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ESPN's Monday night mayhem

More to 'MNF' than meets the eye

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Recent posts by Eric Edholm

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Posted Oct. 04, 2010 @ 12:59 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

CHICAGO — It's early Monday morning, a little more than 10 hours until "Monday Night Football" will be broadcast on ESPN to more than 17 million viewers. Outside it's a quiet, cool, overcast fall day with the sun just starting to burn through the clouds, but inside the Buckingham Room on the 11th floor of the Ritz Carlton, the action is already hot and heavy.

This is where the MNF heavyweights are holding their final production meeting to go over everything they have discussed and put together during the previous week for that night's broadcast of the Bears-Packers game at Soldier Field.

The graphics people are showing the group everything they have worked on. The statistics folks are double-checking the numbers and discussing the ones that are most pertinent. The people in charge of the cameras go over the list of key names — Rodgers, Cutler, Urlacher, Matthews — that they need to focus their shots on that night. The talent, namely lead analysts Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski, are waxing football gospel, highlighting strategy and personnel and what they have gleaned from a week's worth of film study. Play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico, the main voice for the evening, is taking notes and chiming in. And the show's producers and director oversee everything, aware of what each of the 200-plus sets of hands will be involved in for the show, from start to finish.

"It's intense, man, intense," says Jay Rothman, MNF's senior coordinating producer. "The man-hours … it's insanity. If you combine it all, all the people who work on this show, it's sick. It really is."

Keep all of this in mind when you watch Monday night's Patriots-Dolphins contest. What you see during the three-plus hours of the broadcast requires an incalculable amount of work, communication and coordination to put together. The people responsible for the broadcast, more than 95 percent of whom will never appear on camera, must know exactly what will happen at each moment and what every other person is doing — all of which makes the game of calling an unpredictable script of forward passes, turnovers and sideline blowups a ridiculous and volatile task.

Pro Football Weekly spent an entire day behind the scenes watching the inner machinations of a "Monday Night Football" broadcast, especially the things few on the viewing side of the broadcast ever see: inside the production trucks parked in the stadium's underbelly, up in the announcing booth and on the sidelines at different times throughout the day. It's a cavalcade of highly organized, fiercely tense operations that have its employees from top to bottom living and working on the edge — but loving nearly every minute of it.

Here's a timeline of a day in the hectic life of the Monday Nighters:

9:39 a.m.

Twenty-nine people sit in a meeting room around a large oval table filled with coffee cups, half-eaten muffins, plates of fruit, laptops, PDAs, notebooks, stacks of papers and binders — all of the key tools for that morning's prep session. Over the next hour, most of the people in the room will look and listen as a few key voices rise above the others.

Everyone is facing toward a TV-DVD setup cued with graphics for the show and toward four large white notepads, each with themes for that night's game written on them. The first one has a heading of "Key Points" with four items listed below: "division game," "rivalry game," "tradition" and "HHM," which stands for the Hispanic Heritage Month that ESPN was honoring that day. The second is a list of scheduled times, noting a 7 p.m. cut-in and the two monologues for the opening sequence at 7:30 — Jaws to talk about Jay Cutler and Mike Martz and Gruden opening with Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy. The third and fourth pads have headings of "Packers Ball" and "Bears Ball" with each team's key personnel listed below.

"I enjoy the production meeting quite a bit," director Chip Dean would say later, "because after four or five days of work and studying, reading notes … it's great to hear Jon and Jaws — Jon is so comical, and Jaws is so unique — just hear these guys talk about what they are seeing, you can't replace that. It doesn't compare to anything leading up to that day."

Unless he's speaking, Jaworski hardly looks up during the meeting. He has a flip card he uses during the game with both teams' players — Bears defense vs. Packers offense on one side, the reverse matchup on the other. A laptop nearby goes mostly untouched. Jaws is surprised that the Packers will have four tight ends active for that night's game. And when a graphic on the TV pops up that Packers WR Greg Jennings is averaging 34.1 yards on his touchdowns over his career, Jaws chimes in. "That's just insane," he said.

Gruden sits behind Jaws, a few feet away from the table with only a few notes on his lap at his disposal. He's dressed in nearly all black, with University of Oregon-branded wind pants and a black fleece. Horn-rimmed glasses sit on the edge of his nose as he appears to peer over them toward the front of the room. He occasionally flexes his left hand, the one that houses his Super Bowl ring, as he listens to the give and take. A highlight package is shown of Bears defenders clobbering the Cowboys' offense from Week Two, and the muse strikes Gruden.

"The kind of defense they play in Chicago, this Tampa-2 system … is exactly like what Gus Bradley, who we had in Tampa, runs in Seattle. Exactly like what Larry Coyer is running in Indianapolis," Gruden said, e-nun-ci-a-ting each syllable as if it was its own word. His voice raises with excitement as he finishes the thought. "They'll let you drive down the field, but they won't let you score. And they just knock the (snot) out of you. Pretty soon those receivers don't want to catch the ball."

