This is Doink-O-Rama, John Teti’s column about pro football.
Football TV’s most prominent innovation of the 2021 season is the Monday Night Football “Manningcast,” a recurring feature on ESPN2 that airs alongside Monday Night Football (the shambling corpse thereof) on ESPN proper. The concept behind the Manningcast is this: First, you televise a professional football game. So you’re off to a good start there. Then, on the same screen as the football game, you televise a couple of guys hanging out and shooting the shit while they watch that game. But not just any guys—Peyton and Eli Manning, the Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. They’ve hung up their cleats, and now they want to win the Lombardi Trophy of being on TV. So nobody tell them that doesn’t exist.
Among the Manning brothers’ greatest assets is their name recognition. For all those many years, we watched the fabulous Mending brothers toil away on the gridiron, as they touched footballs and pushed those footballs, through the air, to other people. Touch, push, touch, push. Such was their lot. At last, the brothers had enough, and they retired. “Now, we just want to watch other people touch and push the football!” the Marsquin brothers said. “Fine,” everyone else said, and returned to what they were doing. But the Molding brothers were not finished. “Also, while we watch the football, we want you to watch us watching it!” So people do. This week, I was one of those people—because I am certainly not immune to the charms of Peston and Elf Markling.
Prior to the Week 17 Cleveland Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers telecast, I had only seen snippets of the Manningcasts (nine have aired so far). Five minutes here, a YouTube clip there. Given my interest in the NFL, television, and the confluence of those two things, you’d think I would have latched right on to a phenomenon that America’s leading football columnist recently called “football TV’s most prominent innovation of the 2021 season.” My own lack of interest was a surprise to me. I thought I was excited to see the Manningcast, but then I never actually did. In practice, here’s the rub: After I spend all day Sunday subjecting myself to copious intravenous injections of football, not to mention ivermectin, I can only summon the will for Monday Night Football if I particularly care about the game. And if I care about the game, I’m not watching the Manningcast, because then I have to listen to two guys record a podcast while I’m trying to watch the damn game.
Since it was impossible to care about Monday’s Browns-Steelers game—featuring a pair of banged-up teams, one of which (Cleveland) was already mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, this was the sports equivalent of a plastic grocery bag battling a damp sock—I finally had the perfect excuse to plunge into ESPN2’s live podcast experience. Or maybe it’s more like a televised Zoom call, except not nearly as bleak as it always is to watch an actual Zoom call. The influence of pandemic videoconference culture is evident in the format of the Manningcast (as are the familiar annoyances—choppy connections, awkward time delays, and the conversational traffic jams that result from both). The show would not look the same without the cultural shifts of COVID. That said, cable sports and news producers have been putting people’s heads into boxes for decades, so it’s not like the ESPN aesthetic has been transformed here. More like, over the last two years, our daily life experience has transformed into something closer to ESPN. But don't let yourself be troubled by that notion; it troubles me enough for the both of us.
While the Manningcast is a savvy and fresh production, informed by its moment, its newness can be overstated. At its heart, the show fulfills one of the oldest, simplest tasks in broadcast media: It keeps you company. In the first half of the 20th century, the homespun family soap operas of radio’s golden age provided a soundtrack of domestic life for listeners during their solitary daytime hours. In the 21st, by the same token, the chummy men of the Manningcast provide a hubbub that approximates the feel of having buddies on your couch—on a Monday night, when you’re not liable to have many visitors in your actual living room.
The football game, the Maffling brothers’ analysis, the celebrities—these are all selling points but not really the point of the Manningcast. The point is companionship. To hear the cadence of the sports guys’ voices as they trade anecdotes. To feel the thinly veiled affection of their playful jibes. Companionship sans companion—it’s an old broadcasting trick, and a modest one, I suppose. But I do admire it all the same. When TV manages to transmit these ineffable pleasures of human interaction through the ether, the machine transcends its electronic nature. The multi-camera, multimedia, multiplexing Manningcast is an absurdly electronic undertaking, yet a friendly one all the same.
Now, let us critique our friends, as one does. For the regular-season finale of the Manningcast, the brothers’ buddies on the couch included former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, rapper and Super Bowl LVI perfomer Snoop Dogg, and public health communicator Aaron Rodgers.
