Exclusive: Behind-the-scenes with ESPN at the Steelers’ Monday Night Football opener

The Steelers beat Washington 38-16 in the season opener. The Incline was embedded with the MNF crew for an exclusive look.

Jon Gruden and Sean McDonough before the start of MNF

Jon Gruden and Sean McDonough before the start of MNF

Matt Terl

By the time it makes it to your TV, ESPN’s Monday Night Football is a slick, seamless football delivery mechanism, designed to make the country’s most popular sport accessible to the biggest possible audience.

MNF looks like a shiny, effortless piece of pop sports production — covering the major storylines in the game for both the die-hard followers and the most casual of fans — but behind-the-scenes, the production is anything but effortless. A lot of people spend a lot of energy making sure you don’t see their flop sweat … or the players’.

ESPN granted The Incline an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of Monday Night Football for the Steelers’ season opener down in Washington, with access to the pregame production meetings, as well as conversations with on-air talent Jon Gruden, Sean McDonough — taking over the play-by-play role this season — and executive producer of MNF, Jay Rothman. (Note: Spirited Media founder Jim Brady is the public editor at ESPN, but Brady had no involvement in procuring this story, nor any oversight in its production, edits or publication.)

This will serve as a running diary of a day-in-the-life of what it takes to put on a production the scale of Monday Night Football.


The ESPN morning production meeting.

Matt Terl

Production Meeting (10:00 a.m., Game day)

The entire crew has been working for days, of course — researching and prepping and holding individual production meetings with each team — but this is game day, nine hours before kickoff, and everything has a heightened sense of intensity. On this occasion, prepping for the Steelers’ Monday night opener at Washington, it’s the kickoff a new season with a new play-by-play guy.

This meeting is going to set the tone for the next seventeen weeks.

Most of the core production team is there — producer Jay Rothman and director Chip Dean, color analyst Jon Gruden and play-by-play guy Sean McDonough, along with assorted associate producers and technical directors and researchers and production assistants. Everyone is dressed casually; most of them look like they snuck in a stint in the hotel exercise room before coming to work.

Rothman runs the show, wearing a Gruden QB Camp t-shirt and opening with some low-key personal touches. He recognizes new members of the team, notes who is celebrating a birthday, expresses his enthusiasm for working with specific team members. And then they get to work.

The crew begins with a review of Gruden’s appearance on the Monday Night Countdown pregame show, and the introduction to the broadcast — at a reasonably granular level — to refine and make adjustments. This is accompanied by a content DVD, giving a not-quite-completed look at the video packages and graphics that will run at the top of the game telecast.

Jon Gruden

Jon Gruden doing (a) stand up.

Matt Terl

Gruden really gets down into the weeds here, as he’ll do throughout the process. When he’s reviewing which players he’ll discuss during his open, he changes his mind on the fly, swapping one linebacker for another — and every one of those changes necessitates revisions to the video packages.

In the old days — which is probably not all that long ago — this would’ve been prohibitive. Now, it’s no problem for the production crew.

“We have a system in place where we have access to our systems in Bristol and have it restored through file transfer straight to our production truck,” Associate Producer Jeremy Drummond explained later.

Drummond is a young guy with eight years at ESPN. He’s animated and enthusiastic; you have to be to keep up with Gruden.

Referencing the former coach’s love for the game of football has moved beyond cliché at this point, but his feelings really are apparent as he sits in the meeting. He looks at times like the class clown, smirking and keeping the mood light with one-liners. Whenever it’s time for him to run his lines for the broadcast, he starts by half-assing it — “Then I’ll say something like, he’s gotta run the ball, blah blah blah” — but he can’t keep that up for very long. Every single time, he slips back into the Coach Gruden persona, his voice getting louder, specific details replacing the “blah blah blah,” until he goes through a near on-air caliber version of what he’ll say.

It seems like he genuinely can’t help himself.

“I think the big thing is when you study the film all week,” Gruden explains to me later, “you try to present your key findings so you get everybody on the same page.”

Drummond and his peers continue to run the crew through the DVD. They’re the ones who built the thing, and they’re the ones who will have to make any changes. McDonough, for the most part, seems content with what’s there, with a new on-air team this year, everyone is still establishing their roles in the team. But Gruden is effusive about the guys that he likes and scathing in his dismissals of the guys he doesn’t, continuing to make granular changes, many of which will prove out in the broadcast.

