I am an American who married a Brit & for the past eight years we spend half of each year in England, half of each year in America.
I have watched American football for over fifty years on American television; I’ve watched American football, on Channel Five, for around six years in England. I’ve learned more about American Football watching it on British TV than I ever learned watching it on American TV. And it ten times as much fun to watch it in England (no commercials on Channel Five) as it is to watch it in America.
Before each game most American commentators mutter predictable inanities. “There are three keys to this game. One, keeping their offense off the field. Two, establishing a running game. Three, making sure your team doesn’t get into a “third & long.”
These are stupidities: anyone idiot can utter such words. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard a commentator say: turnovers are key. You can‘t expect to turn the ball over and win games. Teams that turn over the ball over frequently have a worse record than those who do not.
Gee. No kidding. If you often lose the ball to the other team, they are more likely to win the game than you are. Oh my God. What a revelation. I am now better informed, ready to intelligently watch the game I am about to watch.
Mike Carlson is the American commentator on Channel Five’s twice-weekly American Football broadcasts in England. In my opinion, he is better than any commentator, than any sports analyst, I’ve encountered on American TV.
Before every game Carlson has a short “Inside the Game” feature. I’ve chosen his comments before a December Washington Redskin, Minnesota Vikings game, but I could have chosen almost any of his “Inside the Game“ presentations. They are always full of good insights.
“One of the keys to Washington’s offense with Joe Gibbs has always been the tight ends. He uses them as Fullbacks, H backs and as tight ends, and Mike Sellers has been a great contributor for the Skins this year.”
Tight ends are often the key to Joe Gibb’s offense? I didn’t know that! I am sure that some American football commentator has said that at some point on American TV, but crucially, no one has pointed that out right before a Washington Redskin game so I could focus on the tight end and how Joe Gibbs uses the tight end -- and no American commentator has, just before a Washington Redskin game, stood to the side of a big screen that is filled with players frozen in time and focused on one player -- in this case the tight end, Mike Sellers.
Mike Sellers, the tight end, is circled and roughly ten seconds go by as our eyes adjust, take in the scene where no one is moving a muscle. All the while Mike Carlson is talking: “Take a look at Sellers when he is playing in the tight end position and what he can do. This is a guy who is 278 pounds. He can block like a tackle but watch what he does when he goes downfield and catches a pass.”
The first time through, Mike Carlson runs the play at normal speed, from a camera that catches the whole scene, all twenty two players, and we sort of see what we are supposed to see. The second time Mike Carlson runs the play in slow motion, the camera is now much lower, and we are literally peeking over the shoulder of this huge man as he runs downfield and annihilates the man trying to tackle him.
“And when you watch the replay, watch Kenoit Kennedy not only go down, but make the tackle with his feet. This is illegal, it’s tripping… as he brings down Sellers, all 278 pounds of him.”
“Sellers likes to line up as an H back because he was a running back. He came straight from Jr. College, Walla Walla Wash, to the CFL, and he was a running back there.”
A new “frozen scene” is up on the screen. We are listening, watching. There are no distractions: only Carlson & the still scene, the calm before the storm. “So take a look at what he can do as a lead back here playing fullback. He is going to take the quick counter….[Sellers] knocks Chris Samuels out of the way, Ernie Simms makes contact but can’t stop him [another ten seconds have gone by while the scene unfolds in real time].” The play is run again in slow motion: “Two more players try, but he’s in the end zone, and he can push the pile.“ Another seven seconds have gone by as we now see clearly, up close, what is happening.
“Finally, the key point for the Washington offense, [Sellers] running as an H Back. Again from the fullback set, here [Carlson puts his finger on the screen] … Watch as he comes out. He’s going to make an effort to pass block, just to sell the play even better. He’s going to hit the linebacker on his way out, then catch the ball.
This is a game we did. I went crazy when he did this [we see Sellers vault the player who tries to tackle him]. Craig Dahl put his head down. You cannot put your head down when 280 pounds is coming at you. You can get hurt. We’ll watch again [this time from behind Sellers, literally over his shoulder as he running away]. Craig Dahl’s head goes down. Sellers goes up & over. He was a running back in the CFL & a good one. Now he’s a lineman turned running back, turned tight end, for the Redskins.”
What a tremendous amount of information about one player and about football positions. Of course I will not, cannot, remember all this information, but it is all fascinating: that he was running back, that he went to a Jr. College, then the CFL, then the NFL -- and best of all, all this information is being given to me just before a game in which he, Mike sellers, will be playing, and all this information is being given to me while I am not distracted by crowd noise, motion on screen, time passing in a game I am trying to watch.
In the actual game that followed this pre-game analysis, the second play of the game was a pass to Mike Sellers -- “the bruising Mike Sellers” Al Michaels, the American commentator, called him. Then Al Michaels gave us information about the player who tackled Mike Sellers: “Chad Greenway, their number one draft choice, the linebacker out of Iowa, number 52. It will be third down and seven.”
