The least favorite letters in the alphabet for television sports executives are X and O.
They are smart enough to understand football’s wild popularity, but have long been reluctant to have their on-air talent spend a whole lot of time on the complexities of the game. They parcel it out in small doses and try to disguise it, much like that pill you hide in a piece of cheese for your dog.
The only really undiluted Xs-and-Os show on television is ESPN’s long-running NFL Matchup. And you pretty much have to be an insomniac to be awake when it airs.
“All of us football nerds, we think everybody loves this stuff,’’ said NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, who played in the league for 11 years. “But executives, they talk to focus groups and they come back and say it’s too specific. It’s too difficult to understand. It’s too hard to teach. All of those kinds of things.
“They’re fearful that if we only cater to the hardcore fan that wants to learn about the game, that’s not enough to justify network time.’’
Baldinger doesn’t agree with the network suits or the focus groups about that, which is why he started doing Baldy’s Breakdowns on Twitter last season. Using all-22 coaches tape, he broke down plays and showed what happened, why it happened and how it happened in language even the most casual fan could appreciate and comprehend.
The idea was to prove to people that there was indeed a market out there for a more detailed Xs-and-Os look at the game. He succeeded. His Twitter breakdowns were extremely popular, getting thousands of likes and retweets.
He also did more than 170 explanatory videos for nfl.com, including 30 since the start of free agency.
“They really got a lot of traction,’’ he said. “They got a lot of traction on nfl.com, YouTube and other sites.
NFL Media executives “saw that and said, ‘Maybe we’re missing something here. Maybe we need to do more of this and cater to the hardcore fan. And maybe if we really slow the game down and teach it really well and combine it all into an NFL Films-type production, maybe not only the hardcore fan will watch, but maybe the fringe fan will get sucked in as well.’’
Later this month, Baldinger and another longtime broadcast veteran, former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, will host Film Session, a series of five 15-minute X’s and O’s segments that will be available online to subscribers of NFL Game Pass. Each of the five segments will feature a guest player or coach. The Eagles’ Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson both participated in segments, along with longtime NFL coach Steve Spagnuolo, Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels and recently retired nine-time all-pro left tackle Joe Thomas.
“The concept is to go inside the game and explain the game,’’ Baldinger said. “Everything from the verbiage to concepts to what the offenses are trying to do to move the ball to what defenses are trying to do to stop them.’’
‘Really a pilot’
Baldinger and Jaworski both hope the Film Session segments will lead to a regular show on NFL Network beginning this fall.
“This is really a pilot for a future show,’’ Baldinger said. “We feel this is going to be the best [football] stuff on TV.
“None of it will be live. They’re post-producing everything. The guys that are producing it are the guys that have produced all of those award-winning shows that Films does, including Hard Knocks.’’
Said Jaworski: “The people that watch these segments are really going to see how sophisticated the game is. It’s not just take the snap and hand the ball off to your back or throw it downfield.
“There’s a lot that goes into it. And the people we’ve had on have been just outstanding in explaining and breaking down everything.’’
Wentz and Pederson each spent more than two hours at NFL Films in Mount Laurel with Baldinger and Jaworski watching film and providing insight into such topics as the Eagles’ use of RPOs, how Pederson puts together a game plan, his willingness to go for it on fourth down, the reasons behind the Eagles’ red-zone success, why the quarterback sneak was such an unstoppable play for them this past season, and how Wentz managed to throw a touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery against the Rams with a torn ACL.
“It didn’t even cross my mind to take myself out,’’ Wentz said on the show. “I had no idea how bad it was. I knew it was unstable, but I wasn’t going to scramble.’’
Wentz on tight end Zach Ertz’s eight red-zone touchdown catches: “In the red zone, there’s not a lot of coverages that can take Ertz away.’’
“Doug was frickin’ phenomenal,’’ Jaworski said of the time they spent with the Eagles coach. “We got into game-plan development, play-calling, his relationship with Carson, his relationship with Nick. The intelligence a quarterback has to have in running his system.
“He didn’t hold anything back. Sometimes, these guys get a little cautious about what they say. But he was very open about how he does things. I think the viewer is going to love that.’’
‘The NFL Films way’
Baldinger and Jaworski credited NFL Films senior vice president Ross Ketover with opening the door for the Film Session segments.
“Ross reached out to us and said they wanted to branch out and do more X’s and O’s football,’’ Jaworski said. “That’s kind of what Baldy and I do.
“These pieces are going to be done the NFL Films way. They’re not going to be quickly put together and thrown on the air. There’s going to be post-production elements as far as the wiring [of players and coaches].
“We’ll hear Nick and Doug calling the Philly Special. You’ll hear that part of it, and then we’ll break down the play and have Doug give his insight into the play. It’s going to be really, really enlightening to people.’’