Even before the NFL aired its first playoff game on Nickelodeon, you couldn’t help but wonder where CBS had been hiding Nate Burleson all this time. The 11-year NFL veteran spent the pregame show before Bears-Saints on Sunday counting down the best sports-related moments from SpongeBob SquarePants. More importantly, he was selling the hell out of it. Burleson made jokes, quoted the show he clearly grew up watching and seemed to be having a blast. And then he called one of the best games as a color man we’ve seen in a spot no broadcaster has ever experienced.
Don’t get me wrong, Burleson is already a busy man. He’s been on the NFL on CBS studio broadcasts since 2017 and appears on Good Morning Football and Access Hollywood. But on a broadcast filled with slime cannons exploding after touchdowns, a Minecraft-inspired halftime highlight show and Nickelodeon’s first-ever f-bomb, Burleson was still the star of the show.
It cannot be said enough that this broadcast could have been an absolute disaster. Brand partnerships often happen not because they should, but because both willing parties see an opportunity to make money. And just because it might look fun it may not actually provide much value. But the broadcast, for those willing to give it a shot, was almost universally praised.
While Young Sheldon popping up on screen to explain penalties was nearly a deal-breaker, the broadcast was dominated by Burleson in his bag calling a playoff football broadcast on a children’s television network. Nostalgia is an easy thing to fall back on, but the broadcast wasn’t simply trotting out SpongeBob tropes and pandering to kids. What Nickelodeon aired on Sunday was a legitimately entertaining broadcast of a pretty underwhelming playoff football game.
When Bears wideout Javon Wims dropped an easy touchdown on a trick play in the first quarter, Burleson immediately noted that he had just made a tough play on the sideline and couldn’t make “the easy one.” The play deprived us an opportunity to see the hilarious slime cannons explode on the broadcast, but it was a perfect example of how, in a game broadcast on a cartoon network, Burleson managed to correctly convey the importance of the moment to the flow of the game.
While play-by-play man Noah Eagle made a point to include the other member of the broadcast team — actress Gabrielle Neveah Green, a rookie doing color as well — Burleson rarely needed any help. He seamlessly filled space not only providing meaningful commentary, but was able to give context to the kids potentially watching for the first time while entertaining everyone else whose curiosity had been piqued by the novelty of the broadcast.
It’s easy to make exceptionally lame analogies when trying to shoehorn things like cartoons and football together. But the analogies were actually pretty strong throughout the broadcast, and none were as cringe-worthy as Young Sheldon. Burleson explained that turnovers in football are kind of like when someone drops an easy pop up in kickball: you have to take advantage of a mistake while you can.
Later on, he explained a blocker getting “down under” someone’s pads to gain superior position on them “like Rocko’s Modern Life.” Along with the other subtle rule explanations from Eagle during the broadcast and Green adding interesting tidbits about NFL history, it actually made for a pretty well-rounded broadcast. And Burleson wasn’t afraid to call out a bad quarterback when he sees one, even if he did it a bit more gently than was maybe necessary.
Nate Burleson on the Nickelodeon broadcast: "I'm not going to get heavy into the X's and O's here, but if you're trying to score before halftime but you don't throw it once, what are you saying about the quarterback?"
— Conor Orr (@ConorOrr) January 10, 2021
Nate Burleson explaining how Mitch Trubisky's season was a like getting a C in class but now the playoffs are like a chance to earn extra credit…🤣
— Melissa Jacobs (@thefootballgirl) January 10, 2021
Burleson later joked that when he gets older, he wants to be like Tommy Pickles from Rugrats.
“I wanna walk around in my diaper, just doing what I want,” he said. It’s important to note that Rugrats went off the air 16 years ago. But it was super impressive how many shows Nate referenced, and it was clear that he truly did grow up watching Nickelodeon and it had an impact on him. Perhaps that’s why it seemed like he had so much fun doing the broadcast, but the performance felt far from a gimmick. It can be a challenge not to talk down
And for every awkward interruption of a big play to let the audience know what flavor of ice cream the receiver likes best, Burleson was there to seamlessly pick up the slack and carry that language into an explanation of what happened and why it was a big play. The best sports broadcasts not only showcase the game, but also can teach you something new about what you’re seeing. No matter how old you are.
Good color work during a football game doesn’t always have to be Tony Romo-level predictions or breaking down mesh in real time, and Burleson never got that technical on a network where the first down line was a pulsating orange and green. But he proved himself more than capable of providing a great broadcast on Sunday, one that embraced all the fun that sports are supposed to be while not leaning too heavy into the ridiculousness of the graphics or the cheesiness that often comes with brand partnerships.
Not all playoff football games should be broadcast on Nickelodeon. In fact, the NFL may have picked the perfect game to put on the network because it was so lopsided and fairly uninteresting without all that slime. But Burleson proved on Sunday he belongs in the booth calling more than just games with Double Dare music beds leading into commercial breaks. He more than earned the shot, if it’s something he wants.