Many former NFL players get jobs in the media. With hundreds of radio stations and local TV programming and thousands of websites and new media outlets, there is always a place for a former NFL athlete to wet his feet in the wild and wacky wave pool of sports media.
Only a select few, however, get a chance to ply their new-found media trade on a national-television platform.
By my count, there were 71 former NFL players or coaches working for one of the five networks that carry NFL games this season. In a recent discussion with NFL Network reporter Jason La Canfora—clearly not one of those aforementioned players or coaches—I made the joke that if all the networks had a flag football tournament (or rough touch, whatever you fancy), the NFL Network would likely win.
Let us test that hypothesis.
In trying to determine which of the NFL crews between ESPN, NFL Network, FOX, CBS and NBC would win a football game, I ended up with a lot of rather fascinating information to share along the way.
Also, it is important to note that this research is based on trying to determine which network employs the players (and coaches) who had the best NFL careers, not which analysts are the best at their jobs now. In other words, just because you passed for 61,361 career yards doesn't necessarily make you a better NFL analyst than the guy at another network who passed for 1,012 yards.
And yes, those numbers are real.
Before we get to which network has the best players—and specifically which network could field the best flag football team—let's look at a breakdown of analysts by position:
The above graphic shows a breakdown of NFL analysts at each network by the position they played in the league.
You'll see that this chart shows unique analysts, which means someone like Mike Ditka only counts on this list as a coach, despite the fact he played for many years as a tight end. In addition, folks like Brian Billick, Daryl Johnston and Jay Glazer are employed by FOX and NFL Network, but were counted just under FOX for the purposes of this chart.
Where the people work doesn't matter as much in this chart as the breakdown of positions. It's incredible how many former quarterbacks can get work at national networks compared to, say, running backs.
One. Only one running back has an analyst job at any of the national networks? The funny thing is, Marshall Faulk is one of the best analysts in the entire group. A few years ago, the NFL Network had Terrell Davis on its roster. Jerome Bettis and Tiki Barber both worked for NBC in the past five years and everyone remembers Emmitt's Smith's foray into national TV, so maybe we're catching running backs in a random down cycle.
Or perhaps the networks are gun-shy after some high-profile busts.
That said, it is interesting to note that CBS employs six former quarterbacks for studio and booth gigs, with no more than two analysts at any other position. CBS may have the most superstar talent of the group, but in a flag football game, they're totally lacking balance.
Another interesting note before we break down each roster is how many former coaches and players each network employs when compared with specific NFL talent who didn't play or coach in the league.
It stands to reason the NFL Network would employ the most NFL-specific talent, but the number is actually quite deceiving when you look at ESPN's total. It looks like ESPN employs more former players and coaches than reporters, hosts and other analysts, but these numbers do not include fantasy football experts—who work on every sport, not just football—and SportsCenter anchors, who constantly interview NFL talent for the network.
ESPN, by a mile, has more on-air talent covering the NFL, it's just that some of those people also cover other things.
It will be interesting to see how these numbers change by next year. With NBC going all in with its own off-shoot network and CBS starting to ramp up their cable network as well, will those networks hire more NFL talent to make their coverage more robust? (Note: these numbers only reflect those currently working for the main networks and do not include current talent at the cable subsidiaries.)
It's also rather fascinating to look at how many former players and coaches each network employs when compared with each other. NBC, which has the highest ratings of any network for its games, employs just three former players or coaches—Rodney Harrison, Tony Dungy and Cris Collinsworth. (For the purposes of these charts, I kept the analysis to regular-season games and did not include the playoff game Mike Mayock did for the network.)
ESPN and NFL Network, being on cable, get the lowest per-game ratings of the group, yet employ far and away the highest number of analysts. Obviously, having a 24-hour network (or in the case of ESPN, three 24-hour networks and a 24-hour radio station), it stands to reason those networks would have the most people working for them.
Having said that, I do wonder if you totaled up the ratings for ESPN's Monday Night Football and all the other weekly programming that surrounds their one NFL game—including NFL Countdown, NFL Live, Matchup and their other new shows—if the total rating for ESPN would beat the rating NBC gets with one game each Sunday night. (Another column for another time, perhaps).
Let's get to the breakdown. (Note: I sincerely hope I didn't miss anybody.)
ESPN: Ron Jaworski, Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, Kordell Stewart, Tim Hasselbeck
NFL NETWORK: Joe Theismann, Kurt Warner
FOX: Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman
CBS: Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason, Phil Simms, Dan Fouts, Rich Gannon, Steve Beuerlein
Starting with quarterbacks, it's astounding to see how great the CBS crop of passers actually is. Marino alone has better career totals than the combined numbers of every other network other than ESPN (which has five quarterbacks itself).
