Rich Eisen's "Total Access: A Journey to the Center of the NFL Universe," is a breezy, entertaining look at the first few years of the NFL Network, where Eisen hosts the flagship show, "NFL Total Access."
Eisen, 38, takes the reader through an NFL year, which both ends and begins again at the Super Bowl. Along the way he tells stories, none of which reveal any breathtaking secrets, but most of which are good for a laugh. You probably didn't know that NFL all-stars at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii spend a whole week trying to find out each other's room numbers so they can run up charges. Now you do.
The NFL Network may or may not be the center of the NFL universe, but it's certainly the nexus of coverage. Nowhere else can football wonks get live looks at the scouting combine and spring workouts. But what interests Eisen, who grew up on Staten Island with baseball as his favorite sport, is the NFL as a lifestyle.
"It's not just about the Cover 2 defense," he said about the NFL Network last week by phone from a Houston hotel room -- No. 1504 -- after hosting coverage of a Thursday night game. "It's about 'What is it about this game that we love so much?'"
Let's start with what editors always ask me when I ask if there are any questions about my story: Why'd you write it?
I guess why I wrote it was twofold. One was just personal. There were so many different stories and so many different moments in the first four years of launching NFL Network, which has been a joy and a pleasure, I just wanted to get them all out and share them with a populace that appears to be in a frenzy over this sport right now.
The other part of the reason is all these cable companies that are holding out from putting us on the air, their response is, "Well, people don't want a niche network. It's only eight games they broadcast every fall, and the rest of the year it's just NFL Films replays." You know, my book is 310 pages of proof against that. We're a year-round venture putting out an entertaining product on a cultural lifestyle, not a sport.
Were you encouraged from upstairs to write it?
[Laughs.] No, actually it was completely my idea. The league has been supportive of it even though there's a rule against NFL employees writing about their experience while they're on the job. They made an exception for me. It's not like I know any trade secrets to tell. It's my job to promote the National Football League every day, and I think this book is an excellent promotion of not only what the NFL is, because it shows the players in so many different lights, but our network. This is what our network is about. It's not just about the Cover 2 defense. It's about, what is it about this game that we love so much? Diving into that.
When you took the job, correct me if I'm remembering this wrong, but you expressed a little bit of trepidation, like, "I don't know if this is going to fly, but I'm going for it."
Did you really think that an NFL Network might not succeed? This is the biggest juggernaut in sports, like you just said.
That's why I called it a calculated risk. But still, I mean, here's a great story: I leave EPSN in 2003 to join NFL Network, move to Los Angeles, and my wife and I go to the NBA All-Star Game at Staples. And a guy comes running up to me and he goes, "Rich Eisen. I love you. I watch you every morning." And NFL Network was only on in 11 million homes at that point in time, and only mostly on DirecTV. And I'm like, "Wow, so you have DirecTV?" He goes, "No."
And I'm like, "Well, then you don't watch me every morning." He goes, "What are you talking about? I'm the biggest 'SportsCenter' fan there is." I'm like, "Dude, I haven't been on 'SportsCenter' for like 10 months." He goes, "What do you mean?" And I'm like, "I left. I'm on NFL Network now." He goes, "No shit!"
I swear to God, he looks at me and he goes, "Are you OK?" I felt like I should do what Conan O'Brien has Abe Vigoda do every now and then, breathe on a mirror to prove I'm alive.
But that's the mentality so many people have. Fans certainly, and many people who write about TV sports for a living think, "Well, you must be insane to leave the cultural monolith in 100 million homes for something that's only on in 10 million." And I just had a lot of things I wanted to do other than sit on a set at 3 in the morning waiting for a Texas Rangers relief pitcher to throw a freaking strike already so we could put the "SportsCenter" to bed and I could go to bed.
You say your job is to promote the league. I know you have a journalism background, and you also refer to covering the league. Is there ever a conflict between promoting and covering?
I think every media outlet has some form of conflict of interest based upon who owns it. Everyone knows we're owned by the NFL, so we don't have to say every day, "NFL Network is owned by the NFL," the way that any time Fox does a story on the Wall Street Journal, they have to say, "The Wall Street Journal is now owned by ..." or whatever.
