Folks turned on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, expecting to see football for the first time since the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50. Instead, they saw Chris Berman and his pregame show gang filling time.
There was no game on Sunday night, a big embarrassment to the league.
The Hall of Fame game was canceled due to unsafe field conditions. Paint that was put down on the 50-yard line and end zone congealed and would have been dangerous for players. Suddenly, ESPN had three free hours on its hands and the Pro Football Hall of Fame had a stadium full of upset fans who paid to see a game between the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts.
Colts owner Jim Irsay appeared on ESPN and said he wasn’t happy the game had to be cancelled.
“Again, this is disappointing but we have to vet it out and find out what occurred, and this shouldn’t happen. It’s not difficult. Obviously, everyone out there says, ‘Hey, you’re a $12 billion league, how can you have a field not ready to go?’
“Well, the Hall of Fame is sort of separate and gets run a little different from the league. But we have to as owners, Mark [Murphy, Packers president] and I discussed, we have to get it right so it never happens again.
“We have to make it right to our fans and also get to the bottom of exactly who got this paint job done and why there was incompetence.”
Scoff if you want at the NFL’s extra preseason game, but it’s a big deal. It often sells out in Canton, Ohio. And it does huge ratings. Last year’s Hall of Fame game between the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers drew about 11 million viewers. Game 3 of the NBA Finals this year drew an average of about 16.5 million viewers, to put that into perspective. Starters rarely play in the game. Most of the players in the contest won’t make the final roster of either team. Yet, people tune in because we’re so desperate for football.
It’s not just the television crowd. Last season’s Hall of Fame game officially drew 22,364 fans. Capacity for Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium is listed at 22,354, according to the Canton Repository, so the game does very well in town. The Hall of Fame said it would refund all tickets, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter said that would cost the non-profit Pro Football Hall of Fame about $4 million.
When Pro Football Hall of Fame president David Baker got on a microphone at midfield to explain to those in attendance what happened, the fans booed him. Players from both teams clapped for him to show some support, but it didn’t help. The fans continued to boo throughout Baker’s announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we know a lot of you came a long way,” Baker told them. “Here at the Hall of Fame, we have the greatest respect for players. We have the greatest respect for player safety … as a result of some painting on the field today, some questions arose about player safety. We met with both teams, we talked to both sets of players. I can tell you, I had a son that played in this league [former Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Sam Baker], and if [this] had happened with him on the field, I would have wanted somebody to make the same decision.”
ESPN said on its broadcast that Baker made the call to not play, after talking to coaches, executives and the athletic training staff of both teams. They couldn’t ensure the safety of the players.
”We are very disappointed for our fans, but player safety is our primary concern, and as a result, we could not play an NFL game on this field tonight,” the NFL and NFLPA said in a joint statement.
“Someone had to make a very tough decision, and I respect that,” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck told ESPN.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams said the field wasn’t good last year for the Hall of Fame game, and criticized the NFL for it.
Hey @NFL it was that terrible last year but u didn't cancel the game we had our kicker tear his acl and a few mcl strains so thanks????
— DeAngelo Williams (@DeAngeloRB) August 8, 2016
In the stadium, the Hall of Famers were introduced to the crowd, singer Lee Greenwood went on with a show that was meant for halftime, and players milled around for a while, seemingly unsure what to do without a game to play.
ESPN did its best to entertain fans that tuned in expecting to see football. It wasn’t easy, especially considering Charles Woodson, Matt Hasselbeck and Randy Moss were on the “Monday Night Countdown” set with Berman for the first time. ESPN signed off from Canton at 9 p.m. and went to “SportsCenter.”
Sean McDonough was going to broadcast his first game with “Monday Night Football” partner Jon Gruden. McDonough will take over play-by-play duties for Mike Tirico this season. All of a sudden the entire ESPN team had a lot of air time to fill.
“This is still good practice,” McDonough joked to Gruden. “Am I standing in the right place, in front of this board?”
Gruden joked about the huge card McDonough held, with the names and pronunciations of all the Colts and Packers who were on the rosters. Maybe he’ll save it as a keepsake, but it wasn’t used on Sunday.
Then McDonough and Gruden gave a long report on the Packers offense for this season. About 20 minutes into the broadcast they came back on to discuss Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. What else were they going to do?
“We spent a lot of time getting ready for a game that is not going to happen,” McDonough told the viewing audience.
Preseason games have been canceled before, but mostly because of weather. However, a 2001 preseason game at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia was canceled because of turf issues. Strangely enough, the Packers have been involved in three Hall of Fame games that didn’t last all four quarters. In 1980 (Packers vs. San Diego Chargers) and 2003 (Packers vs. Kansas City Chiefs) the Hall of Fame game was called early because of lightning and heavy rain.
In 2011, the Hall of Fame game was canceled because of a lockout.
The biggest blow is to the young players who are long shots to make an opening day roster but were going to get a big opportunity to impress. With the Packers planning to sit starter Aaron Rodgers and backup Brett Hundley, undrafted rookie Joe Callahan was slated to start at quarterback. It was to be his unique opportunity to show the Packers (and other teams watching) what he could do, but then it was snatched from him.
“It’s disappointing because we had some young players who would have had some opportunities,” Rodgers said on ESPN’s set. “Joe Callahan, from Wesley College, was going to start for us and it would have been a great opportunity for him to get some snaps in front of a national audience, but I think they made the right decision.”
Everyone seemed to agree the Hall of Fame and the NFL made the correct call to cancel the game and protect the safety of the players. But now we have to wait another week for football to return. Bummer.
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