It’s no secret that NFL broadcasts are filled with former players and coaches. Each Sunday, before and after the game, as well as on weekdays on certain networks, they use their playing experience and football knowledge to make predictions, offer insights into a team’s play, break down game film, and analyse formations, plays and drives. Professional broadcasters and reporters also play significant roles in bringing football coverage to fans, but aside from a few key examples, like Chris Berman on ESPN or James Brown on CBS, fans often listen most closely and best remember the contributions of the former NFLers on game days.
It’s also no secret that the vast majority of former players tend to focus their analysis on their former positions, nor is it necessarily a drawback. It makes perfect sense to have former quarterbacks like Kurt Warner or Dan Marino break down quarterback play, defensive linemen like Michael Strahan, Howie Long and Warren Sapp discuss the NFL’s premier pass rushers, while former wide receivers like Michael Irvin and Keyshawn Johnson discuss the receiving game. But what happens when you take a look at how the analysts break down by position, and what does that mean for football viewers?
Between CBS, ESPN, FOX, NBC and the NFL Network, there are currently five major networks in the U.S. providing pre-game and post-game shows for games each week. Between the five panels, there are twenty-three different former NFL personalities. Unsurprisingly, five of the twenty-three, or just under one quarter, are former quarterbacks. Quarterback play is often a top priority, whether seen through the value of a great quarterback in transforming a franchise, the amounts teams are willing to pay their quarterbacks or the amount of enthusiasm fans have for their play. It is thus sensible for networks to want to cater to fans and provide them with in-depth analysis of the position by hiring so many former quarterbacks. When broadened out to include all former players currently working for a major network in some capacity, whether as an analyst, panel member, broadcaster, reporter or in another capacity, quarterbacks have taken about a quarter of the approximately 80 different positions. The media coverage of quarterbacks during their playing years is also a contributing factor, as networks often prefer to hire former players who are easily recognized and already well-known by the average fan.
Coaches are tied with quarterbacks for most popular, taking 5 of the 18 remaining Sunday panel spots and about 10 of the remaining 60 total positions. Few would argue the value of a coach to any panel, program or analysis, as coaches are well versed in all aspects of the game, comfortable with big-picture thinking, breaking down individual play on game tape, and among the more recognizable figures in the NFL.
Of the remaining thirteen Sunday panel spots, five are taken by former wide receivers or tight ends and another three by former defensive linemen. With the passing game at a premium, fans want to understand the play of the men trying to catch the passes thrown by quarterbacks as well as that of the men trying to tackle the quarterback. It also helps that the two positions also frequently contain many of the NFL’s more colourful personalities, and there is no question that the figures like Irvin, Sapp or Shannon Sharpe combine their insight with enthusiasm and humor, making for entertaining and informative television.
The remaining five positions are taken by two running backs, two linebackers and a defensive back. But one major position on the football field remains completely unrepresented amongst NFL Sunday panels. So, it begs the question: where are all the former offensive linemen?
If you go back to the approximately eighty positions filled by former NFL players today, you may be surprised to learn that there were in fact eight former offensive linemen amongst them during the 2013 season. The problem, however, is that most of them (Lomas Brown – ESPN, Jamie Dukes – NFL Network, Matt Light – ESPN, Shaun O’Hara – NFL Network) are either stuck on midweek analysis shows that have only a fraction of the viewership of Sunday pre-game and post-game shows, or given secondary positions on the network that afford much less screen time than some of their other counterparts.
Dukes is one of the more insightful analysts in the football world, and well-respected by his peers. Having worked for the NFL Network since 2006, he would seem a qualified and talented candidate to take a position on the Sunday panel of a major network. Lacking the profile of some of his playing contemporaries, networks may tragically overlook him for any openings. Both Light and O’Hara are recent retirees whom an average fan may have an easier time recognizing than most offensive linemen, having four Super Bowls between them. For them, it may simply be a matter of time before they acquire enough experience to be deemed worthy of moving into more visible roles. The example of Ray Lewis’ immediate transition from player to Sunday panelist, however, acts as a counterargument. His advantages included his star power and recognition factor, but the simple fact that he played linebacker, rather than offensive lineman, would also seem to be a factor.
Of the other 4, Mark Schlereth of ESPN has transitioned into more of a hosting and sports personality role, as well as commencing an acting career. While he still provides in-depth analysis at times, his widening interests prevent him from acting as an advocate for the analysis of offensive line. The other three, Brian Baldinger with the NFL Network and Randy Cross and Dan Dierdorf with CBS, work primarily as in-game commentators or analysts. Like Schlereth, their positions provide them with a wider audience but prevent them from using their playing experience to focus their analysis on the offensive line play, as they must instead diversify to discuss all aspects of the game. Dierdorf, one of the longest serving and widely respected broadcasters in the game, also announced he was retiring from the role at the end of this most recent season, meaning football is losing arguably its most prominent media presence amongst former offensive linemen.
While the presence of these men is encouraging, it doesn’t change the fact that none of them occupy a position on a premier Sunday panel, and thus do not have the opportunity to analyze offensive line play in depth and explain their importance to the average fan. Based on the previous analysis, there are three main reasons for this. Firstly, many fans don’t know much about the intricacies of offensive line play and will pay little attention to it unless they make a major mistake, so there is not a strong demand from fans to have this sort of analysis. Secondly, because of this lack of fan interest, most media coverage of offensive lineman is minimal at best, so fans do not know as much about the careers, play or personalities of most offensive linemen, and networks are consequently hesitant about placing someone less recognizable by the average fan as a media personality for their panel. Finally, this lack of previous offensive line analysis, combined with the lack of simple quantitative statistical measures for the offensive line position, make it difficult for most fans to analyze or appreciate the play of offensive linemen, individually or as a unit, leading them to not appreciate the value of the position in the sport. These three factors then create a self-perpetuating issue: if fans don’t understand offensive line play, then they don’t demand media coverage of it, so offensive linemen are not high profile enough to be on panels to provide said coverage and thus are unable to educate fans on how to understand offensive line play.
So how do we solve this problem? If a major network decided to place a former offensive lineman on a panel to provide detailed analysis of NFL offensive line play, it could prove popular and start a trend amongst their competitors. This could especially work if the offensive line’s role is initially placed primarily within the sphere of the passing game, alongside the quarterbacks and receivers, which is often the most popular aspect of the game. The second option is for fans to pay more attention to offensive line play themselves by watching their play instead of focusing on the quarterback or the ball, and gradually teach themselves the intricacies of the position. If this happened, fans would then demand a similar level of insight from their analysts, and necessitate the presence of a former offensive lineman to provide it for them. This, however, seems a little more farfetched, but we can dream, can't we?
It may be that there never will be a demand for such analysis, and that the position simply lacks the necessary following amongst its fans or have the media recognition and exuberant personalities amongst its players needed to transition to such a prominent media career. But I think that all it needs is one example to succeed. If we eventually do have one, and it fails spectacularly, then I will be the first to re-assess this argument and concede I may have been wrong. Until then, however, I will be clamoring for one of the major networks to make an attempt, in the hopes that it will help NFL offensive linemen gain the attention and respect they deserve as the unsung heroes of every NFL team.