Tirico, Gruden, Rothman Talk Panthers, Suh, More In Conference Call With Media

Courtesy:  ESPN

Courtesy: ESPN

This weekend is a big one for football fans. The stage is now officially set for the NCAA Division I College Football Championship after last night’s wins by Oregon and Ohio State over Florida State and Alabama respectively. The big game is not until next Saturday, January 10th. But football fans still have plenty about which to be excited this weekend as this weekend is Wildcard Weekend in the NFL. The Carolina Panthers take on the struggling Arizona Cardinals tomorrow afternoon in the NFC. And then tomorrow night, the Steelers will host the Ravens at Three Rivers stadium in the AFC. Sunday’s Wild Card schedule opens with a matchup of the Bengals and the Colts. The Bengals backed into the playoffs after losing in Week 17 to Pittsburgh. And in what looks to be one of the most interesting of the weekend’s matchups, Detroit and Dallas will face off in the NFC. All eyes will especially be on that game especially after Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh won the appeal of his suspension that resulted from Suh stepping on Packers QB Aaron Rodgers’ leg twice last week in the Lions’ matchup with the Packers. In anticipation of this weekend’s playoff games, ESPN Monday Night Football co-hosts Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden sat down alongside MNF producer Jay Rothman for a conference call with members of the media this week to discuss those storylines and more. The following is the transcript of that conference call. More information on this weekend’s matchups is available online via ESPN’s official website at http://espn.go.com/nfl.


Jay Rothman: Real quickly, we’re excited to be in the postseason business, very excited for our Monday Night Football crew, the hard working men and women who deserve to be in the postseason quite frankly. The treatment of the game is really to cover the heck out of a playoff game where one team moves on and one team goes home and for us not to get in the way of it. Our treatment every Monday night, we have Super Bowl‑like coverage each and every Monday. We treat every game with the utmost importance, and this is just another one of those games where we’re going to have a blast doing a game in a great environment, we hope. We’re ready to roll.


Mike Tirico: I echo everything Jay said. A thrill to do a postseason game in the NFL. It’ll be an exciting milestone for me.  First time I’ve actually had a chance to do one. I would say overall just 23‑and‑a‑half years at ESPN, I don’t remember a week or a 10‑day stretch or two‑week stretch like this with all those New Year’s Six games, the College Football Semifinals, our first playoff game for the company and then the Championship game nine days later. This is about as great a run of events as we’ve ever had back to back to back. I know we’ll be in the centerpiece of it with the NFL playoff game, and we are thrilled to be a part of it, and it’s darned good to have your first playoff game next to one of the 30 men who have won the Super Bowl as a head coach. I know even if I have playoff jitters, I’ve got the guy next to me to make sure we do the right thing.


Jon Gruden: Well, thank you, Mike. I’ll be short and sweet. I love playoff football. I don’t think there’s anything like a single‑elimination format like the NFL has, and thankful to be a part of it with a great team.


  1. Jay, could you talk a little bit of whether you’ll make any changes in terms of numbers of cameras, how you use cameras, those kinds of things, and then for Mike and Jon, can you offer some general thoughts on Carolina and Arizona?

Rothman: Camera coverage is identical to our MNF show. We have 32 cameras. We feel very covered with what we have. The only additional camera we’re adding in Charlotte is in what we call an RF handheld, which is a roving handheld to get color and crowd and that sort of thing.  But our Monday night complement, fortunately we get great support and we’re loaded for bear, so we’re excited to work with what we have.  We feel good about it.  Thank you.


Tirico:  Here you have the team in Arizona that was the surprise hot team of the first three months of the year, and then as the injuries on their third quarterback cooled them down, here comes Carolina on their great December run. They kind of picked that baton up. And as Jon said, the beauty of the one‑and‑done format, it matters not that Carolina went 63 days with a win and their struggle or that the Cardinals have struggled in their last two games. The winner is in the final eight.  Whoever can leave the path behind and thrive in the destination here of the playoff game will get the opportunity to move on, so I think it provides a great contrast in how the teams arrive at this game.


Gruden: I think both these head coaches have done a great job with the turnover on these two rosters.  If you put Carolina on paper and looked at their team last year and now look at it this year, it’s amazing the job Ron Rivera has done. What Coach Arians has been through in Arizona speaks for itself, not only at the quarterback position but across the board on his football team. The Cardinals appear to be on fumes right now, losing their last couple games with a third‑team quarterback, but they have firepower on defense, they’re a challenge to prepare for because they come from everywhere with blitzes and they still have some bad ball receivers that can go get it, and I’m really impressed with Carolina’s defense. I think Sean McDermott deserves much more credit than he’s received. They might play the game on defense with as much effort as I’ve seen all year. Dallas and Carolina have two of the great effort defenses in the tournament.


  1. Jon, can you please cycle through the four games and maybe identify a player with each team other than the quarterback who’s vital to his team’s success this weekend?

Gruden: Well, in Pittsburgh it all starts to me with Le’Veon Bell. Does he play or does he not play? We had the Steelers on Monday night and he is as good a runner as there is on the planet. Without Le’Veon Bell the Steelers are a different team just because of his tremendous ability. I think it all starts right there with Pittsburgh.

For me in Baltimore I think it’s all (Joe) Flacco. Flacco gets all the attention but when he gets hot in the playoffs he showed what he can do a couple years ago, and when he’s not hot, he showed what he’s capable of doing against Houston a couple weeks ago.


All over the injury report, A.J. Green left with a concussion. I think that’s a big issue, certainly for the Bengals. They got destroyed by Indianapolis. The film was ugly. They were missing their linebackers in that game. In (Emmanuel) Lamur is back, 59, if he plays, I think that helps tremendously what Paul Guenther wants to do. I think the health of the linebacker corps and A.J. Green for the Bengals and obviously the great young receiver for the Indianapolis Colts, he’s got to get back in the fold. They desperately miss his dynamic play making, the little guy, T.Y. Hilton.


Detroit, you know, without Ndamukong Suh, I think Coach (Teryl) Austin is the key player in this game, the defensive coordinator. I think he might have to do some things to get pressure on Romo that he didn’t have the ability to do before. I think he’s a key player in this, as he has been for the Lions all year. Austin has done a great job with this Lions’ defense.  They’ve got to rally now with some specific changes I think in the game plan. They’ll negate the loss of a great player. And for Dallas, to me it’s taking away Calvin Johnson. Their secondary has to have a different plan than they did a year ago because Megatron shredded them for an NFL record, I believe. And I do know in big games, big moments, that’s where Matt Stafford is going with the ball.


  1. And for your game?

Gruden: Lindley is the key. I thought Bruce Arians did a great job with Ryan Lindley in San Francisco, just getting done with the film. They put him under the center, they reduced the game plan, they did some things that he was comfortable doing.  I think that’s really important, staying away from the turnovers, even though he played better, the three turnovers doomed Arizona, and on the other side of the ball for the Carolina Panthers, it’s all about Cam Newton. He did not handle the blitz very well at Arizona last year, seven sacks, three interceptions. I’m sure Todd Bowles is coming with more action to create turnovers and get field position for Arians’ offense.


  1. Jon, Mike, what kind of story would it be if a relative no‑name like Lindley goes on the road as a third stringer and pulls off an upset, and same way, what if (Drew) Stanton makes some kind of miraculous recovery and gets to play with a partially torn ACL?  How big would that be assuming that were to happen?

Tirico: Those are the things you talk about for years, and that’s why the playoff stage is so special. When we still discuss Philip Rivers, we harken back to him playing through the knee injury, winning the playoff game in Indianapolis, going to New England in the conference championship game and almost beating the Patriots there. Those are the things of legends. If it’s Stanton, it would be in that Willis Reed chapter of dramatic returns from injury to lead your team to a playoff victory.


If it’s Lindley, it joins the anonymous club. I was just looking at the running back/quarterback combo there, and it’s hard to find a playoff team with a more nationally anonymous combo at running back and quarterback than the back by committee since the (Andre) Ellington injury and then the third quarterback with Lindley since the first two. But it would fit right into the pedigree of Bruce Arians and all these stories along the way of everything looks like it’s against you, yet they succeed.  We had this team eliminated from the playoffs when (Carson) Palmer got hurt, Stanton took over, and they won their two big games right after. If there’s a group, especially this year, that I’m not willing to count out, it’s the Arians‑led Cardinal group for sure.


Gruden: I’ll just echo, I think it would be a great story, obviously, if they could win a playoff game with their third‑team quarterback. But I don’t think you have to put it all on the trigger. I think you have to rely on the defense. They’ve got to play great situational football and special teams. But if they could win a game and then get their No. 2 quarterback back assuming he’s healthy and win another game, you’ll have a fun time writing about it. It’ll be quite a Cinderella story.


  1. How does Lindley look to you guys?

Gruden: I think he’s struggled, obviously, against St. Louis. It was a short week, a Thursday night game. Both teams struggled offensively, as do most teams on Thursday night with very little preparation, and then obviously against the defending world champions, it was a significant struggle, not just for Lindley but the entire offense. They were beaten soundly on both sides of the ball.