10:07 a.m.

The production meeting is now about half-finished. At the front of the table is Rothman. He leans back in his seat, wearing a white baseball cap backward. He works closely with the talent through every phase of the process, and he and Gruden will sit down about 14 hours from now and talk about the broadcast as they ride back to the hotel, breaking down that night's performance while it's fresh in their minds.

Rothman, Gruden, Jaworski, Tirico and Dean sit down each week with the teams playing in the game — the home team on Saturdays, away team on Sundays — and talk with a handful of coaches and players. The talent throw questions out about personnel, tendencies, injuries, matchups and story lines. Rothman will get involved, but Dean likes to sit back and take a fly-on-a-wall approach. "I think because Jon and Jaws are there, and the (teams and players) have so much respect for them, that they will be pretty revealing, knowing most of it is confidential, " Dean says. "I am the quiet guy in those meetings. I shake their hands, I sit back and take notes. It's one of the more fascinating parts of my week."

Rothman frequently recalls those sessions with the team here through the morning meeting, and it turns out that the players revealed some juicy scoops to the ESPN crew.

"I found it interesting that (Bears LB Brian) Urlacher said that playing (Cowboys QB) Tony Romo last week, a mobile quarterback, helped them prepare for A-Rod tonight," Rothman said. On the flip side, Rodgers has told ESPN that Urlacher tips when he's dropping into coverage: his shoulders are square not to the line of scrimmage, as opposed to when he is blitzing. It's a key point the broadcast team will look for in the game and want to point out to the viewers.

The talk turns to Martz, Cutler, Matt Forté and the Bears' offense. As a graphic of Marshall Faulk's amazing three-year production under Martz in St. Louis comes on the screen, Rothman is quick to note that "we are not comparing Forté to Faulk — we're just showing how a back can be used in this offense." Tirico nods and writes a note on a pad of paper. Gruden furthers the point. "And don't forget they got a guy by the name of Chester Taylor, who's a damned good player, too," Gruden says, as Jaws shakes his head in agreement and sips his coffee. "They can go rocket backs with these two guys and just create a nightmare for a defensive coordinator."

Gruden likes what he has seen from the Cutler-Martz marriage so far and wants to let it be known. Jaws points out that Cutler's Vanderbilt education doesn't hurt the QB's knowledge of Martz's voluminous playbook, and that leads to a cute story. Rothman brings up how Cutler and Rodgers are friends away from the field and how Cutler helped Rodgers' little brother, a freshman at Vandy, get assimilated at school. Sideline reporter Suzy Kolber, Rothman says, will handle this anecdote during the broadcast.

Naturally, Gruden brings it back to football. "The exciting thing for Martz is that he has a guy who can handle this offense, and he's 27 years old," he says. "That's why this thing has a chance to work, you know what I am saying, Jaws?"

Jaws, who has been nodding as Gruden talks, says nothing. He doesn't have to. When either Jaws or Gruden speak, they command the room. Occasionally, small conversations will go on quietly while other people are talking, but for many of the other people in the room, listening to the former quarterback and coach talk shop is the highlight of their week.

Not that the two always agree …

With every mention of a name, a statistic comes out, occasionally from Steve Hirdt, the longest-tenured Monday Nighter. Frank Gifford holds the record for 27 years on MNF on camera, but Hirdt, the executive vice president of Elias Sports Bureau, has been affiliated with the show for 29 years, joining the ESPN crew when the network bought the rights in 2006. Hirdt is quiet for much of the meeting, combing through the best stats of the matchup on his computer.

Gruden explains what's going to happen in tonight's game. "You know what happens when two teams throw like this?" he asks rhetorically. The room is silent. "The clock stops. You throw 48 times, 23 incomplete passes, five sacks … it's going to be a long game, everyone."

Jaws follows up by saying that only 13 percent of scoring drives go 80 yards or longer, and Gruden leans back ready to retort. "That's the matter with you guys," he says, looking first at Jaws and then at Hirdt, "you just fall in love with your numbers."

Hirdt laughs quietly and clearly is not offended. Neither is Jaws, who gets a kick out of the comment. When Gruden joined the cast last year, the tone for these meetings was set when he established his motto in a T-shirt that read "Bust My Balls." He is ready to take the guff, Jaworski has said, just as much as he was ready to dish it out. After the back and forth goes on about Jaws' stat, Rothman caps it off with the final punch line. "And here's a stat," he says, pointing at Hirdt. "He's the only guy here with a house in the Hamptons."

The room erupts. Serious as they make the meetings, these guys still have a good time.

Here's another stat: Three-quarters of what they are talking about this morning likely won't leave this room or make the broadcast. Some of what they say, of course, is a bit too salty for TV, but the tone is mostly businesslike. But they must prepare for the worst. "It's all about the action," Dean says later. "If it's a great game, I am OK with the fact we didn't get all of our stuff into the broadcast."

