In the first of a new series for the offseason, Pickwatch takes the TV experts to task and breaks down the strengths and many, many weaknesses of NFL media analysts. First up is one of the men who holds the whole thing together, NFL Network’s prime time host Rich Eisen.
Can you imagine Rich Eisen in a T-shirt? No, because this is a man born with a quasi-presidential style that leaves no room for smart-casual in the wardrobe. I like to imagine Eisen’s wardrobe as a vast spectrum of color, with shirts ranging all the way from brilliant white to pale blue. Even when running his now ubiquitous 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Eisen – in a self-depreciating manner – insists on wearing a suit, even when NFL Network shoehorn (literally) an Under Armour endorsement in.
What he does:
Eisen isn’t there to offer you his own football opinions – more on that later – and it’s a good job too, as he is often tasked with controlling the biggest egos in sports, ie: the NFL’s prime time broadcasting crews. There is a notable gap between Eisen and any of his fellow anchors at NFLN since Fran Charles left to front the MLB’s in-house coverage two years ago.
When Warren Sapp is spouting barely credible rubbish with a vaguely shocked face like he’s having a cattle prod inserted into a place nobody wants to see, it is Rich who must step in and guide the conversation to the warm, embracing tones of Marshall Faulk. Ditto when tasked with one of Michael Irvin’s Bill Cosby impressions (you know, the ones where he seems to lose all motor skills?), it’s Rich’s job to keep the conversation flowing.
There’s something slightly off with NFLN’s pre-game analysis, and if anything one of the slight problems is that they are somehow too prepared. Never shy to show some candid production meeting shots, you get the feeling that every analyst on the panel has an internal clock counting down in their head as a result of the show’s script being drilled into them beforehand. That’s all well and good, but it’s too polished and doesn’t leave any room for an ad-hoc discussion on the merits of individual players in a balanced manner. Eisen is one of the casualties of this high pressure approach to gameday broadcasts, as he is shunted aside for an ESPN-esque shoutathon.
Rich also hosts his own podcasts on NFL.com and there we see a different style to him. It’s still hard to envisage him recording in anything other than a dress shirt and comfy slacks, but in these less-constrained settings we see hints of Eisen the journalist, offering football opinions in a way that he would never be able to on air with Deion & co.
Strengths and Weaknesses:
Eisen’s humor is – although exclusively ‘white guy in his 40s’ – a bonus that has carried NFL Network through some rough times. It can wear a little thin on the podcast, where the celebrity guests often seem like the only guys in on the joke, but overall it’s a good character trait in a leading man like Eisen, particularly given that he spends every day surrounded by football cliches – again, more on that later – and the 24/7 seriousness of the modern NFL.
He’s also an orator, never afraid to stretch his vocabulary and challenge the viewer (or even his guests) by using the fabled ‘big words’ that make Willie McGinest and Heath Evans glaze over and look nonplussed. A charming interviewer, he adapts to every situation the network asks him to cover, but he is at his best when working the pro-bowl or doing interviews with his favorite players such as Maurice Jones-Drew. MJD and some other players have built up genuine relationships with Eisen and that comes across in those settings wonderfully. No seriously, wonderfully.
It’s hard to fault Eisen for not standing up for the common man in the battle against the NFL’s faceless corporate business side, but it’s hard not to get the impression that he has come up short when the game most needed him to press say, Roger Goodell or Jerry Jones when he gets them one on one. In the end, you’re left with the feeling that the reason Big Roger calls on Rich for the exclusive interviews is simply because he’ll give the veneer of a proper Q&A, without any follow up questions or disagreement.
What makes this perhaps more acute is that many times on his podcast, or on Twitter, Eisen has expressed a passionate voice that is more in tune with fans on many issues. He spends a lot of time with guys who played in an era of headhunting, ‘dings’ and ‘stingers’, so it’s no surprise to find him railing against the emasculation of defensive players in the modern era. Similarly, he is first on the scene when a huge call goes wrong and isn’t afraid to challenge the rulebook.
The only time Eisen seemed to genuinely question any off-field direction when working on NFL Network, was during the referee strike in 2012. Even then, he bit his tongue, but that exasperation with the pursuit of dollars over the integrity of the game reflects the feelings of many fans, and it would be nice to see Eisen use that passion to push the owners and executives when they are making ‘business’ decisions.
If Rich has anything to do with the NFL Network Thursday Night Football broadcasts in a production capacity, he also needs a stern lecture for allowing the propagation of such inane banter as the Deion Sanders CD’s, the Mooch bobble heads etc to infect their post-game shows. It might sound churlish, but here’s why it’s terrible: In a TV landscape where 2 minutes is an age, the Gameday crew often spend that amount of time joking about how much money Deion used to earn, or how Michael Irvin wore the number 88… or blah blah blah. Nobody cares. That’s two minutes where I’d rather have heard from a guy who has just won a game, because often that’s the only time you’ll get anything remotely noteworthy from most pro footballers.
Working with the pros
Eisen has, as mentioned, one of the harder jobs in football in that he is regularly tasked with taming the egos of people who consider themselves above (in no particular order) the law, polite manners, allowing others to finish speaking, and generally not being an idiot. We’ve made it clear a few times in a Lucille Bluth-esque way that Pickwatch doesn’t really care for Warren Sapp, but from all appearances Eisen genuinely seems to enjoy the camaraderie of the Gameday crew and is not afraid to join in the banter.
Sometimes this can border on the sycophantic, as he indulges the idiosyncrasies of men like Deion Sanders as if the show would implode if ‘Prime’ didn’t get his own way. You’d like to see him sometimes step in and show that nobody, no matter how big a personality, is bigger than the broadcast, or challenge some of the sillier views that come out of his panel, but in the end Rich seems just a bit too much of a company man to bring that kind of autonomous, ad-libbed discussion into play.
Off the Field
Eisen’s social media presence is something of an enigma. He’ll post inane stats with first-glance ‘wow’ factor – such as the fact that Russell Wilson’s passing yards in his two games at the Metlife equal Seattle’s area code – but generally this is a fan doing something he loves. It’s a clichÃ© to say it, but you do get the sense that he is awestruck by the fact that he gets to do his job, and some of the pictures of more candid moments behind the scenes really reflect that.
He’s not shy of retweeting or engaging with fans off camera, although it seems to be a tendency of his to only truly have a back & forth with true ‘celebrities’, particularly when they have worked on his favorite TV shows. Still, it’s good that he often gets involved in those conversations, or lets you see the other side of the NFL, something to be commended in a league bereft of connection with fans in many ways.
If you dislike Rich Eisen you’re probably a bit of an idiot. The guy stands out as an effortless professional, in a world where everyone is coached how to act professionally. He’s also funny, reliable and an ever-present in our football lives over the last decade that will one day mark him down as a legend of TV broadcasting.
Is he perfect? Well no, but is he preferable to the loud-mouthed opinions of some hosts on rival channels? Yeah definitely. He commands the type of everyman appeal that only comes with age and experience, making the NFL Network execs look pretty savvy for making him the face of the league’s network in 2003. Eisen has blossomed into the yardstick for sports presenting, affable but professional, sombre when called upon, but with the passion of ten drunk guys in a bar. Yep, no matter what his flaws, Rich is one of the best, and surely has another 15 years left at the very top of the game if he so chooses.
Let’s hope he does, because you’ll miss him when he’s gone.