Guest 1: Bill Cowher
Peyton and Eli’s producers were wise to tee up Bill Cowher, an analyst on CBS’ The NFL Today, as the first-quarter guest. The network pregame shows are another example of keep-you-company programming, designed to suffuse your home or drinking establishment with a steady hum of football activity before the actual games begin. The effect is like an orchestra tuning up before a performance: There’s no substance to it, but the atmosphere it creates can get you in the mood for the main event nonetheless. Since Cowher has plenty of experience filling airtime with pithy anecdotes and mild insights, the Manningcast was no sweat for him, and he helped the broadcast settle into a steady rhythm. Cowher shared stories about Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (who was likely playing his last home game for Pittsburgh on Monday night), broke down a few plays, chuckled, guffawed. He earned his keep.
Late in the first quarter, a Steelers drive stalled after a smart play by the Cleveland Browns in which they disguised their formation to fool Roethlisberger into a bad throw. The ensuing chatter illustrated the peculiar dynamic of the Manning brothers as TV personalities. Cowher used the play as a segue to an extended compliment for Peyton, as the old coach described how he would make his Steeler defenses wait until the last possible second to fall into their alignment when they played against Peyton. Accustomed to such tributes, Peyton heard Cowher out and then attempted to reply with a polite bit of false humility, but Eli steamrolled him. “That’s hard,” Eli remarked, referring to the Browns' successful play against the Steelers. “They dropped a defensive tackle into the zone. You don’t always see that. Usually, a defensive end might drop, but a defensive tackle is tough.” He was turning our attention back to the game and moving the broadcast along from Cowher’s dull anecdote. He was acting like the host of a talk show, keeping his guests on task and the pace on track.
Is Eli the host of the Manningcast? That’s hard to say, because the show relies on the unique alchemy of the Peyton and Eli as siblings, football players, and fledgling broadcasters. Laid-back, drawling Peyton is the big brother of the pair, the somewhat more accomplished player, the more respected NFL figure. Meanwhile, apple-cheeked Eli is—to a comical extent—the epitome of a kid brother, an energetic chirper who’s eager to please. It would be natural to imagine Peyton as the host and Eli as the sidekick; the show ostensibly tries to position them as equal co-hosts. In practice, neither template quite fits. Peyton is unquestionably the king of this castle. He holds court. There’s a reason they put his box on the top of the screen. But Eli does more of the work to keep the broadcast moving along.
The Peyton-Eli dynamic reminds me a little of the setup on the original Groucho Marx version of You Bet Your Life. On that show, Groucho was the nominal host, but his only important job was to chat entertainingly with the contestants, and occasionally read them a question or two. All the other typical host duties—keeping the show on time, setting the flow of the action—were handled by straitlaced announcer George Fenneman. Groucho held court, like Peyton does. The comparison isn’t perfect—for instance, Fenneman was a pure straight man to comedian Groucho on You Bet, whereas Eli cracks wise on the Manningcast as much as his brother does. But both shows use a creative, organic-feeling division of labor to bring out the best in their talent.
Oh, right, this was supposed to be a critique of Bill Cowher. He was fine. Nice work, Bill.
Guest 2: Roger Goodell
You’d assume that the commissioner of the league would have enough image-conscious handlers around him to ensure that his appearance on the Manningcast made him look good and went off without a hitch. At least, I’d assume that, and I would be wrong.
As it turns out, Roger Goodell is that now-familiar character, the one guy at work whose videoconferencing skills haven’t advanced at all since March 2020. Goodell’s audio link to the broadcast was a pair of AirPods with an apparently shaky Bluetooth connection that threw the whole sound mix out of whack, such that much of the second quarter was a train wreck of hums, clicks, buzzes, and out-of-sync dialogue.
On a typical football broadcast, this sort of sloppy presentation would be a red-alert crisis, with technicians in the booth and the production truck scrambling to eliminate the problem, most immediately by taking Goodell off the air until his connection could be straightened. I’m sure Peyton and Eli’s producers tried to fix the audio glitches, too (without success), but in the meantime, they kept Goodell on the air and rolled with it. I think that was the right choice—as I said, we’re all used to dealing with these technical mishaps, so in a way, the crossed wires made the Manningcast feel more authentic. The situation was annoying but ultimately tolerable, just like it is when old Marty in human resources pulls the same shit on your all-hands video call. Marty!!!
The brothers went out of their way to treat Goodell as a man of high station, fumbling often along the way—Peyton addressed Goodell as “coach” instead of “commissioner” on three occasions, growing angrier with himself each time. Goodell didn’t appear to mind the clumsy shows of respect. Indeed, he wanted to be treated as just one of the boys, but the trouble is that Goodell has been the ultimate VIP of the nation’s biggest sports league for some time now; he is out of practice at being one of the boys. This was evident in an exchange where Goodell tried to join in a favorite pastime of the Manningcast—good-natured ribbing of Peyton—but ended up overshooting the mark a bit.