But I didn't take this job without the complete assurance of everybody that I would be able to do my job the way I see fit, and certainly that somebody with a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern would be able to conduct himself. And I think I just went third-person on you there.
The only time the NFL has said to me, "You can't say this" was before we went on the air, and they said, "There will be no discussion of gambling. There will be no lines, overs, unders." And I'm fine with that. If there's anybody who requires their football news to be filtered through that prism, there's many different outlets to seek, and then they can come back to us.
I'm totally cool with that. I mean, we talked all summer long about dogfighting, and that was after Pacman Jones, where I learned what "making it rain" means. I had no idea. We talked about that, we talk about coaches on hot seats, owners that make bad decisions. We have the head of NFL refs on every week for what I think is the most compelling segment we put on "Total Access." The head of NFL refs comes and talks about controversial calls. And to the credit of the NFL, that's the way it's been from the get-go.
You write that you grew up a baseball fan, and now that you're working for the NFL Network you've gone native and football's your favorite sport. When the next gig comes along do you think you'll go back to being a baseball fan?
Well, I still am a baseball fan. When I come home from doing "NFL Total Access" between April and October I turn on the Yankees. I'm constantly watching them. I'm still a fan. I'm a fan of all sports. Baseball I like to call my first love, and now football's become my true love. There's so many aspects to this game, so many different nuances and mentalities to be successful or be a professional. There's so many unwritten codes in the NFL, there's so many different layers, that I had no idea existed. That's another reason I wanted to write this book.
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NFL Week 16 [PERMALINK]
Now that the Miami Dolphins have won their first game, we're down to one perfection watch, whether the New England Patriots can run the table. The team in their way this week? The Miami Dolphins.
If you're tempted to read ahead of the class, it's the New York Giants next week.
The remaining intrigue mostly revolves around NBA-style wrangling for the last few playoff spots, though it's more interesting than in the NBA because there are fewer playoff spots, so the teams are better. Also, it only goes on for two or three weeks instead of the whole season.
Ad hominem attacks on the perfectly nice NBA dispensed with, we turn to NFL Week 16, with winners in caps. As always, I've included the picks of my kids: Buster, the game-pickinest 4-year-old in the sunny Mission, who is making a solid attempt to not just pick home teams, and Daisy, the coin-flippinest 2-year-old who ever mastered the art of pushing a 4-year-old's buttons like a maestro.
Thanks mostly to the prevalence of six-plus-point favorites, which they're obligated to pick, the kids are working in harmony here in a way I didn't expect to see until they turned on me.
DALLAS (12-2) at Carolina (6-8)
Who picked the Cowboys to stumble and lose to the Eagles last week? That's right. Uh-huh. And I know the sky's falling in Dallas and everything, but not this week.
Kids: Dallas (11-point favorite)
Sunday early games
N.Y. Giants (9-5) at BUFFALO (7-7)
It'd be a good idea for the Giants to win this one. They'll play the Patriots in Week 17, with New England almost certainly trying to nail down an undefeated regular season. The Giants are playing it backwards this year, with three straight home losses but six straight road wins. They'll try to keep that going by unleashing their pass rush on Buffalo rookie Trent Edwards and hoping to survive the elements on offense without injured tight end Jeremy Shockey. I don't think it'll work.
Daisy: New York
GREEN BAY (12-2) at Chicago (5-9)
The Cowboys' loss to Philly last week pulled Green Bay into a tie for the best record in the NFC, but Dallas still holds the tie-breaker. If the Cowboys really are faltering, the Packers could end up with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which for them is a very big deal. They'd much rather play the Cowboys on the frozen tundra than in Texas. That's plenty of motivation for them to avoid their own pratfall against a division rival in a down year.
Kids: Green Bay (9-point favorite)
CLEVELAND (9-5) at Cincinnati (5-9)
If Cleveland wins its last two and the Steelers lose one, the Browns will win the AFC North. The Bengals won't stop them from holding up the first half of their end.
