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Steelers, 'MNF' and a whole lot of work

| Monday, Nov. 26, 2007

Mike Tirico and a handful of others were walking back to the Westin Hotel following dinner the day before the Steelers' last appearance on "Monday Night Football."

A man looking for some spare change started to follow them, and all of the sudden Franco Harris, on his way home from the Steelers' 75th anniversary gala, pulled up to the group and lowered his car window.

"Leave those guys alone!" Harris shouted.

Tirico and the mammoth ESPN crew responsible for "Monday Night Football" telecasts have returned to Pittsburgh -- the Steelers host the Dolphins at 8:30 tonight -- and they will be prepared for anything this side of a persistent panhandler.

The show generally runs a little longer than three hours, and to say ESPN puts 300 hours of work into each "Monday Night Football" telecast is probably a gross underestimation.

The legwork done before games includes meetings, countless interviews with players and coaches and exhaustive research on the teams, and it provides the on-air team of Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Tony Kornheiser, Suzy Kolber and Michele Tafoya with almost an overload of information.

Only a fraction of what is gleaned from the crew's advance work will be used during the game.

"Maybe 10 to 15 percent will air, and we all know that," said Jay Rothman, senior coordinating producer of "Monday Night Football." "Nobody sees the work, the effort, the stuff that goes into it."

The reason ESPN expends so much time and effort in advance of its telecasts is simple: "Monday Night Football" has transcended a mere game and become an American institution.

Even for the players, who recognize its reach and appeal, it is different than most games.

"Everybody gets up a little bit more for playing on Monday night because you're on a national stage," said outside linebacker James Harrison, who had 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and an interception that last time the Steelers played on Monday night. "Everybody that wants to see football is going to watch that game because it's the only game that's on."

Preparation for each game starts almost immediately after the preceding one has been played.

Jaworski, the color analyst who watches more film than Roger Ebert, will start Tuesday morning by breaking down the teams that are playing in the upcoming game. The trends he notices will invariably lead to phone calls to statistician Steve Hirdt, who heads the Elias Sports Bureau.

Hirdt will tap into Elias' enormous database, which in turn spits out the kind of statistics that aren't well known, such as Ben Roethlisberger's passer rating on play-action passes.

The "Monday Night Football" crew meets with the players and coaches from both teams for an entire day leading up to the game, and Jaworski, a former NFL quarterback, will talk with coaches throughout the week to get a sense of what they will do during the game.

"They're not going to give me the game plan, but I think the coaches realize I'm doing the football stuff," Jaworski said. "I'm not going into the newspaper Saturday night saying 'Here's what they're going to do.' As the game's going on, I have my input from talking to coaches."

The information-gathering process as well as the tweaking of broadcasts is never-ending for Rothman. He'll often wake up during the night and write something down or fire off an e-mail to one of his crew members with a suggestion.

Broadcasting the game, Rothman said, is the easy part -- not that he sits in an ESPN truck equipped with wall-to-wall TV screens during games with his feet propped up.

"It's like an orchestra. I'm sort of the conductor of the orchestra," Rothman said of the telecast. "It's controlled chaos."

That is especially true for Tirico, the play-by-play man.

He has to balance his calls of the action with Jaworski's analysis and Kornheiser's commentary. He has Rothman talking in one of his ears after nearly every play, and Hirdt, who is also in the main ESPN truck, will feed him statistics that are relevant to the broadcast.

An Oct. 29 game between Green Bay and Denver, for example, went into overtime, and Hirdt was able to relay to Tirico that the Packers hadn't won an overtime game on the road since 1983 -- and that the last time it happened was Howard Cosell's final "Monday Night Football" telecast.

Little nuggets like that make for what Rothman calls a "richer" broadcast, and they are a reflection of all that goes into "Monday Night Football" before and during games.

"If you truly take every minute you work on the game," Tirico said, "from travel to watching the other teams' games, to phone calls to people who cover these teams or people who have played these teams, to meetings, to time spent reading, to notes, to everything but the game, I would say it's gotta be 60 hours, easy."

And that's just one person.

Is all of the time and effort worth it• Don't ask Rothman that question on a Tuesday morning.

He'll drag his body to the airport to board another plane, feeling both physically and emotionally drained.

"It's like the 24-hour (sickness) bug," Rothman said.

Not that he has 24 hours to shake that malaise.

Tuesdays are a day when logistical questions regarding the next "Monday Night Football" game have to be addressed. There is also a matter of reviewing the previous broadcast and seeing what ESPN did well -- and what it can do better.

"It's overwhelming," Rothman said of the whole process. "That's why I appreciate it so much."

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