I thought he got off to a great start against the 49ers. However, that’s not the 49er defense where they opened the season with. There were a lot of unknown 49ers on the field. But he did play good. He made some difficult throws, but he did turn the ball over too many times.


  1. For Jon, obviously we’ve been talking about Lindley for a couple questions here, but as a coach, how do you approach this when you get into a playoff situation where you don’t have your starting quarterback? Generally the history of playing backup quarterbacks, starting them in a playoff game, has not ended well for those teams that had to play them. How do you kind of approach this with your entire team knowing you’re kind of put a little bit behind the 8‑ball?

Gruden: The year we won the Super Bowl, we had to beat Chicago in Week 16 with our backup quarterback, and we had never won a game in below‑freezing temperature. So what I did is I went down to Warren Sapp’s locker and Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber and said we’ve got to play some defense tonight. That’s what Bruce Arians has to do. You’ve got to go get Calais Campbell, you’ve go get your star players on defense, hopefully Larry Foote is ready to go, get Patrick Peterson and Cromartie and say, let’s pick it up, let’s play the game of the year on the road and go down to Ted Ginn and say return a punt just like you did against the Giants. Let’s get after them in the kicking game, as well. Let’s run the ball.  Let’s not be afraid to punt the football, and let’s take our shots here and there when we strategically get the one‑on‑one isolations that we want. Don’t turn it over, play great defense, and find a way to win, and let’s see if Drew Stanton can get better.


  1. You just saw the Broncos on Monday night and some of their flaws were exposed in that game, but what do you think about them going into the tournament, in particular with their change in offense to more of a running style, and what do you think about the talk, the concerns that have been raised lately about Peyton Manning?

Gruden: Well, I like the Broncos. I said that last week on the broadcast. I kind of like a team that’s balanced, that can run the ball and pass the ball, and with C.J. Anderson coming out of nowhere, I think there’s confidence that they can run the ball. I think that’s what their line does the best. We’ve got to quit talking about Peyton for just a second. The offensive line of the Broncos has undergone huge reconstruction at midseason. That’s uncommon for a team that’s got 12 or 13 victories.


I think they’re trying to help the line by running the football, doing the things that they do well, and I’m not so concerned about Peyton Manning because I did see some great throws the other night. I saw him throw the ball very well at the Raiders, and I like Denver a lot because of their head coach, the way they play defense, and The Sheriff down the stretch has been pretty good down the stretch in big games.


  1. Jon, can you clear up, are you contractually tied to ESPN and not going to be a candidate for any coaching jobs, or is that not correct?

Gruden: Yes, I am. I’m not a candidate to coach. This is as good a team as I’ve been on in a long time. I’m excited to be a part of this team. Thanks, though.


  1. What was your opinion or reaction to the Jets firing Rex Ryan?

Gruden: That was a tough day for me yesterday because I went through that several years ago, and a lot of these guys are my friends, including Rex. I’m really disappointed for him. I understand winning and losing is certainly the defining number for some people, but I expect Rex Ryan to get picked up quickly. I’m sure there’s some celebrations in Buffalo and New England and Miami. But the Jets, they chose to move on. I wish them the best in their endeavors, but I think they lost one heck of a football coach.


  1. With Tony Romo, he’s led the league in passer rating this year. Have you ever seen him play this well throughout his career, and what made him so fantastic this year down the stretch where he’s usually struggled, and has he kind of reached that level where we kind of say he’s untouchable with Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady type play this year?

Gruden: Well, this is my opinion, but I think they’ve run the ball better than they have ever run it. If you just check the statistics the last few years it’s almost ridiculous how lopsided they were not running the ball. Every play was a pass.  Romo had a punctured lung, he’s had bruised ribs, he’s had physical problems, he’s been throwing it and throwing it and getting hit, and usually there’s going to be two or three bad things that happen when you live like that. When we just talked about Peyton Manning, I think the balance in Dallas’s offense is awesome. They can really hurt you running the ball. We talked about Denver’s offensive line and the construction that they’ve gone under. The Cowboys have as good an offensive line as there is in the league. Maybe the best left tackle, a very good center, a thumping rookie right guard, and a really aggressive right tackle and left guard. They’re solid up front, and they have some dynamic skill players, Dez Bryant, Witten and Williams can hurt you down the field. I think it’s a combination of those things.


  1. Is there anything he’s done differently with his game to kind of endure – to do this with the back injury and everything, it seems pretty incredible this late in his career.

Gruden: Well, I think it’s a credit, certainly, to Scott Linehan who came from Detroit, the combination of Garrett, the head coach, Callahan, the line coach. There’s a vast amount of experience. And I think Tony Romo’s relationship with Jason Garrett, what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and the fact that he’s had a lot of good looks with pass protection that he has not had before, I think it’s a combination of a lot of things, and he’s in a real rhythm, and I believe he’s healthy, and he’s going to play the best football of his life as the tournament starts. I would expect that from Romo.


  1. Jon, Andrew Luck is obviously very physically gifted, but what do you notice about him and his evolution intellectually and as a quarterback tactician?

Gruden: I just can’t get over the playing strength that he has. I think he’s on fumes a little bit. He has taken a lot of hits.  He’s wearing down. I worry about Luck. I really do. They have not run the ball very well. He’s taken some real hits. Last week was a huge, I think, confidence builder for the Colts. I really like their scheme. I just think their protection has been very inconsistent. T. Y. Hilton has been in and out of the lineup, but Luck has taken a huge amount of punishment in my opinion. If they can keep him upright, his will to compete, his playing strength and his knowledge of the game gives him a chance to win every single time out, but they’ve got to get him some better looks, I think, in the pocket.


  1. Jon, I wanted to ask you about a team that’s not in the playoffs, the Eagles. They’ve had a lot of injuries on their offensive line. They lost their starting quarterback for a good portion of the season. Watching them play this season, did you get a sense the defenses did a better job this year of adjusting to Chip’s offense the second year?

Gruden: I think so. It’s not the first time everybody has seen that style of no‑huddle, up‑tempo football. They are familiar to a degree with how to prepare for it. The number of explosive plays was reduced. I don’t know what you talk about as an explosive play, but I use 20 yards or more. I think that number was reduced a lot compared to some of the big hits that he got last year. And I think you’re going to see more and more 3‑4 defenses. I think teams did a better job against the run, and I think that’s natural, but knowing Chip Kelly like I do, he’ll make some adjustments and he’ll have a new club in his bag next spring, also.


  1. How much of that reduction in explosive plays do you think was attributed to DeSean (Jackson)?

Gruden: Well, I think that’s part of it. They had Darren Sproles and DeSean. … Yeah, that could possibly have something to do with it. The back of his football card speaks for itself. He has more 40‑yard gains I think than any guy in the league since he entered the game. Maclin had a great year. I know Cooper is a good player. They have a good young player in Matthews, but I haven’t seen speed on the field like DeSean Jackson really since Bob Hayes, somebody like that. He’s a game changer with his acceleration and speed.


  1. Jon, what did you think about the job Bill O’Brien did in the first year with the Texans? And how tough is it to get a team to that next level to where you can become a playoff‑contending team without knowing who their quarterback is next year?

Gruden: Well, I think O’Brien did a great job. You go from two wins to nine wins, that’s a very good amount of progress, especially considering that they had injuries and questions at the quarterback position. The No. 1 pick in the draft didn’t even make his presence felt, and they’re in the tournament until Week 16. They don’t get eliminated until Week 16. It was a great coaching job by not only Bill O’Brien but the entire staff. I think Romeo Crennel did a great job with that defense.


  1. And in terms of trying to get to that next level, how difficult is that in the NFL because it’s obviously a parity type of league, but there are only six teams every year who can get there and a lot of them are moving up and down every year.

Gruden:  It’s tough. I got fired for going 9‑7, so it’s hard to get over the top. You’ve got Andrew Luck in your division.  You don’t have Andrew Luck, you’re going to have a hard time beating Andrew Luck.  You’ve got to get better at that position. You’ve got to hope Jadeveon Clowney can come back and make things easier for J.J. Watt. God knows how many sacks Watt might get if Clowney reaches his potential, but I think they’ve got to get that quarterback position solved, short‑term, long‑term, to be able to take it over the edge.


  1. I have a question related to the value of running backs these days. We saw in free agency last year how little interest there was in an awful lot of the running backs, but I’m wondering if there’s any chance you think the pendulum might swing just slightly in favor of the running backs based on how important it may or may not be to run the ball come bad weather in wintertime.

Tirico: I think it’s changed. It’s a cyclical league, and I think we’re seeing that circle back a little bit. With all these teams playing, or I shouldn’t say all, but many teams looking to mimic college and play this quick offense, quick‑paced offense, keeping the ball away from them, keeping your defense off the field a little bit is a good way to go, so to be able to do that is a strength.


