michaels had found a storyline. The Steelers were newly alive. As they approached the Bengals' red zone, they put the ball on the ground for a seventh consecutive play. They picked up two yards on the carry and—voila—two more replays of Colon, one showing the guard dragging Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict to the ground (a play that seems to have cost Colon a few dreadlocks).
Collinsworth seized on this as an opportunity to broaden out the story. Here was an effective drive that unfolded largely behind a stalwart offensive lineman still learning a new position but willing to sacrifice his hair for the sake of his team.
"That's Pittsburgh Steelers stuff right there," Collinsworth said after that last replay of Colon, taking at last the only flight of fancy in an otherwise smartly prosaic sequence. "That is what defined this organization and all those world championships."
It was also the drive that changed the game: The Steelers would win 24-17, and Gaudelli and Collinsworth and Michaels had their throughline in Colon, a narrative that went beyond the generalities that litter Sunday-afternoon broadcasts—"Well, Thom, they're really running the ball well"—to explain why what was happening was happening.
Gaudelli started his career at ESPN in 1983, working his way up to becoming the lead producer for corporate brother ABC's Monday Night Football in 2001. In the sports-broadcast firmament, he is a superstar. In 2005, as NBC was preparing to take over the primetime package on Sunday night, Gaudelli's agent, Sandy Montag, invited Dick Ebersol into ABC's production truck to watch Gaudelli at work. Within a few minutes, as the ESPN history Those Guys Have All the Fun tells it, Ebersol turned to Montag and said, "This is like watching the frickin' ballet." Gaudelli was hired that night. Ebersol would declare Gaudelli and his battery mate, Sunday Night Football director Drew Esocoff, the "two best hires I've ever had in my sporting life as a producer and director."
"Gaudelli's production is regarded as the best of its kind—it's the crown jewel of the NFL," Those Guys Have All the Fun co-author Jim Miller told me. "And the fact that ESPN had him and lost him? Losing Fred Gaudelli was absolutely one of the biggest personnel mistakes in ESPN history."
In my conversation with Gaudelli he focused a lot on the announcers—"There is no production that can overcome mediocre announcers. None. Zero. None."—but we kept coming back to that off-the-ball stuff that set up the Colon replays so perfectly. "Do we do that more than other people?" said Gaudelli. "Probably."
Once upon a time, he recalled, a marquee football broadcast was supposed to be "more than the game." That was certainly the perception at Monday Night Football, dating back to the 1970s, Gaudelli said, "and I think that was a true perception probably the first 20 years of its existence. But as things changed and the television landscape changed and technology changed and football changed that was going to be a lot harder to do. The game became much more sophisticated."
"I mean, look, we're at a point where there won't be huddles in about two years," he continued. "When I started doing football, they'd huddle for a punt. Can you believe that? There's no huddle for a punt anymore. The game was slower. You could do more, there was more time in between plays. All of that was true 20 years ago. That's not true anymore. The game is happening—snap, snap—like this. There's a lot of nuance to the game and the game is more sophisticated and If you're not plugged into the game you're going to miss things."
Football is getting more nuanced, and fans are getting smarter. This is the broadcast that follows both trends. Gaudelli pointed to a Week 6 game he produced between the Texans and Packers, a game Green Bay won on the road.
"Green Bay is having real trouble running the ball" before the game, said Gaudelli. "So, [Aaron] Rodgers tells us in the production meeting. 'Hey you know what? We're going to run out of our spread package because we can run at this safety who wants no part of tackling anybody.' So, game's on, they get in their spread package and in comes Houston's dime package and bam, they're running right at this guy. So you could say: 'Hey, they're having great success running the ball!' Well hey! Actually, here's why they're having great success running the ball. They're running at this 200-pound safety, and they've got an offensive tackle on him. You want to make sure you're at that level of detail of why something's happening instead of saying 'They're doing a great job running the ball! Hey their line is great! Hey, this back is great!' Yes, these things are true but here's why they're true."
