Jim Nantz had a secret, one that if revealed could have changed the outcome of the Super Bowl.
It was early 2010 in Miami, and New Orleans was three days away from playing Indianapolis for the first Lombardi Trophy in Saints history. Nantz was the play-by-play announcer for CBS, and he and color man Phil Simms sat down with New Orleans coach Sean Payton for the traditional pregame production meeting, the network’s final briefing on the upcoming game.
That’s when Payton let them in on some prime confidential information: At some point in the game, he was going to try a surprise onside kick.
“You think about how much is riding on the game, and that one particular play, that a coach is going to tip his hand on a play that is all about deception, all about being able to lull your opponent into a moment they’re not prepared for,” said Nantz, who nearly a decade later still regards that as the biggest secret he’s heard in an NFL production meeting.
Secret kept: The Saints successfully executed that onside kick, stunning the Colts by opening the second half that way on the way to a 31-17 New Orleans victory.
“Production meetings are predicated on one word,” Nantz said. “Trust.”
That’s the case whether the broadcaster is CBS, NBC, Fox or ESPN. Those meetings are standard, but the information disclosed in them is all over the map. Whereas young NFL coaches might be tight-lipped and suspicious, more seasoned ones often are comfortable sharing ultra-sensitive information and strategies with the crew working the game.
“If a guy has been somewhere forever, and he knows that he can trust us, the information is plentiful,” Fox’s Joe Buck said. “They’ll tell you not just trick plays, they’ll tell you who’s going to get the bulk of the carries, how they’re going to try to beat a team specifically. Because they know the only time you’re going to reveal it is once the game’s kicked off, and you’re going to use it most of the time as your own opinion.
“So believe it or not, Tom Coughlin when he was head coach of the Giants, we did so many Giants games that by the third or fourth year, he knew what he told us was in a vault and therefore he would really hold nothing back.”
Of course, having three-time Super Bowl winner Troy Aikman as a color analyst doesn’t hurt. He gets instant respect among coaches and players in those meetings. (It’s typical for networks to have individual meetings with the head coaches and starting quarterbacks, and the meetings commonly include the broadcast duo along with the sideline reporter, director, producers, and information experts.)
When Aikman was quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, his meetings with the broadcasters were usually pretty informal.
“Madden and [Pat] Summerall did most of our games,” he said. “It got to a point where we didn’t really talk much football. I’d just go in there and we’d sit down and kind of BS and laugh. And then at the end of my career when we weren’t very good, John was almost like my therapist. I’d come in and talk to him about things I knew weren’t going to be on the air.”
NBC’s Al Michaels said it’s the human-interest stories that come out of that room, as opposed to strict game strategy, that most interests him.
“The personal stories are fantastic,” Michaels said. “We go in there and get those guys going on that, and they love it. With [New England coach Bill] Belichick, he’s such a historian — I’ve had 100 meetings with Bill — and if you get him on the history of the game and things he likes to talk about, he’s great.
“Most of the meetings are informative. Once in a while you run into somebody who’s in a bad place and didn’t want to do this in the worst way. I think back to the Katrina year, when Jim Haslett was coaching the Saints and we had them late in the year. He was just exhausted, tired of everything. That’s a one-off.”
Buck said that, especially with Belichick, the more eyes and ears present during a meeting, the less the information flows.
“One on one he’s great with Troy, and sometimes Troy just handles it and translates for the rest of us,” Buck said of the famously unrevealing coach. “In a big group setting, Bill’s very nice and friendly. But he’ll talk about baseball, talk about the Civil War, about the Iranian nuclear program. But he basically won’t even tell you if Tom Brady’s playing that week.”
Nantz said it’s fascinating to learn a strategic secret or tidbit, but sometimes he prefers not knowing.
“From the play-by-play side of it, I’m a reactionary guy,” he said. “It’s almost better that I don’t know. I want my shock and awe in my voice to be real. I don’t want it to be scripted. It’s got to be authentic.”