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Three is no crowd with Zolak

SCOTT ZOLAK An eye for nuances SCOTT ZOLAK An eye for nuances
By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / October 21, 2011

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Perhaps there’s some facetiousness in the suggestion that watching a football game from the sideline should come naturally to Scott Zolak. In his nine seasons as an NFL quarterback, he started seven regular-season games, a number that will be matched this Sunday by Panthers rookie Cam Newton.

But Zolak’s relative longevity in the NFL - eight years in New England spent mostly as Drew Bledsoe’s backup, then one in Miami behind Dan Marino (much of which, Zolak jokes, was spent fetching breakfast sandwiches for the legendary passer) - suggests that he had some intangible value that extended beyond his contributions on the field.

That value - an ability to recognize and communicate the nuances of a game as it unfolds - has become apparent in his second career as a broadcaster.

Zolak, who along with Andy Gresh cohosts the midday program on 98.5 The Sports Hub and is featured on the Patriots flagship station’s pregame show, has added a new element to game broadcasts.

This season, he has joined the legendary tandem of Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti as a sideline reporter. But he is aboard with an innovative twist. Zolak chimes in not when he’s called upon, but whenever he has something to say. His role is as a second, and equal, analyst.

“I just think it adds another layer of having someone down on the field who may see something they may not see up there,’’ said Zolak, who bristles at any suggestion that his role is similar to that of Fox’s Tony Siragusa, whom he calls a “goofball.’’

“I take this seriously,’’ said Zolak. “I’m not down there just to provide the injury report. There are little things I can pick up and add that I think most people don’t see.’’

It would be understandable if an established analyst’s ego led him to resist the input of another voice. But Cappelletti’s reputation as a gracious man comes into play here, and his genuine fondness for Zolak is one reason the new setup has worked so well.

“He’s a terrific guy - he really is,’’ said Cappelletti. “Happy-go-lucky, has a lot of energy, and he knows the game from the quarterback’s point of view, which is very valuable.

“Quarterbacks can bring a bright light to a broadcast. Look at how many there are on broadcasts: Phil Simms, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, on and on.

“Quarterbacks are pretty good at giving you information, and Zolak is right there with them.’’

When Cappelletti found out after last season that Mark Hannon, CBS Radio Boston’s senior vice president and market manager, and Sports Hub program director Mike Thomas wanted to add Zolak as the third voice, he offered no resistance.

But Santos, his partner on Patriots broadcasts for 28 years, needed a little convincing.

“It has been an adjustment,’’ said Santos. “I wasn’t sure it was going to work.’’

But Hannon and Thomas had a clear idea of what Zolak’s role should be.

“The goal was not necessarily to change the broadcast but more to add an element that wasn’t there before,’’ Hannon said. “And the obvious approach was to have someone on the sidelines, at field level, who can see things that maybe the guys in the broadcast booth can’t see, or because they’re there and can hear things going on on the sidelines, and get a vibe from the sideline, from the players at that level.’’

Santos got a better idea of what Zolak could provide after Thomas provided him with CDs of other NFL radio teams that were using a sideline reporter.

“I listened to those CDs, and I got a sense for what worked and what didn’t,’’ Santos said. “We talked about a few different things about how we would integrate Zo into the broadcast, and the thing that we told Zo was, ‘Don’t feel like you have to justify your existence by saying something all the time.’

“I’m not telling him to shut up, but if you think you have to say something after every play, and after 10 plays, three of the things you’ve said were good, two were OK, and five were not good, then people are going to be saying, ‘For crying out loud, this guy’s always got something.’ So you have to be very careful how you do that.’’

While there have been hiccups - Zolak, having left his microphone on, could be heard celebrating like a fan after Tom Brady’s winning touchdown pass against Dallas - the trio has made steady improvements.

The first indication of Zolak’s value came during the season opener, when he recognized immediately the seriousness of Dan Koppen’s ankle injury based on the grim reaction of teammates.

But Santos said it took just one game - the preseason matchup with Jacksonville - for him to realize what Zolak added.

“After the exhibition game, I said, ‘Zo, you did a hell of a job,’ ’’ Santos said. “ ‘You didn’t overkill. But you made yourself useful by providing useful information, things that we could not see.’ ’’

Zolak’s presence is relevant in another, more delicate way. As the expected successor to Cappelletti in the booth, enhancing his role without diminishing Cappelletti’s is a graceful way of melding the past, present, and future.

For anyone who remembers Ned Martin staying a year or two too long on Red Sox telecasts or Frank Gifford being marginalized to a halftime role on “Monday Night Football,’’ the respect CBS Radio pays to Santos and Cappelletti is admirable.

“We’ve always approached the broadcast as year in and year out with Gil and Gino, and I think if at any point Gil and Gino decide that they want to retire, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, but there’s been no discussion ahead of that,’’ said Hannon, who has repeatedly said the decision to depart will be up to Santos and Cappelletti.

Their years show from time to time. Santos still has a dream voice, but he struggles with player identification at times. And Cappelletti sometimes meanders with his thoughts.

“It’s year by year, and of course you have to feel like you can continue to do it and continue to enjoy doing it,’’ Cappelletti said. “If you don’t enjoy doing it, there’s no way you should be doing it.’’

“Right now, I feel pretty good about the way the season has gone,’’ said Santos. “You never want to make a mistake, ever. But then, that’s impossible. There are going to be mistakes made. But if I don’t have more than three or four over the course of a game, I know everything has worked out fine.’’

When they do walk away, Zolak will remain part of the broadcast. He is grateful for how men he repeatedly refers to as icons have welcomed him aboard.

“They have been nothing but great,’’ Zolak said. “We’ve all listened to Gil and Gino for years, the great rapport and friendship they have with one another. I’m just trying to develop that rapport. Here we are after Week 6, and it’s really begun to click.’’

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