Ian Eagle estimates he’s called 10 Patriots-Dolphins games in his 23 seasons as an NFL play-by-play voice at CBS.
This one – like so much else in this tumultuous year – is different.
“This will be the first one where the Dolphins are the lead story,’’ said Eagle, who will call Sunday’s game along with analyst Charles Davis and reporter Evan Washburn. “If that’s any indication on how things have shifted.
“Evan and I were there for the ‘Miracle in Miami’ two years ago [when the Dolphins won on the final play after a series of laterals.] You think back, at basically this time of the year two years ago, how much has changed from that game from this game. And that’s not a long time.”
Eagle rattles off names of players and personalities who have come and gone since then. Adam Gase and Ryan Tannehill were the Dolphins’ coach and quarterback, and have gone on to forge vastly different reputations since then.
Brian Flores, now the Dolphins’ excellent coach, was the Patriots’ de facto defensive coordinator. Cam Newton was the face of Carolina’s franchise. Tom Brady was on his way to winning his sixth Super Bowl here, and few among us gave a first thought to the possibility of him ever playing elsewhere.
“So much has changed, and to me [the Dolphins’ improvement] is one of the brightest stories of the NFL season,’’ said Eagle of Flores’s team, which has eight wins, two more than the Patriots. “This team that was nowhere has bounced back and has a plan and has created a real culture that has translated into wins. But here we are, and wouldn’t you know it, or them to make the playoffs, they’ve still really need to go out and beat the Patriots.”
Davis, who came over after a 14-year run at Fox Sports to join Eagle and Washburn on CBS’s No. 2 team this season, said the Patriots are about as intimidating as a team could be in the spoiler role.
“Miami is a better football team,’’ said Davis. “You would think. But, once again to get where they want to go, it runs through New England, even if they’re not the frontrunners this year. New England still has hope. They’ve still got a chance, even with all the crazy permutations. And they’re playing to win.”
Eagle, Davis, and Washburn, who also called the Patriots’ 24-21 loss to the Bills in Week 5, haven’t just had to navigate the changed circumstances in the AFC East. They’ve had to navigate far more complicated circumstances, traveling the country to broadcast football games during a pandemic, a logistical and nerve-racking challenge.
The broadcasters conduct all of their production meetings and meetings with team personnel via Zoom. But they arrive in the cities earlier than they would in a normal season because they have to take their COVID-19 tests and then wait to learn if they’re cleared to work.
“From the time you take the COVID test until the result comes back, the time moves so slowly,’’ said Davis. “You feel confident, but at the same time, you don’t know until you know. What’s the word of the year, asymptomatic? You take the test, but that 24 hours or so it takes for the result to come back that says you’re cleared to work, it does creep into your mind, ‘What happens here?’ And you think about where you are in the country, can I get home, that sort of stuff.”
Said Eagle: “I do think there is a psychosomatic part of this, because it’s constantly hanging over your head, from a football team standpoint and from a broadcast team standpoint. As Charles detailed, you hit that [emailed] link when your result comes back, there’s still that moment of trepidation even though you’ve done everything right that week. You don’t know if your life is going to change dramatically in an instant.”
Eagle, Davis, and Washburn have done a remarkable job of forging chemistry in their first season together given the added degrees of difficulty. Davis initiated weekly Zoom calls among them before the season — approximately 16 in all, each around 40 minutes “because we were all too cheap to pay for the expensive Zoom,’’ jokes Davis — that allowed them to get to know each other as people rather than merely broadcast partners.
“I was the Zoom requester,’’ said Davis. “It has been every bit as beneficial as I had hoped, maybe more so. Part of me thought that getting on the Zoom calls would be, yes, about getting to know each other. That’s one thing. I also thought it would be a good way to learn how everyone does things mechanics-wise, what their preparation is on weekends, that sort of thing. And Ian and Evan sort of said, ‘Don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of it when we get to it. Let’s just take this time to hang.’ I’m grateful to them for directing it that way because that was way more important.”
Eagle and Davis have known each other for about 11 years, when a mutual friend, Fox Sports reporter Laura Okmin, introduced them. Their interaction in the booth has been seamless. Washburn’s job is a little trickier just because of the limited access and complex logistics, but you wouldn’t know anything has changed listening to him on the broadcast.
“It’s been more complicated for sure. It’s required a lot more planning and preparation in the days and hours leading up to a game,’’ said Washburn, who is situated during the game in the front row of the stands. “In game, the real challenge has been the distance and the inability to have that human contact and conversation before a game.”
He cited a situation last week when Raiders running back Josh Jacobs tweeted — kiddingly, it turned out — that he was not playing against the Colts, leaving those that have him on their fantasy football team in a panic.
“In a normal time, I might have busted through and asked him. “Hey Josh, are you playing, or are you just messing with everybody on social media?’,” said Washburn. “But I’m in the first row of the stands, so that’s not possible. That’s the logistics of being the moat reporter rather than the usual access.
“But in a certain way, it’s made the game even easier to appreciate. When you get to kickoff, or for me, some of the pregame responsibilities, it’s almost a sense of relief to do it. It’s a five-hour respite. We’re just glad to have a football game to talk about and enjoy.”
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