Given ESPN’s long-established broadcast-rights empire and massive overall reach, it comes as nothing less than a surprise nowadays when the network is carrying a significant sporting event for the first time.
But Saturday afternoon, ESPN will do something that it has not done previously in its 35-year-history: It will broadcast an NFL playoff game.
ESPN is the television home of the NFC wild-card round matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals, which kicks off at 4:35. Saturday’s second wild-card game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens airs on NBC at 8:15.
ESPN gained the rights to broadcast one wild-card game per season as part of an eight-year extension it agreed upon with the NFL in 2011. The extension went into effect this spring at the conclusion of the initial contract.
The matchup hardly qualifies as marquee by postseason standards — the Panthers won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record, while the 11-5 Cardinals have lost two straight with third-stringer Ryan Lindley at quarterback. But ESPN will do its best to bring the magnitude of prime-time to Saturday afternoon, starting by using its “Monday Night Football” production team and broadcasters to call the game.
Mike Tirico will call play-by-play on his first NFL playoff game in the nearly 24 years he has worked at ESPN, with Jon Gruden handling the color analysis and Lisa Salters reporting from the sideline. The network will use 32 cameras on the telecast, the same number it uses for a Monday night game.
Gruden acknowledged that ESPN doesn’t have the flashiest matchup for its NFL postseason debut. But he also said he wouldn’t go so far as to suggest changing the league’s playoff seeding protocol to prevent a division winner with a losing record from hosting a playoff game, as Carolina will do Saturday.
“I like the way it is, personally,’’ said Gruden. “I’d like to see everybody be 12-4 that [wins] a division title. I’d also like to have a new Cadillac sitting in my driveway.
“But the division winner should, I think, get in and host a playoff game. These teams don’t play the same schedules, so 10-6 might be 10-6, but 7-8-1 might be just as good because of what they went through to get to 7-8-1. I think there’s a lot of different ways to look at this.
“That’s why I just like the tradition of the division title; you’re in, you automatically host a playoff game, and a couple weeks from now, no one will even remember this.”
Gruden, with his trademark drawling enthusiasm, talks about the middling matchup like it has a chance to be one fans actually will remember even as the playoffs progress.
“If you put Carolina on paper and looked at their team last year and now look at it this year, it’s amazing the job Ron Rivera has done . . . I’m really impressed with Carolina’s defense.
“And what Coach [Bruce] Arians has been through in Arizona speaks for itself, not only at the quarterback position but across the board on his football team. The Cardinals appear to be on fumes right now, losing their last couple games with a third-team quarterback, but they have firepower on defense, they’re a challenge to prepare for because they come from everywhere with blitzes, and they still have some bad ball receivers that can go get it.”
Gruden’s quick, almost reflexive praise of the coaches is hard not to notice, and the reason is easy to understand. As an 11-year head coach in the NFL — four years with the Raiders and seven with the Buccaneers — he has a been-there appreciation for the rigors of the profession.
Especially the dark days, when jobs and lives change in the time it takes to complete a solemn meeting with the boss.
“That was a tough day for me [Monday, when three head coaches were fired] because I went through that several years ago, and a lot of these guys are my friends, including Rex [Ryan],” said Gruden, who was fired by the Buccaneers in January 2009.
“I’m really disappointed for him. I understand winning and losing is certainly the defining number for some people, but I expect Rex Ryan to get picked up quickly.
“I’m sure there are some celebrations in Buffalo and New England and Miami. But the Jets, they chose to move on. I wish them the best in their endeavors, but I think they lost one heck of a football coach.”
It’s been awhile since Gruden has coached, and the perception that he would not be able to resist returning to the sidelines fades with each passing year, much as it has done with former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who has been with CBS Sports since 2007.
Gruden has been with ESPN since April 2009, and a contract extension through 2021 that he signed in December will in theory keep him from returning to the NFL sidelines any time soon.
“I’m not a candidate to coach,’’ he reiterated this week. “This is as good a team [at ESPN] as I’ve been on in a long time.”
And a team that after all these years is finally part of the playoffs.