It's rapid fire as they cram on more personnel and matchups now. Clay Matthews, who has six sacks in two games, will be one player they will highlight. Matthews came off as very confident in the meeting the day before, telling the crew, "I like the way I am playing right now." And the crew likes him and his bravado. They wonder how the Packers are making hay on defense with three rookies starting, two of them undrafted. After Gruden talks about Morgan Burnett, Sam Shields and Frank Zombo, who will start his first game that night, Jaws says Martz will smell blood. "These are the guys he wants to attack tonight, count on it," he says.

More tidbits, mostly from Jaws and Gruden: The Packers are so thin defensively they might have to use an offensive lineman to play in their 6-2 goal-line defense. Martz, Jaws said, could go with his "jumbo" package of extra tight ends, plus a third tackle, hoping to wear down the Packers' "D." A.J. Hawk, the fifth pick in the 2006 draft, now comes off the field quite a bit.

Things are wrapping up, and there are a few details to clean up.

Rothman mentioned the Hispanic Heritage Month promo, of which Tirico asks, "Can I see that in rehearsal?" He can, Rothman says, then notes that change on his script.

Tirico then mentions he really likes the stat about Devin Hester's punt-return drought, not scoring a TD since the final game of the 2007 season, and he promises to allude to it tonight. "So have that ready the first time he goes back to return one, unless it's the third-down stop of all stops," Tirico says. Rothman and Dean agree.

Gruden loves to dip into his own personal stash of film from his coaching days to demonstrate a point, but this time the staff has found footage of Gruden on the sideline in the background during Brett Favre's first start. "Look at that, man …" Gruden says, shaking his head with a smirk on his face as his voice trails off.

As the meeting starts to break up, Rothman throws out a hypothetical question, leaning back in his chair one final time. "Who wins tonight?" Most seem to think the Packers have the slight edge, and they think it's going to be high-scoring. Before anyone leaves the room, Rothman sweetens the pot. "Free Corona Lights to whoever is the closest," he says. "The beers will be down by the truck," he says with a smile, "and they'll be ice cold."

11:28 a.m.

ESPN has set up a series of "Chalk Talk" sessions at nine the 16 broadcast locations this season, including here in Chicago at Carnivale, a brightly colored Latin restaurant in the city's former meat-packing district. The event is all about X's and O's for the fans, and Gruden and Jaws will be the main attraction. Today's program will be hosted by the other MNF sideline reporter, Michele Tafoya, and also will feature a give-and-take with former Packer Antonio Freeman and ex-Bears Otis Wilson, Willie Gault and Steve "Mongo" McMichael, who always is an attraction in these parts, to close the program.

The crowd settles into the packed restaurant, which has a stage set up near the front. Tafoya takes the microphone and warms the crowd up. Also in the house are Packers CEO and president Mark Murphy and Bears chairman of the board George McCaskey and CEO and president Ted Phillips, who sit in the front row. The audience is mostly Bears fans, many of them wearing their team colors for the game that night.

Tafoya introduces Gruden, "the up-and-coming TV talent," and Jaworski, whom she calls the "most enthusiastic announcer" in football. Jaws is on first, living up to his billing. "Come on, we can do better than that!" he implores the crowd after a good but not great ovation. They reward him with a showering of cheers. Naturally, Gruden has to one-up his boy. "How 'bout them Bears?!" he shouts, which garners an even bigger response from the partisan fans.

They go back and forth in two directors' chairs on stage, talking about the matchups. Jaworski, who quarterbacked in the NFL for 15 years, states the obvious: "I follow the quarterbacks."

It's meant to further a point about Cutler and Rodgers, but Gruden steps in with his own one-liner. "All Jaws wants to talk about is quarterbacks. I used to argue with these SOBs every week," he says.

The crowd eats this stuff up, just like the ESPN production staff did last season when Jaws and Gruden started their behind-the-scenes shtick. And just like in this morning's meeting, the two share rapid-fire thoughts on the teams' personnel. Jaws talks about the Packers' "psycho" package, a 1-5-5 defensive alignment that has helped Matthews gets some of his sacks. Gruden then gushes over the player he calls "The Big Cheese," TE Jermichael Finley, a rising star.

Jaws tells the crowd that the MNF staff has noticed an interesting trend the past few seasons. He said that road teams getting the ball first in the second half have had success taking the ball down the field on their opening possession in the third quarter because many of the home fans are stuck waiting in line for food, beer or bathrooms. You almost can see the crowd — those who will be at the game, anyway — making a mental note of this questionable fan behavior and vowing not to let the Packers off so easily.

The Jaws-Gruden portion of the program comes to a close, and they are whisked away behind a black veil. A car will take them back to the Ritz Carlton for a couple hours of downtime before they have to be at the stadium. Tafoya stays (she and Kolber trade off hosting every other event) and introduces the former Bears and Packers players.

