Spring 2020

Unscripted

Miracle on the Gridiron

Director Mike Arnold and his colleagues chronicled an NFL playoff comeback for the ages as the Chiefs reversed a 24-point deficit into a rout of the Texans

By Steve Chagollan


Mike Arnold, a veteran lead sports director at CBS for 16 years, calls the shots from command central at last year's Super Bowl in Atlanta. (Photo: CBS)

NFL football coverage has become so sophisticated that for the serious viewer, the stadium experience is, well, a compromise in comparison. A case in point: the AFC West divisional playoff game in January between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans, where, in the second quarter, the Chiefs went from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to leading the game going into halftime, and never looked back.

That CBS telecast, orchestrated by lead director Mike Arnold, chronicled a comeback for the ages from every conceivable angle. It all happened so fast that if you blinked, you likely missed a highlight.

"It was so amazing that Houston led 24-nothing with about 10 minutes left in the quarter and Kansas City came all the way back to take the lead, 28-24," says Arnold, who helmed last year's Super Bowl in Atlanta and will cover next year's in Tampa. "I don't know that I've ever seen a comeback like that."

If you just count Kansas City's time of possession, those 24 points were scored in the span of five minutes (that first drive took exactly a minute, including a kickoff return and two pass plays). Arnold and his team were at the ready, with 20 manned cameras—Sony 2500s, with 4300s for super slow-mo shots—not counting the fixed cameras behind the goal line, as well as those trained on the game clock, among others. Like a wizard behind the curtain, Arnold orchestrated it all from a semi-trailer truck parked just outside Arrowhead Stadium.

In their prep, Arnold and his team anticipate several storylines. "We're aware of the human drama," says Arnold, "but we have to document the game. So, the storylines may not play out."

Like any narrative, a pro football game has its key cast members. In this case, K.C. quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the 24-year-old sensation who would eventually become this year's Super Bowl MVP. His chemistry with tight end Travis Kelce—as dominant a tandem as Brady/Gronkowski in their heyday—would prove unstoppable. The Texans' leading man was QB Deshaun Watson, also 24, who led Clemson to a National Championship in 2017. Then there was the Texans' J.J. Watt, a one-man wrecking crew and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

"We've got cameramen assigned to various coaches and players we think will react and are a great storyline in the game," explains Arnold. But sometimes lesser known personalities emerge to seize the spotlight, like Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen, who made a key stop when the Texans faked a punt at their own 33, leading to another quick score for the home team. Sorensen would subsequently force a fumble on the following kickoff, allowing the Chiefs to recover and advance the ball to the Texans' six-yard line.




Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes appears to cross the line of scrimmage late in the first half, but replays from multiple angles give viewers the ability to judge for themselves (the pass was ruled a touchdown).(Screenpull: NFL)

"Here's an under-the-radar player who makes two big plays," says Arnold of Sorensen, "and you've got to be ready to document that." On that kickoff, Arnold chose to stick with the Skycam—as opposed to the play-by-play camera on the 50-yard line (football's version of the master shot). What followed was a perfect storm of action, reaction and replays from multiple perspectives.

"We stayed on the Skycam shot and (DeAndre Carter) fumbled forward right into (the Chiefs') Darwin Thompson's arms; he returns it to the six and you never lost the ball in the frame," recalls Arnold. "We cut to Houston's special teams coach Brad Seely, then Kansas City head coach Andy Reid. Then we cut to Thompson. Then to Carter. Then there are replays again of the fumble and recovery, a couple of them from the sideline cart camera, the robotic on the goal post and then a Patrick Mahomes reaction shot on the bench, yelling and screaming, and now it's first and goal."

After their stunning success in the first quarter, everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Texans, including a seeming non-call when the Chiefs' Tyrann Mathieu broke up a Watson pass on third down; and another when Mahomes appeared to cross the line of scrimmage on a touchdown pass with 45 seconds to go in the half. "It's important for the camera people to know when to be tight," explains Arnold, "and when to be head-to-toe. Where were (Mahomes') feet when he threw the ball? And the same with Mathieu. Did he hit (the receiver) a second early? Was it legal?" Arnold ramped up the tension by cutting to a shot of Watson with his arms outstretched, "kind of like miming, 'No flag?'"

Of course, the replay producer Ryan Galvin and broadcast producer Jim Rikhoff gave viewers so many views of questionable plays at varying speeds that the end results were usually beyond question.

Arnold credits Bryan Kosowski, associate director in charge of the bumper elements leading into commercials ("it gives the telecast texture," says Arnold), and Chris Burns, who assembles quick-hit packages, such as the four touchdowns that K.C. scored in the second quarter. "He'll find cool angles and edit them together and that'll take maybe 20 seconds." Talk about action-packed.

The researchers and statisticians, led by broadcast associate Katie Keane, supply graphics that Arnold will use at his discretion. "It's a job that's near and dear to me because I started in that job 40 years ago," says Arnold. "That's part of what a good telecast is: It's the announcing, it's the graphics, the live pictures, the replays—all of that makes it into a sound orchestra."

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