Gaudelli didn't always think this way. In 1997, he worked a game that he now calls the turning point in his career. At the time, Gaudelli was producing Sunday-night games for ESPN. The Lions were in Miami for a December game against the Dolphins, and both teams were playoff-bound. The Dolphins had a 36-year-old Dan Marino, and the Lions had Barry Sanders, who was in the midst of his 2,000-yard co-MVP season, not to mention a streak of 11 games—soon to be 12—in which he rushed for at least 100 yards.
"So we get to the fourth quarter, and it's a tight game," Gaudelli said. "Detroit has the ball with five minutes to go. They basically run Barry Sanders down the field, and they scored a go-ahead. In this whole drive I'm doing all these Barry Sanders things."
Graphics lit up the screen. "Some are stats, some are historical—hey, he breaks the record for most consecutive 100-yard games," Gaudelli said. "We had this graphic with Sanders where his rushing attempts were like an EKG that would be like two yards, one yard, two yards, 50 yards, two yards, minus two, minus three, 80 yards."
He continued: "Now Marino gets it. He comes back down. They score with like 10 seconds to go to win the game. And during this drive I'm doing all these Marino things."
He thought at the time that this was all pretty great. The game was exciting; his production was exciting; this was compelling TV, he thought. But then he reviewed the tape.
"I'm like: I remember how exciting this was watching it in the truck and now I'm watching it at home and I sucked the excitement out of it because I'm everywhere except where I needed to be," Gaudelli said. "The light bulb went off. If we just stayed with the game—and as the producer you're dictating flow—it would have been just better. Just to stay with the game! You had two great players. It doesn't get better than Barry Sanders and Dan Marino. And we cluttered it up."
From there, Gaudelli learned a valuable lesson: Don't clutter it up.
"I think at the end of the day your broadcast is judged on how well you covered what we just saw," Gaudelli said. "Well-covered is better than well-planned when covering live events. We could spend hours building this three-dimensional graphic that people in TV will think is cool, but the average person at home isn't going to differentiate that from some flat graphic that I could put on the screen as well. It's the cumulative effect of all those different things that maybe distinguishes Sunday-night game from any other game."
In the past, Gaudelli and his crew would spend the two hours before the game checking some cameras and otherwise sitting around and doing nothing. Then he started working with John Madden on Monday Night Football. Madden would pick up "crazy things" that were useful for a broadcast.
"He had you shooting every player,"Gaudelli said. "He'd be saying, 'Hey, look at this guy! Hey, look at how that guy's got his shoe tied—he's a fat guy so he can't tie them in the middle, he's got to tie them to the side!'"
Now, when teams come out, Gaudelli said, "we're just shooting people, and we're looking and looking."
In the pre-game to Steelers-Bengals, Ben Roethlisberger gathered his offensive line and a couple of tight ends around him. Esocoff, the Sunday Night Football director, told his crew to zoom in on Roethlisberger.
"And Ben's saying, 'We gotta win one game, we gotta win one game, all you guys gotta focus on tonight is winning one game.' You can't hear it but you can read his lips," said Gaudelli. "Then, bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp—he head butts all these guys."
The moment was filmed, saved, and stowed away.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had the ball and a 24-17 lead. Collinsworth mentioned that Steelers had blown some games in the fourth quarter this season. "Ben Roethlisberger had a team meeting this week," he continued, "and basically said, 'Hey guys, listen, quit relying on the defense to win games in this situation.'" In the truck, Gaudelli perked up. He mentioned something to Michaels and Collinsworth, and a play later—with the Steelers facing third-and-4 in their own end, there was Roethlisberger's moment on screen: "One game!" Bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp.
"It's perfect for the moment," Gaudelli said.
On the third down after they showed the clip, Roethlisberger didn't throw a heroic, chain-moving pass. Instead, he handed off to Jonathan Dwyer, who burst through a hole, straight down the right hash marks, for 15 yards. First down. This was another Willie Colon production. After the snap, Colon had bounced up from his left-guard slot, sprinted across the developing play, and walled off Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict. How do we know this? You could see it on the replay. A camera had been squared on the interior offensive line, where the difference was made.