Going behind the scenes at NBC’s ‘Football Night in America’ with former Patriots safety Devin McCourty

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McCourty’s ability to share firsthand experiences competing against current NFL stars has great value to the show.

From left: Football Night in America’s Chris Simms, Maria Taylor, Devin McCourty, and Jason Garrett on stage during the taping of the show at NBC Sports Headquarters. Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

STAMFORD, Conn. — NBC Sports’ 300,000-square-foot studio hub and production compound, situated in this city since 2013 at the site of a former Clairol plant, is roughly as quaint as an airplane hangar. But a short walk down a hallway from the main entrance, in Screen Room 1, there’s energy to charge the entire place.

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It is here where the cast and crew of NBC’s “Football Night in America” studio program put on their show before the show. The cast — which includes host Maria Taylor, analysts Devin McCourty, Jason Garrett, and Chris Simms, insider Mike Florio, and fantasy expert Matthew Berry — crack jokes, commentate, and collaborate while watching Sunday’s early NFL games.

The vibe is not much different than if you and your friends gathered to watch a big game, presuming you and your friends have 10 massive screens featuring eight games, and you were preparing to host the most-watched NFL studio program on television (”FNIA” is averaging 7.7 million viewers through Week 10, 80 percent more than the No. 2 pregame show on Fox).

Maria Taylor, Jason Garrett, Devin McCourty and Chris Simms watch the Sunday afternoon games before the broadcast at the NBC Sports Headquarters.

McCourty, the 13-year Patriots defensive back and the new addition this year, is the first to arrive, near 11:30 a.m. He banters with Simms — the most raucous of the group — and Garrett about the topics of the day, including the dangers of the hip-drop tackle and the emergence of Vikings quarterback Josh Dobbs as one of the season’s feel-good stories.

At 12:15, director Matt Casey goes over the topics and granular details of the pregame show, then reminds the cast that their matchup — Vikings vs. the resurgent Broncos — has unanticipated appeal. “In Week 5, we were saying, ‘How are we going to get out of this game,’ ” he said. “This is a good reminder that we never really know how things will go.”

When the early games begin at 1, McCourty — whose sharp, concise insights and easy charisma have more than validated NBC Sports’ decision to add him — sits in the front row, taking notes and bantering with his fellow analysts. Simms half-seriously tries to convince him to say a mild curse word on the air for $1,000. “I’ll kick in another $1,000,” says Florio. “I’m not getting fired for 2,000 bucks,” says McCourty, a sound decision-maker no matter his profession.

Host Maria Taylor jokes with analysts Jason Garrett and Devin McCourty before they begin preparation for the broadcasting of NBC’s Football Night in America.

When the Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill rockets through the Raiders’ defense for a touchdown, McCourty shares a story about his time with the Patriots, when Hill, then with the Chiefs, scored a pair of touchdowns in a regular-season game. “He was in two formations the whole game where he managed to get single covered, and boom, he scored two touchdowns,” said McCourty. “When we saw them in the playoffs later that year, our coaches were like, ‘Uh, you know what? Let’s make sure we double-cover him every single time. Let’s do that.’ I can’t tell you how many conversations we had about not letting him get single coverage.”

McCourty’s ability to share firsthand experiences competing against current NFL stars has great value to the show. “I talk to him every week and I’m like, ‘Empty your brain on this matchup,’ ” Casey said. “To have someone who knows what it’s like to go head to head with, you know, Joe Burrow or someone leads to incredible insight.

“With newer analysts, it’s more about cajoling them to tell me something that matters,” added Casey. “Don’t tell me something that my mother could tell America. ‘Run the football, play well on defense and special teams . . . ’ Speak to me real. Make me smarter or make me smile.

“The best thing he does is that you tell him something once, he remembers it and applies it. He’s really on top of that stuff. You could call him a well-coached player.”

Stamford, CT- 11/19/2023- Analysts Jason Garrett, far left, and Chris Simms, far right, watch the final three afternoon NFL games as Devin McCourty sits for makeup before the taping of Football Night in America at the NBC Sports Headquarters.

Maximizing opportunities

McCourty’s do-your-job discipline was well-established before he was drafted by the Patriots in the first round in 2010. As a freshman at Rutgers, he found himself seventh on the depth chart at safety.

“Let me tell you, I learned fast that in order to move forward, I had to maximize the most of whatever opportunities I got,” he said, conversing at length with a reporter in the back row of Screen Room 1 before the early games began. “If I had 10 reps, I had better do all 10 the way the coaches wanted.”

Such discipline served him well upon arriving with the Patriots, though the ruthlessness of professional football delivered an initial shock.

“How fast they would get rid of you really made me stress,” McCourty said. “Rookie year, we let go of [Laurence] Maroney, and he was the leading rusher the year before I got here. Cut Fred Taylor. I mean, he was older, but that’s Fred Taylor, a great, great running back. Traded Randy Moss in Week 4 of my rookie year. It was all so abrupt.

