Season opens, storylines abound

Commentary

The NFL season kicked off Thursday with a Chiefs-Patriots matchup and along with that opener featuring the defending champions it’s already been an eventful first week.

Before the next game kicks off, Hurricane Irma has forced the Bucaneers-Dolphins game off the schedule. It will be played later this season. Even without Mother Nature, it will be an interesting season. Here are just a few of the TV-related storylines:

Anthem awareness — Player protests during the national anthem were blamed for some of the NFL’s ratings problems last season and gameday directors and producers, who decide which shots end up on viewers’ TVs, plan to acknowledge on-field demonstrations if they happen this year. Most believe it’s a matter of simply sharing what happens at an event — perhaps to the chagrin of NFL officials and some fans.

Anthem, anniversary — Week 1’s “Monday Night Football” matchup between the Saints and Vikings provides an interesting challenge. “It is the anniversary of 9/11 when 3,000 people died, 6,000 people were injured, hundreds of rescue workers were lost, and it was the greatest terrorist attack in our country,” said Jay Rothman, Monday Night Football producer. “We feel good about showing (the anthem). Should there be protests, I think we do have a responsibility to show it.”

Less but lengthier commercials — League and TV officials promise just four commercial breaks per quarter this season, and no more scoring play-commercial-kickoff-commercial pattern. Still, commercial breaks will be slightly longer.

Tons of technology — Chips that conveyed speed and force data were embedded in players’ pads last season, with information sometimes integrated in broadcasts. Expect more of the same this season. Plus, the footballs will have chips in them, opening the door for even more data to be shared. Making that information relevant will be the biggest challenge.

Simms to studio — CBS Sports has benched analyst Phil Simms (he’ll now work in studio) and replaced him with former Cowboys QB Tony Romo. As one of the AFC’s best teams, the Steelers should draw CBS’s Jim Nantz-Romo pairing somewhat consistently. While Nantz has his own problems, shaking things up and losing the unhelpful and wordy Simms should be good — even if Romo has some rookie challenges.

Cunningham’s courage

It has been a couple of seasons since Ed Cunningham worked a Penn State football game, and it will be a long time before the former college football standout and NFL player ever works another game as a TV analyst.

A long time, in this case, means never.

Cunningham, 48, walked away from his six-figure job with ESPN this summer because of his concern about head injuries to football players. Cunningham was a center and team captain at the University of Washington. He moved to TV when he retired from the NFL in 1996.

He no longer wanted to play a role, no matter how small the part, in glorifying football — a sport that he enjoyed as a player and helped lead to his career.

He has displayed no signs of head injuries as a result of his career.

“I take full ownership of my alignment with the sport,” Cunningham told The New York Times. “I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot. In it’s current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear. But the real crux of this is that I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it’s unacceptable.”

Cunningham’s move did not shake the college football world. Few viewers probably missed him the first week of the season, and he’s not about to be destitute because he walked away from the job. Still, it was a courageous and important decision.

Tuner tidbits

n The Week 1 TV crew for the Browns-Steelers matchup at 1 this afternoon is Greg Gumbel, Trent Green and reporter Jamie Erdahl.

n Retired coach Tommy Tuberville, who coached at Cincinnati, Texas Tech, Mississippi and Auburn, replaced Ed Cunningham at ESPN. He’s working with Mike Patrick and while the team did not always get tip-top games, Cunningham left big shoes to fill.

n An ESPN 30 for 30 series documentary about former heavyweight boxer Tommy Morrison will debut at 8 p.m. Sept. 27. It’ll be available Wednesday online (ESPN3) and with the ESPN and Watch ESPN apps.

n Fox Sports took some heat for hiring Michael Vick as an analyst for its NFL programming. Still, they remain committed to using him in that role and will have a ratings excuse of the shows do not perform well. Honestly, it feels like he’s paid his debt to society, and it’s also hard to imagine how strong he’ll be on TV anyway.

Sampsell can be reached at stevesampsell@gmail.com.

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