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The NFL: More Show Than Game

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Now take a look at the footage from last year's game. The drive was much shorter – one minute and 22 seconds in game time, three minutes and 25 seconds in reality – yet there are only 17 fewer cuts, meaning the action feels much faster. In both games, the team ran a no-huddle offense to conserve time, but in the latter the quickness of the pace is enhanced by the greater number of cuts between plays. And despite the drive taking less than half the time of the former, there are two detailed replays. The first is of a deep near-completion that is composed of three cuts: first, the receiver running his route; then, a look at the fearsome rush the quarterback was facing; and, finally, the "emotional" super-slo-mo of the receiver as the ball flies just past his fingertips. The second is of Vernon Davis' stunning 47-yard catch – this game's version of Rice's reception – which is broken into an isolated cut of Davis' route and a slow-motion shot of him fighting off a tackler while going out of bounds. Meanwhile, throughout, the sounds of the on-field collisions are as piercing as the roar of the fans, and aside from the yellow first-down marker, there is a similar digital graphic in red that marks the point the team needs to reach to be in field-goal range. After Davis makes the game-winning catch with 10 seconds remaining – and after it is shown in replay from two angles – the on-field camera rushes into the fray of the celebration: You can see the tears streaming down Davis' face, one of the most memorable "scenes" from the 2011 season. Montana's drive may be the more important moment, but no one will argue that it makes for better television.

Eventually, Rothman and Dean learn why they can't find Tom Brady, which has remained a top priority, with Dean directing his cameramen to keep searching and then yelling, "Reset!" moments before each play, cuing them to get back into position to capture what happens on the field. But in time, a representative of the Patriots, notoriously one of the league's least transparent teams, calls the trailer, letting everyone know that Brady is not at the game tonight. Knowing the game is likely to lack the on-field drama of a regular-season game, the crew has planned a number of graphics devoted to Brady's commitment to the team, to how his obsession with the game is as strong today as it was when he entered the league. This is what Gruden took away from his time with Brady at the Patriots' practice two days earlier, though it's not an easy thing to convey when Brady is not even watching his team play. "Great!" quips Rothman. "Just what we need."

However, midway through the first quarter, just over half an hour into the broadcast, something happens that makes this less of a dilemma. The Eagles have just set up for their second drive of the game: first-and-10 on their own 26-yard line. What a television viewer sees, at first, is this: Vick taking the snap, faking the handoff, scurrying backward 15 yards as two Patriots defenders stampede toward him, and then just missing DeSean Jackson, the Eagles' lightning-quick receiver, on a 54-yard pass. Rothman and Dean, of course, have eyes everywhere, which is to say they can see that Vick took a punishing hit: "Holy shit!" "He's down!" Dean cuts quickly to two defenders celebrating the hit, and then to Vick, who is still on the turf, holding his ribs in agony before staggering to his feet in a daze. Rothman and his deputies have used these three seconds to put together a replay package: first, a close-up of the hit from one of the sideline cameras that was focused exclusively on Vick, and then the same play from the reverse angle – this one more dramatic because the cameraman stayed locked on Vick as he writhed on the field. Meanwhile, back in real time, Vick has gone back down, and is being attended to by the training staff, so Dean cuts from the replay back to a live shot. Hold here. Now fade to a commercial. Perfect: a cliffhanger to ensure the viewer is so eager to learn what happens next that he doesn't change channels.

The moment, of course, was spontaneous: The Eagles could have run the ball, or completed an unremarkable short pass. Yet it comes across so cinematically onscreen because the crew has planned for it as if it were an inevitability. Gruden, in what now seems an act of foreshadowing, had even primed the viewer for this possibility. "It's very important that Michael Vick takes better care of himself," he said at the start of the broadcast, quoting himself verbatim from the meeting that morning in the hotel conference room. "Andy Reid told us, 'Vick is still gonna scramble for first downs, he's still gonna scramble for touchdowns, but you're also gonna see him scramble to get down and avoid a lot of the punishment he's taken over the last couple years.'" Somewhat ironically, just before the injury occurred, the crew had been putting together the finishing touches on a package about Vick's struggles to stay healthy, a little something to show should the drive turn out to be uneventful or slowed by penalties. Now, with a few tweaks, it becomes the ideal package to complement the injury.

There are still three more quarters to play, but it is Vick's injury that now becomes the major plotline of the game, the moment Rothman and Dean circle back to when the action slows, understanding that they've captured the first chapter of the story of Vick's entire season. When the game ends, at nearly midnight, Rothman, Dean and the crew have been working for 15 hours straight, and it shows. The men are bleary-eyed, eager to get horizontal, and now that the rush of production is over they have the dazed demeanor of two people coming down from a very potent high. After congratulating their crew for a job well done, they head toward their hotel, letting the "ops guys" responsible for breaking down and packing up the equipment get to work. Come morning, Rothman and Dean will each watch the entire broadcast on their iPads, studying it with the same scrutiny as NFL coaches. "I try to force myself to take a moment and see everything we've done right, and to remember how awesome it is, this thing we get to do every week," says Rothman. "But that lasts about a minute. Then I start noticing everything we did wrong, everything we should have done, and could have done, and I just look forward to the next game, hoping we can make it that much better."

This story is from the September 27th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

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