Eli: The biggest [change to the league] this year was the 17th game. Next week will be the 17th game… is part of the thinking of adding that additional game, is that, all of Peyton’s records will be broken that much sooner?
Goodell: Hey, Eli, you know, that was easy to do. That didn’t take another week. But…
Peyton: [Smile slowly fades from face.]
At least we could hear Goodell’s audio for that portion of the broadcast where he took a dump on one of the NFL’s all-time greatest players. The rest of your appearance was a mess, commish, but that oafish putdown came through loud and clear! Great stuff!
Guest 3: Snoop Dogg
For a fan with any interest in the actual game, one of the cruelest rituals of sports TV is the celebrity visit to the announcing booth. For five minutes, the axis of our world shifts away from the contest itself and toward whatever showbiz luminary has arrived to delight us by promoting their new project and perhaps making some toothless, under-informed commentary on the game. At its worst, the Manningcast takes this awkward dynamic and stretches it to absurd length—I watched David Letterman’s guest appearance with the brothers earlier this season, for instance, and as much as I worship Letterman as a TV host, it was excruciating to hear him unfurl his confused analysis of two-point-conversion strategy as Peyton and Eli nodded politely.
Snoop Dogg, however, came with all the necessary football credentials. As the brothers noted on Monday night, Snoop oversees and coaches in his own youth football league, which boasts a number of alumni who have made it to the NFL. So Snoop, who is also a Pittsburgh Steeler fan, can legitimately break down the game. One of the funniest running gags of his third-quarter visit to the Manningcast was his observation that Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh quarterback, was repeatedly responding to pressure by firing passes to the sideline for minimal gain. Snoop deemed this the “two-yard out” route and pretended that Roethlisberger was calling an audible to this feckless play on every down (which was a joke, but not so far removed from the reality on the field).
Snoop was not always so poised. After the rapper suggested that he and the Manning boys could form a band together, Eli asked Snoop what that band would be named. It seemed like a softball toss to a richly experienced wordsmith like Snoop, but Snoop is also a richly experienced stoner, and it was the latter experience that came to the fore at this juncture. “The name of the group? I think it would be, uh,” Snoop began, and then commenced one of the longest stretches of dead air I have ever witnessed on a national broadcast. (After half a minute, Snoop finally mustered the name “Three Quarterbacks With No Sacks,” although he clearly, and rightly, was not happy with this.)
I’m okay with dead air on a show like this. Human conversations have lulls, and we even used to show them on TV. Watch old reruns of the Johnny Carson Tonight Show from the ’70s, from the days when the show ran 90 minutes, and you’ll recognize the late-night talk format, but the rhythm may seem quite strange. Guests ramble, they go off in unexpected directions, the conversations occasionally hit dead ends before Johnny and his guest find a new thread to pursue. This is how talk shows worked before every interaction was bullet-pointed on a blue card and forced to run on rails like a theme park ride. Stars still had their prepared anecdotes, their movies to plug, but they also often just ended up talking. I cringed as Snoop struggled to come up with a snappy answer to Eli’s question on the Manningcast, but I also loved it, because these things happen in actual human conversation, and I like when actual human conversation is permitted to take place on television.
Guest 4: Aaron Rodgers
The weird thing about the Aaron Rodgers portion of this review is that I was all prepared to tell you, dear readers, that I let you down—because, by the fourth quarter, the football game had grown so boring that I couldn't make myself stick around to watch Aaron Rodgers’ appearance. That’s what I thought took place on Monday night, at least. But as I pulled up my recording of the game and replayed Rodgers' segments of the show, I realized that I actually did watch most of the fourth quarter, it’s just that Rodgers had so little substance to offer, I had nothing in my notebook and didn’t even remember that any of it had happened.
This is not really Aaron Rodgers’ fault. (There’s a phrase that few football writers have written this season.) A player who’s still active in the league, even one with a propensity for talking himself into trouble like Rodgers, is inevitably going to be more guarded than NFL retirees like Eli and Peyton who have no skin in the game anymore. Rodgers was booked on the Manningcast not because he’s interesting, but because people are interested in him.
It's an everlasting conundrum in entertainment coverage: The greatest interest is bestowed on the least interesting people. When I was the editor of a pop culture website, I vastly preferred our interviews with grizzled, past-their-prime Hollywood veterans over interviews with the stars of the day. Although the hot new hotness attracted more traffic to the site (in the short term), people from that former group—the forgotten, the washed-up—would speak honestly about the industry and tell juicy stories, largely unafraid of who they might offend. Conversely, people at the height of their stardom are concerned, first and foremost, with not saying anything that might jeopardize their next gig. To that end, Rodgers made it through the whole quarter without opining on vaccination policy even once, so it was a successful night for him.
