The NFL expanded to 32 teams for the 2002 season with the addition of the Houston Texans, where it has remained ever since. Twenty years later, the television and overall media landscape have shifted dramatically, but professional football is still the dominant power on US television, a property worth billions of dollars a year.
In 2002, Tom Brady started a Week #1 game for the first time, Aaron Rodgers was a freshman at a junior college, and Patrick Mahomes was a 7-year-old watching his dad pitch for the Chicago Cubs. But who were the media stars back then? How has the NFL on Fox, CBS, or ESPN changed—or stayed the same—from then to now? This piece will sort through the last 20 years of NFL television commentators.
Fox has held the NFC rights since the 1994 season, when it swiped away the package from CBS and forever changed how sports in America were broadcast. By 2002, Fox Sports was a firmly established entity, holding national baseball and NASCAR rights in addition to the NFL. But 2002 marked a year of change at the top for Fox’s NFL coverage, with Pat Summerall having entered semi-retirement after the previous year’s Super Bowl and John Madden leaving Fox to join the Monday Night Football crew.
Fox’s new top broadcast team consisted of 33-year-old Joe Buck, broadcasting veteran Cris Collinsworth, and relative newcomer Troy Aikman. That team lasted for one Super Bowl cycle before Collinsworth left to become the lead studio analyst for NBC’s Sunday Night package. Buck and Aikman have established themselves as one of the longest-lasting pairings in NFL’s history, and they lasted with Fox through the 2021 season, when both left for ESPN. Twenty years after Buck and company took over, Fox has another completely new #1 team in 2022.
Fox’s #2 team in 2002, consisted of Dick Stockton, who had served in that role for the network’s entire run, and Daryl “Moose” Johnston, in his second year in that capacity. The two were joined by Tony Siragusa in his dual analyst/sideline reporter role the following season. Stockton was demoted in favor of Kenny Albert in 2007, then the entire team was shifted to the #3 position in 2014 when Fox elevated a second-year play-by-play man that the executives decided was their Super Bowl announcer of the future.
Kevin Burkhardt was joined by John Lynch in that spot for three seasons before taking the general manager’s job with the San Francisco 49ers. Charles Davis followed by taking over on color for three years before jumping ship for CBS in the same role. Johnston returned to the #2 position in 2020 as a stopgap while Fox’s next target, Greg Olsen, was finishing up his playing career. Olsen joined in 2021, and this year he and Burkhardt were given the top job with Buck and Aikman’s departures. Ironically for Olsen, he might be serving as a stopgap for Tom Brady, though I still have some doubts Brady winds up in broadcasting.
Johnston returned to the #2 analyst chair for a third time this season, alongside Joe Davis.
AFC package (starting with AFL on NBC)
CBS, once the AFC’s rightsholder, returned to scoop up the AFC package in 1998 from NBC and has held it ever since. By 2002, the Eye Network was fully back into football, having scooped up an SEC package a couple years before the NFL returned to its airwaves. Although Summerall and Madden weren’t there anymore, CBS still had a veteran play-by-play man and a star former quarterback to lead coverage.
CBS’s #1 team for its first two Super Bowls was Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms. In 2004, the network decided it wanted a singular face of the network and moved Gumbel to the studio, flipping him with Jim Nantz, the network’s lead on golf and college basketball. Nantz has been the #1 for CBS since then, although Simms was himself moved to the studio after the 2016 season to make way for the recently-retired Tony Romo. That is CBS’s lead team as of this moment, and I would imagine it remains so for at least two more Super Bowls.
The #2 team in 2002 consisted of Dick Enberg, in his third season after leaving NBC, and Dan Dierdorf, in his fourth season after leaving ABC. That was a very high-profile #2 pairing, with both Enberg and Dierdorf having worked multiple Super Bowls with their previous employers. Enberg, then into his 70s, was demoted to the #3 spot in 2006, with Gumbel returning to game broadcasts that year in the secondary position. Dierdorf left CBS after the 2013 season to become the color commentator for his alma mater, the University of Michigan. Gumbel was shifted to the third spot as well after that year, approaching 70 himself. (Enberg was also as artist)
With an eye toward the future, CBS elevated Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts to the #2 chair. Fouts was let go in 2020, and CBS lured Charles Davis away from Fox to work with Eagle. They are currently in their third season together.
Monday Night Football
Monday Night Football was still the marquee game of the week by 2002, though its time in that spot was slowly coming to an end. The iconic play-by-play announcer who had led the program through the last couple of decades was still there, but ABC Sports—still a separate entity from ESPN—had some trouble filling its analyst position after the scandal involving Frank Gifford and departure of Dierdorf. But in 2002, the ABC brass finally found its guy.
