CBS is shaking up its NFL pregame show, NFL Today. Longtime analysts/panelists/chuckle factory employees Dan Marino and Shannon Sharpe are out; they’re being replaced by recently retired (he actually retired, we swear) future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. It’s easy to get excited about this news. The ever-metastasizing pregame crew affliction is being reversed, perhaps signaling that CBS understands it’s not about how many people are behind a desk, but what they actually say. To this end, they couldn’t have made a better choice.
Gonzalez’s experience and success in the NFL is an obvious benefit, but as we’ve seen from plenty of other talking heads in virtually any industry, experience doesn’t necessarily breed insight. This is where Gonzalez seemingly brings a lot to the table (so to speak). He’s articulate, intelligent and in several longer interviews, has dismissed clichés in order to give a more thoughtful, nuanced answer, possessing the natural ability to provide emotional yet measured responses. (This half-hour interview is a good example.) After watching several of these interviews, he’s someone I’m genuinely interested in listening to; I want to know what he thinks. I cannot say the same about Marino and Sharpe, who were well rehearsed in the art of talking while saying nothing at all (or as I call it, Aikman Syndrome).
But this doesn’t mean NFL Today will be worth watching. Usually, making changes to pregame shows is the classic case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. By their very design, pregame shows are an abomination to rational thought. Nobody is given enough screen time to develop a thought or express it well, so they’re forced to whittle down complex questions into brief sound bites. Analysts are uncontroversial to a fault, perpetually tossed “questions” that aren’t really questions at all, but rather invitations to offer vague commentary. Very little acumen is asked for or conveyed, and, particularly in recent years, the shows in general have been watered down with gimmicky segments that extend far longer than any real discussion about football.
While I have no love for Marino or Sharpe as pre-game hosts, they were never the fundamental problem. Pregame shows appeal to the lowest common denominator, people with nothing better to do on Sunday mornings than wait for football to begin. The retention of Frank Caliendo skits says most everything you need to know about the fans NFL pregame shows are trying to capture. It’s been a long time since pregame shows have tried to be intelligent, which, in a way, is fine. You can get intelligent analysis from other places, mostly on the Internet. But you can get low-grade humor and pointless drivel elsewhere, too; also, mostly on the Internet. This leaves Sunday pregame shows in a void with no actual niche other than the “too lazy/hungover to change the channel” market (which, admittedly, is quite large on Sunday mornings).
The question, of course, is whether CBS will embrace Gonzalez’s ability or force him to fit the old mold with his co-workers, Bill Cowher and Boomer Esiason. As the show is currently structured, Gonzalez won’t be able to add much. He will have 20 seconds at most to say something as articulately and nuanced as possible before Cowher purses his lips and scowls, or Esiason douses the set with his cliché hose. If Gonzalez is shoveled cookie-cutter questions brought out week after week along the lines of “How do you think this star player’s injury will affect his team?” or “How important is home field advantage?” then this personnel move doesn’t change much of anything at all.
But there may be a place for thoughtful people to have smart, in-depth conversations during the few hours before football begins; we don’t know, because nobody tries. NFL Matchup is the closest thing: a half-hour X’s and O’s breakdown on ESPN2 in which I genuinely learn something every week, but it’s been bumped to 6:30 a.m. on Sundays; a slap in the face to intelligent discourse. Tony Gonzalez could make NFL Today better — even worth watching — and almost certainly won’t make it worse. His answers will be slightly better, but unless the questions change, he can only do so much.