2:34 p.m.

Six 45-foot ESPN trucks are lined up in a row just inside the Soldier Field loading dock. They stretch the length of the parking lot where Bears players and coaches park their fleet of Escalades and other luxury rides. Each massive truck contains thousands of pounds of equipment to make the broadcast go. They have taken up residency here since Friday morning at 7 a.m. after double-timing it from San Francisco, the site of the previous week's broadcast, by way of Pittsburgh, where the trucking company is located.

The staff is going through what they call their "FACs," or facilities checks. It's a process that confirms that all of the equipment is working properly. Many people have been at the stadium since 10 a.m., except for the ones who were in the production meeting; they arrived before 2 p.m. The talent gets there sometime prior to 3 p.m., except for Kolber and Tafoya, who have a series of quick hits for ESPN, ESPNews and "NFL Live" from now until they go live at 7:30 p.m.

Also arriving around 3 p.m. are Steve Young, Matt Millen and Stuart Scott, who handle the "Monday Night Countdown" pregame show plus halftime and postgame coverage. Most of their operations are separate from what the MNF folks are doing, but they try to work as best they can in harmony and not step on each others' toes.

Young walks in with a smile, tie untied, and says hello to Joe Caricone, ESPN's senior operations producer. Caricone is overseeing the FACs, checking all of the on-air visuals — graphics, promotional inserts, bumpers, etc. — that will be used in the telecast, as well as cameras, telestrators and other equipment to ensure they are all plugged into the right ports, fully operational and ready to go well ahead of gametime. This all typically takes 90 minutes, but the staff has allowed two hours for this process today. Just to be sure.

"Sometimes things work, sometimes they don't," says Caricone, an ESPN "Sunday Night" holdover who has probably gone through this process more than 100 times.

Inside the "A" truck, the main production nerve center for the show, 10 people including Rothman and Dean, are going through their series of checks. A DirecTV spot comes on the largest of about 110 monitors, and something is off. The spot appears to be longer than the 30 seconds allotted for it. "This is a problem," Dean says, and the group works toward rectifying the problem. Better now than when the show is in full swing. The monitors show every shot the team possibly could use: each of the different cameras and the operators' names — Simon, PeeWee, Curtis, Rembert — still shots of the game clock and play clock, preview monitors with ads, promotional spots, bumpers, graphics and more. It looks like a Las Vegas sportsbook, condensed into dark, small cave.

On the left side of the truck, they are running B-roll of aerial shots of the stadium that were taped the night before. It's fortunate that night's weather conditions figure to match those of Sunday's. On the right is the more creative side of things, mostly graphics: "the more artistic side of things," ESPN's senior director of communications Bill Hofheimer says. In the middle portion of the truck, two editors are wedged into a small compartment giving a last look at the dramatic tease that will intro the show, one that the staff is very proud of. It features a series of shots of the Bears' Julius Peppers and the Packers' Matthews donning their uniforms — footage they taped in Chicago and Green Bay, respectively, during the week prior — overdubbed with an expressive and striking narrator's voice: "There's no place to hide now …"

The proud creators sit watching their beauty, proud of their 15-second spot that took a week to put together. "It brings a tear to my eye," one says to the other.

3:03 p.m.

Steve Carter, ESPN's senior manager of event operations, has been at the gig for 10 years now, another holdover since the Sunday night broadcasts. He oversees all of the technical goings-on before, during and after the game, basically to ensure that everything is running smoothly. During the broadcast, he'll be in the operations trailer, in close contact with what's going on in the "A" truck. There's plenty of paperwork to fill out and other concerns to oversee. But Carter is also the main troubleshooter in case disaster strikes.

"As I like to say, if I am on the field during the game, there's a problem," he says.

He's on the field now, more than four hours prior to the game, just going through his routine of checks. Carter is so good at his job, he can talk and slide his leg aside to let a technician run a wire behind him without ever turning around to see the man or break his train of thought as he talks.

"This is the calm before the storm," Carter says.

He's in close contact with NFL security to let them know what they'll be doing, especially during the game, that might be different or out of the ordinary from other companies' broadcasts. ESPN and NBC, for instance, are the only two who use a Steadicam on the field, which can cause some confusion for the Soldier Field and NFL staff working the game.

"We are doing a lot more from a technology angle," Carter says. "We're always trying new things, like the Maxx Zoom." ESPN has four unmanned cameras placed, one on each end of the two goal lines, and uses extremely high resolution — much higher than HD — to give pristine shots of key plays. It was used in the previous week's broadcast with great effect, showing 49ers TE Vernon Davis crossing the goal line on a key two-point conversion late in the game. There also are another pair of these cameras at midfield.

There's also the Sky Cam, which has, in a way, revolutionized the game. It gives fans a perspective from behind the play that they seldom otherwise get and has become a staple of big-game broadcasts. "Chip (Dean) uses it very, very well," Carter says. "It's not a crutch; he uses it to help tell a story."

