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'Inside the NFL's' Huddle

11/28/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

Tuesday was an especially busy night for Warren Sapp. The runner-up on ABC's seventh season of Dancing with the Stars. Sapp and partner Kym Johnson, as well as the top finishers, hopped a red-eye charter from Los Angeles to New York for a Wednesday-morning appearance on Good Morning America.

Huddle Up

But after wrapping GMA, Sapp's day was just getting started. He and Johnson were headed to the home of NFL Films here, for the taping of another edition of Inside the NFL, now in its rookie season on Showtime, after a 31-year run on HBO.

GMA called and recognized there was a conflict,” said Inside the NFL producer Pete Radovich Jr. “I said I'd only allow it to happen if Warren and Kym could get here by 10 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. So after GMA, they'll be ushered to a heliport in Manhattan and down to us.”

Sapp's not the only one hustling to make the shoot. Radovich himself was only a day removed from a trip to Mexico, where he gathered material for an upcoming show feature on American football's longstanding popularity south of the border.

They would be joined by Sapp's fellow analyst Cris Collinsworth, who the next day would cover NFL Network's game between the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles at nearby Lincoln Financial Field; host James Brown, fresh off his gig as ringmaster for CBS's pregame show, The NFL Today; and this week by NBC Football Night In America's Jerome Bettis, subbing for Phil Simms, who was in Detroit to call Black Rock's Thanksgiving Day game between the Tennessee Titans and the woeful Lions. “D-town” would be the subject of a segment on the Nov. 26 Inside the NFL.

Game On

On Nov. 19, there were plenty of discussions on and off the set. In the production meeting, the fist bumps and topics flowed: injured quarterback Tony Romo's return and his effect on the Dallas Cowboys defense; beleaguered Eagles signal-caller Donovan McNabb not knowing an overtime game could end in a tie; and the Jets win over New England Patriots, a game Collinsworth called for NFL Network. A tangent brought the analysts to their collegiate pigskin pedigrees with Sapp (Miami) and Collinsworth (Florida) referring to Simms by his alma mater's name (Morehead State).

“The guys are happy to see each other and share what excited them from the NFL weekend. It's like guys in a sports bar; it could go on for hours,” said Radovich, who's charged with bringing everybody back on track.

On the set, that's Brown's job — not an easy one, because his teammates like to talk.

“They're really experienced at getting their points across. I'll watch the clock, they'll see my hands, or I'll cut them off,” he said from the set's main desk between filming segments. “I was a basketball player [at Harvard]. These guys were in the fraternity. People tune in to hear that little nugget these guys have. Viewers want to be part of the locker-room discussion.”

That's a dynamic Radovich and Brown encourage, particularly the back and forth between Simms and Collinsworth.

“The question has come from a viewer addressed to Simms on-air. 'Seriously what's up with you and Cris?'” Radovich recalls. “Really, it's just two guys who know their football. Phil said to me on a Monday early in the season: 'Tell Cris not to take things the wrong way.' And Cris told me to 'make sure that Phil knows I'm not upset.'”

View From the Audience

Ken Hershman, senior vice president and general manager, sports and event programming at Showtime Networks Inc. is excited about the early reads on Inside the NFL. “We're very pleased things have gelled so quickly,” he said. “The level of professionalism and acumen is so high.”

Hershman had few doubts the show would be successful on-air and from a strategic perspective. Inside the NFL played well into Showtime's push for more original series and a bigger presence in sports, as rival HBO contracted there, punting on the show after its coverage of Super Bowl XLII following 31 years — the longest run of any cable show.

The bigger challenge, he said, was creating awareness that the series had changed locker rooms. To that end, there has been plenty of on-air promotion across Showtime multiplexes; consumer sweepstakes with big-ticket giveaways for 2009; a ton of sports-radio promotion with the talent; promo spots on CBS's NFL telecasts; and sharing of show clips with online partners like AOL and ESPN.

As for the Nielsen returns, Radovich said the program has “certainly improved on time period from a year ago,” but declined to be more specific. Inside the NFL airs 10 times weekly on Showtime and Showtime 2.

Showtime is also exploring advanced service applications. The network has had conversations with the NFL about offering show as VOD programming, but said it would be a difficult proposition, with the league's 24-hour “blackout” rules on either side of games (especially now with NFL Network's Thursday night slate). “The NFL would let us do it, but it would be a lot of maintenance for operators having to take the content up and down,” he explained.

Ideas about a streamed version of the show, replete with NFL Films footage, have been tossed around. Thus far, the network's Web site, www.sho.com has hosted analytic segments with the experts. Noting that NFL has a lot of media partners, Hershman believes some resolution will be reached before or shortly after this season ends.

Radovich expects to enact more changes on-air before then. He anticipates second runs for special segments, Collinsworth's “King for a Day,” Simms' “Phil's Pet Peeves” and Sapp's “Ask Warren Anything.” The latter, airing on the Nov. 12 show, raised some eyebrows as Sapp called ESPN studio analyst and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammate “a bitch” for Keyshawn Johnson: Tackling Design, an upcoming A&E Network series.

“'Phil's Pet Peeves' was very well-received. Warren was unpredictable as a player and has been during his first season as a broadcaster. He told me he wanted to apologize and he did on-air,” said Radovich. “I think we'll go back to all of them. It's the show's first season; it's still a work in progress.”

Still, Radovich wants to execute a familiar game plan.

“Viewers have grown accustomed to guys talking football,” he said. “To make big changes, it would be like 60 Minutes, if it went to another network, adding a lot of glitz and graphics. Inside the NFL stands out from other shows for its straight-ahead approach, among other reasons.”

The big one, of course, is NFL Films's distinctive style: its shooting of players during warm-ups and in the tunnel; mic-ing them for sound; and its signature low angle shots that showcase just how hard the contact is.

Collinsworth is another constant: “The show is steeped in the history of the NFL,” said Hershman. “We really thought it was imperative to have Cris as a connection back.

Said Collinsworth: “HBO was my first home in broadcasting. It wasn't a happy day when the show was dropped. However, Showtime was so excited about continuing the tradition of the show, it made me proud of the old and excited about the new.”

For his part, Collinsworth views the current iteration as “the same show, with the same commitment to the truth and new guys to argue with it.”

End-Zone Dance

When everyone gathered in Mount Laurel for the Nov. 26, show Radovic had several things on his play chart. In addition to the D-town piece about the winless Lions and Detroit's crashing auto industry, he wanted a segment about perennial AFC powers New England and Indianapolis remaining in the playoff hunt; more on McNabb's benching against Baltimore and his Philly future; and “New York-New York” and whether it was “destiny with a capital N.Y.” that the Jets and Giants would knock helmets in Super Bowl XLIII.

Naturally, Inside the NFL's dance card will also feature Johnson and Sapp.

Defensive Edge

On the Inside the NFL set, Sapp also appears well-equipped. Radovic and his on-air mates rave about his energy and the perspective he brings from the trenches.

“So many shows are dominated by offensive players, but to have a defensive player and a lineman, it gives us an edge. The more I watch, and come to know about game, it's almost always decided there,” said Collinsworth.

“The other players are sneaky, but linemen don't lie. They never go to a picnic that don't have no food,” Sapp said, with a pair of sandwiches on his plate.

And now, Inside the NFL 's main course will primarily feature pigskin. Unless someone else is ready to hoof it on the dancefloor.

Some staffers said Collinsworth, who has shimmied on air, would do it, but Simms and J.B. aren't inclined. Either way, Hershman's not sure ABC's primetime audiences are ready for their moves.

“I don't think we're going there. We had a dance-off, it wasn't pretty,” he said.