It comes back to the No. 1 thing, and Jon when we’re together discusses this every week, and I’ll take a position, the tight end position. The tight ends who are the receiving tight ends, and you can identify them, it takes away the disguise part of football. You’re not going to run the ball very often. Now when you have a tight end who stays and blocks a little bit, a run‑pass threat like a Jason Witten, all of a sudden – Heath Miller.  All of a sudden now your run game is added because of that deception you provide with your passing game, so you’re not a one‑dimensional team, and I think that all feeds into if you have a running back and can feature him, you can keep the ball away from the other guys, doesn’t matter how fast they want to score. So I think it will cycle back a bit more to more of a run‑based National Football League. Not totally, not to where we were 10, 15 years ago, but I think people are realizing the hits their quarterbacks are taking, it’s not worth doing. Balanced ball is probably the best ball, and these playoff teams say that, I think, quite loudly.


  1. Jon, any thoughts, especially when people look at Pittsburgh, Seattle, Dallas, one of the first things they mention are the running backs in these playoffs. What do you think?

Gruden: There’s no question. C.J. Anderson wasn’t even drafted. He’s as hot as any back in the league. Justin Forsett, he’s on his fifth team and he’s, I think, playing for the NFL minimum in Baltimore. It’s a critical position. These men have to be able to run the clock out and work short yardage, they have to pick up blitzes, catch the ball. Certainly the value of a great back has never been diminished in my mind, but obviously the way people are throwing the ball now and the way that they’re using two or three backs, everybody has a different viewpoint. I think the Bengals have done a great job with Hill and Bernard. Some people are doing it with a one‑horse committee like Dallas. Philadelphia has two dynamic backs that are very similar, but everybody has their own way of looking at it.


  1. If Rex ends up taking a pit stop and joining your company, for example, for the next year, is there any advice that you would give him in terms of the transition to TV work from coaching, and how do you think he’d be at it, even though I know he’d be more likely to be a studio guy? Any advice you would give him about making that transition?

Gruden: Just prepare like he prepared as a coach and be yourself and try to be a great listener. Try to listen to the producer and the director and the people that are running the show and just be a great listener, be a great teammate.  He’d be great at whatever he decides to do. I can’t imagine him not coaching, though, honestly.


Tirico: You know, Rex was so popular with the New York media, a guy who was on the hot seat handled the New York media in that room, as you know, as well as anybody has since Parcells. The guy understands how to use the medium to communicate good messages, bad messages. So there’s no learning curve of getting comfortable in front of the camera, in front of microphones. There’s no learning curve in how to massage the message to get out what you want and when you want and how you want it to be presented. If Rex does go that way, I think it’s as smooth a transition as you could see from head coach to media guy. I’m with Jon, by the way. I hope he coaches, and if there was the right offensive mix, I think a team could make an immediate jump to a playoff team by hiring him. If you think about the jobs that are open, you’ve got the top seven NFL markets. Atlanta I think is the eighth TV market, and LA doesn’t have a team, so you have the top seven media markets that are trying to hire head football coaches, and you have four or five openings depending on what happens with Oakland, I don’t know where you’re going to find all these coaches, and if you look back, I know what the record was and everything with the Jets, but Rex did a pretty darned good job there overall, and I think with the right offensive mix and stability at quarterback, that could be a head coach who could turn a team around quickly.


  1. My question is about your game in Carolina. What are your thoughts about a team with a non‑winning record having a home playoff game, and what suggestions would you have for postseasons with similar circumstances?

Tirico: That’s the rules they sign up for when they leave the competition committee meetings. They decide who’s getting in. I think any complaints fall on deaf ears in terms of what a team’s record is. You win your division, you get in. That’s the rules that are set up. I’ve got no problem with that. I do have a problem with a team hosting a playoff game with a record that’s less than the opponent. I think that the NFL should do what the NBA has correctly done in my opinion, and that’s the team with the better record is the home team for the playoff game. Pretty simple fix. Don’t think it’s that big a deal. You win a division, you deserve to get in, but you don’t necessarily deserve a playoff game at home for being three‑and‑a‑half games poorer than your opponent.


Gruden: I like the way it is personally. I’d like to see everybody be 12‑4 that’s a division title. I’d also like to have a new Cadillac sitting in my driveway. But the division winner should, I think, get in and host a playoff game. These teams don’t play the same schedules, so 10‑6 might be 10‑6, but 7‑8‑1 might be just as good because of what they went through to get to 7‑8‑1. I think there’s a lot of different ways to look at this. That’s why I just like the tradition of the division title, you’re in, you automatically host a playoff game, and a couple weeks from now, no one will even remember this.


  1. Wanted to get your thoughts on Cam Newton’s recent play and also the performance of the Panthers’ defense.

Gruden: In regards to Cam Newton, I just think he’s just showed some incredible toughness this year, what he’s been through. He missed the entire off‑season with an ankle, then he got hurt in the preseason and missed the opener I think with rib injuries. I don’t think he really ever got healthy and then he gets in a car wreck. Next thing I know he’s jumping over people and he’s doing that Superman Stretch Armstrong things he does. I don’t know how big and how strong and how tough Newton is, but he’s as big and strong as any quarterback I’ve seen. His fundamentals, his pass protection, his new receivers, the changes on the offensive line have all made his life difficult, but he is the heart and soul of Carolina football right now. I give him a tremendous amount of respect, and as I said earlier, I love the way McDermott coaches defense. It’s a 4‑3 scheme I’m familiar with. They play with tremendous effort. They have 11 tacklers on the team. I really am stunned at the progress they’ve made in the secondary of new faces, rookie players. I see a number of contributors.  And if you don’t like Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, then you just don’t like football. They are a pleasure to watch. It’s a darned good defensive football team. They’re mentally tough, and Ron Rivera deserves a lot of credit.


Tirico: I’ll give you the Cam answer first. It’s great to see Cam back with the joy that he plays with. I think if there’s anything about Cam, there’s so many unique qualities to begin with: Size, speed, combination, the journey. I think Cam Newton always seemed to play football with a joy, a smile, a million‑watt smile, and that was not there earlier this year.  He played through the ankle and the ribs as Jon talked about. He was not right when we saw him against Philadelphia on a Monday night in November. I saw that post‑injury here these last couple of weeks, that same Cam Newton, and that can mean a lot, because as Jon will tell you, the star player kind of lifts everybody up, and people look to him, and Cam provides that.


And defensively, Luke Kuechly is one of my favorite players in the NFL. I love what Kuechly and Davis have done together as a combo. The league has a lot of warts and a lot of negatives that have come to light this year, but those two guys are two of the absolute brightest spots with Davis back from the three knee injuries, almost unheard of in sports, the way he’s come back, and Kuechly’s leadership, the way he presents himself, and the way he plays, he is a poster boy for what is great about American sports. To watch those two guys lead this defense over the last month has been fun to watch, and I think it’s a huge reason, like Jon said, that they’re still playing and the other teams in the South have gone home.


  1. Jon, there’s plenty of talk up here about the way Matthew Stafford has played this year. What do you think his problems have been this year, and what would a win Sunday do for the perception of him as a quarterback?

Gruden: I think that a lot of the problems that they’ve had, they’re two-fold. Number one, it’s a new system. It’s tough.  There’s new reads, new footwork, there’s new decisions that are being made, and he’s also got some new skill players.  They’ve got a rookie tight end, they’ve got a new receiver from Seattle. When there’s a lot of new things around, there’s going to be some growing pains.


And secondly, that line, that offensive line, when I watch Detroit, I don’t always see Riley Reiff at left tackle, I don’t see the same group of players. I didn’t even see their center last week playing in the most important game arguably in the last 30 years of Lions football ‑‑ regular season game, that is. I think those two things, new system, new personnel at the skill positions, and obviously the injuries on the offensive line have had some things to do with his ups and downs, and Megatron was hurt. Those are significant issues.


  1. And what about what a win could do for his perception as a quarterback?

Gruden: Well, I think there’s people that ‑‑ Andy Dalton, I think Jay Cutler, I think certainly Matt Stafford, Tony Romo, there’s a handful of quarterbacks that until they win a playoff game, until they take the team to the Super Bowl, until they win a Super Bowl, people are always going to be critical of them. But where would the Detroit Lions be without Matt Stafford? That’s the question I think you’ve got to maybe privately ask yourself sometimes.


  1. Can you weigh in on the Ndamukong Suh suspension, if you think that was legit for what happened with a playoff this big?

Gruden: You know what, I’m really sick about what happened. I like Ndamukong Suh. I’ve had a lot of chance to spend some time with him over the years. I think he’s very bright. He’s obviously an outstanding talent. But there’s no place for that. You can’t do that. If you’re going to be physical and aggressive and tenacious, those are great words for a defensive tackle. I was fortunate to be with Reggie White and Warren Sapp, and I just don’t remember ever having to address stomping on a guy that was lying down. I don’t know if Ndamukong says if it was an accident or whatever, I have more important things to get ready for, but it’s a huge blow to Detroit’s defense, and I feel sick about it because in the heat of battle, I think Ndamukong Suh will regret doing that.