One of the main storylines in the pre-game discussion is the matchup of Steelers superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown and Redskins cornerback Josh Norman, a big-ticket offseason free agent acquisition.

There seems to be a real desire in the room to play up this matchup, but Gruden isn’t sure that it’s a story. He thinks that the Redskins will leave Norman on the left side of the field, and that the Steelers will respond by moving Brown to the opposite side where he’ll be covered by third-year Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland.

“If I’m Pittsburgh,” Gruden says in the meeting, “We’re gonna see a lot of Breeland tonight.” Some ten hours later, Breeland will be sitting on a stat line that shows him mercilessly victimized by Ben Roethelisberger and the Steelers receivers, with a hand in giving up three touchdowns and multiple big plays all over the field. (Just in his matchups against Brown, Breeland was targeted 8 times, giving up 7 receptions for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns.)

Back in the pre-game meeting, though, Gruden is frustrated because the only clip of Breeland they’re showing has him on the left, which is where they’ve just established Norman will be playing. He asks if they can replace the Breeland clip with one where he’s on the right, and they agree to do so, of course.

The meeting goes on like that — in that specific detail — through all kinds of possible packages that may never make it to air, depending on how the game develops: clips of Brown’s greatness and his injury last season, Roethlisberger compared to all-time great QBs, Roethlisberger’s injury last season; Le’Veon Bell’s absence and more.

Once the game gets going, Carter says, they’re responsible for any technical issues — power problems, transmission problems, satellite problems, camera failures, microphone failures, and so on.

When the game actually happens later that night, though, everything appears smooth. If any of those problems occur, Carter and his team do their job well enough that issues go unnoticed by fans viewing at home.

After the game, Carter and his team break down the entire set up and get to head home for a couple of days before doing it all again in another city.

Next week Chicago, as the Bears host the Philadelphia Eagles.


Sean McDonough addressing the MNF crew.

Matt Terl

Camera/Replay Meeting (3:45 p.m., game day)

At this point in the day, a little more than three hours before air time, the folks in the trucks have tested their “fax” — all the graphics, logos, treatments, video packages and audio. They’ve rehearsed the production again and are now more precisely prepared than they were at the end of the morning production meeting. Most of the crew grabs a few precious minutes of downtime and some lunch (chicken, steak, salad and rice), catered at a tent in the parking lot.

Then the cameramen and replay personnel meet, fifty or so people crammed into a small, warm cinder-block room in the bowels of the stadium. A wall-mounted TV inexplicably plays “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” just loud enough to be annoying. It’s a burlier room than the earlier meeting, too, even more casually dressed. Lots of bandanas and tattoos and people wearing black shirts with MNF CREW printed on the back in white block letters. Gruden handed these shirts out to everyone, but they already look well-worn.

Dean, the director, is going to run this meeting, but it also serves as an opportunity for the on-air talent to get a chance to talk to this group. McDonough opens with a joke, but quickly moves to sentiment — “This is the fulfillment,” he says, “of a lifelong dream.”

The long road McDonough has taken to this job at the pinnacle of his profession is something that’s referenced a lot — he’s worked virtually every sport in his career, most notably college football and basketball for ESPN for years, but this is his first opportunity in the primetime NFL Monday Night Football booth — and that journey seems to underlie everything I hear him say. Much like during the telecast, he keeps his comments brief and cedes the stage.


Gerry Austin (right) showing the horse collar rule changes to the MNF crew.

Matt Terl

Dean calls up Gerry Austin, former official, to brief everyone on the rule changes. This is one of those little details that seems obvious in retrospect: for the cameramen to be sure they’re focused correctly on potential violations and for the crews cuing the replays to know what to look for, they need to know the rules.

Austin hits on three major rule changes for this season: horse collar tackling (including a demonstration performed by the 75-year-old Austin on a cameraman called up from the front row), ejection after two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, and some subtle changes to the rules around the center moving the ball.

Austin also takes questions, which leads to a long debate over an inane rule that only ends when Gruden, from his seat on the wing, drawls “I think it’s time to move on with this meeting.”

Then we get the Jon Gruden Show (™), afternoon edition, and it’s yet another illustration of how he has earned his reputation.


Gruden rallying the MNF crew before the game.

Matt Terl

Gruden starts his talk by asking everyone to greet the people around them, which turns into a more macho version of a “peace be with you” handshake session from Catholic mass. Once everyone settles back down, Gruden returns to the same topics he used to frame his keys to the game in the production meeting, which he also uses at the top of the broadcast: communication, substitutions, fatigue, tackling, recognition, execution.

