Hours before the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Dallas Cowboys 19-9, Troy Aikman sipped on coffee while pondering his 20th year broadcasting FOX’s premier NFL game.
“I can’t believe it,” Aikman shared exclusively. “It’s gone fast.”
The NFL on FOX’s lead announcer and former Cowboys quarterback, who turned 55 on the day of Sunday’s Chiefs-Cowboys contest, reflected on his friend and broadcasting icon John Madden, whose duration as a commentator Aikman is approaching.
Madden announced games on CBS and FOX for 23 years before joining ABC to broadcast Monday Night Football, a move that paved the way for Aikman to join FOX’s No. 1 NFL announcing team.
Aikman, play-by-play announcer Joe Buck and lead producer Richie Zyontz are in their 20th year on FOX’s main doubleheader game.
“We’ve been together so long,” Zyontz said. “Everything seems to fit together like a hand in a glove.”
As part of that 20-year anniversary, FOX gave a reporter exclusive access to its “America’s Game of the Week” coverage.
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When CBS had the rights to the NFC prior to 1994, it put its best games at the 1 p.m. slot.
But FOX found it faced less competition from other games and could maximize its audience by leaving the 1 p.m. game as the local one for most markets and putting their best matchup at 4:25 pm instead.
For years the early game was just deemed the regional game, and the late one was referred to as the national game. Then FOX Sports CEO and executive producer Eric Shanks came aboard and rebranded it “America’s Game of the Week” to signify the game’s importance.
“There’s something about that late afternoon time slot that just fits the game of football so perfectly,” Zyontz said. “You’ve had the benefit of seeing the early games on Sunday. You feel like your big game is putting the exclamation point on the weekend, and it’s always a great matchup.”
For that marquee time slot, FOX starts talking to the NFL about the upcoming schedule around the time of the previous season’s Super Bowl.
Cowboys-Chiefs stood out as an appealing matchup.
“This was a game that we circled.” Zyontz said. “Any time you have two star quarterbacks, that’s a game that America is interested in.”
As it played out, however, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott combined for zero touchdowns and three interceptions, and the expected shootout became a defensive battle.
On Dallas’ first six possessions, it had a total of six first downs.
Chiefs six-year veteran Chris Jones had 3.5 sacks, and Micah Parsons, a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors, had two for the Cowboys.
Jones, the two-time Pro Bowler, may have had the best game of his career with multiple sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass deflection with 1:07 left that led to L’Jarius Sneed’s game-sealing interception.
After battling a wrist injury for much of the season and trying to adapt to more time at defensive end in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme, Jones wreaked havoc from both the edge and the interior.
“It’s wherever Spags puts me,” Jones said. “He moves me around. I benefit off of it. The offense just can’t slide to me every series.”
Jones, who credited the Chiefs’ secondary for giving him time to get the quarterback, helped set the defensive tone early.
On the Cowboys’ sixth offensive play, Frank Clark sacked Prescott, and Jones recovered the ball on the Dallas 22-yard line.
“Give me Dak’s reaction!” The command was barked through the production truck.
Reaction shots after a positive or negative game-changing play are a staple of the “America’s Game of the Week” broadcast.
“We’re able to really capture those emotion shots,” said Rich Russo, the lead NFL director for FOX Sports, “in a clean and crisp way with the high-speed cameras.”
While other NFL games typically have 11 to 12 cameras, “America’s Game of the Week” has 20 to 21 in addition to pylon and yard-to-gain cameras, and more than half are high-speed cameras.
The broadcast dedicated one (Camera 10) to focus on Tyreek Hill and CeeDee Lamb when each wide receiver was on offense for the Chiefs and Cowboys, respectively.
Hill had 77 receiving yards but made his biggest impact as a rusher early on. On the Chiefs’ fifth play, he ran for 33 yards on an end-around that put the Chiefs in scoring position for what would be the first of the only two touchdowns scored in the game.
Lamb, meanwhile, made little impact. With 15 seconds left in the first half, Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward beat him to the ball to intercept a pass.
Lamb suffered a concussion and finished with just three catches for 14 yards.
In the new media rights deals negotiated in the spring of 2021, FOX extended its NFL deal to 2033 at a price of about $2 billion per year. But that massive deal is well worth it.
FOX’s late afternoon game has been the most-watched show for 12 straight years because of having the best games in that window and due to plummeting ratings for primetime programming.
“America’s Game of the Week” averages 21.5 million viewers this year, a number that is a tick down from previous years but still on pace for it to be the most-watched program for a 13th straight year. In 2020 it was more than 23 million and in 2019 it was more than 24 million.
“There’s really nothing else in television that is doing the kind of viewership that our 4:25 game is doing,” said Mike Mulvihill, FOX Sports’ head of strategy and analytics. “If you go back through television history, there’s never been a show that has been No. 1 in all of TV for 12 consecutive years.”
Before the Week 11 game of FOX’s marquee contest, Russo proved to be prophetic while conducting the broadcast meeting more than four hours prior to kickoff.
He emphasized the return of Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who had just been activated off of injured reserve.
“That’s been a big story,” Russo told his cameramen.
The first three weeks after his MCL injury, the second-year back had difficultly walking. And the knee injury also impacted his hamstrings.
Through intense rehab, including dry needling, cupping and massages, Edwards-Helaire earned the start against the Cowboys.
“CEH is in!” That was exclaimed in the truck during the Chiefs’ first offensive series.
Edwards-Helarie touched the ball on the Chiefs’ first three plays and finished with 12 carries for 63 yards and a touchdown.
“Clyde played well and stayed aggressive,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said. “Good to have (No.) 25 back.”
While the Chiefs celebrated the return of the No. 1 running back they drafted in the first round two years ago, the FOX crew had its own reason for revelry.
Balloons and cake in the broadcast booth made for a festive atmosphere.
The crew feted Aikman, the birthday boy, but it just as well could have been celebrating a broadcast that has become a 20-year institution.