Boomer Esiason once lost a Super Bowl to Joe Montana. He shares the CBS “NFL Today’’ studio set each fall Sunday with Dan Marino, arguably the greatest pure passer in league history. He was a contemporary of John Elway’s and Brett Favre’s, and his 14-year career ended the year before Peyton Manning’s began.
Esiason appreciates NFL history. He has been a part of a little and witnessed a lot. So there is genuine weight to his opinion when he reiterates who he believes is the greatest player ever at the position he once played.
“I said it last year on our broadcast when they were getting ready to play the Ravens in the AFC Championship game that I thought Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback who has ever played,’’ said Esiason. “Now, that’s lofty status and there have been a lot of great quarterbacks, but I do believe he probably has done more with less than a lot of other quarterbacks.
“You watch him this year. You watch him with the running backs they have and when they get [Rob] Gronkowski back, a good offensive line, he will make very, very good football players out of the young corps [of receivers].
“I still think he’s on par for a big season. I don’t know if they’re good enough to unseat Houston or Denver if everybody stays healthy, but I think we’re going to see his greatness come through again this year. He will make these young players much better.”
Brady is one of the two essential constants of the Patriots’ decade-plus run of excellence. So too, of course, is coach Bill Belichick. But because of injuries, attrition (Wes Welker’s departure for Denver, Aaron Hernandez’s arrest on a murder charge), and the implementation of a mostly unproven group of receivers, there seems to be a wider range of predictions regarding the Patriots than in recent years.
Sports Illustrated picked them to beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl; ESPN picked them to go 9-7 and miss the playoffs.
Members of the CBS broadcast team — the network will be the television home for nine Patriots games this season — offered more optimism than skepticism regarding how far Brady and Belichick can take them.
Not that it’s blind faith. Jim Nantz, who will be joined for a 10th season by Phil Simms on CBS’s top pairing, wondered how the Patriots will deal with the Hernandez story hovering over them.
“That to me is one of the biggest questions hanging over the season,’’ said Nantz. “What will the Patriots look like, and how will they operate — I think we know this answer — how will they operate with the Aaron Hernandez story never going away?
“I thought Belichick handled it brilliantly at the opening of camp, by talking about it and never going there again. You know he’s implored his players never to talk about it. But still, what’s it going to feel like, look like, up in New England this season with a whole lot of new players that are going to have to step up in prominent roles?”
Bill Cowher, the former Steelers coach who is beginning his seventh season as an “NFL Today’’ studio analyst, believes the influx of inexperienced players — the Patriots have 14 rookies on the roster — won’t be a significant issue.
“I’ll tell you what Bill Belichick does as well as any coach in the National Football League: He adopts a philosophy based on the talent he has around him,’’ said Cowher. “We know the talent, because of free agency, can change year in and year out. That’s the one thing that New England does better than anybody. You’ll see an offense that caters to the strengths that they have from a talent standpoint.
“They’ve always done a good job of bringing in young players. You can’t get old overnight. If you want to be steady in the National Football League, you make change sporadically, you don’t do it wholesale like the Buffalo Bills are doing.
“They’re always coming up with wrinkles, they’re staying ahead of the curve, and I still think when all is said and done we’ll be talking about them as a team to beat in January.”
CBS may have the majority of the games this season, but the Patriots will make their fair share of appearances on other networks, often in prime time.
They will be featured on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” three times, the first coming Sept. 29 at Atlanta.
Twice they will play on Fox, when they host the Buccaneers Sept. 22 and the Saints Oct. 13.
Their lone ESPN “Monday Night Football” appearance comes at Carolina Nov. 18.
Their second game of the season — the home opener Thursday, Sept. 12 against the Jets — will be their only NFL Network appearance.
Ray Lewis, the former Ravens linebacker, is far and away the most significant addition to any studio show this season. He’ll serve as an on-site analyst for ESPN’s “Monday Night Countdown” and will appear on the “Sunday NFL Countdown” studio program eight times.
I’m curious to see whether his style-over-substance inspirational approach translates to television. He has charisma in abundance, but does he have anything interesting to say?
The hunch here is that Lewis’s former teammate Bart Scott — who was a revelation during ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary “Broke” — will be a breakthrough star on CBS Sports Network’s “That Other Pregame Show,” which airs from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on Sunday.
And at least for the season’s first Sunday, the presence of Randy Moss will get me to tune in to Fox Sports 1’s “Fox NFL Kickoff.”
It was remarkable how Bob Socci, the new radio voice of the Patriots, meshed seamlessly with analyst Scott Zolak during flagship station 98.5 The Sports Hub’s preseason broadcasts. He hasn’t called a regular-season game, yet it is already apparent the longtime voice of Navy football is up to the task of succeeding Gil Santos. Santos, the longtime (36 years, the last 22 consecutively) and legendary voice of the Patriots, retired following the AFC Championship game in January. But you will hear him on The Sports Hub’s broadcasts this year; he will join Andy Gresh for a segment on the pregame show. That is the only significant change to The Sports Hub’s game day programming . . . Matt Chatham is on the short list of the most articulate and insightful Patriots analysts, most recently as a clear voice on Channel 4’s haphazard preseason broadcasts. So it’s good news that he’ll have an expanded role on WEEI’s coverage, adding a weekly (and usually in-studio) visit with the midday “Mut and Merloni” program to his duties on the “NFL Sunday” pregame program. Chatham, host Dale Arnold, and Chris Price return to “NFL Sunday,” but Kevin Faulk does not. The postgame show features Butch Stearns, Steve DeOssie, and Fred Smerlas. WEEI also retains its Patriots Monday and Patriots Friday programming, including interviews with Brady and Belichick.