Eisen navigates NFLN through uncharted waters

As the face of the NFL Network, and as a comically gifted broadcaster who has spent the last four months trying to put the best face on a strained situation, Rich Eisen can't wait to make football fans smile by telling them the lockout is over.

And when he hears that news himself – possibly in the next couple of weeks – Eisen plans to celebrate less like Chad Ochocinco(notes) in the end zone and more like Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki in the bowels of American Airlines Arena.

"I'll probably just go find a corner and kneel down and just spend some time with myself, like Dirk after he won the [NBA] title," Eisen said Tuesday, his voice tinged with hopeful anticipation. "I'm going to need to be alone. It's been a long and trying process, trying to assure fans that the lights aren't out, even as the doors were locked.

"It's been an interesting experience – and I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

For all of the humor Eisen brings to his role as the host of NFL Total Access and other network programming, including Thursday's highly anticipated "Curb Your Enthusiasm" edition of The Rich Eisen Podcast, he's completely serious about his aversion to covering the league's first work stoppage in nearly a quarter-century.

Though things haven't been as brutal as many people feared before NFL owners locked out players in March – there was concern, for example, that players would no longer appear on the network, either via ownership decree or the NFL Players Association's urging – Eisen has had his fill of lawyer interviews, updates on negotiations and analysis of the labor dispute's ramifications.

"I truly believe my job is a blessing – I talk football every day, man," Eisen says. "But there were times in meetings when I said, 'If I have to talk about how difficult it will be for the rookies when the lockout's over, or how hard it will be on first-year coaches … if I have to say that in the A-block, you will need a new host for the B-block, because I will have gone Howard Beale, grabbed my raincoat and killed my career …' "

Eisen has managed to keep from cracking up while making others crack up in the process, displaying the skill set that allowed him to jump from Channel 7 in Redding, Calif., to ESPN in the mid-1990s ("They found me up there in market 131," Eisen says. "I tell people I was the original 'Dream Job' winner.")

"Dread is the perfect word to describe Rich's feeling going into the lockout," says Kara Henderson, Eisen's NFL Network colleague, good friend and frequent podcast sidekick. "But if anybody can handle that type of situation, it's Rich, because of his intelligence and his sense of humor. In this case, he has used gallows humor to great effect. And that's what carried us through."

Filling airtime wasn't the sole source of Eisen's trepidation; he also wanted to make sure skeptical viewers – and even NFL players – didn't view him as a shill for the owners, who are technically his bosses. Despite the potential for Al Jazeera comparisons (I half-jokingly likened the league-owned network to Soviet TV in a column shortly after the lockout began), the NFLN coverage has been refreshingly devoid of propaganda.

"I was greatly concerned because these are uncharted waters," Eisen says. "This is the first time a network based on a single sport has ever gone through a labor dispute. There's no playbook to work from. But our mantra from the beginning was, 'Just treat this like any other story. Get the facts, get 'em right and report 'em.'

"I've not once been told by anybody, 'Don't say this,' or 'This is what you should say; it's a talking point.' Thank goodness. I know we're owned by the NFL, but we have been truly left alone. We have not been a blunt-force instrument."

There was one smack-your-forehead moment during the network's coverage on March 11, the afternoon the NFLPA decertified (and, hours later, the owners instituted the lockout): After televising a live statement from league attorney Jeff Pash and an ensuing group interview, the network abruptly cut away from the start of a similar question-and-answer session with NFLPA lawyer Jim Quinn and went to a commercial break. Eisen, knowing the fallout could be harsh, says he immediately asked a producer, "What was up with that?" and was told that the break was necessary to ensure that an expected interview with NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith could be aired live.

As for the fears that active players would either be barred from appearing on the network during the lockout or would avoid it on their own, neither scenario materialized. In late March, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday(notes) – an NFLPA executive committee member – showed up in Los Angeles for a previously scheduled stint at the network.

"He spent three days here and was tremendous," Eisen says of Saturday. "He's got a great career ahead of him in this business, and we talked about everything on the air. I think the track record we built up with players over the last seven or eight years served us well. They've had the sense that our home is their home. They're the lifeblood of the network in many ways. Many have come in and promoted themselves and their charities, and many have cut their teeth as potential broadcasters. All of that built up a level of trust that we're still operating business-as-usual."

Among the players who have appeared in studio during the work stoppage: Ray Lewis(notes), Hines Ward(notes), Mark Sanchez(notes), Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), Adrian Peterson and LaMarr Woodley(notes). Given that the recently instituted NBA lockout included the removal of players' images from league and team websites, it's likely that NBA TV won't be so fortunate.

"The folks at NBA TV, all I can say to them is, 'Good luck, and I hope it's over soon,' " Eisen says.

If they're looking for tips on how to fill programming, Eisen can tell them about "doing pottery with Chris Cooley(notes) three weeks ago" or a recent "segment on food inspired by Mark Sanchez's favorite sandwich in our cafeteria." Yet there has arguably been at least one very positive development from the need to fill airtime: The network's recent decision to start televising Eisen's popular podcasts, which have featured celebrity guests engaging in candid and spirited conversations, often on subjects other than football.

It's a fabulous format for Eisen, a pop-culture junkie who, during his seven-year stint at ESPN (before becoming the fledgling NFL Network's first on-air hire in 2003) routinely dropped lines from Mel Brooks classics "Blazing Saddles" and "High Anxiety", among other cinematic offerings, into SportsCenter highlight narratives.

Rich Eisen (left) shares a laugh with Larry David.
(Courtesy NFL Network)

If you're a "Curb" fan, you won't want to miss Thursday's episode, which features creator and star Larry David's Yiddish-tinged take on Rex Ryan's bravado, among other gems. ("Seinfeld" fans can also learn the origin of the classic "Man Hands" episode via the portion of Eisen's podcast not shown on the network.)

"I'm thrilled that the lockout has given us the opportunity to bring this [podcast] to television," says Eisen, who has a vacation planned for next week. "And I'm glad we've stepped up to this challenge. We have been right in the center of it. It hasn't killed us, and it has probably made us stronger. But I never want to do this again, and I'll never wish this on anyone else in our industry."

Though Eisen's mood, at times, has noticeably been affected by frustrating developments on the labor front – during a recent podcast, Henderson jokingly told him he was "as cranky about this lockout as you were during your [recent] three-day juice-cleanse" – it's nothing a new collective bargaining agreement won't cure. He relishes that Nowitzki Moment, family travel plans be damned.

"I'm hoping to have that moment to myself in the next week to 10 days' time, even it if ruins my vacation," Eisen says. "Never before have I been rooting for a rude interruption, but there you are."

No joke.