Carter says he loves the job because the demand for excellence is there every minute they're on the job. "OK isn't good enough," he says. "This is basically a hand-picked group, and we'll spend the time to get everything just right."

Case in point: Dean had a small camera meeting the day prior, asking his guys for more perspective on things, more ideas, feedback, tiny adjustments the team can make to sharpen its performance. And even though Carter has been doing his job for years — he has never worked camera for football — one operator's ideas about framing shots during the game gave Carter some ideas about how he could improve his setup. One hand working with the other …

Nearby, Kolber is delivering one of her pregame hits for the network — she and Tafoya deliver these every 20 minutes from this point until a little bit before kickoff. Because Tafoya hosted the Chalk Talk, she only has been on the field a little more than an hour.

"Usually, I am here from about noon on doing hit after hit after hit …" Tafoya explains. "From start to end, you just feel like you are on this conveyor belt. You have meetings, makeup, you get here, do your hits and then all of a sudden, bam, it's kickoff."

And there are, as Tafoya says, the occasional fire drills to deal with. One just happened as someone forgot to tell her she was supposed to be on the air, but all of a sudden she heard a call of "stand by" in her ear.

"Oh now?!" she asks. Fortunately, she knew what report she was supposed to give.

"We've done this long enough where we know surprises occasionally happen. We're usually ready for anything."

3:44 p.m.

It's lunch time. Nearly the entire staff of 200-plus people is on the second deck of Soldier Field, just one level up and a few hundred feet away from the heart of the network's operations. They are sitting at tables of 10 or 12, many of them filled, having a group meal. There are trays of pasta, baked chicken, vegetables, salad and dessert.

Dean and Rothman never lose the opportunity to get in a few last instructions with their crew, sitting with some of their key guys. When they speak, no one eats; instead they listen and nod. They have worked together 20 years, and they'll sit driver and shotgun in the booth tonight, the main voices who direct that night's symphony.

"We play off of each other," Dean says. "We know each other's movements. You learn how to operate at each other's sides, and you build an understanding of how to run a show."

Dean speaks firmly, with an air of authority and toughness. He has to be tough, having been a free safety on drill-sergeant coach Frank Kush's 12-0 Arizona State team and Fiesta Bowl champs from 1975.

"I think my approach, being an ex-player a long time ago, is that being on the field or standing on the sideline is a perspective that I think is where all fans want to be," Dean says. "I try to add that to our show by the way I shoot it, by when the ball is dead how I see it. I think I have a good sense of what is happening to the players, so when there's a missed tackle or block, I have an idea of what will give us good reaction shots.

"I think the best part of the game sometimes happens off the field, how they adjust, and that's sometimes the formula for success."

That concept also plays into how the ESPN team works together. Dean and Rothman wear Super Bowl-sized rings, gifts that Rothman had made up for their 20th year working together. On one side of the ring reads the word "CREW" with a picture of a camera; it is meant to commemorate their co-workers and the duo's desire to treat all of them as equals. (Carter earlier would say that Dean told him when he first took over that no one is any more important than anyone else; that they just have different job titles — "And they live it, too" Carter says.)

One the other side of the ring reads "MMX," the Roman numerals for the year 2010, their 20th year working by each others' sides, with countless broadcasts to their names.

And each of their rings contain a special engraving, with the words "ROCK" and "WILL," respectively. They are the words that Dean and Rothman use to describe their fathers, both of whom passed away in the past year. All of the cameras on the truck monitors are named for their respective operators, save for two: high-speed cameras the two now call WILL and ROCK, weekly reminders of the fathers they each lost.

"I want to be spectacular, man" says Rothman, devouring a bowl of chocolate pudding."We've been solid (in two games). I want spectacular."

It's a level Rothman believes the team reached "a few times" last season but always uses it as its target for each broadcast. In the Week One Ravens-Jets game, for instance, he thought they over-replayed the game, forcing the announcers to go backward instead of forward with their call, something Rothman is taking the blame for. "We're brutal on ourselves," he says. "We shred ourselves to pieces. Last week (Saints-49ers) we had a great game, but I think it took me about 36 hours to get over (the mistakes in the broadcast)."

They were elements that the casual viewer probably never saw. "But I know," Rothman says.

"The most you can ask for is a great game, and you leave it alone. But you never get it back, whether there are tidbits or shots or information or replays or story lines, somewhere you should have gone or wish you would have gone … you had the moment, and most moments you never get back."

Gruden and Rothman talk about the parallels between broadcasting and coaching in this regard all the time. "The biggest difference is that if Gruden wasn't happy with something that happened during the game (as a coach), you go out on the field on Wednesday and start repping it," Rothman says. "You keep repping it until you're happy, you do it up until the next game.

"Here, we talk about it, we meet about it, we look at it, but we don't get a chance to execute it until the lights go on. And hopefully you can get the moment."

