June 24, 2011
Thursday's contest between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Argonauts (which wound up 30-23 in favour of Toronto after a last-minute touchdown; full highlights available here) had meaning beyond that of your typical CFL pre-season clash. In addition to the typical compelling on-field storylines to watch, there was an unusual element at play; the first live microphones on players and coaches in a CFL game. TSN miked up both head coaches and all the quarterbacks involved, and the results were fascinating, if not always positive. The football strategy and terminology used and the raw reactions of coaches and players were terrific, including Toronto's Jim Barker's excitement over Cleo Lemon's touchdown pass and Winnipeg's Paul LaPolice's rather fervent benching of Buck Pierce. There were some less stellar moments caught on air too, though, including Bombers' defensive back Arrington Hicks dropping a n-bomb (earning a 10-yard penalty in the process), and getting yelled at by LaPolice for his efforts, which was picked up by the mikes.
There were plenty of compelling clips provided by the microphones throughout the game, but one of the best came on the game's first possession with Lemon's 47-yard TD bomb to slotback Brandon Rideau (pictured above). The 6'3'' Rideau went up and hauled in the ball over 5'9'' cornerback Jovon Johnson, then kept his feet in bounds, fended off would-be tacklers and took it in for the score. Lemon was understandably thrilled and shouted "Made it look easy, made it look easy, made it look easy!" Barker was exuberant as well, yelling "That-a-boy, Cleo! That's a nice start!" It wasn't so much the words as the pure joy evident from both, which doesn't always come through on a regular broadcast.
Another notable moment also involved a quarterback, but on the opposing side. Winnipeg starter Buck Pierce did pretty well for himself, completing 10 of 14 passes for 71 yards with no interceptions, but LaPolice emphatically pulled him reasonably early in the game, shouting, "You're done! You're done, you're done, you're done!" It wasn't clear why LaPolice was so eager to get Pierce out of the contest, but injury concerns may have played a role; the Bombers are counting on Pierce to be their top quarterback this year, and he's run into all manner of bad injuries in the past, so there's no particular need to risk him for too long in a pre-season game. LaPolice also may have been intrigued to see what backup quarterback Joey Elliott could do, and Elliott certainly made things interesting; he led the Bombers back to a 23-23 tie, completing 16 of 23 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Their hopes were dashed right at the end, though, when little-known Argonauts' running back Chad Kackert, a CFL rookie out of the University of New Hampshire, took a late handoff and ran 73 yards off the left side of the line for a touchdown.
The mikes also added some interesting details to Kackert's run. Normally, that run to the left would have been praised as a brilliant playcall, but it turns out it wasn't actually the play called. It sounded like the correct play was a run to the right side, according to Barker on his mike, where he commented "The whole play was wrong." He didn't seem all that upset at Kackert, though, as his next comments made clear. "That guy's a keeper, I'm sorry."
On the lingo side, the mikes provided a deeper look at just how much terminology is involved in these games, and that's something experienced football fans can appreciate as well as newbies. As veteran TSN studio host Dave Randorf commented, "This is a blast. I'm really enjoying this, and I'm learning some new things too." Also in that clip, TSN analysts Chris Schultz and Milt Stegall discussed some of the particular terminology involved, including "Ranger" (a term for a five-receiver set) and "Stutter-One" (where receivers run towards the line, stop, and then go again after the ball's snapped on a one-count). It's interesting that Schultz hadn't heard "Stutter-One" used that way before despite all his time around the game, and it just goes to show how much there always is to learn in this league.
There are some drawbacks to the mikes, though, and Hicks' foolish use of the n-bomb was only one. Someone's burp got caught on air at one point, which was funny if embarrassing, and a lot of the comments weren't particularly intelligible. Moreover, while hearing the playcalls provided some interesting perspective for viewers, it carries some potential competitive problems. That could lead to other coaches listening in and trying to break down teams' playbooks. As Montreal Alouettes' linebacker Shea Emry pointed out on Twitter, there's a good chance the coaches aren't going to be happy to learn their calls went out live over the air. There are ways around that, however.
The experiment also raised some questions about how to best employ the technology down the road. One issue was that not all of the comments picked up were insightful or even understandable, and there was a lot of ambient noise, making it tough to hear commentators Rod Black and Duane Forde at times. At times, the mikes distracted from the on-field product instead of enhancing it. Picking up cursing is also problematic, as CFL broadcasts are somewhat targeted at families, some of whom might be offended by it. One way to solve some of these issues might be to mike players and coaches up again, but not have their feeds go out live over the air, instead playing clips from the mikes whenever there's something worth noting. That would cut through a lot of the noise and enhance the signal, combining the benefits of player mikes with a more standard broadcast experience.
On the whole, the miking experiment was generally a good step for both the CFL and TSN. The vast majority of feedback out there was quite positive, as you can see in the Storify collection of Twitter reactions I've included below. (Script issues prevent embedding it, so this is actually just a screenshot; you can find the interactive version here). It does seem we're likely to see more of this down the road, as TSN's release included the line "TSN will look to use live microphones on players and coaches at other points throughout the season." From this standpoint, as well of the standpoint of many people seen below, that's a great thing.