“In spring of my rookie year, I get called into [Bill] Belichick’s office and I’m like, what the [expletive] did I do? He starts asking me about Mike Teel. He’s like, ‘You played with Mike Teel in college. How is he?’ I said, ‘Love Mike, hard worker.’ Mike comes in for one week. Gets cut in OTAs. I’m like, damn, they must have watched two practices and been like, no, he’s not it.

Football analyst Devin McCourty enters Studio 1 for the rehearsal of Football Night in America at the NBC Sports Headquarters.
Football analyst Devin McCourty buttons his suit jacket before the rehearsal of Football Night in America.

“So I realized that fast, that you have to make sure that you don’t get to that spot, that you stay on top of everything within your control.”

McCourty began dabbling in sports media in 2014, appearing regularly on the lighthearted, insightful Tom E. Curran-hosted “Quick Slants” on NBC Sports Boston. “I loved it, and I thought it would be good to do so they would know I wanted to do it when I was done playing,” said McCourty. “I thought I would stay local, maybe come back and do a show on weekends, something like that.”

In 2018, his brother, Jason, joined the Patriots, and they began hosting a podcast, “Double Coverage With The McCourty Twins.” They took it seriously, preparing by doing such things as watching old David Letterman shows to find creative ways to introduce guests, and it became popular. “We really got into figuring out what approach worked for us,” McCourty said, “but when we really decided we wanted to do this was when we went to broadcast bootcamp.”

The bootcamp — officially called Broadcasting and Media Workshop — has been hosted by the NFL for 16 years, allowing 25 current or former players each year who hope to transition to broadcasting to get practical experience with television professionals. It was there that McCourty impressed Fred Gaudelli, who is on a very short list of the most influential people he could have in his corner.

Chris Simms (foreground) Devin McCourty, and Jason Garrett rehearse on the set of Football Night in America.

“In all my years covering the Patriots, there were only three guys who spoke freely,” said Gaudelli, executive producer of NBC’s NFL coverage and a 24-time Emmy Award winner. “Not that they were giving away state secrets, but they weren’t measuring their words. Rodney [Harrison, an onsite analyst for “Football Night in America”], Tom [Brady], and Devin. I always appreciated that about him.”

Gaudelli had both McCourty brothers in his group at bootcamp and was immediately impressed by their ability to talk about all aspects of the game. “That is, like, rare,” Gaudelli said. “Most guys lock into talking about their position, and that’s really pretty much all they can talk about.”

Jason McCourty, who retired after the 2021 season, was immediately scooped up by the NFL Network for “Good Morning Football.” Gaudelli made a point to keep up with Devin during what would be his final season with the Patriots.

“After the season ended, I started reading that he wasn’t sure if he was going to keep playing, so I didn’t wait for him to call me, I called him,” said Gaudelli. “I told him I’m not sure what we’ll have, but if somebody makes you an offer, before you say yes, please call me. We decided to rearrange some pieces, and that there would be a position on main desk. He did not need to audition, we knew he had the goods. I had seen it.”

Analyst Devin McCourty speaks during the broadcast of Football Night in America.

McCourty retired on March 10, ending his 13-year career as one of the quintessential Patriots from the second phase of the dynasty. On March 23, NBC announced he was joining “Football Night in America.” The line from one to the other is easy to draw.

“Playing football, you almost get beaten down, especially in New England,” said McCourty. “ ’You won by 25, but this is what you did wrong.’

“At the bootcamp, we did 10 minutes of calling a game, and I remember, we sat down, Fred pulls out his notebook, and he’s like, ‘At the seven-minute mark, you did this, we don’t want to do that, and at the nine-minute mark, you should do it this way’ . . . and he just starting running down what I did well, what I didn’t do well, what to work on. That’s what I was used to.

“When he called me, I told him I would love to work here, because I know I’m going to get better.”

Analysts Devin McCourty and Jason Garrett are seen on screens in the control room during the broadcast of Football Night in America.

Show time

At 5:30, having watched the early games and part of the later games, head to hair and makeup, put on their television clothes, and at 6:30 go to the set for rehearsal. McCourty is the first one on set, handwriting notes and receiving constantly updated information until 45 seconds before the real pregame show begins.

Just as when he was a Patriot, his preparation pays off when the lights come on. He flawlessly breaks down a clip of a Vikings blitz package, his knowledge of former Patriots assistant Brian Flores’s scheme allowing him to inform the viewer animatedly. “Who’s coming?” he said, circling Vikings defenders on his screen. “No one knows!”

Later, McCourty delivers the line of the night, when a highlight of Jets quarterback Zach Wilson and coach Robert Saleh colliding on the sideline plays. “What do you mean it’s not going well?” said McCourty. “That’s good defense right there!” He then cites a Jets rallying cry, perfect for the occasion. “All gas, no brakes,” he said. “Get down, man!”

The crew in the studio breaks out in laughter. It is not difficult to imagine that viewers at home did, too. McCourty might be a national television rookie, but to paraphrase his boss, he’s already making them smarter, and he’s already making them smile.


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