KANSAS CITY (4-10) at Detroit (6-8)
The Chiefs have lost seven straight, the Lions have lost six in a row. It's like a super-slo-mo, graphic representation of Galileo's gravity experiment. I think the Lions will hit the ground first.
Kids: Kansas City
Houston (7-7) at INDIANAPOLIS (12-2)
Have you noticed yet? No games between two teams with winning records this week. But on the other hand ... Nope. There's no other hand. The Colts are pretty locked into the No. 2 seed, so they're ripe for a silly upset, but the Texans are probably too banged up to pull it off in the dome.
Kids: Indianapolis (7.5-point favorite)
Oakland (4-10) at JACKSONVILLE (10-4)
If the Jags can run on the Steelers, imagine what they can do to the Raiders.
Kids: Jacksonville (13-point favorite)
Philadelphia (6-8) at NEW ORLEANS (7-7)
This is a better game than it looks like. The Saints are looking like the Saints on offense lately, and the Eagles' are a little better than their 6-8 record, which includes losses to the Packers, Patriots, Seahawks and Giants by a total of 13 points. Drew Brees and perhaps a Philly letdown after that win over the Cowboys will keep New Orleans' dim playoff hopes alive. I think.
Daisy: New Orleans
Sunday late games
Atlanta (3-11) at ARIZONA (6-8)
For about 13 seconds in the middle of the night the other day, it looked like Bill Parcells was going to be the new boss of the Falcons. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the high point of the year for your 2007 Atlanta Falcons. For the Cardinals, it's being a double-digit favorite over anyone.
Kids: Arizona (10-point favorite)
TAMPA BAY (9-5) at San Francisco (4-10)
The 49ers are catching the Bucs at a bad time. Tampa Bay only beat the Falcons 37-3 last week, so they'll be breathing fire.
Kids: Tampa Bay (7-point favorite)
MIAMI (1-13) at New England (14-0)
Everybody needs to get off the Dolphins' back about how they got that first win last week only because a usually reliable kicker missed a makable field goal in overtime, or how the Ravens stupidly went for the game-tying field goal from the 1/12th-yard line in regulation instead of punching it in for the win. All that's true, but teams win games like that all the time. A win is a win. The Dolphins won't go winless, and there won't be an asterisk. And not only did they win, they snatched Parcells from the jaws of the Falcons to run the show. Best week of the year by far, and that was before they were pegged as the What the Heck Pick of the week.
Kids: New England (22.5-point favorite)
Baltimore (4-10) at SEATTLE (9-5)
The Ravens have lost eight straight. A few weeks ago I noticed they were 20-point underdogs against the Patriots and I wrote that they aren't that bad. They beat that spread, but they really are that bad.
Kids: Seattle (10-point favorite)
N.Y. Jets (3-11) at TENNESSEE (8-6)
The Titans can still make the playoffs if they win their last two and either the Browns or Steelers do some losing. This week shouldn't be a problem.
Kids: Tennessee (9-point favorite)
Sunday night game
Washington (7-7) at MINNESOTA (8-6)
The Vikings should be able to pound their way to their sixth straight win, which would clinch a playoff berth. Remember when we were arguing about whether the Vikes should shut down Adrian Peterson because they were going nowhere?
Kids: Minnesota (6.5-point favorite)
Monday night game
Denver (6-8) at SAN DIEGO (9-5)
Fifteen weeks ago, this was looking like a good bet to be a dynamite game, a showdown for the AFC West title. The Chargers have already clinched that, the Broncos are kaput, and the only thing in the air is whether San Diego will beat out the North winner for the No. 3 seed and a chance to avoid the Patriots in the divisional round. Actually, that's pretty good motivation right there.
Kids: San Diego (8-point favorite)
Season record: 137-88
So far this week: 1-0
Last week: 10-6
What the Heck Picks: 2-12
Of the three jokes I thought of that included the concepts of "Big Tuna" and "Dolphins," number that I decided not to use because they weren't funny: 3
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Dark week [PERMALINK]
This column will be off next week during Salon's traditional holiday-week reduced publishing schedule. My annual "Year in Sports" piece will be published Dec. 30, and the column will resume Jan. 2.
Happy holidays. Thanks for wasting another year reading this column.
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