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Peyton Manning takes on new TV series about NFL history

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CHICAGO — Early one morning in June, 40 months after stepping off a football field for the final time as a player, Peyton Manning climbed into the back of a black SUV outside his Chicago hotel. At 43, smiling and trim and wearing a blue striped polo and pressed khaki shorts, Manning looked exactly like he did late in his career—not a pound heavier or lighter. This was the start of another day in his current but not permanent job as a TV host. At the beginning of it, he wanted to make one thing clear.

“I do not like the ‘R’ word.”

“Retirement?” I said.

“Right,” he said. “Because I’m not.”

The car merged into light traffic, headed for Wrigley Field. Manning was in town for one of the last days of taping for “Peyton’s Places,” the 30-episode series on pro football history set to debut on ESPN+ (the cable outlet’s streaming subscription service) on July 29. Four episodes will drop that day, then one will be released per week through the end of the football season.

I’ll explain how Manning is getting into this project with the verve he used to be one of the best quarterbacks ever, because it’s still a significant part of his ethos. But a few words first about why I’m opening my second season with NBC writing this Football Morning in America column with Peyton Manning and a TV show. With the NFL embarking on the 100th season of professional football, you’re going to get hit over the head with history and momentousness in NFL storytelling a lot this year. I thought a piece on the league’s most ambitious project in the 100th-season celebration was in order, and this is it. During the course of the year, I’ll get into some history stories as well—including naming my all-time top 100 players later in the year—without, I hope, overwhelming you with it. I realize history is cool, but the present is more of why you read this column. And mostly, the present is what this column will be this season, and there’s plenty of the present (the 18-game season, CBA negotiations, the reviewable pass-interference conundrum) for you to read today.

But back to the car with Manning, headed for the Bears’ home of a half-century, Wrigley Field.

“This has been a journey for me,” said Manning, who is also the executive producer of the series. “I’ve learned a lot about 100 years of football. I thought I knew a lot. There’s been a ton that I did not know. There’s been fascinating stuff. In 1929, when the stock market crashed, a guy named Bert Bell basically lost his tail and what does he do? He goes out and buys a football team for $50,000. Which at the time, is probably the worst investment you could make. A bunch of guys in leather helmets running into each other. That’s what he does. That team, the Frankford Yellowjackets, turns into the Philadelphia Eagles. Bert Bell starts the draft. He gets them to play on Sundays. He puts the blackout rule in. He was kind of a founding pioneer of the NFL.”

Manning sounds like he sounded so many times in his career, telling a story in intricate detail about why a play worked or what was said in the huddle. I try to think of others who could have done this series, players or former players with cache and a name. Michael Strahan, maybe. Cris Collinsworth. Maybe Tony Romo. But whoever did it would have to be all-in, the way Manning sounds this morning. “I don’t think anyone else could have done this,” said Neil Zender, honchoing the project for NFL Films. “Peyton’s been interested in every detail of every shoot.”

Read more from Football Morning in America here

NFL TV, radio host Rich Eisen explains new pass interference replay

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Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Rich Eisen, the popular NFL television and radio host.

Previous guest columns: Fred Gaudelli (June 3) | Nick Hardwick (June 10) | Pro Football Focus (June 17)

By Rich Eisen

It was an overcast 30-degree night at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, a classic setting for an exhilarating finish to the Week 15 Thursday game. Despite entering the contest having won nine of their previous 10 games, the Chargers still needed a victory to have a chance at the AFC West title that the Chiefs, thanks to their wunderkind eventual MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, would eventually win.

Just not on that night.

Coming back from a 14-point first-quarter deficit, Philip Rivers some how some way had his team stationed on the Kansas City 10-yard line down seven points with 13 seconds to go. Rivers flipped one in the end zone to Mike Williams and Chiefs defensive back Kendall Fuller got flagged for interference. It was a huge penalty, turning a Chargers’ 3rd-and-goal from the 10 into a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

On the next two snaps, Rivers connected with Williams, one for his second touchdown of the night and then on a remarkable two-point conversion dice roll by Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. Los Angeles won and celebrated in the Kansas City cold, providing Friday morning coast-to-coast water-cooler material that’s the envy of every other major American sports league.

Cut to last week—six months later, almost to the day—to a hotel conference room in June gloomy Santa Monica. Video of the defensive pass interference call on Fuller was now up on a screen and the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron had a video game remote controller in his hands, toggling the play back and forth. I was in the audience as part of the NFL Media Group’s annual talent symposium, hanging onto every word coming out of Riveron’s mouth during his presentation to the group.

Our jaws were about to drop.