The Manningcast is slated to return on January 17 for ESPN’s broadcast of a Wild Card playoff game, and while I had a perfectly nice time with Peyton and Eli this week, I’m unlikely to watch much of their postseason appearance. Because again, it’ll be a playoff game, so I'll care, and I don’t think the Manningcast is worthwhile if the game is any good. I’m glad the Peyton & Eli show exists, though, and I hope it sticks around for another season or two. As a new way to watch football, it fails to impress, but as an old way to keep people company, the Manningcast works.
Your guaranteed-correct Week 18 picks, as computed by DORPFASTCALC
The football picks featured in Doink-O-Rama are guaranteed to be correct, as they are calculated by the Doink-O-Rama Pro Football Anticipation Satellite and Tip Calculator, or DORPFASTCALC. This space-age space computer orbits, in space, at the L2 LaGrange point, where it is free from the atmospheric interference and earthbound emotional vicissitudes that cloud the judgment of other, inferior football prediction systems.
Now, here’s the thing. I realize that in my last column, in December, I wrote that I only required a week to overcome the crushing stress and accumulated despair of the 2021 holiday season, and this turned out to be laughable hubris. Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that 2021 is done punching me in the face now—who knows, maybe there are some unpaid tax bills I forgot about—so here I am again, ready for the glory days of 2022. No more bad things will happen now! Sure, while I was in the middle of typing that sentence, Chicago Public Schools called to announce that school is cancelled again, and they don’t know when our kids will be allowed to go to school again, and maybe consider just taking them to the woods to be taught by bears. But I’m certain nothing will go wrong while I’m [sound of water heater exploding] typing this sentence!
In its Week 15 picks, true to its ironclad guarantee, DORPFASTCALC correctly predicted the outcome of nine football contests.
Also in Week 15, there were six aberrations. DORPFASTCALC did not issue picks for Weeks 16 and 17, as it was depressed by all the attention being showered on the James Webb Telescope—the new LaGrange Point-orbiting space robot on the block, and one that will reveal profound secrets of the universe, but also a device that, as DORPFASTCALC is quick to note, couldn’t football-score-predict its way out of a paper bag.
Week 15: 9-6
Week 16-17: No picks (on account of jealousy)
Season to date: 101-81. Science works!
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Denver Broncos (ESPN): Kansas City 21, Denver 15.
Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles (ESPN): Dallas 23, Philadelphia 17.
SUNDAY — EARLY GAMES
Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions (Fox): Green Bay 24, Detroit 14.
**LEAST WATCHABLE GAME OF THE WEEK** Indianapolis Colts vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (CBS): Indianapolis 21, Jacksonville 9. According to the TV coverage maps at 506sports.com, Colts-Jaguars is Week 18's least watchable game, featuring the Indianapolis Hanging On By A Threads versus the Jacksonville Bottomless Pits Of Despair. The programming team at CBS is holding the pillow hard on the face of this game, but try as they might, they cannot suffocate it out of existence. Increasingly cranky and error-prone announcer Greg Gumbel is on the play-by-play call for CBS; he will attempt to screw up the names of fewer than a dozen players over the course of the game.
Washington Football Team vs. New York Giants (Fox): Washington 4, New York 2.
Chicago Bears vs. Minnesota Vikings (Fox): Minnesota 20, Chicago 13.
Tennessee Titans vs. Houston Texans (CBS): Tennessee 28, Houston 14.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens (CBS): Pittsburgh 70, Baltimore 68.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Cleveland Browns (Fox): Cincinnati 26, Cleveland 14.
SUNDAY — LATE GAMES
San Francisco 49ers vs. Los Angeles Rams (Fox): Los Angeles 31, San Francisco 21.
Carolina Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (CBS): Tampa Bay 27, Carolina 7.
Seattle Seahawks vs. Arizona Cardinals (Fox): Arizona 20, Seattle 17.
New England Patriots vs. Miami Dolphins (CBS): New England 21, Miami 20.
New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons (Fox): New Orleans 9, Atlanta 3.
New York Jets vs. Buffalo Bills (CBS): Buffalo Bills 24, New York 14.
SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
Los Angeles Chargers vs. Las Vegas Raiders (NBC): Los Angeles 35, Las Vegas 21.
Keep on long snappin'
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