Al Michaels’ voice opened the 2014 football season, with the kickoff broadcast in Seattle, and it will close it, too, with the call of Super Bowl XLIX next week in Glendale, Ariz. A season that’s been unlike any other has had controversy at the beginning (Ray Rice) and at the end (Deflategate), but viewer interest has remained as strong as ever. NBC’s play-by-play man, and recent author of You Can’t Make This Up (with Sports Illustrated’s L. Jon Wertheim), talked to The MMQB this week about what will be his ninth Super Bowl play-by-play call—and his past, present and future perspective on the game he considers the perfect television sport.
VRENTAS: When you call the Super Bowl, your audience is probably more than 100 million viewers, not all of whom are football fans. How does that change your approach?
MICHAELS: Well, what it does is, you never want to insult the intelligence of the fan, someone who really knows all of the stories. So you begin to think in terms of maybe almost prefacing some stories with, “Hey, people who follow year round know this, but …” We don’t try to do that very often, but we’ll do it from time to time. If there is a story that is known by 50 percent of the audience but is not known by the other 50 percent, but it is relevant, we may come in that door. The other thing is we try to find the stories that haven’t been told that the bigger, broader audience would enjoy, to personalize some of the players, the coaches, the owner or what have you. It’s pretty much the same thing on a Sunday night. We like to think we have this big tent and we are basically standing outside saying, “Come one come all!” We have something for the aficionado; we have something for the person who only watches one game a year. That’s pretty much our philosophy on Sunday Night Football. We go into every game thinking of it as a mini Super Bowl. They tell us it’s the No. 1 show on television right now with over 20 million people every week, and that’s pretty much our attitude. So the Super Bowl is very much an extension of our attitude for a regular Sunday night game.
VRENTAS: This will be your ninth Super Bowl broadcast. Best moment in the previous eight?
MICHAELS: Well I would say that of the eight, the game I enjoyed the most and really relished the most was XLIII, which was Arizona-Pittsburgh. I just felt that the game itself was great. You had an iconic franchise, Pittsburgh, against the Arizona “what-are-they-doing-here?” Cardinals. They had lost [47-7] in December to New England and then had this magical run, which made for a great story. The Cardinals are in the Super Bowl? And then you had two iconic plays in that game, James Harrison’s interception return at the end of the half, 100 yards. Arizona is going in to take the lead and instead, Harrison intercepts the pass and is running down the sideline; he’s almost tackled eight different times and the clock is running out, so if he gets tackled or taken out of bounds at the 1-yard line, you can’t even kick a field goal. And then Larry Fitzgerald catches a pass in the fourth quarter, and Arizona has the lead. Roethlisberger leads Pittsburgh back on a 78-yard drive, which culminates with Santonio Holmes making a tremendous catch in the end zone. So top to bottom, that would be my favorite of the eight. And on top of that, I didn’t know it at the time, but three moths later John Madden decided to retire, so that turned out to be John’s last-ever broadcast. And what a way to go out.
I guess if you had [to pick] one incredible moment, again Harrison and Holmes’ catch would factor into this, too. But I did the game after the ’99 season, St. Louis against Tennessee. At the end of the game, Tennessee had the ball at the 10-yard line, Kevin Dyson caught the pass from Steve McNair, reaches out, can’t get into the end zone, so that’s the way the game ended, on the 1, and the Rams won the Super Bowl. Otherwise that would have been a game that would have gone to overtime, and that’s something that’s never happened in any of the 48 super bowls. And that’s the only thing I’ll be rooting for a week from Sunday. I want to be able to do the first-ever Super Bowl overtime game. I think that would be fantastic. Look, announcers root for high drama. Some fans think we’re biased or whatever. We want high drama, we want excitement, we want controversy, we want a lot of strategy to talk about, great plays, wild plays. And then for me, at the end of the day, I want to go to that fifth quarter. And as long as we go to overtime, we might as well go to triple overtime, and make it the longest game ever. That would be the all time fun day for me.
VRENTAS: Well, you’ve already got your controversy. “Deflategate” has become a major storyline in advance of the Super Bowl. What questions will you ask in your production meetings with the Patriots, and how will you handle the controversy on air?
MICHAELS: Well, the whole thing is still evolving right now. We know where it is today. We don’t know where it will be tomorrow; I certainly don’t know where it will be a week from Sunday. There’s a lot more that’s going to either come out of this or not come out of this. Cris [Collinsworth] and I, and Michele [Tafoya] and our whole gang, we’re concerned with 6:30 Eastern Time, 4:30 Mountain, a week from Sunday. We are thinking about it right now, but I’ve got to see where this winds up. There’s a lot more to come with this story.
VRENTAS: You were the first broadcast on the air after the Mueller Report came out divisional weekend. You and Cris received some criticism afterward for having been perceived as giving praise to the league. What was your plan for addressing that on air?
MICHAELS: Well a couple of things were at play here. The Mueller Report comes out Thursday around noon, give or take a couple of hours. And 48 hours later, we are doing a game. The report also obviously involved the Baltimore Ravens, who are playing in our game. And who is going to come to our game? Roger Goodell. What we planned to do, and what we did—and it’s funny, because Bob Costas did almost exactly what I did on the pre-game show. Bob talked about, here are the bullet points; here is what came out of the Mueller Report. Which is exactly what I did. I’m sure to some people, it sounded like a script. I had written out the points. Because we were dealing with, in effect, a legal document, I wanted to make sure I had everything right. What I really did is recount some of the specifics of the report. Now again, you had Roger sitting in the stands. There’s a lot of animus towards Roger from a lot of people, and no matter what the report said, they were still going to feel that way. But I felt the key thing to do—and I know [NBC Chairman] Mark Lazarus, I think he talked about this at the boxing press conference—was we were there to report the facts. And then Cris came in with his comment, editorially, about Roger. Cris has known Roger for a long time. I have, too. And Cris felt it was important for him to say, “Look, I know him as an honorable man.” That probably turned some people off. But let’s reverse this for a second. Let us say that we had this game, Roger is at the game, Baltimore is in the game, and we ignored it. I think then, we should have come in for some criticism. But instead, we had to address it, and this is the way we felt it was fair to address it. One of the things was, “Hey look, the league wasn’t absolved of all blame in this,” but one of the key components of that report that people wanted to know was, Did Roger Goodell lie? The report said he did not lie. We took heat for saying what the report said, but what are we supposed to do? Go, “Hey you know what, Mueller is a liar”? Some of the people who came after us didn’t want to believe that the Mueller Report was factual. But this certainly wasn’t the time to delve into whether or not that was the case. All we wanted to do, is like on Dragnet, Sgt. Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts.” That was our attitude about this.
We live in this world of tweeting, and social media, and anti-social media, and all the rest, so no matter what you say, there is going to be what people say is a firestorm. I don’t know what a firestorm is. I’ll digress for one second and tell you a very funny story. I loved Curt Gowdy. He was one of my early mentors and idols in the business, and when Curt was doing this in the ’70s, he’s doing Super Bowls, World Series. The big events—Curt Gowdy did them. And he was a great pal. You had no cable TV, you had no social media, you had no internet. And Curt would say, if the boss got two letters of criticism, it was a barrage. Three letters was a deluge. We’ve gone from the world of 1975 to the world of 2015. It’s a wacky world.
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