John Madden joined Al Michaels for the last four years of ABC’s run before MNF moved to cable. Madden jumped ship for NBC and Sunday nights first, then Michaels joined in time for the 2006 season to start, as part of a trade for the cartoon character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. (Side note: Buck’s trade to ESPN was for a Penn State-Purdue football game.)
As it usually does, ESPN looked internally for its play-by-play replacement, and landed on talented multi-sport announcer Mike Tirico. Tirico was joined by Joe Theismann, as well as Pardon the Interruption host Tony Kornheiser. Theismann would be let go after a year in favor of fellow 1980s quarterback Ron Jaworski. Kornheiser’s Madden-esque fear of flying led to his departure from game broadcasts after three seasons, and he was replaced by recently-fired Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden. Jaworski was moved to Sunday NFL Countdown in 2012, and Tirico and Gruden worked as a duo for four seasons before Tirico left for NBC.
After that, ESPN had a revolving door of commentators for the next six years. As Disney almost always stays in-house for play-by-play, multiple established ESPN college football announcers tried leading Monday Night Football, to mixed critical results. The color commentary position was no more stable; after working two seasons alongside Sean McDonough, Gruden took the then-Oakland Raiders’ coaching job in 2018 before McDonough was returned to college football coverage. Jason Witten retired and joined Joe Tessitore in the booth, alongside dual analyst/sideline reporter Anthony “Booger” McFarland. Witten returned to the Dallas Cowboys after a season, McFarland jumped up to the booth, then after one season he was moved to the studio and Tessitore rejoined the college team. Steve Levy lasted two seasons alongside Brian Griese and Louis Riddick before Buck and Aikman were brought over from Fox.
Sunday Night Football
Sunday Night Football had been on ESPN since 1987 and had been a season-long property of the Worldwide Leader since 1998. SNF had transformed NFL coverage into a day-long event, but it still was not the phenomenon it would later become over the timespan covered in this article. Mike Patrick had been the lead announcer for the program’s entire run, and he was joined by Joe Theismann in year 2, as well as Paul Maguire by 1998. The three of them would call SNF through 2005, before NBC picked up the rights. (Tirico, left)
As previously alluded to, Al Michaels and John Madden moved from ABC to NBC for the Peacock’s maiden voyage of Sunday Night Football in 2006. That pairing lasted through one Super Bowl cycle before the legendary Madden called it a career. NBC brought down Cris Collinsworth from the studio, and Michaels and Collinsworth worked as a team through the 2021 season.
Mike Tirico joined NBC in 2016 as Michaels’s heir apparent and NBC’s lead college football voice, among many other roles. Michaels was expected by some to retire after the 2017 season, but elected to stick around for one more Super Bowl. After the Los Angeles Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals this past February, Tirico was promoted to the top job. Collinsworth’s contract extension will take him through NBC’s next Super Bowl, in February of 2026.
Thursday Night Football
Thursday Night Football as currently constructed did not exist in 2002. It was originally a series of late-season games airing on NFL Network, which also did not exist in 2002, and even those games didn’t come into being until the 2006 season. For the first couple seasons, this package also included a handful of games on Saturdays.
For the package’s entire history, the broadcast team has been somewhat of a revolving door. In 2006, Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth were the Thursday night team, while Dick Vermeil joined Gumbel on Saturdays. The following year, Gumbel and Collinsworth did every game of this package. In 2008, Gumbel left and New York Giants radio announcer Bob Papa took over, and the package was moved almost entirely to Thursdays. Collinsworth left for the Sunday Night booth after that year, to be replaced by one-time Fox #2 Matt Millen, most recently the GM of the Detroit Lions. Papa and Millen were joined by Joe Theismann for the 2010 season, but the entire team was scrapped the following year.
Brad Nessler and Mike Mayock took over as the TNF crew in 2011, and they served in that role for three seasons, with the program expanding to the full-season package it is today in 2012. In 2014, the NFL decided they wanted the Thursday night games to have more of a big-game feel, so they reached a deal to let CBS produce the games and simulcast them on NFL Network. CBS used their lead team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms as the announcing crew. After two seasons, the NFL split the Thursday night games between CBS and NBC. The latter brought in Mike Tirico with the goal of having him call its TNF games, but the league insisted on NBC using the top team of Al Michaels and Collinsworth in 2016 before letting Tirico work Thursdays in 2017, the same year Simms was replaced by Tony Romo.
Fox took hold of the rights in 2018 and the next four seasons would see Joe Buck and Troy Aikman call TNF. In 2022, the NFL, which had dipped its toes into the world of streaming before, fully jumped in as Amazon won the Thursday Night Football package for its Prime Video service with an 11-year contract. Michaels was brought in to do play-by-play as Tirico took NBC’s lead job, and ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit is the color man. Michaels will be 80 at the end of his three-year deal.