The Patriots will play their lone “Monday Night Football” game of the season when they take on the Buffalo Bills on — you guessed it — Monday night.
As you undoubtedly have heard if you follow the NFL or sports media whatsoever, the conventional “MNF” broadcast on ESPN comes with a compelling alternative most weeks this season: The Manning Cast, featuring Peyton and Eli Manning, which airs simultaneously on ESPN2.
In terms of buzz, the Manning Cast, which takes a “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ approach to the game, has been a smash hit. The Mannings are genuinely funny, at ease, have football-savant tendencies, and cannot mask their disgust at inept quarterback play.
It’s a fun watch. But when Monday night comes around, I’ll be sticking with the main broadcast, for two reasons:
Part of the charm of the Mannings’ show is that they go off on tangents, especially when they have guests. That apparent freewheeling approach (though you know Peyton scripts as much of it as he can) is entertaining when you don’t necessarily care much about the teams that are playing. But when the team you care about is playing, the game can sometimes feel secondary, and goofy distractions get annoying fast.
Colleague Ben Volin posted a Twitter poll this past week, asking which broadcast fans will watch. The poll received more than 5,200 votes, with 55.1 percent saying they’d watch the conventional broadcast and 44.9 percent the Manning brothers. I guarantee you there’s no way it’s that close in reality. The main broadcast has accounted for nearly 87 percent of “MNF’s” viewing audience this year. Fans choose conventional when it comes to watching the team they care about.
Oh, and the second reason? Because Louis Riddick, who along with play-by-play voice Steve Levy, and fellow analyst Brian Griese is in his third year on the main broadcast, is more knowledgeable about the Patriots than the entire Manning family put together.
Riddick, who played special teams and safety for Bill Belichick with the Browns from 1993-95, was perhaps the most vocal advocate for Mac Jones as an elite quarterback prospect before the 2021 NFL Draft.
“Former offensive coordinators and quarterback gurus who have coached at a very high level told me they believe Mac Jones is the best quarterback in the draft,” Riddick said in March.
During ESPN’s draft coverage in April, Riddick praised the Patriots’ free agent class (which included Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry, and Kendrick Bourne, all currently major contributors) and, after the Patriots landed Jones at No. 15, said, “If Mac Jones hits, look out, they’re back.”
But it’s not just that Riddick makes predictions that pan out about the Patriots. He tells you in advance why they will pan out. His argument on Jones’s behalf before the draft was that his extraordinary touch and decision-making are skills that should be lauded as much, if not more, than electrifying athleticism.
I asked Riddick on Friday if he was surprised at all that Jones, who has completed 70.3 percent of his passes for the 8-4 Patriots, has acclimated this quickly.
“No, I’m not surprised at all,” said Riddick. “Are not the two main non-negotiables when it comes to quarterback play decision-making and accuracy? Is that not where it starts?
“Going back to Senior Bowl week when I spent time in Mobile watching him learn [Panthers coach] Matt Rhule’s offense in a matter of hours, basically, in a few practices on the field, he was in control in that environment right from the get-go.
“Then, all through the pre-draft process of talking not only to people who had coached or people who had been in New England’s system at one point in time, when you did your due diligence in that regard, doing homework on Mac, doing homework on what exactly it would be that would allow a quarterback to thrive in New England system, it just seemed like the perfect match. It just did.
“Every single person just raved about the mental horsepower that he has and how there’s never too much that you can give him.”
Riddick noted that Belichick prioritizes continuous player development in a way other coaches may not, which is why someone such as Bourne can look like a better player with each passing week.
“I think that’s always the key with them,” said Riddick. “It’s never any magic formula to them. I think the formula has been the same all the way back to Cleveland in terms of Bill setting that formula and then getting the right people to execute it. He identifies a player’s skill set, and then puts them in the best position to succeed, time and time again.”
The ESPN booth is improving with time, too. Riddick said it’s been easier to build chemistry in the third season together than it was last year, when COVID-19 protocols prevented them from spending time together away from the booth. And Riddick and his broadcast teammates have handled the attention around the Manning Cast with grace.
“People have their viewing preferences, and you see what that style of broadcast has to offer and what the traditional broadcast has to offer, and now people have the ability to choose what they want,” said Riddick. “We really just go about it by doing what we’re trying to do, which is get better and better as a three-man booth. All signs are pointing upward, man, and I think we’re in a pretty good spot.”