Jim Nantz and Tony Romo will say hundreds if not thousands of words during an approximately 3-hour-and-15-minute NFL broadcast.
But verbal communication is not the only important way Nantz and Romo — CBS’s top NFL broadcast team and the one, along with sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson, that will be in Foxborough to call Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins opener — interact during a game.
And that second manner of communication isn’t going to be possible this season as the league and its broadcast partners put proper protocols in place to ensure as best they can that the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t eventually halt their best-laid plans to play a full season.
"When Tony and I call games, we’re pretty touchy-feely people,'' said Nantz with a chuckle, noting that the non-verbal communication is sometimes necessary to point something out on the field or make sure they’re on the same page. “There’s a lot of contact going on during the game. But there’s a piece of plexiglass between us now. I don’t know what that’s going to be like, banging on the plexiglass … but we’ll get used to it. Everybody is going to have to get used to it.”
With no fans in the stands at Gillette Stadium at least through September, CBS will compensate on Sunday’s broadcast by using a mix of audio culled from four years of Patriots home games by NFL Films. This will be done for each home team each week across the league.
"I really admire the guy that’s running that board and quickly on the fly trying to change the emotion that we’re going to be hearing,'' said Nantz. “The audio thing, I feel pretty good about that we’ll mix that [to] match our voices to the appropriate level.”
But he did acknowledge that he’s wondered how different it will seem. In big moments, Nantz has often tucked any ego aside and gone silent, the response of the crowd telling the story. With no crowds and inauthentic if surely well-produced noise, it’s hard to know how to handle those moments.
"It’s been weighing on my mind since our last golf broadcast [CBS carried 11 weeks of PGA Tour events], and it’s been pretty easy in golf to feel like it was business as usual as a broadcaster without any fan interaction,'' he said. “It’s just a perfect fit for the sport. Most of the time it’s quiet, you’re talking in a conversational voice. Football, it’s different, man. You’ve got to learn to ride the wave of energy that’s normally in the stadium that now we’re not going to have any longer.”
But it won’t be totally foreign. Nantz noted that when he was paired with Romo, freshly retired from the Dallas Cowboys, before the 2017 season, they did a number of practice broadcasts in unusual circumstances.
"We did a lot of those games in a studio [watching a feed of an old game],'' said Nantz. “We did one — people called it a deer stand — from the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. So we did some games before we did a real game together that were in unique, unusual, non-standard settings. And we got through it just fine. I’m more worried about the plexiglass than the crowd noise.”
Romo said lessons can be learned from Patriots coach Bill Belichick when it comes to being ready for the unexpected.
"You can’t prepare for everything,'' said Romo. “Your job sometimes is just to experience it, and then adjust. The ones who adjust the best are the ones who end up playing at the end of the year in big games. It’s like Belichick. If there’s one thing he does at a very, very high level that people try to emulate, it’s that ability to adjust, from his team to the opponent to what the league is doing, all this stuff.”
Sean McManus, CBS Sports chairman, said there will be a few games during the season — he didn’t specify how many — that will be produced remotely from a studio in New York, but otherwise “we’re basically going to be producing our games as we always have.”
Because there will be few or no fans in the stands, there is the opportunity for more creative angles during the broadcasts. CBS will use 26 cameras, including six slow-motion cameras, Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Executive producer Harold Bryant said SkyCams will be in use, allowing for shots to be taken from above the stands.
"We can adjust our camera positions more easily,'' he said. “If we need to raise a camera to get a better angle on the field, in the past we were concerned about blocking fans. Without those fans, we can make adjustments.”
McManus said CBS would show the national anthem during every broadcast this week, but has not decided on the approach beyond Week 1.
"We don’t forget the fact that the country is going through a lot of political situations with Black Lives Matter and social justice and social injustice,'' he said. “We’re not going to ignore that, obviously. We’re going to address it in our pregame show with interviews and features. But the coverage of our game, once we get to the game coverage, will obviously be focusing on the action on the field. But we don’t forget and we don’t ignore those other two elements.”