John Madden: “You know one of the guys who is fun to watch is Pat Williams. He is so big & strong he just takes Casy Rabach, the center, and just shoves him right back into Todd Collins the quarterback” We are watching the same play in slow motion, but we are watching a totally different player, Pat Williams, and a totally different camera shot of the same play. Meanwhile six names have been thrown at us in quick succession, and bits of information about several of the players: (the bruising) Mike Sellers, Chad Greenaway (number one draft choice, linebacker… out of Iowa), Pat Williams, Casey Rabach & Tod Collins.
To a certain extent, we are getting some of the same information that Mike Carlson gave us, but the information is swamped by all that surrounds it -- including the almost deafening roar of the crowd. We are told so & so was a number one draft choice, and came out of Iowa. But we are also told that his Jersey number is 52, and that he is a linebacker, and that we are now in a third and seven situation. And before we can absorb any of this, we are, so to speak, watching a totally different play: Pat Williams shoving his way into the backfield.
When I watch all of this in the U.S. I am barely aware of the words being uttered by the commentators. John Madden is one of the very-very best, but as someone said, on TV, words are background music: we are focused on the picture, the action, and so much is going on so fast: a play is running, people are getting up, shoving each other, going back to the huddle & preparing for the next play.
Meanwhile a “new” snippet is being run from the previous play (Pat Williams), and we are trying to absorb “Third & seven” because we “Monday morning quarterbacks” want to guess what the next play should be given the situation: third & seven. The amount of information (visual, verbal & imaginary) is huge and unfocused.
Mike Carlson makes us focus on one player, Mike Sellers, and we see three different plays that focus on him alone, and three of the six times that we see these plays, we see them in slow motion And when the scene is in front of our greedy, all absorbing eyes, Mike Carlson explains what is happening and gives us a short history of this player.
Back on American television, after an interception by Washington, and in only the second series of plays, we hear John Madden say “two tight ends, Mike Sellers & (mumble, mumble). Mike Sellers is the deep guy.” Al Michaels, in a loud, excited voice calls out, “And they give it to Sellers. He puts his head down & is in for the touchdown.”
The “touchdown” was challenged by the Minnesota coach and we all had to wait for a decision by the officials who watch it all carefully on a special slow motion TV. While we wait for the referees decision, in America they cut to commercials. In England we get more lovely slow motion analysis from Carlson -- but the first thing the smiling (he almost always has a wry smile on his face) Carlson says is, “Didn’t look like a touchdown to me.”
On American television we were shown the earlier interception four separate times: Four Times. Why four? Because it is a big, obvious play. A player leaps high, grabs the ball & almost runs it all the way back for a touchdown.
Carlson goes back to the interception, but he doesn’t focus on the catch -- we’ve seen that. What more is there to see or say? The ball was thrown to the wrong guy. He makes what is really a rather routine (albeit dramatic) catch, and runs like hell. Carlson makes us fortunate viewers (not commercially-bombarded viewers) focus elsewhere.
“The key play was the interception. We saw Tavaris Jackson [the quarterback who threw the interception] throw some bad balls when he throws flat footed under pressure, and when we take a look at this [frozen scene] where the pressure is going to come from -- look at the inside linebacker coming around there, we get the safety coming up on a blitz. He [Jackson] rocks back on to his foot & throws the ball high. He had the receiver open but he overthrew it because he rushed the throw.”
The play is run again, up close & personal & in slow motion. Carlson comments as we see a tackler crush Tavaris Jackson, the quarterback. “You see right there. That’s what he saw. He got hit as he released it; the ball sails away.”
When we viewers are transported back to the game in progress, Carlson’s call was upheld: the referee Leavy rules it was not a touchdown. Al Michaels says, “Leavy could have ruled that either way because it looked to me as if the side of the ball got to the goal line.”
Back now to Carlson & his pre-game “Inside the Game.” Carlson always focuses on some player, or players, on both of the teams. “In Minnesota the key to the defense is the Williams brothers although they are not really brothers: Kevin & Pat Williams. Kevin Williams is the more active guy, Pat Williams is the space eater. Take a look at Kevin Williams. Now he’s going to push the pile, you’re going to have a zone blitz….’ And while Carlson talks, he uses his hands to roam all over the “frozen” scene to his side, visible to all of us, wherein the two Williams “brothers” are circled.
“Kevin pushes a bit, then the ball hits him in the chest (the play is running), and he’s off to the races. This is a guy who is six five, 310.…” As I watched, I could not really see the ball hit him in the chest, but of course the play is run again, in slow motion, and I see all that I was supposed to see.
