What once began in 1993 as a fledgling cable program called “NFL Prime Monday”, “ESPN Monday Night Countdown” is now on the verge of celebrating its 20th season on the air. Far from being the first pregame panelist show concept, in many ways Countdown has come to define the format. The show has been a cultural force through most of its run, but really started to come into its own in 2006, when it became a part of Monday Night Football itself. While the show continues to thrive and take on new forms, there will likely never be another year for it like that one.
PART 1: Are You Ready?
“I’d really like to get a sponsor that fits the ‘driven to you by…’ kicker.”
John Skipper (then-ESPN executive vice president of content): When we got “Monday Night Football” in 2006, it was one of the greatest coups in cable history. We’re talking not just one of the grandest institutions in television, but one of the biggest, most significant in sports altogether. Countdown had been around for a while when MNF was on ABC, but this was different. Back then, Countdown was just part of the echo chamber. Now it was the lead-in to MNF itself. This was the big time.
Chris Berman (host): I mean, I’ve been involved in a lot of big, big, big, big stuff in this industry. Just huge. HUGE. But even this kind of shook me. We all know the icons of Monday Night Football. Cosell. Dandy Don Meredith. For a new generation of people, that was going to be me. Some people might not have been prepared for that. But I was.
Tom Jackson (panelist): Well, I’m thinking to myself, “Tom, you’ve been in this business for a while. You played the game. You strapped on that helmet week in and week out and took those hits. From some of the best to ever do it. After you retired, you got into TV. All right. How’s that going for you? Pretty good? The thing is: pretty good ain’t gonna cut it. Are you ready to be really good? Do you have that in you? That’s something you gotta ask.” I did ask myself that. And the answer was, “yeah, sure”.
Skipper: The good thing was, we already had a lot of the formula in place when MNF arrived. All that was left to do was tweak it, elevate it to that next level.
Berman: I made the suggestion that I do the show solo. Give the viewers what they want. Evidently, brass didn’t like that idea. Whatever, fine. It’s your show. I’m just trying to help. I’m a vet. I know TV. I know what works. But, okay, we’ll see how your thing does. I’m a professional. I know how to play along.
Skipper: The focus groups really liked the chemistry between Berman, Jackson and [Michael] Irvin. The audience also weren’t put off by the sense that the hosts were too smart for them. It helps that mostly drew samples from volunteers who were testing pharmaceuticals yet to be FDA approved. What the focus groups weren’t into was Sterling Sharpe.
Michael Irvin (panelist): Sterling was always coming at me with reason. With – with evidence and supporting arguments. The way I am, I take that as a threat. I’ve done some growing up since football, but back then I was raw. I mean, RAW, you dig?
Skipper: There were a few on-set incidents between Michael and Sterling. Nothing serious, but nothing we’d like repeated if we could avoid it. So we let Sterling go and brought Steve Young over from the Sunday pregame show. Steve had the benefit of being a household name and also didn’t alienate the other panelists. We had these volatile personalities. We needed someone who could be a draw but also just be there. It’s a quality we value in Steve: thereness.
Howard Eckelberg (camera operator): Irvin cut him a few times. Sterling did have it coming. I don’t know to explain it. You just had to be there.
PART 2: Live And On Location
“How’d he get on the roof AGAIN?”
For that inaugural 2006 season with ESPN, the Worldwide Leader made the decision to set Countdown live at the site of the Monday Night Football game. This led to a number of challenges, both logistical and otherwise.
Skipper: When we made the decision to hold Countdown on-site, a few immediate changes were needed. First, I took steps to ensure Michael was never carrying inside of a stadium. That could have been a disaster for us. Second, I forced Berman to stop taking his deux deux deuxs. It was a challenge, sure, but a necessary one. By that point, he had formed a dependency. It was one thing if there was an incident in studio. That we could handle. The last thing we wanted was something to go down in public.
Berman: I like John. Respect the hell out of him. And I hate to use the word wrong. Just hate it. I don’t know how else to put it. Just like Three Dog Night, it ain’t easy. He was wrong though. I didn’t have an issue. You think if I had a problem then that I’d still be going now? Not a chance.
Skipper: Berman refused to quit cold turkey. I’ll admit that it was too much to ask at that point, anyway. He was the star and we couldn’t go without him. That we got him down from doing handfuls at a time to maybe one or two a night was a triumph. It was ultimately a manageable situation. The real problem that season was [Chris] Mortensen.