The goal, of course, is to be sure that the guys with the cameras fully understand the stories that are being told in a given game; they should focus on the linebackers Gruden mentioned (the switch from the production meeting stays in place) for communication, watch the Steelers no-huddle tendencies for substitutions, keep an eye on a few specific heavies in the trenches for fatigue, and so on.

But, because he’s Jon Gruden, he can’t just say these things in a normal tone. We’re in the home stretch now, and he’s gotta get everyone fired up. Gruden talks to the crew like an old coach would. He’ll regularly will leave off an obvious word or final syllable – “Tackling was horrific yesterday. These teams don’t practice WHAT?” and everyone yells “Tackling!”

“Communi…?” gets a rousing “CATE!” And so on. It seems silly, but there isn’t an eye roll to be found among the crew (and I looked).

Gruden finishes with a flourish, walking off to a “Wear those T-shirts with pride, man!” and then its business the rest of the way.

Dean reviews the assignments for the cameramen, ties in each of Gruden’s talking points and expands on a few more storylines — some based on miscues spotted in the earlier games of the week, an advantage to being last in the weekly rotation — and makes sure this group is also pointed in the right direction.


The Monday Night Countdown on-location set.

Matt Terl

Studio Show (4:00 p.m., game day)

MNF isn’t just the game. The Monday Night Countdown crew travels as well, and they are set up in a sunny corner of the field, five folks crowded around a desk. Suzy Kolber runs the show, supported by a returning Trent Dilfer and new analysts Matt Hasselbeck, Randy Moss and Charles Woodson. They take the baton at this point in the march toward the game actually happening, still three hours before kickoff.

“We feel like we’re an extension of the game, to be honest with you,” Seth Markman, senior coordinating producer overseeing the Monday Night Countdown show, tells me. He’s squinting in the glare of the sun, standing just out of earshot of the studio set. “Obviously we’re going to do a pregame show, but everything we do is in conjunction with the game broadcast.”

“We each have our jobs to do. We know we’re here to do pregame and halftime and postgame coverage,” Markman says, “and hopefully we have some great voices this year that are going to add to that.”

Markman has been encouraging his new team to bond, to develop that elusive “on-set chemistry” that can determine the difference between (for example) a Pardon The Interruption and a Cold Pizza. Like with Gruden learning to work with McDonough during the game, this crew finding footing quickly is going to be essential to the overall success of this incarnation of MNF.

If Sunday’s studio show is any indication, the chemistry is a work in progress.

Once the open comes toward its end, Hickmon counts down from five as Dean gives the order to open McDonough and Gruden’s mics and cuts to an overhead shot of the stadium (“Roll sky”). The new booth is now live and on the air.

At 6:57, Gruden introduces the new season and his new booth partner with, for at least the third time that I’ve heard today, an admonition of “No pressure on you, McDonough.”

It lands, at least for the folks in the truck, who laugh, and Gruden and McDonough fist bump, and the program is fully underway.

Somewhere in my head, I expected this would be where things get easier. That all of that prep work, and all of the years of experience of the guys in the truck, would move the production to some kind of autopilot. Instead, it’s at this point that the guys in the front row start thinking in four-dimensions.

Action is underway in the stadium—coin toss, flyover, and so on—but there are advertising masters to serve and storylines to establish. Dean is not only directing what’s on the air, but setting up what’s coming next and, essentially, cutting and pasting time to make sure the audience sees the coin toss at home.

They don’t lie about it—McDonough introduces the segment by acknowledging that it happened during the break—but at each step of the way it’s a real-time calculation as to how many seconds they have and what they need to show. A stat planned for the opening, about an impending milestone for Roethlisberger, has to be spiked to buy back some time. Every adjustment requires corresponding counter-adjustments. This is a non-linear mental juggling act that will go on for the entire night, building off everything they’ve planned since Wednesday, and every detail they discussed in the meetings throughout the day.

With kickoff at 7:11, it will go on like this for the next three-and-a-half hours. And then they’ll pack up, move to another city and do it all again, every Monday, for the next four months.

Matt Terl is a freelance journalist in the Washington, D.C. area who writes regularly about sports for Washington City Paper. He previously worked as a staff blogger for Washington’s NFL football franchise.