You see, between that Thursday Night Week 15 monster finish and our annual symposium to prepare us for the 2019 regular season, a seismic event took place at the Superdome that’s still reverberating across the football landscape. Yes, the ending of the NFC Championship Game between the Saints and the Rams. The mother of all blown calls, leading to the mother of all course corrections: the NFL allowing pass interference to be a reviewable penalty under the auspices of instant replay in a one-year experiment.

Look, I’m not gonna lie. I’m not spending a good chunk of my downtime to bang out about 3,000 words for my good friend Peter King and post them on a special day in my life (more on that in a moment) just to BS you. That non-call in the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans was the worst non-call I’ve ever seen. It was a terrible day for the NFL and Al Riveron, and all the NFL executives making the rounds to present at all the summer symposiums for CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and NFL Network know it.

So when Riveron stepped to the mic at the NFL Network gathering last week  and finally matriculated his way to the pass interference replay portion of his two-hour presentation to the group, it was like a large piece of filet mignon steak being plated for the whole room to consume. It not only offered a remarkable glimpse of the difficult task his officials will undertake in 2019, but also how unintended consequences of the new replay wrinkle might cause occasional confusion and frequently stoke fan anger anew.

To read more about the pass interference replay, click here 

Cris Collinsworth, Pro Football Focus writers explain how analytics are changing the NFL

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Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s a collaborative effort by Pro Football Focus, the popular football analytics website. To start, here’s PFF Majority Owner and NBC’s Sunday Night Football color analyst Cris Collinsworth.

How data is impacting the landscape of football

When I broadcast my first NFL game during the 1989 season, I had absolutely no idea what to study or how to study. NBC provided me with a handful of newspaper articles, we watched some film at the team facility on Friday before the game, and we interviewed some players and coaches. I took notes, but I didn’t even have a board with the players’ names and numbers on it.

I was thrown into the deep end of the pool. This was going to be the shortest broadcasting career ever. Luckily, I had David Michaels as my producer (yes, Al Michaels’ brother). David had worked for years with Terry Bradshaw, and Terry had created these boards for calling games. The positions were aligned on this board where they would line up on the field. Offense facing defense, back-ups behind starters. All I had to do was fill in the blanks. Once again, my friend Terry was ahead of his time, and David showed me how to use it.

When I think back to those days, it’s pretty comical. Today, I could never read, watch or study all the data that I have available to me. In 2014, I bought controlling interest in Pro Football Focus. At the time we had 60 employees evaluating every player on every play of the NFL season. Now we have nearly 500 employees, providing data to 90 NFL and NCAA teams, multiple television networks and individuals who use it for private purposes. I won’t get into all the details, but if you are a data scientist, mathematician or IT specialist, and you love football, we are hiring.

PFF has already changed the way I think about building a team and play-calling. I can remember a time when everybody thought Andy Reid was crazy for passing 60% of the time. He doesn’t look so crazy now. I remember when running backs were thought to be the most valuable position; now they are considered the easiest to replace based on our WAR (wins above replacement) metric. I think it is fair to say that now very few NFL contracts are negotiated without PFF data being at the heart of the debate. The agent pitches all the positive data about the player, and the team is loaded with all the not so positive data. Some of those negotiating stories are pretty entertaining.

But as much as the data has changed broadcasting, it has changed the game of football even more. “Gut instincts” are no longer good enough. Decisions must be made based on the data. Every year at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, PFF meets with nearly every team. I always laugh when somebody starts telling me about “old school” coaches in the league. I won’t mention names, but some of the “old school” coaches have recently blown me away with their knowledge of the data.

I sat in on a meeting with a team that had seven data scientists, mathematicians and IT specialists from Harvard, Stanford and M.I.T. all in the room, and they were loaded with questions that would make your head spin. Luckily, I had the people in the room with the answers. Of course, there are teams that are not quite that sophisticated, and it is getting more and more difficult for them to compete. The data arms race is very real, and it is widening the gap between those who engage, and those who don’t.

The fans are now engaged in the data arms race, as well. Fantasy football had always created a market for data, but since May 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act that effectively barred state-authorized sports gambling, a new aspect in the arms race has opened to fans. Whether anyone likes it or not, there is no stopping state-sponsored gambling on football and other sports. We have seen a real spike in our consumer sales of our Edge and Elite products. Some fans just want to know more about their team, others want to be the smartest person at the water cooler, some want to dominate their fantasy league, and others still are writing their own gambling algorithms. Regardless, there is no going back now. Data has changed the game.

 

For more PFF writers’ analysis, read more from this week’s Football Morning in America here