4:21 p.m.

Lunch is over, and the crew has made its way down to the lower level again, just around the corner from the production trucks. Bears head coach Lovie Smith arrives at the stadium, and the majority of his players are not far behind. It's just about time for the ESPN camera meeting, and the pace is quickening. About 55 people (53 of them are men) file into a cold, grey room set up with six rows of folding chairs. They sit around and chat for a few minutes, perhaps the last time they'll get much chance to do that until the game is over.

4:35 p.m.

Rothman and Dean are sitting at the front of the room, facing their workers. In walks Jaworski, holding his ever-present cup of coffee. He stands in front of the group and starts talking just as Gruden follows him through the doorway. "Is everyone ready for Monday night?" Jaws asks in a stentorian voice.

Although the question is rhetorical, the response is hearty. This meeting begins much like a high school pep rally, with Jaws and Gruden there to fire up the team and give them a few final key elements for the game. Although people say the tone of the camera meetings this year so far has been a bit toned down from last year, Gruden's first, when the two often engaged in a hair-raising tete-a-tete of histrionics, the energy is still quite palpable.

Jaws breaks down the Bears. One of his bullet points is about Cutler and Martz, who Jaws says are "attached at the hip." He gushes about Forté and the screen game and says of Urlacher, "their leader is back!" He mentions the new addition, Peppers ("he's massive!"), and spouts out the stat about 13 percent of all drives lasting 80 yards or more that earned him some razzing from Gruden that morning. "Brace yourself for a long night, everyone," Jaworski says and hands off the mic to his partner.

Gruden starts his spiel with a quick story. "About 200 miles up the road from Chicago is a small town called Green Bay, Wisconsin. Now, I coached up there for about three years, and I can tell you these people love their football," he says. Gruden pores over the Packers' personnel, much in the way he will do later on the air: same voice, same inflection. Mike McCarthy — "The guy knows his football." Jermichael "The Big Cheese" Finley. Frank "My Man" Zombo, almost pronouncing it like "Zambo," perhaps the Ohio coming out in his voice. Charles Woodson — "He plays corner, he'll drop down and play a linebacker in their nickel, safety … this guy does everything!"

Jaws and Gruden, having finished their five-minute stand-ups, leave and head up to the booth. Rothman and Dean take over, going over the kinds of shots they'll want from their camera operators. Dean will detail the production elements to the camera guys and the replay guys so they really understand what their responsibilities are.

"There are going to be a lot of big plays tonight, so don't zoom in until the plays are over," Dean says. "But we want those shots, too. We're showing the players, faces and scenes to make a movie."

Dean says he wants cameras 6 and 7, his Steadicam operators, to get right up close and get the best shots of the key players Jaws and Gruden talked about. They are his storytellers tonight.

Camera 6 is run by Allen Powers, better known as "Alpo." He'll roam the bench area and the sideline looking for the best shots to send to the truck. Alpo has to get uncomfortably close at times, so he strives to maintain relationships with players so that they can have an appreciation for what he's being asked to do on a weekly basis.

Dean and Rothman want more real-time replays of defenders' hits synced with audio as well as to show the speed of the wide receivers. Dean mentions the tip that Rodgers gave them about Urlacher squaring his shoulders and suggests certain cameras should focus in on this to give the talent the ability to talk about this during the broadcast. There has been a last-minute change to the opening sequence, which everyone now hears about for the first time. Rothman pulls out the script — the crew's playbook, if you will — and he and Dean go through the opening shots they'll run to start the broadcast. This part they have down pat. Once the ball is kicked off, all hell breaks loose.

"Let's have some fun," Dean says and the meeting breaks up.

6:05 p.m.

Downstairs, the pregame show is under way. As Tirico heads up to the booth, Jaws and Gruden are making their last-minute updates now that the teams' inactive lists have become official. "Look at this," Jaws says to a guest in the booth, pointing down at his Blackberry to the e-mail containing the Bears' inactive players. "Tommie Harris is inactive. (Devin) Aromashodu, too."

This is unexpected, as Harris once was the Bears' best defensive player before a recent downturn in his play. "Lovie says it's neither an injury nor a suspension," Jaws says. "He's just (not playing). Wow."

Both men make note of it and are interrupted outside the open-air announcing booth by two fans sitting nearby who take notice of their presence. Jaws signs the fan's program, and they both pose for a picture. "How's that for ya?!" Gruden exclaims, extending his left fist in the air.

Tirico has made it back from the field, where he has chatted with a few players and coaches he has gotten to know over the years. He talked to Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli about Harris, double-checked where the game and playclocks are in the stadium and now is getting his makeup applied. In front of him are color-coded sheets with every player and coach in the game that he imports himself in Microsoft Excel, a practice he began years ago when he called college games.

"You usually get a tidbit or two by going down to the field and talking to guys you have known for years," Tirico says. "It's an information age, and the more you have at your disposal, the better."

