The day of the week has changed, and so has the place to find him. But when Al Michaels is behind the microphone for an NFL broadcast, as he has been for 37 seasons, it always feels like a game of magnitude.
More than any play-by-play voice of his era and perhaps any other, Michaels’s voice is associated with sports’ biggest moments. He retains that gravitas, with his shift this season from NBC’s ratings juggernaut “Sunday Night Football” to Amazon Prime’s “Thursday Night Football” broadcasts, the NFL’s first all-digital rights package and a work in progress.
Michaels will be on the call along with analyst Kirk Herbstreit for Thursday’s Patriots-Bills matchup on Amazon Prime. (The game also airs locally on Channel 25.) The battle between AFC East rivals has a chance to be one of the better Thursday matchups of the season. I checked in with Michaels on Wednesday to get his assessment on how Amazon Prime’s rookie season was going.
“I think pretty well, all things considered,” said Michaels. “Some games have been better than others. We’re really looking forward to [this game] because it’s a great matchup for us. And to start something from scratch and just build the entire infrastructure from nothing, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. So putting the whole crew together, all of the pieces together, the technology is over the moon they tell me, the trucks are state-of-the-art. So there are a lot of toys to play with.
“Having Fred Gaudelli (who worked with Michaels for 16 seasons on “Sunday Night Football”) as the producer is the best move Amazon could have made, because he knows how to do it. He knows how to make a presentation look big-time.”
Michaels acknowledged some frustration at points about the Thursday schedule. The league does not want teams playing on a Sunday and then the following Thursday more than once in a season, so that limits the ability to load the schedule with high-profile teams or flex out of an unappealing game.
“The schedule was a little leaky with the Carolina-Atlanta game and a couple of other games that we’ve had, but now we’re positioned for a nice run down the stretch,” said Michaels.
He did lament that the preparation is too condensed for Thursday games.
“When we go to see the teams, it’s not that they don’t want to be with us, but they’re condensed too, so there’s less time to give to us,” he said. “And all the time I’ve been doing this, I’ve built some great relationships with coaches and players and GMs and owners and you name it, and I don’t get that much time to spend with them anymore. That’s a downside part of it for me. Some of the best stories you get come from those relationships.”
Michaels said he has enjoyed partnering with Herbstreit, who is working a hellacious schedule between Thursday NFL games and his high-profile college football assignments for ESPN and ABC.
“He’s an animal,” said Michaels. “I don’t know how he does this. Holy mackerel, how he pulls it off, I have no idea.
“People said to me before the season, ‘Kirk doesn’t do the NFL, how adept will he be at that?’ And my answer was, ‘Almost every player that we will see, he saw in college.’ He has great background on all of these players. Even the free agents and bottom-of-the-depth-chart guys. He has covered college football to such an extent that he knows almost everybody, and he has great respect around the league.”
Michaels had effortless chemistry for years on the “Sunday Night Football” broadcasts with analyst Cris Collinsworth. (Confession: I miss that pairing every Sunday night.) While it will take time to build such chemistry with Herbstreit, Michaels said he feels they connected well right away even though they had never worked together.
“I’ve heard me for years, I’ve heard him for years, and so we knew what our rhythms were,” said Michaels. It reminded me of when [ABC] paired me with John Madden back in 2002 [on ‘Monday Night Football’] and people said, ‘Well, how’s that going to work, you guys haven’t worked together?’ Well, hold on a second. I’ve heard John do 500 games, he’s heard me do 500 games. By the time we got to the second commercial break of the first game, I’m going, ‘This is too easy. This is amazing.’ ”
Michaels turned 78 on Nov. 12, and he’s often asked when he might retire. But that wonderment still percolates in his voice when something unexpected happens in a game, and it’s genuine. He still loves sports and the job, so why give that up if you don’t have to?
“To me, in any job, there’s a passion quotient,” he said. “And if you love what you do, and I’ve always loved what I do, and you get great perks that come with it, they pay you well, there’s a degree of fame and all of that, and I’m appreciative of that, but what drives me, still, is doing the games. The games are exciting. I love sports. You don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s no script. And unscripted television is the greatest. I still go to games and think, ‘You know what? Maybe tonight we’ll see something that we never saw. And this will be a fantastic and memorable night.’ ”