It is finally here. The day that football fans have anxiously been waiting for since Feb. 5 — the kickoff to the 2017 NFL season.
A lot has happened since Super Bowl LI in Houston — and before the New England Patriots take on the Kansas City Chiefs tonight in their bid to defend their championship title, TheWrap went behind the scenes at the NFL Networks’s flagship show, “NFL GameDay,” to get the experts’ take on what to expect.
Filmed at the network’s Culver City, California, studios, “NFL GameDay” boasts a packed roster of Hall of Fame analysts, including Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin, Marshall Faulk, Terrell Davis, Kurt Warner and LaDainian Tomlinson. And then there’s host Rich Eisen — who has been in the business for over 25 years and used to share the ESPN “SportsCenter” desk with the late Stuart Scott — plus Steve “Mooch” Mariucci, former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions.
We arrived on set just in time to see this epic pool of talent react to the breaking news that Dallas Cowboys running back will be allowed to play against the New York Giants on Sunday, despite a six-game suspension handed down last month for violating the league’s domestic violence policy still being upheld.
“You need a law degree just to follow this case,” Eisen said on air. And he wasn’t kidding. Luckily, there were enough NFL brains in the building to analyze the legal and moral aspects of it, along with the impact on the Cowboys-Giants odds and millions of fans’ fantasy teams. There was even time in the three-hour show to throw a few footballs around, don their gold jackets for a “Hall of Famers Only” segment, swap them for red berets for a little painting, and debate the other 30 teams in the league.
But this is nothing compared to once the season starts, when the “NFL GameDay” team will be live from the L.A. studio from 6 a.m. PT until kickoff, with reports from stadiums around the league and breaking news from NFL Insider Ian Rapoport. And Mariucci is back again with Cole Wright for “NFL GameDay Highlights,” to recap the day’s action (proving that NFL coaches, even retired ones, never sleep).
TheWrap caught up with Eisen to get his thoughts on the biggest storylines before the Pats and Chiefs take to the field tonight in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
TheWrap: How difficult is it to adapt the show to breaking news, like you did with the announcement that Ezekiel Elliott will actually be allowed to play this week?
Rich Eisen: It changes the tone a lot, but we’ve got world class analysts and athletes, and a coach who’s been through all situations, so it’s just about setting them up and taking in the information as best we can so that folks can understand it — especially when it’s a confusing story where someone’s suspension is upheld but they are still allowed to play. As always in the 15 years I’ve been doing this at the network, I’m just saying what’s on my mind and what I’m thinking. Having been through the NFL lockout and the Tom Brady suspension, I’ve picked up enough [legal knowledge] to kind of understand it.
There is still a woman who is involved in this thing [the Elliott case] and I don’t want to come across as flippant or denigrating her situation by talking about whether you should draft someone in your fantasy league or not. I would much rather talk to you about the prospect of the Dallas Cowboys’ season than federal courts and law. It drives me a little crazy, but it is what it is.
Aside from Elliott, what is the most intriguing storyline going into this season?
It’s Tom Brady turning 40. For a guy who has always had something that stokes the greatest burning fire that I’ve seen in the NFL aside of Jerry Rice — his desire to win more (despite already having five rings) to prove that age is no factor to his physical and mental abilities is going to be remarkable to see pan out. You don’t see numbers that Brady put up as a 39-year-old … It’s interesting especially as there’s a player waiting in the wings to either get paid or get his walking papers in [backup QB] Jimmy Garoppolo. With any other franchise, this would take up all of the oxygen in the room, but the Patriots put velvet ropes around such storylines … I don’t know how they pull off, it’s a Bill Belichick thing and no one is really talking about the future.
There’s a lot of speculation around which team can stop them from winning another Super Bowl or even force them to get on a plane to play the AFC Championship game somewhere else. Maybe the Raiders, maybe the Titans? In the NFC, it’s really a wide open race.
We’ve seen a number of major injuries this pre-season including Julian Edelman and Ryan Tannehill, should it be be re-thought?
Yes, I think it needs to be made just two games [instead of four] … where first stringers don’t play. If I owned a team, I would basically tell my coach “you can’t play my first stringers if you want to coach for me.” And then tell fans to come for free. I know that is very radical, but at least it gets these roster spots filled with people who can compete for it. Too many players get hurt in the pre-season.
Which player not named Tom Brady should people be looking out for this year?
Derek Carr in Oakland is a good choice, seeing how he will fare coming after his breakout season ending with a broken leg. Marcus Mariota in Tennessee had another great season cut short by injury, I really love the way he plays. In the NFC, obviously we will see what happens with Ezekiel Elliott. Seattle is a team I just picked to win the Super Bowl, I think they are a fascinating bunch and they’re ready to roll.
With both the Rams and the Chargers now here, is L.A. finally an NFL city?
Right now I still think it is a college football town, as the first weekend showed with UCLA coming back on Texas A&M, and everyone talking about that, or about USC having a top QB too. The Rams and Chargers could easily change that if they win — but if they don’t, they won’t.
NFL Network provides over 15 hours of live coverage every Sunday on “GameDay” from 7 a.m. ET/4 a.m. PT.