Jaworski, sipping what has to be his eighth cup of coffee of the day, is making his final updates to his depth charts, but really he's just taking a few moments to gather himself and clear his head for the broadcast.

"Maybe it's the quarterback in me, it's kind of like when you go into the locker room and get away from everything. You just try to remove yourself from the emotion of the game and check your notes, make sure you are set. That's what I am doing now."

In a few minutes, Dean and Rothman will settle in downstairs, and the booth will be cleared of all outsiders for the 6:30 rehearsal. After that Rothman will go to an officials meeting, and Dean to a sideline security meeting. Because ESPN is the only network that uses a Steadicam on the field when the game clock and play clock are stopped, Dean wants to make sure that none of his operators are getting tackled by security when they are filming their shots for this.

7:23 p.m.

The Packers have taken the field to a cascade of boos, and the Bears are in the tunnel waiting to hear their names called. At the same time, the main crew that will execute the shots to make "Monday Night Football" what you see at home is hunkered down in the "A" truck, ready to put a broadcast together.

The clutter in the truck has been cleared, as eight people remain seated in two rows of four. Sitting in the front spots, from left to right, are associate director Andy Reichwald, Rothman, Dean and technical director Mark Herklotz. Dean talks to the camera operators, as well as other audio and video producers and technicians. Rothman is in the ear of the booth and sideline talent and shouts out direction to several people, including Herkoltz, who barely says a word while punching buttons, turning dials and trying to keep pace with the endless orders coming his way.

"Five minutes," Reichwald says, indicating how much time the team has until 7:30.

Actor Vince Vaughn is spotted in the crowd, and Rothman shouts out, "I love that guy!" Vaughn is now on the center screen, and they're taping him for stock footage, but Rothman notices another guy he'd like to get in the can on camera 21. "Can we record him? Label that Packers GM Ted Thompson," who is sitting in the first row of the press box. After Thompson stands up and moves away, Rothman asks, "Did we get 20 seconds of him?"

The tone is changing. It's almost game time.

"Two minutes!" more than one person shouts.

Dean is asking for paired shots of Cutler and Martz and A-Rod and McCarthy to use with Jaws' and Gruden's commentary, which is coming with the open.

"Ninety seconds!"

Word comes from one of the troubleshooters that the Packers' introductions are roughly 20 seconds behind.

"Oh, that's not good," Rothman says.

Dean jumps in and decides to tape the "pyro," or the pregame fireworks that were part of the opening script. Now, they'll just roll the tape of that a few seconds later, fitting it in after it was supposed to happen live.

"Have a good show everyone," Rothman says, "let's be great."

"Twenty seconds!"

The pace picks up. The direction gets louder and more tense.

"15 seconds …"

Dean is firing off shot commands, graphics orders and cues mere moments before they're live.

"10 … 9 … 8 … 7 ... 6 …"

"OK, here we go," Dean says.

"5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 …"

"And roll!" Dean says.

The show is under way. Tirico, Jaws and Gruden are side by side, their backs to the field, delivering their opening monologue. For a few seconds, it's quiet in the truck as Tirico speaks, but Dean shouts out, "Change! Wrap and hold …"

Alpo's close-up shot of Cutler and his offensive teammates from a few seconds before is cued up on the screen, and Rothman likes what he's seeing and hearing. "The mix is perfect, everybody, perfect," he says.

Tirico finishes his open, and they cut to the shot from the night before, panning away from downtown Chicago. "Sorry to leave you short there," Tirico says through the headset to the truck. Short, for a perfectionist and a pro such as Tirico, is a matter of two or three seconds.

7:35 p.m.

The preview monitor shows all three announcers taking their sportcoats off then putting them back on again after they are fitted with microphones. Dean is ready to fake it with the "pyro" shot he likes. He continues giving constant directions before they come back from commercial.

"Ready rover … wipe rover!" Dean says. "We'll be using font 2 again."

Much of this means very little to anyone outside this truck, but inside it's their own special code, the way they communicate for the next 3½ hours.

"6 … 5 … 4 … 3 …"

Dean: "Roll rover!"

Dean scans the bank of monitors, looking for the best shot to go to next. They're working without a playbook now — and without a net. The Packers kick off, and the directions continue to fly. As the Bears prepare for their opening possession, Rothman notices Martz's immediate reaction on the sideline. "Show me Martz! He's not happy!" The Bears have the wrong personnel on the field — on the first play of the game, no less.

Three plays later, Cutler is sacked by Gruden's boy, Zombo, which allows the announcers to talk about Green Bay's young pups on defense. One story down, dozens left to go. "Good job with that, guys," Rothman says into their headsets.

A small problem arises. PeeWee, operating the SkyCam, has gotten too close to the action. "BACK PEEWEE!" Dean shouts. And Rothman adds, "You need to forward think, buddy." But the problem is quickly rectified and the action rolls on.