Tirico: I’ll give you two quick ones on both. Here’s Stafford’s opportunity. In his hometown, in Dallas, place where he has played great, two of his finest moments in his career against the Cowboys in comeback games, here you are. His first half in that game in Green Bay was not very good. Here’s a great chance to silence and prove that all the hard work that he’s put in can be a turnaround point or a stepping‑stone point, really, in his career. And both suspensions, that’s unnecessary.  For everything that the Lions did to get back, when you’re a leader on the line on offense and defense, on back to back weeks, get suspended for those types of incidents, that’s awful. That’s not championship football, and those are two guys who are desperate to win championships, and at the biggest moment didn’t do it. We’ll see if this costs them because I think playing without your center in Green Bay hurt them, as well. Two unfortunate blights on a season that should look back and say that team did more than a lot of people thought they would.


  1. Coach, you mentioned Joe Flacco at the beginning of the call getting on the hot streak a few years ago and taking the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Do you see any of the teams in this round finding a path to get all the way to the Super Bowl out of the Wild Card round? And what have you seen from the teams that have made that run like the Steelers, Packers and Giants did and the Ravens that have allowed them to get all the way through from this week and especially having to play on the road as often as they would have to?

Gruden: You know, I like Dallas.  I’ve got a real feeling about Dallas. I call their defense the UFO defense, unidentified flying objects, because I’ve never heard of anyone on that defense at the beginning of the year. They play extremely well as a team. They’ve got a great field goal kicker. They can run it, and they can stop the run right now, and I like where they are.

But you have to have a quarterback that gets hot. That’s how we won it. Our defense deserves a lot of credit certainly, but when Brad Johnson came back off his injury, he played his best football against the 49ers. He played extremely well against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, and the last three quarters of the Super Bowl, he led our team on some long time‑possessing drives. You’ve got to get really great play from your quarterback. I don’t remember Aaron Rodgers or anybody playing like Aaron Rodgers played when the Packers won it. I really don’t. It was Eli Manning’s finest hour. There was some luck involved certainly in our victory. You’ve got to have good football fortune sometimes, Flacco, the misjudged pass, Eli Manning, the miraculous catch in the Super Bowl by David Tyree, quarterback play certainly is a big part of it. But I like Dallas if you were to say there’s one team I like in this first round, I’d pick Dallas.


Tirico: I’d go Dallas and Pittsburgh. Jon gave you all the Dallas reasons. If I look at quarterbacks who I think in the big moment will play well, which I think as Jon just detailed, those last three Wild Card teams in the last nine years who are teamed that have played this first weekend, I look at Romo and I look at Ben (Roethlisberger), and I trust them. I’ve watched them all year and believe in them, and obviously as was mentioned more the complement of a run game is huge to both.  I think when you look at the offensive line coaches in both places, (Mike) Munchak in Pittsburgh, (Bill) Callahan in Dallas, Jon is the expert on this, they’re two of the best in the business. I want a team that’s going to be able to run the ball and salt away a lead, and the defenses, and you talk about defensive coordinators whose guys play for them and they know exactly what they do and their style is very infectious, I think of (Rod) Marinelli in Dallas and (Dick) LeBeau in Pittsburgh. Those elements of the quarterback, the running game, the defensive coordinators, the guys who push the button and the teams on the big stage who do very well, every week is a big game with the Steelers and the Cowboys, so I like those two teams playing this weekend as the two who I think could make it all the way to Arizona.


  1. Jon, the game that you guys are doing with Arizona, they’re on their third quarterback and Cam Newton had the car injury, Houston is on its third quarterback this year.  In the college ranks you’ve had Ohio State on its third quarterback, situations with Jameis (Winston), back in the pros you’ve got Johnny Manziel. It seems like this has been an extraordinarily interesting year for quarterbacks. Do you agree with that, and if so, why is that?

Gruden: I think a lot of it has to do with the way we practice now. It’s different. We don’t practice in pads. We don’t pick up stunts and practice blitz pickups. We don’t have the lengthy off‑season that we once had to teach these quarterbacks audibles. And what you are seeing is a lot of people in no‑huddle offense running 90 plays a game. More players, more opportunities to get hurt, and some of these designed quarterback runs, dive options, read options, whatever you want to call them, they put the quarterback at extreme risk, I think it’s a combination of all those things, the way we practice, the way we prepare in the off‑season, the style of offense that we run, and training. Some of these young quarterbacks that come into pro football aren’t even seniors, and they haven’t had a spring practice, they haven’t completed their eligibility.  It’s a lot different, and I think that has a big reason to do with some of it.


  1. Jon, Bruce Arians has spoken about his adaptability and fearlessness about signing a guy on Tuesday and playing him on Sunday. That’s obviously come in handy this year as far as changing schemes from one week to the next with all the injuries. How impressed have you been with Bruce’s offense and just his ability to adapt and say, hey, I’ve got Lindley this week, or hey, I’ve got Stanton this week. It seems like he’s able to put those guys in positions to at least know their limitations and tailor an offense around him.

Gruden: Oh, he’s done an excellent job. It’s more fun watching Bruce Arians when he had Carson Palmer if you really want to be honest. I think they’ve only averaged 12 points a game in the last four outings. He’s done an excellent job keeping his team focused, making some really difficult personnel moves along the way, keeping everybody’s spirits up, shrinking the game plan possibly, featuring certain areas to make a quarterback comfortable, but they miss their starter, they miss their backup quarterback, and they are really surviving right now with a third quarterback, and it’s very difficult to do. It doesn’t matter who the coach is.

More information on this weekend’s matchups in the NFL is available online at http://espn.go.com. To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it. Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews in the Phil’s Picks blog at https://philspicks.wordpress.com.

Bengals Host Broncos Monday Night On ESPN In Pivotal Playoff Game

Courtesy:  ESPN

Courtesy: ESPN

Next Monday night, Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals will play what is one of the most important games of the season for the team when it plays host to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

Cincinnati and Denver will face off at Paul brown Stadium Monday night on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. The Broncos (11 – 3) have already clinched the AFC West title. So for Denver, Monday night’s game will be a tune-up for the playoffs. For Cincinnati though, Monday night’s game means much more. Cincinnati currently sits at 9 – 4 – 1 on the season coming into Monday night’s game. And even if the Bengals win, it doesn’t guarantee a playoff spot for the team or even the division title. A handful of scenarios have to play out for Cincinnati to get the AFC North division title. And almost all of them require Cincinnati to win out at least Monday night.

The first way that Cincinnati can snag the AFC North title is to win out both Monday night and against the Steelers in Week 17. The second way that the Bengals can clinch the division title is to win at least one game between this week and next week and losses by both the Steelers and Ravens. In order to clinch a playoff spot, one of two scenarios has to happen. The first scenario is a win at least this week or next week against Pittsburgh. The other scenario would allow Cincinnati to lose both this week and next ONLY IF Kansas City, San Diego and Buffalo all lose at least once between this week and next. Making Monday night’s game all the more important for Cincinnati is the teams prime time record. Cincy is 18 – 41 all time in prime-time and 10 – 20 on Monday Night.  Taking an even deeper look at the teams’ numbers, Denver is only 4 – 3 on the road versus going undefeated at home. The team has gone 4 – 1 – 0 in its last five game. Cincy has only one more win on the road than at home, going 5 – 2 – 0 on the road and 4 – 2 – 1 at home. It is also 4 – 1 – 0 in its last five games. So it goes without saying that Monday night’s game will be one of the most important of the season for Cincinnati.

Adding to the interest of Monday’s games is talk of long term impacts of hits on Peyton this season and what it might mean in regards to his off season surgery. Manning will sit down with ESPN Monday Night Football play-by-play man Mike Tirico to discuss that and more as part of the night’s pre-game broadcast.  Sideline reporter Lisa Salters will have a discussion with Bengals QB Andy Dalton on the other side of the ball. She and Dalton will discuss what a win tonight would mean both for him and his teammates and getting over the playoff hurdles of the past three seasons among other topics. Both interviews are part of Monday’s pre-game show Monday Night Countdown. Suzy Kolber will anchor Monday night’s broadcast. She will be joined by NFL analysts Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, and Steve Young live on-site. Chris Berman will anchor live from ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Connecticut. He will be joined by NFL analysts Cris Carter, Mike Ditka, Tom Jackson, and Keyshawn Johnson and ESPN NFL Insiders Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter. Monday Night Countdown kicks off at 6pm ET.

Kickoff for Monday night’s game is scheduled for 8:15pm ET. Mike Tirico will have the call from the booth. He will be joined by Jon Gruden, who just last week agreed to a contract extension with ESPN. The extension will keep Gruden in the booth alongside Mike Tirico through 2021, when ESPN’s next contract with the NFL comes up. Lisa Salters will be on the sidelines for Monday night’s game with all of the latest in-game news and reports. Monday Night Football is available for ESPN’s Spanish-speaking fans on ESPN Deportes and online via WatchESPN for those with video subscriptions from affiliated providers. More information on Mondays’ game and on all things NFL is available online at:

Website: http://espn.go.com/nfl/mnf

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MNF

To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it. Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews in the Phil’s Picks blog at https://philspicks.wordpress.com.