Marino has better career numbers than Aikman and Bradshaw…combined. How ridiculous is that?
If you look at the rest of the CBS team, there isn't a quarterback on the list with fewer than 24,000 yards and 150 total touchdowns. ESPN, for example, has just two of its five quarterbacks with numbers that good.
That's why looking at the chart below—average passing yards—is a more accurate assessment of the overall success of NFL quarterback at each network. ESPN has the second-most total yards, but that's based solely on the fact that they have more quarterbacks than everyone by CBS.
When you average out the numbers, thanks to the minuscule stats for Hasselbeck, ESPN plummets to the bottom of the list.
Again, this is not an indictment on the quality of analysis from someone in the league. The fact is, Mayock barely played a down in the NFL and he's one of the best in-game analysts on TV.
Being a superstar doesn't mean you will be a great TV analyst. Just ask Emmitt.
Because CBS has so many quarterbacks and so little of anything else, we're going quarterback-heavy on the charts. Look at the number of average touchdowns per guy at each network. There are only three quarterbacks at all the other networks combined who have more than 200 total touchdowns (passing and rushing) and CBS, buoyed by Marino's 429, averages 251 TDs between the group.
Looking at these numbers also makes you wonder why the careers of Esiason and Fouts aren't more revered. Okay, fine, Fouts is a Hall of Famer, but Esiason is 16th all-time in passing yards and passing touchdowns, and there's a perception that he was merely mediocre.
Sitting next to Marino every week doesn't do a lot for his career numbers.
RUNNING BACKS AND FULLBACKS
ESPN: Merril Hoge, Jon Ritchie
NFL NETWORK: Marshall Faulk, Heath Evans, Daryl Johnston
FOX: Daryl Johnston
You'll notice two things: First, there is no graphic for the backs. Second, Moose Johnston is listed twice, which is a reflection of the work he does for two networks. I didn't include players twice in the totals, but when comparing networks, it's not fair to choose.
There is no graphic because Faulk is so far and away better than everyone else on this list that it wasn't worth the time to do one.
This is going to help NFL Network when we get to the flag football game.
RECEIVERS AND TIGHT ENDS
ESPN: Jerry Rice, Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson, Mike Ditka
NFL NETWORK: Michael Irvin, Torry Holt, Sterling Sharpe, Tom Waddle
CBS: Steve Tasker, Shannon Sharpe
NBC: Cris Collinsworth
I thought this would be closer between ESPN and the NFL Network than it is. The Worldwide Leader doesn't even need the additional throw-in stats for someone like Ditka, who, admittedly, is there because of his coaching more than his playing.
And yes, the graphic is a little unfair to CBS by calling Tasker a wide receiver, which is why I combined it with tight ends so they can benefit from Sharpe's numbers. Also, the averages for NFL Network were decimated by the inclusion of Waddle. Without him, the numbers are a little closer to ESPN.
Having said that, Jerry Rice laps the field. Forget about Ditka for a minute, the three receivers at ESPN total 47,365 yards and 403 total touchdowns. Carter had 130 career touchdowns—twice as many as Irvin.
It's also fun to note that Rice had more receiving yards in his career (22,895) than all but 75 quarterbacks in NFL history had passing yards.
ESPN: Mark Schlereth, Lomas Brown, Damien Woody
NFL NETWORK: Brian Baldinger, Jamie Dukes
CBS: Randy Cross, Dan Dierdorf
This is a close decision because ESPN has three to CBS's two and, in theory, three guys can block better than two guys. Brown was an incredible lineman, but was he as good as Dierdorf, who is already in the Hall of Fame?
Was Cross better than Schlereth, who both played on some of the best teams of all time?
If the game was played now, sure, ESPN wins. If we're taking every player at his prime, the nod may go to CBS.
ESPN: Mike Golic, Hugh Douglas, Marcellus Wiley
NFL NETWORK: Warren Sapp
FOX: Howie Long, Michael Strahan, Tony Siragusa, Tim Ryan
When talking with La Canfora, I totally expected Sapp to win this category on his own. If you put him up against ESPN, even with Douglas on the roster now, I still might take Sapp one-on-three.
But when you add in FOX, it's not even close. For some reason, it's impossible to find tackle numbers before 1990, but if you look at their sack totals alone, Long had 84 career sacks and Strahan had 141.5 to Sapp's 96.5.
Granted, the FOX team has more traditional pass-rushers, but in this case, Long and Strahan alone have to outweigh Sapp. Perhaps not literally, though.