Carlson again: “You think, okay, this is just chance, Kevin Williams isn‘t really playing smart, they‘re getting a rush. But watch what he does on this one.” Another frozen scene, Carlson pointing, helping, analyzing. “Virtually the same kind of thing….He’s not going to make much penetration, but he’s going to occupy two blockers and then he’s going to read the quarterback’s passing lane.” We see Kevin Williams again batting a pass down, gulping up the ball, running for a touchdown. “You think, that’s not a great play. Watch from the quarterback’s point of view. The way that Kevin Williams cuts off his passing lane, watching his eyes.”
The play is run again, this time from behind the quarterback, and in slow motion, and we are prepared. “There he is, moving off to the side, and there he is up in the air (and we see him! Up in the air! Swallowing the ball!) as he sees the quarterbacks arms go into motion. It’s a great play by Kevin Williams, and its another touchdown. He and Pat had touchdowns & interceptions in the same game.”
“Pat Williams is a big space eater and a load inside. That’s him (frozen screen, he points to the circled figure). They list him at 310, he’s probably forty pounds heavier than that, and he started his career in Buffalo as the sub for Ted Washington the nose guard….” The frozen scene begins to move. “Pushes the center back. You cannot man block Pat Williams because he just pushes most guys back into the quarterback if you do.” We are shown the scene, in slow motion, again.
In the second play of the game we are watching, Madden focused on Pat Williams pushing two blockers back into the quarterback, and Madden said some of what Carlson said -- but he said less, and little of the less that he said stayed with us because we viewers were thinking about so many other things.
Carlson: “I don’t know why Buffalo ever let him go. But maybe because he was undrafted they didn’t appreciate what they had, but he makes Kevin Williams better by occupying space next to him & the ideal situation is what you are going to see right now [scene on screen, frozen, Carlson pointing]. There they are next to each other. You’re going to see Pat Williams occupy two blockers. If you double team Pat you cannot double team Kevin….Kevin gets to work one on one. Pat Gets to push two guys out of the way.”
No distractions. No motion on screen except Carlson’s fingers pointing. No crowd noise. No other players to focus on. No third down and seven. Nothing to worry about but what you are being taught to see -- and we do see it, especially the second time it is run, in slow motion, and from a much better angle: we seem to be inches away, on top of them. “You get a good view of it here. Look at that. He lets two guys take him in the direction the play is going…”
It is so wonderful to see all this in slow motion, and to hear Mike Carlson’s words. “So keep your eyes on the middle of the Minnesota line….”
Mike Carlson helps me watch the game I am about to watch. He focuses on actual players in the teams we are about to watch: he analyzes in detail, and best of all, he runs the play slowly, he runs the play twice or thrice -- and he waits a few seconds and allows my eyes to focus.
You do not know how rare Mike Carlson’s excellent analysis is. He does what I have never seen done on American TV -- and remember, I’ve been watching for over fifty years, and I’ve watched many-many different TV channels, & many-many games. On Sundays I often watch three full football games in a row (One “TV widow” quipped that “any one who watches three football games in a row should be declared legally dead.”)
I am not saying American commentators don’t “freeze” the screen & then run the play, or don’t circle certain players, but on American TV the play is frozen for one or two seconds, and then it is run just once, not twice. And no American commentator stands to the side of a screen and lets his hands roam over the screen as the scene is stock-still. In America the scene fills the whole screen and a few, usually unhelpful remarks, are made by the only half-prepared ( I wanted to say half-intelligent) commentator.
In England Carlson allows the frozen scene to sink into our eyes for at least eight seconds and sometimes for as much as twenty seconds as he explains what we are going to see. In America, before we can see it, it is already gone.
As I was writing this article I realized that American TV does run certain scenes over & over & over -- but the scenes they run repeatedly are “dramatic” scenes: a crushing hit, an interception, a long & brilliant run. Americans like dramatic moments. They don’t seem to be interested in in-depth analysis, close observation. Americans like Big Dramatic moments, Big Explosions.
Analysis? Explanation? Close observation that will help with the next play, the next game? Nah. Give us someone being almost decapitated. We are not interested in a history of where this player has been, how he has switched positions, who he replaced…. We are interested in big numbers: “ He has caught more passes than…Last year he ran for…averaged 4.2 yards per carry, the highest per carry average in the AFC. Not the NFC -- that‘s also the NFL -- but if you divide statistics into most in AFC, and most in NFC, you have double the number of useless statistics.
American football on British television is wonderfully educational, and largely free of any meaningless & temporary statistics.
I haven’t even focused on the best thing about American Football on British television. Every single time we in America have to suffer through a bombardment of inane, insulting, and very-very loud commercials -- and sometimes there are two minutes of commercial for every two minutes of actual action -- Carlson & his British co-commentator take time to analyze the very plays we just saw in our game.
I love to watch American Football on British television.