Saints, Bears Face Off Tonight In Important NFC Match To Close Out Week Fifteen

Courtesy:  ESPN

Courtesy: ESPN

Week fifteen of the NFL’s 2014-2015 season closes tonight with what will be one of the season’s most important match ups.

Tonight on ESPN, The New Orleans Saints (5 – 8 – 0) take on the Chicago Bears (5 – 8 – 0) in an NFC conference face-off. A win tonight for the Saints would have major playoff implications. That’s because after Sunday’s win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers are now also at 5 – 8 – 1. A Saints win would push New Orleans to 6 – 8 – 0 so far on the season. A win would be especially big for the Saints as right now the NFC South in whole is the league’s worst division. For Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears, a win tonight would tie Chicago with Minnesota in the NFC North at 6 – 8 – 0.  It’s not much, considering that Chicago has essentially been marked out of the playoff picture.  But a win would mean not being the worst team in its division. The Saints are only 1- 4 in their last five games while Chicago has struggled just as much going 2 – 3 in its last five games. However Chicago is in the midst of a two-game skid. So the Bears will be looking to snap that streak. And being at home, Chicago will be especially hungry for a win tonight.

Coverage of tonight’s game on ESPN kicks off at 6pm ET on Monday Night Countdown. Host Suzy Kolber will be joined by NFL analysts Trent Dilfer, Mike Ditka, Ray Lewis, and Steve Young. Chris Berman will be live in studio from ESPN’s headquarters for the broadcast. He will be joined by analysts Cris Carter, Tom Jackson and Keyshawn Johnson alongside ESPN NFL Insiders Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter. Mike Tirico will have the call for tonight’s game. He will be joined in the booth by analyst Jon Gruden. Lisa Salters will have all of the latest reports throughout the game from the sidelines.

Kickoff is scheduled for 8:15pm ET. ESPN’s Spanish-speaking viewers can catch the game on television via ESPN Deportes. And fans on the go can watch the game online via WatchESPN as long as they have subscriptions from affiliated providers. More information on tonight’s game and all things NFL is available online at:

Website: http://espn.go.com/nfl/mnf

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MNF

To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it. Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews in the Phil’s Picks blog at https://philspicks.wordpress.com.

Eagles, Panthers Close Out Week 10 Of NFL’s 2014 – 2015 Season

Courtesy:  ESPN

Courtesy: ESPN

Week 10 of the 2014 – 2015 NFL season closes out Monday night on ESPN when the Carolina Panthers come in to Philadelphia to face the Eagles.

The conference matchup is an important one for both teams.  Both teams will be looking to add another notch to their “W” column.  Philadelphia is currently 6 – 2 on the season.  Carolina on the other hand, is currently 3 – 5 on the season.  So a win will mean just as much for both teams.  For Carolina, it would mean being one game closer to getting back in the black.  For Philadelphia, it would be another important step towards the team’s playoff hopes for this season.  Philadelphia is 3 – 1 in its last five games and 3 – 2 against conference opponents.  Against non-conference foes, Philly is 3 – 0.  Carolina is 3 – 3 so far in conference play and have gone 0 – 3 – 1 in its last five games.  It has lost its last three games, too.  So a win against a conference foe Monday night would be just as big for the Eagles as for the Panthers as the season progresses.

Adding to the storylines for Monday’s game, Philadelphia is undefeated at home so far this season, going 4 – 0 at home.  Carolina on the other hand is 1 – 2 – 1 on the road.  That means that Carolina will come in to Monday night’s game very much the underdog.  Interestingly enough, Cam Newton is a perfect 2 – 0 on Monday Night Football as are the Eagles and head coach Chip Kelly.  This makes Monday night’s matchup all the more exciting for fans.

Mike Tirico will have the call for Monday night’s game.  He will be joined in the booth by analyst Jon Gruden.  ESPN will have more than five hours of coverage for Monday night’s game before kickoff.  It all leads up to Monday night’s pregame coverage on Monday Night Countdown at 6pm ET.  Suzy Kolber will anchor that broadcast.  She will be joined by NFL analysts Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, and Steve Young.  Studio host Chris Berman will be joined by NFL analysts Cris Carter, Mike Ditka, Tom Jackson, and Keyshawn Johnson and ESPN NFL Insiders Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter.

More information on Monday Night’s broadcast andpre-game coverage is available online at:

Website: http://espn.go.com/nfl/mnf

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MNF

To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it.  Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews in the Phil’s Picks blog at https://philspicks.wordpress.com.

AFC Foes Pats, Chiefs Face Off In A Battle Of East Versus West Monday Night On ESPN

Courtesy:  ESPN

Courtesy: ESPN

This Monday night on ESPN, Alex Smith and the struggling Kansas City Chiefs host Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in a battle of East versus West in the AFC.  Monday night’s edition of Monday Night Football on ESPN will be an important one for the Chiefs who are currently winless at home. The Pats on the other hand, are even at 1 – 1 on the road.  Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski said this week that he is looking forward to taking on a more active role with the Pats. So fans can potentially expect to see him in a much more active role Monday night when New England comes to Arrowhead Stadium. And that means the possibility of an even more tough fight for the Chiefs Monday night.

Looking at things on an even deeper level, the Chiefs and Pats are almost even in terms of total points scored so far this season and total yardage, too. And Tom Brady has the second-highest winning percentage on Monday Night Football, with a record of 13 – 5.  That is second only to Payton Manning, whose MNF record sits at 13 – 4.  The Patriots have scored more points than the Chiefs so far this season.  But the Chiefs have outperformed the Patriots in terms of Passing Yards, Rushing Yards, and total yardage overall.  But that lead is minimal at best. Taking all of this into consideration, Monday night’s edition of Monday Night Footabll on ESPN could prove to be a close one for both teams in this battle of the AFC East and AFC West.

Mike Tirico will have the call for Monday night’s game.  He will be joined by Jon Gruden in the booth and Lisa Salters on the sidelines for additional commentary.  Before kickoff of Monday night’s game, the Monday Night Countdown crew will recap all of the action from Sunday’s games.  Suzy Kolber will host the broadcast, which will come live from Arrowhead Stadium.  She will be joined by NFL analysts Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, and Steve Young.  Chris Berman will join the broadcast live from ESPN’s headquarters alongside ESPN NFL analysts Cris Carter, Mike Ditka, Tom Jackson, and Keyshawn Johnson and ESPN NFL Insiders Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter.  It all starts at 6pm ET.  Kickoff is scheduled for 8:15pm ET.

The topics slated for Monday night’s edition of Monday Night Countdown are listed below.

  • Gruden’s Grill Session with Alex Smith: Super Bowl-winning coach and MNFanalyst Jon Gruden visits with Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
  • Rick Reilly – Drew Bledsoe: If not for an injury to then-Patriots starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe in 2001, the Tom Brady era in New England may never have happened.  In his weekly feature, Countdown’sRick Reilly looks at where Bledsoe is now, 13 years after losing his starting job to Brady and eight years since retiring from the NFL.
  • Soundtracks – Best of Brady and Gronk: As the Patriots look to get their offense turned around, Countdownlooks back at the best of in-game audio between quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski in Soundtracks.

Monday Night Football is available to all Spanish-speaking audiences on ESPN Deportes.  And anyone that can’t be near a television Monday night can still catch the game online via WatchESPN.

More information on ESPN’s Monday Night Football is available online at:

Website: http://espn.go.com/nfl.mnf

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MNF

To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it.  Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews in the Phil’s Picks blog at https://philspicks.wordpress.com.

Jets, Bears Close Out Week 3 On ESPN’s Monday Night Football

Courtesy:  ESPN

Courtesy: ESPN

Week 3 of the 2014 NFL season wraps tonight as Geno Smith and the New York Jets host Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears.

The Jets and Bears will face off at MetLife Stadium tonight on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. Both teams have plenty to play for tonight as they both currently sit at 1 – 1 so far on the season. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:15pm ET. Mike Tirico will have the call from the booth tonight. Analyst Jon Gruden and sideline reporter Lisa Salters will also be on hand for additional commentary. ESPN and ESPN Deportes will work together throughout the evening’s broadcast to recognize the NFL’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, which continues through October 15th.

Monday night’s matchup between the Bears and Jets will be preceded by ESPN’s weekly pre-game broadcast of Monday Night Countdown live at 6pm ET. Monday’s broadcast will come live from MetLife Stadium. Host Suzy Kolber will be joined by analysts Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, Steve Young for a recap of the week’s games and a look ahead at the week’s closer between New York and Chicago. Kolber and company will be joined from ESPN’s headquarters by studio host Chris Berman and analysts Cris Carter, Mike Ditka, Tom Jackson, and Keyshawn Johnson alongside ESPN NFL Insiders Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter.