LINEBACKERS AND DEFENSIVE BACKS
ESPN: Tom Jackson, Tedy Bruschi, Antonio Pierce, Eric Allen, Darren Woodson, Herm Edwards
NFL NETWORK: Willie McGinest, Matt Millen, Deion Sanders, Solomon Wilcots, Bucky Brooks, Mike Mayock
FOX: John Lynch, Ron Pitts
CBS: Solomon Wilcots, Bill Cowher
NBC: Rodney Harrison, Tony Dungy
I combined the linebackers and defensive backs for the sake of length and more to point out the fact that it's a total roll of the dice with any of these networks.
From a name value, Deion takes this by a mile. If we're looking for the best player in a flag football game, that's clearly Prime as well, with his ability to play both sides of the ball, as evidenced by his 22 career touchdowns.
But Allen and Harrison are probably the two best defensive players on that list. Woodson was no slouch either. And let's not forget about the older players like Jackson and Millen.
Oh, and Lynch may have been one of the best safeties of the post-Ronnie Lott generation—at least in the conversation with Harrison.
We know one thing for sure: The defensive backs in TV are far more outstanding than the linebackers.
ESPN: Mike Ditka, Bill Parcells, Jon Gruden, Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini
NFL NETWORK: Brian Billick, Dennis Green, Steve Mariucci
FOX: Jimmy Johnson, Brian Billick, Jim Mora Jr.
CBS: Bill Cowher
NBC: Tony Dungy
Here's what the above graphic tells us: Dungy was one hell of an NFL head coach. Dungy's .668 winning percentage is one of the 15 best in NFL history.
The ESPN pool of coaches is a total roller coaster. Sure, there's Ditka and Parcells, two modern-day coaching legends. And yes, Gruden is a hot name every year and did win a Super Bowl. But even Parcells, the most successful of the bunch, has a career winning percentage that's lower than the likes of Wade Phillips and Mike Sherman.
The two former Jets head coaches in Bristol now? They are two of the worst head coaches in the history of the NFL.
Edwards may have played to win the game, but he sure as heck didn't coach in many of those wins with a career winning percentage of .422. The Mangenius? He has one of the worst winning percentages in the history of football (.413). Rich Kotite has a better career numbers.
As for the other networks, Cowher is the best of the bunch, with Johnson and Billick just behind, having the same winning percentage and the same number of career wins. Of course, Jimmy has that additional Super Bowl ring to flaunt at FOX holiday parties, so they aren't entirely equal.
If I had one game to coach, flag, rough touch or pads, you can take Ditka, Parcells, Gruden Johnson, Cowher and the whole lot of them. I'll take Dungy.
The point of this exercise was to see if the NFL Network would beat all the other networks in a flag football game. I took the liberty of making the game a 7v7 setup.
That may not be fair to the linemen, but it's much easier to focus on the skill position players when comparing networks.
There is little doubt CBS has the top quarterback talent and maybe the top "overall" NFL talent, but they have no depth at all. Six quarterbacks with only Steve Tasker and Shannon Sharpe to throw to? They wouldn't win a game in this flag football tournament.
FOX could do some serious damage with Aikman or Bradshaw rotating starts and a stout defensive line to put pressure on the opponents. That said, like CBS, there is no skill-position talent whatsoever at FOX. Moose Johnston was a great blocker, but he can't carry a team.
NBC doesn't have enough people to field a team, so we're left with ESPN and the NFL Network.
ESPN: Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson, Lomas Brown, Eric Allen, Darren Woodson
NFL Network: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Michael Irvin, Torry Holt, Deion Sanders, Warren Sapp, Sterling Sharpe
You may want to swap out one of the skill position guys for Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest or go old school and put Tom Jackson and Matt Millen in the game. For me, this game is best played by skill position players—with the one exception on each side with Sapp and Brown—and it's a really tough decision which team is best suited to win the game.
Brown and Sapp would just be fun to watch fight one-on-one the whole day. If I had to give an advantage, I'd probably pick Sapp in this situation. The quarterbacks are really close too, with a slight nod to Young.
The receivers, as we mentioned, are certainly in ESPN's corner as well, but when you add in Deion and Faulk to ESPN's Allen and Woodson, the overall advantage may swing to the NFL Network.
Yes, ESPN has Rice and Carter, but they have nobody to run the ball while the NFL Network has one of the best running backs of all time in Faulk.
Overall, I think Faulk gives the slight advantage to the NFL Network. The hypothesis is now a theory.
Whichever side you pick, we must agree to forget about the Pro Bowl and figure out way to make this seven-on-seven game happen the week before the Super Bowl.
Only...which network would show it?