Suzy Kolber (ESPN NFL reporter): Mort got lost a lot. That’s always been the case, but it was especially bad in ’06. With the extra work of running a pregame show at the stadium, there were fewer people left to keep an eye on him. And off he went.
Chris Mortensen (ESPN NFL reporter): HI BOOM. WORD WITHIN THE JAGUARS’ ORGANIZATION IS THAT BLAINE GABBERT CONTINUES TO HOLD THE INSIDE TRACK ON THE STARTING QUARTERBACK JOB. HOWEVER, SEVERAL SOURCES CLAIM THAT UNLESS GABBERT MAKES SIGNIFICANT STRIDES IN TRAINING CAMP AND DURING THE PRESEASON – THAT’S RIGHT – CHAD HENNE, FORMERLY OF THE DOLPHINS, COULD BE THE STARTER WHEN THE JAGS VISIT THE VIKINGS IN WEEK 1.
Sal Paolantonio (ESPN NFL reporter): You interviewed Mort for this? Someone should have told you not to do that. I don’t know if he’s an idiot savant kind of deal or what. That spiel he does? It’s just what he does. That’s the best I can put it. Here’s the thing: he hasn’t talked to an NFL official in probably… ever. At least not seriously. A few have been kind enough to humor him. No one really knows how he first got on the air, but they’ll never take him off. One way or another, he just comes up with this stuff. Sometimes it even sounds like it could make sense, if you didn’t already know it was bullshit. I always got a kick out of it, though. The fans seem to like it, too. But, yeah, anyway, I’d hate to be the guy responsible for him.
Kolber: We did a Packers-Seahawks game in Seattle that year. By an hour before kickoff, no one had any idea where Mort had run off to. And he had a live segment to do. Luckily, I filled in for him with a few minutes about weather conditions and whatnot. Mort didn’t surface for another three weeks. And when he did – he was actually driving a delivery truck into Bristol. It was filled with nothing but scattered doll parts and eight different types of squirrels. No one knows where he went. Good luck getting that info out of him.
Mortensen: THANKS TOM! I SPOKE WITH JAKE LOCKER THIS AFTERNOON AND HE TOLD ME THAT UNLESS THE TITANS NAME HIM THE STARTING QUARTERBACK THAT HE PLANS TO SWEAR OFF MATERIAL POSSESSIONS AND LIVE ON A COMMUNE. BIG NEWS OUT OF TENNESSEE! BACK TO YOU!
PART 3: BOOM! HEADSHOT!
The most controversial segment from that era of Countdown was “JACKED UP!”, a regular feature counting down the most vicious and often concussive hits of the previous day in NFL action. As concern over head injuries mounted, the segment was replaced by the more benign but similarly shout-y “C’MON, MAN!”
Steve Young (panelist): You could say that I was never a huge fan of “Jacked Up!” It might have something to do with the fact that I’ve suffered a lot of concussions myself. Shouting also exacerbates the ringing in my ears so maybe that added to it. I’m not sure. Wasn’t my thing.
Jackson: I’d probably feel more like Steve if I’d been receiving concussions my whole career instead of dishing them out. It’s easy to wag fingers now, but that’s been the culture of football for as long as I’ve known. We were playing into that. The culture of football has changed, so we’ve changed along with it.
Berman: I was always a little troubled with that segment. Barbaric might be the word for it. I look back at it now and I’m just so ashamed for the network. That’s what the fans wanted, so that’s what they got. It’s a business. It’s always been a business. Thankfully, there’s been some illumination on the subject. We’ve evolved as a people. The audience has evolved. I can only hope I played a small part in them learning that lesson.
Irvin: Boom was the biggest fan of “Jacked Up!” there was. Always got pissed that Tom got to be the one to do it. Used to spend all of Monday suggesting hits for that bit. And if it wasn’t a headshot, he’d be like, “WHAT’S THIS PUSSY SHIT!? IF I WANTED TO WATCH A COUPLE DYKES GO AT IT, I’D RUN OVER TO THE 24-HOUR VIDEO!”
Young: Yeah, Boomer used to ball up paper and toss it at my head while we were reviewing the clips. He’d yell, “I BET YOU FELT THAT ONE, HUH YOUNG? I’M STILL GONNA PLOWING CHICKS WHILE YOU’RE DRINKING YOUR MEALS THROUGH A STRAW. FUTURE VEGETABLE! TAKE IT! TAKE IT!”
Skipper: I really wish I could say that last part wasn’t true.