Those that can’t be close to a TV tonight can catch tonight’s game online via WatchESPN. The game will also be available to Spanish-speaking audiences on TV on ESPN Deportes. More information on tonight’s matchup is available online at:

Website: http://espn.go.com/nfl/mnf
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MNF

To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it. Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews in the Phil’s Picks blog at https://philspicks.wordpress.com.

Tirico, Others Talk Golf Ahead Of PGA Open Championship

Courtesy:  ESPN

Courtesy: ESPN

ESPN will carry full coverage of golf’s oldest major next week. In anticipation of next week’s coverage (Thursday, July 17th – Sunday, July 20th), ESPN VP of Production Mike McQuade joined host Mike Tirico and ESPN golf analysts Andy North, Curtis Strange, and Paul Azinger for a conference call with members of the media. The group discusses their own memories of past Open Championships, fan devotion to the game and so much more through their conference call. The following is the full transcript of their discussion with the media. More information on ESPN’s coverage of the Open Championship is available online at http://espn.go.com/golf.

MIKE McQUADE:  This is the one event that we produce, first of all, that lasts all day every day, and it is an extraordinary effort for our group.  We are fortunate that we are able to get a great group of people together from all different facets of production to come together for this one week.  I like to call it the all‑star team of not only production but of also on‑air hosts, from Scott Van Pelt to Sean McDonough to Mike Tirico, and then a great group of analysts that we have.

I think it’s an extraordinary accomplishment that each and every year we’re able to put on such a big show for viewers.  As usual, we are excited about doing it.

This year is no different.  Coverage this year will be similar to what you’ve seen in years past with an extra emphasis this year placed on our camera positions and camera locations.  Trying to capture more x‑motion, if you will, slow motion, replays and images, as well as continue our technology with the flight of the ball and the distance of the ball and the distance the balls can roll, something that we’ve dabbled with in the past that we’re continuing to expand on.

Beyond that, I think one of the things we’re trying to do is trying to tell the stories of folks that are not as familiar to the viewers back home, whether it’s the forklift driver who lives a half hour from the golf course who qualified, or it’s Rory McIlroy trying to make his return to form.  I think we’ll have a good deal of stories to go on.

MIKE TIRICO:  This is my 18th year of doing the Open Championship, and it’s the second time that I am coming right off the World Cup and going right over there.  It’s a little bit tighter travel for me this year.  I’ll be staying for the World Cup final and host that on Sunday and then headed with some bizarre connections to get to Liverpool hopefully by Tuesday and get ready for the event Thursday.

It’s a phenomenal event, and I’d echo what Mike said.  We don’t do this together for 20 weeks a year, but we bring the band together for one week, and we kind of know all the songs that we play together.  Having worked individually with everyone in this group in a variety of roles and in a variety of places, it’s a selfless, talented, smart group, and they really help us bring American golf fans.

I think it’s something to look forward to.  I know every time that I travel somewhere and we talk about the Open Championship, fans talk about their ritual, whether they get up in the middle of the night, they stay up late on the West Coast, they play their golf on Sunday morning and then make sure that they’re around their 19th hole to watch the last couple of hours of The Open.  It’s the oldest championship in the sport.  We take great pride in being a part of it, and cannot wait to see who will hold the Claret Jug this year, and maybe it’ll be another guy in his 40s, as it has been the last three years.

CURTIS STRANGE:  Well, first off, I’m going to be happy to get into a little cooler weather.  I don’t know which is hotter, Oklahoma City or Manaus in Brazil.  I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in TV for a while now, since 1997, and I look forward to the Open Championship.  Granted, we look forward to the U.S. Open, there’s no doubt, because it’s our national championship, but the Open Championship is our production, and it’s our tournament.  As Mike said, we take great pride in putting on the show, and we work very hard at it, and I think we do a good job.

It’s something we all look forward to very, very much.  It’s been on our radar screen for a good month now, and as we get into our TV segment, part of the summer, and it’s really, really fun from an analyst’s point of view, and I think my two colleagues would say the same thing, that it’s such a fun tournament to bring back to America because it is different.  We have the elements of weather, conditions, links golf, all of the above, and to bring that back to our viewers back home at such an early hour in the morning, it’s great to lay in bed and watch Open Championship golf, it’s fun to do.  It’s a lot of things to talk about.  It’s different players to talk about, and there’s an incredible amount of story lines every time we do it, and that’s part of our preparation.

But we really enjoy doing it and look forward to doing it.

PAUL AZINGER:  Hi, everyone.  I’m excited.  Curtis hit the nail on the head.  There are a lot of story lines and probably none as appealing or attractive as the Tiger Woods story line coming back to play again for the second time since back surgery.

This is a Ryder Cup year.  There’s been a lot of questions asked of Tom Watson, and by the way, Andy North, who’s on our broadcast team is one of Tom Watson’s assistants.  A lot of speculation circling around whether or not Tiger will be a pick.  Every other year we get this story line.  The British Open will be double value in points.  Mickelson is not on the team yet, either.  There are a lot of story lines.

I was at Hoylake right after the U.S. Open.  I went over there to do an outing, and it was lush and green, a different Hoylake than what we saw in 2006 when Tiger won.

But they told me while I was over there that it was lush and green on the Sunday of the U.S. Open the last time, and it just dried out and baked out, so we’ll see what the golf course has in store.  Often times the golf course is much the story and the conditions, and I think that’s what makes the Open Championship so appealing, and the uniqueness of links golf is another thing that our network has been able to bring to the American viewer.

I love the ‑‑ we get to see for the first time when someone does a read, like when we had Mother Nature several years ago doing the read, don’t make Mother Nature mad or whatever.  We don’t get to see any of that until we come on air, so as analysts we actually look forward to seeing what we’ve come up with next.

I’m looking forward to the event.  I can’t wait to get there.  I have butterflies of anticipation waiting to see what Tiger and Phil can do, and again, like Mike said, who will hold the Claret Jug at the end of the week.

ANDY NORTH:  Well, I’d pick up what Paul was saying, that it was a very lush spring.  There’s a lot of that undergrowth and that wispy rough that we always see, but there’s a really good undergrowth in it, so that will be thick, but it has dried up dramatically the last two or three weeks.

Royal Birkdale was really lush two weeks ago, and it’s fast now.  In talking to some R&A folks, they are very happy where the golf course is right now at Hoylake, that it’s firmed up, it’s gotten faster.  I think by the end of next week, we will see a golf course that’s going to be very firm and very fast.  Maybe not what we saw last year at Muirfield where it was almost out of control it was so fast, but it’s a great championship, and we really look forward to it, and we take a lot of pride in bringing a different kind of golf back to America.

As Paul mentioned, there’s so many stories, and we’re going to do our best to get that out in front of the public.

Q.  We’ll get right to the Tiger question.  What do you expect from him coming off his performance at Congressional where he kind of had short game problems and just the whole back surgery issue?  What do you expect from him next week?

PAUL AZINGER:  Yeah, I think Tiger is always going to be compared to Jack, and there’s a big difference in where these two players are at this age, or were, at the age of 38.  I think one of the big differences that’s very rarely articulated is the fact that while Tiger in his dominance always, for whatever reason, was in this quest to get better, I don’t remember Jack ever saying that.  Nicklaus always was ‑‑ I mean, Jack might have made some tweaks and twerks here and there, minor tweaks and twerks, but Tiger has made astronomical changes in a quest to get better, and as a result Tiger has actually gotten a little bit worse.  I think we can all pretty much see that.

I think where Tiger has made his mistake is he’s dabbled with the fingerprints of his golf swing, not necessarily the fundamentals.  Tiger remains fundamentally fairly sound in his lower body, but the changes ‑‑ I think he’s probably the only person that’s ever played well who’s looked radically different throughout his career.  Even the layman golfer can see the difference in Tiger Woods’ golf swing.  So that’s one thing.

And Tiger’s quest to get better, I think he’s actually gotten a little bit worse.  Jack never had the severity of injuries, the career‑threatening injuries that Tigers has had, and now that’s the big question.  To speculate on what do we expect out of Tiger Woods at this point, I think, shoot, we don’t know either.  How fit is he?  How much is he still dabbling with changing what is so obvious to the eye that are just unique to the individual?  I don’t know, we’ll see what happens.

But I think that most golfers have made the same mistakes in some weird way about changing their golf swing, about changing fingerprints, if you will, for fundamentals, and I think Tiger has done that to his detriment, and Jack never made those mistakes.  Jack understood that if he could stay the same, he would still dominate.  Tiger didn’t need to get better.  He just didn’t need to get worse.  He needed to stay the same and he could still dominate, and in his quest to get better, it’s kind of backfired on him.

CURTIS STRANGE:  Yeah, I kind of tend to agree with everything Paul says.  I’ll go back to the basic question of what do we expect over there.  I think it will be very difficult to expect a lot of him.  A couple things:  One, he’s had back surgery.  He says he’s pain‑free, which it looks like he is, but your body doesn’t recover that quickly, so even though he’s pain‑free, he’s not 100 percent.  Can’t be 100 percent golf‑wise because of conditioning.  He hasn’t played but one tournament.  So when you look at it like that, how do you expect your body to swing and be as accurate and consistent as it is when you’re doing it every day and you’re perfectly healthy?  That’s number one.

