By Richie Zyontz
FOX NFL Lead Producer
Editor’s note: Richie Zyontz has been an NFL producer for FOX since 1994 and the lead producer for the past 20 seasons. He has more than 40 years of experience covering the league and has produced six Super Bowls. Throughout the 2022 NFL season, it will provide an inside look as FOX’s new #1 NFL team makes its journey to Super Bowl LVII.
In mid-October, at a FOX NFL crew dinner, we went around the table asking for opinions on potential participants in the NFC Championship Game, still months away. Between forks of pasta and meatballs, the vote of 15 people was almost unanimous. Our collective pick was the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles. Maybe it was an illusion.
At the time, the Eagles were undefeated and the 49ers had just acquired dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey. The prospect of a collision at the end of January was a delicious thought. And yesterday the expected confrontation took place in the supposed City of Brotherly Love.
But a funny thing happened on the way to what we hoped would be an instant classic. The game had some classic qualities, but for all the wrong reasons.
Madness occurred in many forms almost from the beginning.
We saw game-altering injuries, a broken side chain, instant replay, claims that a ball hit an overhead camera wire, a bench-clearing brawl, and enough penalty flags to last a lifetime. I’m tired just writing about it. But on Sunday I had to produce, and it was quite a challenge.
To challenge or not to challenge?
The instant replay system places a television broadcast in the middle of the process. Our video determines whether a coach must answer certain calls on the field. Time is of the essence: once the ball is hooked for the next play, it’s too late.
“They deserve a trip to the Super Bowl”
Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen discuss the Eagles’ blowout victory over the Niners in the NFC Championship.
We encountered a complicated situation at the beginning of the game.
Philadelphia wide receiver Devonta Smith apparently made a spectacular catch on the sideline. Field cameraman Don Cornelli was perfectly positioned (as always) to deliver a wonderful image. Our thoughts in the truck immediately turned to whether Smith was in bounds and holding onto the ball.
So with time for just one replay as Philadelphia hustled to the line of scrimmage, we showed the view from Don’s camera, which seemed to indicate a completed catch. San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan couldn’t challenge the play based on that angle. The Eagles then snapped the ball quickly, shutting down the possibility of a review.
During the next commercial break, we discovered an angle from reverse cameraman Keith DeSantis (another brilliant cameraman who captured the classic shot of the Giants’ David Tyree catch in Super Bowl XLII). This proved conclusively that the ball was not caught: it hit the ground. As my grandmother would have said, “oy vey”.
Needless to say, I’m kicking myself today. That’s what producers do. We strive for perfection and are constantly disappointed. Given the rush, as well as what our eyes initially saw, I’m not sure we could have shown the proper replay in time. But that was just the beginning of a strange day.
Cinderella or pumpkin?
San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy was the Cinderella of the playoffs going into the championship game.
After injuries to the 49ers’ top two QBs during the season, Purdy took over and helped lead his team to seven straight wins. What a story as this freshman kid took the field against a ferocious Philly crowd and defense. And then he got hurt! And then his support got hurt! And then an injured Purdy had to return despite not being able to throw the ball.
Needless to say, the broadcast was prepared with plenty of pre-recorded graphics and stories about Purdy’s meteoric rise. wow
But his injury and the ensuing saga kept reporter Erin Andrews busy on the sidelines of San Francisco. And he was excellent, monitoring Purdy’s every move and facial expression.
Sideline reporters do much more than appear sparingly on television screens. They continuously feed information to the truck which is translated into images.
While getting real injury information from teams can be a challenge, it’s the images that become even more valuable. And valuable is the perfect adjective for Erin on Sunday in Philly!
Drop the gloves
Another crazy moment worth mentioning: a fight to clear the bench.
Fittingly, it happened in Philadelphia, home of the Broad Street Bullies, the nickname for the Flyers hockey team that terrorized the NHL in the 1970s.
This time, however, the violence came from the visitors. It was near the end of a long and frustrating game for San Francisco when future Hall of Famer Trent Williams hit an Eagles player like he was a rag doll.
A brawl broke out, resulting in two ejections, near the end of the Niners-Eagles matchup.
Williams was easy to like during our meeting during the week, describing his preparation and excitement for the upcoming game. But he lost it, and both benches emptied to join the fray.
For us in the truck, it meant keeping the cameras wide on the field to capture the surreal scene of the players pouring onto the field. The tendency is to narrow it down, showing only the main fighters. But that takes the full perspective of the event.
My favorite image was of Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, his work done for the day, warmup jacket on, quietly watching from afar as the crazy scene unfolded.
What’s next? A trip to Arizona, where I will be lucky enough to produce my seventh Super Bowl. There are stories galore. Chiefs coach Andy Reid facing the team he led for 14 years. The Kelce Brothers; Jason from Philadelphia and Travis from Kansas City on the opposite sideline. Will two weeks be enough for Patrick Mahomes to heal from a sprained ankle? And does it even matter?
We’re just hoping for a great game, and maybe a little less craziness.
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