Forté has touched the ball three of the past four plays, which allows Tirico to bring in the Faulk comparison. Rothman tells him to roll with it, with Dean simultaneously imploring the graphics people to get the Faulk-Martz numbers on the screen. They do, and it allows Tirico to ad-lib a great setup line: "The only thing Matt Forté and Marshall Faulk have in common are the initials M.F. …"

Rothman is upset that they missed another shot of Martz screaming as TE Greg Olsen commits a false-start penalty. But they get a good reaction shot just after Woodson is called for pass interference, and all is well again.

Gruden tells Rothman into his headset that the Bears now have gone to their "Bubba" package, or heavy set with an extra tackle on the field, and he gets excited to tell the nation, too. Forté fumbles on the play, and Dean is able to dial up a nice replay. Once more, Gruden lets Rothman know of a special package, the Packers' "psycho," and drops the term before Cutler overshoots Hester in the endzone. After a missed field goal, they go to commercial, and Tirico wants to make sure they aren't dropping too much obscure football jargon without explaining what it is.

"Having fun yet?" Rothman asks and peers out of the side of his eye at Dean.

"Sure I am," Dean says.

7:53 p.m.

On the third play of the Packers' first possession, Rodgers hits Finley for a 26-yard gain off a pretty play-action fake. "Jaws will take it!" Rothman shouts. Jaworski steps up and explains how Rodgers has the ability to extend the play and make things happen with his feet and his arm. On the other side of the ball, Peppers gets Packers OLT Chad Clifton to false start and then flips sides on the next play and goes after ORT Mark Tauscher. It gives the guys a chance to set up the Peppers graphic they went over hours ago.

On 1st-and-goal from the Bears' seven-yard line, Rodgers unleashes a pass and Rothman knows what he's seeing. "Score … it's a score," he says. It is indeed a score, Rodgers to Jennings, and after they go to commercial, Jaws starts the sentence … "If they get these corners in single coverage …" and Tirico finishes it: "Oh my goodness, all day …"

Dean sounds panicked right before they come back from commercial, even if the viewer would never know it.

"Help me!

"Y to break?

"Is it?

"Y to break, go …

"Take and zoom, that's it … 24 … take it … and go …"

At times all eight people in the truck are talking; other times, for brief spells, no one speaks. Gruden frequently communicates with Rothman to let him know what he's seeing, personnel-wise. "They just ran a dusty, a double under," he tells Rothman of a Bears play, later adding of the Packers' "D" that they are "back in the "psycho" package."

Rothman senses his — and the announcers' — window to explain this "psycho" business more clearly. "I want 'psycho!' Can I get that first?" he asks, referring to the graphic that was prepared for this.

As the Bears drive into Packers' territory on the ensuing drive, the teamwork is in full display. After a Matthews penalty, Packers S Nick Collins had to go off the field, a fact that escaped the booth. But the guys in the truck noticed it and sent word up to them before the next play.

"Nice catch, guys," Tirico would say.

"They're calling it a knee strain," Kolber radios in.

And of course, who intercepts Cutler a few plays later? Derrick Martin, Collins' replacement. The booth makes note of this fact as they head to break, and Jaws — with his quarterback DNA — sounds upset by Cutler's mistake after they are off air. "He predetermined he would throw the ball there …" he says.

"Yes," Tirico says, and he stops to take a sip of water, his first since kickoff.

More than three quarters of football remain. It is barely 45 minutes into the broadcast. The pace never slows down. It's nearly four hours — on top of a week's and that day's worth of prep work … of controlled mayhem, organized chaos.

"When these guys leave the truck" at game's end, Hofheimer says, "they can barely talk. They're like zombies."

No one will even think about Tuesday, perhaps the worst day of their week. It's getaway day, and hardly anyone sleeps. Gruden will get home and start watching tape. Jaws will head straight to his office at NFL Films and start working on the "Edge NFL Matchup" TV show. Tirico, machine that he is, has an insane week ahead, going to Wales — Wales! — for the Ryder Cup call then coming back to the States in time for the meeting with the Dolphins' coaches on Sunday for the next broadcast.

Right now, with the Packers up 7-0 in a game the Bears would come back and win in dramatic fashion, 20-17, none of that is in their minds. They have a show to finish, and after it's done, they'll talk about what they liked and didn't like from that night as the bus takes them back to the hotel. Maybe Rothman didn't get his perfect broadcast, but he got another rousing success, the ratings would indicate a few days later, when it would go down as the fifth-most-watched cable program ever and the most watched cable program of 2010.

Rothman will smile about that eventually, but he'll finish the broadcast from Chicago thinking about ways to make it better the following week in South Florida, a process in his mind that never will end. But if nothing else, he knows there are ice-cold Corona Lights just waiting to be cracked open, a perfect capper to a wild week.

Or as he might say, insane, man, just insane.

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