Before he had the back surgery, he didn’t play well.  Now, some of that was from the injury, but he really didn’t play very well at all.  I don’t have the stats right in front of me, but he was at the bottom of the list in driving accuracy, greens in regulation and putting, the bottom of the Tour.

Again, you have to take that with a grain of salt because he was injured a little bit, but he just didn’t play well.  He hasn’t played well.  We haven’t seen Tiger really, really play well in a while now, so back injury, not playing well, hasn’t played any competitive golf in over three months now, pushing four months, it’s hard to expect anything out of anybody, and I don’t expect him to be ‑‑ I hope he makes the cut.  I hope he hits solid shots.  He hope he progresses.  But I don’t think you could ever expect him to be on the first page of the leaderboard come the weekend.  And that’s just from a player common sense.  That’s talking about the great Tiger Woods.  If it was Paul, Andy or I, normal people, I’m not even sure we would go over there.

ANDY NORTH:  Yeah, I look at this maybe a little bit different than Curtis in the fact that I thought that he went and played in his tournament in Washington, D.C., was very, very important for the Open Championship, because he had to get on the golf course.  He had to put himself under tournament conditions.  Even though he wasn’t as prepared as he wanted to, it was very still very important because he found out where he had to work, what things he had to do over the next couple of weeks to get better, and the most importantly, after coming off of a surgery, which I’ve had a couple of back surgeries, that you trust that it’s going to work.  That’s the hardest thing is mentally to believe that everything is going to be okay and you can make a swing and it’s not going to be a problem.

I thought that in that week where he didn’t play very well, there were still some glimpses of things that probably made him very encouraged when he went home.  He had a stretch of holes where he made some birdies.  He hit some good shots.  That’s really important for a player’s psyche, and I don’t care how good you are, you have to have some of those small steps along the way before you can take big steps again.

What to expect out of him next week?  We all hope he plays well.  We all hope that he’s there.  But if he does have some success next week, I think it’s really huge that it started all a couple of weeks ago when he didn’t play very well, so he actually got out there under the heat of battle a little bit.

PAUL AZINGER:  Let me add real quick, too, the greens at Hoylake are actually very easy.  There’s only a couple greens that are difficult.  Tiger’s strength ‑‑ of course there’s a mountain of things that separate him from everybody else, but not the least of which is the putter, and Tiger has not been the great putter, but he’s not coming to Augusta where he’s got to make these swinging five‑footers and seven‑footers.  These greens are reasonably flat, and I think ‑‑ let’s just face it:  The guy went a year and a half without missing a putt inside three and a half feet.  We haven’t seen that Tiger lately, and he’s going to have to hit those smaller putts like his life depended on it, like he used to hit them.  Whether it’s concentration or technique or whatever, I’m not sure, but at least at Hoylake, the greens are manageable.

CURTIS STRANGE:  One thing I want to add, I didn’t mean Washington was a big step to go out and see if your body actually can hold up, to see if the pain is there at all, to see what the body does swinging the golf club, I agree with all that stuff.  But with that said, he hasn’t played well.  He didn’t play well there, and there might have been some positive things happen to him at Congressional, but when you look at him and can he play well and will he play well at Hoylake, it’s asking a lot of even Tiger Woods to go and really expect him to play well.

Yes, we all want him to play well for obvious reasons, but I just don’t see it as a golfer to come play a different type of golf against the best players in the world.

Q.  Andy, what do you think Tiger needs to show the rest of the season in order to be considered as a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup?

ANDY NORTH:  Well, I think this is obviously Captain Watson’s decision, but I think it’s going to be very important that he shows that he’s healthy, and I think it’s going to be important to show that his game is in good form.  What does that mean?  I think there’s a lot of different ways you can look at that, but I think he’s got it looks like three starts probably before the FedExCup starts.  I think that he probably needs to play well those three weeks.

Now, what playing well means is different for everybody, but I think he’s got to go out there and ‑‑ I think it would be important for him to contend one of those three weeks.

Q.  I’m not sure who can answer this, but has ESPN done any studies on this or have the announcers had any feedback about this:  Do people watch the British Open live or do you think they watch it more on the replays because it’s so early in the day?

MIKE McQUADE:  I have not done any ‑‑ I’ve done my own research on it.  I don’t get many comments about it.  We air three majors.  We do re‑airs of them:  The Masters, the U.S. Open, and the British, and the ratings are all fairly comparable.  I would say the Masters we are probably higher, but we are on so long for the Open that by the end of it, people have already ‑‑ there’s no reason to watch the re‑air because you’ve gotten most of what you needed to get by even watching three hours of it.  I feel it’s fairly comparable even if you just watch a different part of it.

MIKE TIRICO:  I can add just a couple of things to that real quick.  On Saturday and Sunday, we end at 2:30 eastern Saturday, 1:30 eastern on Sunday, so it’s not terribly early for people in terms of Saturday and Sunday when their real viewing window comes to the maximum.

Unlike the other majors for that obvious reason, though, three hours in the late afternoon, 3:00 to 6:00, that usual golf window, that airs on ABC, as well, over the years, so people have a chance to see it multiple times in addition to what Mike was just talking about, in primetime, at night.

I think there are more opportunities to see this, but television ratings are considered on live shows.  When you see a rating for a show, it’s not necessarily the people who DVR it and go back and watch it at a later time.  The ratings are the ratings.  It just accumulates differently because there are re‑airs of significant portions of the coverage in the middle of the afternoon and then, as Mike said, same as the other majors, later on in the evening.

Q.  What will that week be like for you doing the World Cup in Brazil, flying up to England and then doing the British Open?  What’s that week like?

MIKE TIRICO:  It’s a thrill.  I have always thrived on the more work, you better you work, and as long as the travel from Rio to Brasilia to Lisbon to Manchester and then the drive to the golf course goes okay, I’ll be absolutely thrilled.

I get to see Jim Nantz every year when we’re over at the Masters, and Jimmy goes from the finals on Monday of the college basketball to the Masters on Sunday.  The difference here is obviously we’re a continent away.  The World Cup final is the most watched sporting event in the world every four years, so to be a part of that as the host and then to be a part of this golf championship just four days later is a pretty cool experience to be honest with you.  I’m pinching myself at the opportunity.  I’m enjoying every second of it.  Airline permitting, it’s going to be one heck of a week for me.

Q.  How do you stay fresh, though, with all the travel?

MIKE TIRICO:  We sit on our butts and talk.  People make a lot of what we do, and I appreciate that, and you want to stay as mentally fresh as you can because you’re talking for several hours a day, but sleep on planes is one of the big things, and I plan on not being awake for much of the flight from Brasilia to Lisbon, hit the golf course running on Tuesday afternoon, and the adrenaline of the Open Championship always gets you going.  You see the yellow scoreboards there, and all you have to do is sit in our spot where Zinger and I get to sit for four days, you turn around, and if you like golf, you would give up a lot to have the seat that we’ve been lucky to have for the last 17 years there looking down the 18th hole at the Open.

We’ll make it through just fine.  I really truly mean that when I say it.  I am energized and get great adrenaline out of the opportunity to be a part of a difficult set of logistics to be on the air for things like this.  It makes it fun, it really does.

Q.  Question for Mike McQuade on the production side.  You talked about how the Open is really strictly an ESPN show, at least for the U.S. rights, and then I also know that you guys work mostly out of cabins rather than trucks in terms of the actual operations.  Can you kind of talk about what makes this show unique from the other majors and how you try to add a different kind of spin on it?

MIKE McQUADE:  Well, besides just the sheer volume of coverage, from a production standpoint, really the most unique thing is what we’ve been talking about since the outset, is that we’re never together.  Maybe that’s why we get along so well.  All the production people, they come from ‑‑ a lot are coming from Wimbledon, working at Wimbledon, a lot of them are coming off their vacation because they’re getting ready for college football.  So I would say the greatest behind‑the‑scenes challenge and the difference is that we don’t do golf.  We love golf, but we don’t produce golf every week.

As far as when we’re over here and what we’re doing, after the first hour, you could be in a truck, you could be in a cabin, you could be on the moon.  It doesn’t matter, it’s still television, and the level of execution and the expectation is still the same.

It does help to be in cabins, we believe, when we’re doing it for 11 or 12 hours a day and you have actual room to move around as opposed to being confined to the truck.  The cabins also allow us just the sheer space and/or monitor walls; it allows hole monitors, if you will, to be bigger and not limited to the space within a truck.

Q.  And just a quick follow‑up, the virtual aerial technology has been around for a couple years now, and obviously with these kind of courses, it’s integral to the coverage with the winds and everything.  How has that kind of evolved, and how is how you guys use it within the show evolved over the last couple years?

