Perhaps highlight shows aren’t essential anymore in this age when fans can get desired information instantaneously on their smartphones. But at the least, they still can be an enjoyable way to revisit what you’ve already seen.
ESPN’s reunion of Chris Berman and Tom Jackson on “NFL Primetime’’ Sunday night should be a satisfying reminder of a time when that highlight show in particular was both essential and unfailingly enjoyable for football fans.
Berman and Jackson, along with Keyshawn Johnson, will team up on “NFL Primetime’’ once again Sunday night after the AFC and NFC championship games are completed.
Berman and Jackson worked together for 29 years (1987-2016) on “NFL Primetime’’ and “Sunday NFL Countdown’’ until Jackson’s retirement in 2016. Berman took on a lesser role at ESPN this year, with Samantha Ponder taking over as the Countdown studio host.
While the seat won’t literally be familiar — the show will originate from an ESPN studio in Los Angeles, where Berman has never worked — everything else should be familiar and comfortable, for the hosts as well as the viewers.
“I do remember that I have to put a tie on and jam that thing in my ear,’’ said Berman, who acknowledged there might be a few preshow nerves. “But I’m there with my friends, and I feel like I was pretty good at doing those highlights for 38 years [at ESPN]. That being said, when you haven’t driven a car for a year, is the first trip to the store smooth?
“It’s funny, I asked Joe Torre about this once toward the end of his managerial career. I said, ‘You played for so many years, you managed so many games, do you ever get nervous?’ He said, ‘Boomer, if you don’t have butterflies before a big game, there’s something wrong with you.’ ’’ For my money, there’s never been a better national sports highlights show than “NFL Primetime,’’ which aired Sunday evenings from 1987-2005 and served as the perfect punctuation mark on a day of football. When a new NFL rights deal went into place in 2006 that launched “Sunday Night Football’’ on NBC, “NFL Primetime’’ was a casualty.
NBC did not want to compete with the established show, and so its rights to highlights were significantly limited. “NFL Primetime’’ continued on, in various other days and time slots, but it wasn’t the same.
Berman’s return to host the post-championship game edition has been set since he took on his new role. But Jackson’s inclusion was a pleasant surprise. Originally, Herm Edwards was supposed to join Berman and Johnson, but he left ESPN to become the head football coach at Arizona State.
“So [ESPN NFL studio programming producer] Seth Markman said, ‘I’ve got an idea,’ ’’ Berman said. “He didn’t even tell me what it was. Let me make one call. And I found out quickly after that who it was. For me, that’s Merry Christmas on January 21. The fact that Tommy’s doing it? That’s special.’’
Berman said he called Jackson during the Falcons-Eagles game in the divisional round two weeks ago. They didn’t hang up until the game was over.
“I called Tommy sometime during the third quarter,’’ said Berman, “and we stayed on the phone the whole fourth quarter. That was the first time we had done that all year. It was, ‘What are they taking a timeout here for?’ Or, ‘If they don’t get a first down here, they’ll still have time to punt and get the ball back.’ It was like we just sat next to each other and talked through a game through the fourth quarter. We haven’t done that in two years. Inadvertent. Not planned. And pretty cool.’’
Berman acknowledged it has been a tumultuous season for the NFL. But the last couple of weeks have served as a reminder of why it is still easily the most popular sport and television product in the country.
“It’s been a different year. But the last couple of weeks of the regular season were compelling. Buffalo getting in, stuff like that. We weren’t talking about which team stood or knelt at the anthem or any of those other things, which is all fine. But now we’re talking about, ‘Did you see the play in the Minnesota game? Did you see Tennessee come back from 21-3 down against the Chiefs?’ We’re coming in at a good time here.
“People will be thirsting after the two championship games for more if we don’t have two blowouts. We still might have blowouts, but I’m going to let you in on a secret. We’re going to still do the show anyway. It’ll be a gas.’’