MIKE McQUADE:  Well, I mean, the evolution for us had always been that it needed to be a live function.  We did not want to take the time for it to be something we would put on tape and play back after the shot, so once we figured out how to make it a live function, then the possibilities became really much more open to us, so we were able then to take it out to the fairway as opposed to just on the tee, and now we have it positioned so it can track the distance once a ball lands and the run‑out from that.

I think really the next step, I think it would be great to have the ability to do it really on every single hole for every single shot.  Not necessarily saying that we would do it, but just knowing that you have the ability to do it if you wanted to, and then on top of that, having the data to be able to show the trajectory of 156 tee shots on a particular day (inaudible) how the hole is played.  Unlike some other majors, the variance in shots from the time of day to the player is really different, and I think that would be fascinating for people to see.

Q.  Your comments regarding Tiger’s swing changes, fingerprints versus fundamentals, could you elaborate on that and how maybe that’s been detrimental?

PAUL AZINGER:  Yeah, I think that every golfer that’s played golf for any great length of time has tried to make some kind of swing improvements or changes to get better, and in the last six or ten months or so, I’ve looked at a million pictures and I believe there’s only three things that everybody in the Hall of Fame does, and two of them relate to the lower body and the other is shaft lean or I guess face and path awareness.  I think Tiger is playing more golf swing and he’s not quite as face and path aware as he used to be.  For example, if I handed you a long‑handled ax randomly and said hit that tree, I don’t believe the flat side of the ax would ever hit that tree.  I think you’d hit it with the sharp edge of the ax.

I just get the feelings that golfers when they try to change their fingerprints, I think some of them do it under the guise that it’s fundamentals.  I’ve always been taught that the fundamentals were grip, stance and position at the top, and the variance in positions at the top that are in the Hall of Fame are as unique as the fingerprints on your hand, as are swing plane, as are stance.  Bubba Watson shatters the mold.  He’s won two majors.  You wouldn’t teach putting it at the top of that backswing, across the line, past parallel, and his feet are flying all over the place, yet he’s a major champion two times over.

Everybody looks different.  Everybody in the world looks different.  I believe fundamentals are really lost in today’s instruction to the point where ‑‑ I’m not saying it’s a crisis, but it’s pretty bad.  I think a lot of instructors are treating their students like a chiropractor would treat a patient.  You need to come back for six straight ‑‑ if somebody tells Tiger Woods it’s going to take six weeks or six months, it would shock me.  I think if you don’t have Tiger hitting it better in the first 10 or 15 minutes, then you’re probably giving him bad information.  If you told Curtis Strange that he is, and he didn’t hit it better in the first five or ten minutes, I’m guessing you’re telling him wrong, and that’s the position I’m coming from.

I’m looking at Tiger Woods as somebody who in his quest to improve and get better, I think he’s mistaken, just like I did and hundreds of guys that have played the Tour at a high level, mistaking the uniqueness or the fingerprint, if you will, as a fundamental.  I don’t believe Jack ever made that mistake.  I just don’t.

Q.  If Tiger doesn’t get to 18 and you look back, would you say the swing was the larger factor than the injuries, or how would you view why he didn’t get there?

PAUL AZINGER:  Like I say, I think he’s the only guy who has dramatically changed the way his swing looks and has still been able to play at an extremely high level.  I mean, when he went from Butch to Hank, even a lay golfer could tell that Tiger’s swing had changed, and he won five or six majors doing that.  Nobody else ‑‑ you could argue maybe Hogan changed the uniqueness of his look or maybe Faldo or today maybe Matt Kuchar, but nothing like what Tiger did.  Matt Kuchar has gone back to what he used to do.  I guess Faldo shortened his swing a little bit, and Hogan, I don’t know.  I don’t know of anybody who’s changed the way they look more than Tiger Woods with respect to his golf swing and still played great.  Most people just go away.  They disappear trying to do what he’s done.

It just is a real example of what a great player he has been.  Now that he doesn’t putt as well, it’s hard to be as great as you once were if you don’t make putts, and I just think unnecessarily, Tiger has, for whatever reason, whether it was an effort ‑‑ sometimes a change is as good as a rest, and it gets you out the door.  Maybe that’s why Tiger made the changes.  Maybe he was bored.  Maybe he did it because his left knee was snapping and that’s something he tried to fix.  But the reality is the left leg should straighten through the hit a little bit as one of the things I feel are the three fundamentals.

I don’t know, I mean, he may look back and have regrets.  I know that he’s only worked with one guy that’s played golf at a really high level, and that’s Butch Harmon, and for him to just turn it all over to two guys that have never played on a high level is a bit of a mystery considering how great Tiger was when he did it.  I’m not trying to be harsh, I’m just trying to be ‑‑ I guess it’s more blunt than harsh.

I hope he plays great.  I mean, I hope he’s recovered from injury.  Sometimes you make these changes and it creates injury, as well.

Q. Martin Kaymer’s rise, did any of you see this building, and what was the final piece that put him back among the elite?

CURTIS STRANGE:  Well, you saw him playing better, but you certainly didn’t see what he did, how well he played at Pinehurst.  But I go back to where when he got to No. 1 in the world when he won the PGA Championship and was going to be really kind of one of the next future superstars, true superstars, and he went down the toilet just a bit for the same reason Paul just talked about.  He went to change his swing a little bit, and you go away from your natural ability to swing a stick in the golf club.

I question why did he do that.  He was trying to get better.  Trying to get better and better and better and compete with Tiger at the time.  I marvel at his golf swing.  I think his golf swing is unbelievable.  He swings the club in an aggressive fashion but under control.  He hits down and through the ball as well as anybody out there in the game today, and I marvel at the ability to ‑‑ the speed that he has and as well as he played at Pinehurst.

Pinehurst was not near as easy as he made it look the first two days, and that’s what happens, I guess, when some of the best players in the world get on top of their game.

I expect nothing but great things out of him in the future.  Can he hold it together?  Can he stay focused?  Can he stay driven?  We’ll wait and see.  But I think he’s fantastic.  You know what; if I was a young kid now, I’d want to emulate Martin Kaymer’s swing, I know that.

PAUL AZINGER:  One of the things that stands out to me about Kaymer was at the U.S. Open he made the comment that he had cleared his mind.  I’ve said this repeatedly, a golf swing only takes about a second and a half, and any one of us on this phone right now that have played this game know a lot can jump it your head in that second and a half, and when he said he cleared his mind, I was thinking, watch out, and he we did the Thursday‑Friday telecast there, and I loved it when he said that and continued to hit on that fact, and when a golfer at that level can play with a clear head, hang on, buddy, because he’s got something going on.

The very thing that may be clouding Tiger, all the conscious thought, all the thoughts and swing keys that sabotaged Martin Kaymer after he won the PGA, he got rid of them, and I think a lot of times that swing thoughts will sabotage good players.  You’ve got to have a key here and there.  You have to be able to eliminate one side the golf course.  That’s probably the greatest key to every great player’s success, but when you can get swing thoughts out of your head, that’s a major step.

CURTIS STRANGE:  But when he said that, Paul, that shows me he’s swinging well and his long game is confident, because when you’re swinging well and you know you’re going to hit the ball pretty solidly and straight day‑to‑day, then your mind does clear.  I actually think that comes before ‑‑ you can’t clear your head if you’re hitting skankers out there every day.  That comes from I’m not scoring real well but I know I’m swinging well.  I know my ball is in the middle of the club face, and I know it’s starting out on the trajectory I want it, and I’ve been doing it for a month.  It’s going to come around when I start making a few putts.  That’s the way I look at it.

Sports psychologists say you’ve got to go out there with a positive attitude every day, and I agree with that.  But that positive attitude is tough to stick in there with when you start skanking it on the second tee, and you say, son of a (expletive), I’m doing this again.

You know, what comes first, the chicken or the egg.  It’s as simple as that.  But when you see a player like Kaymer who says my mind is clear, that shows me he feels pretty damned good about his golf game.

ANDY NORTH:  Well, I think it’s always fun to be the last in this group.  Martin Kaymer got messed up.  He’s a guy who naturally cut the ball his entire life, and he tried to learn to hook the ball better to play Augusta National, and you’ve heard that story a million times.  When you’ve been a player who’s cut the ball and now you’re trying to draw it, it’s not just the technical stuff, it’s the look that you have, too, is that you start having to see things totally different.

This is usually the other direction, and it’s so easy to lose your confidence when you’re trying to make that kind of change.  And for him to fight his way back and go back to the putt he made at the Ryder Cup, that was a monster putt that helped his confidence a lot.  They sat him out most of that Ryder Cup because he was playing poorly, then to put him under pressure and have him perform under pressure, that can change an awful lot about how a player looks at himself and feels about what he’s doing, and I think that was the start of him coming back.

You have to play well.  Byron Nelson told me a long, long time ago, that to be a great player at this game you have to be brilliant or stupid, and if you’re in the middle, you’ve got no chance.  And I think that’s a lot of clearing your mind.  There’s some people that are not the sharpest knives in the drawer that have done great playing this game because they don’t think about anything.  That’s a beautiful thing.  If you could figure out a way not to think about anything for four hours, you’d be great.

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