NFL Films setting up shop

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  • | 12:00 p.m. July 28, 2004
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by Bradley Parsons

Staff Writer

Nobody will be thrown off any island and, presumably, no roses will be given out, but Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio is preparing to open his own version of reality TV Friday.

NFL Films brought a production company on wheels to town last week and parked it outside the team’s practice field. They’ll spend this week running cable and tucking cameras into corners of Alltel Stadium. The cameras will be rolling by the time players report for training camp Friday. The 40-person crew will follow the team through Del Rio’s second training camp until the Sept. 2 final preseason game.

The resulting documentary will air weekly from Aug. 11 through Sept. 8 on the NFL Network. Local broadcast times haven’t been announced.

How the documentary will play out depends on how the coaches and players perform. NFL Films producer Steven Leavy said the Jaguars looked to be taking a more serious approach to camp than at previous stops: Baltimore three years ago followed by Dallas.

NFL Films expected the Jaguars to perform well. Director Phil Tuckett said the team had the early look of one of the turnaround teams that have become the trend in the NFL. After filming more than 120 training camps, Tuckett said he’s become adept at spotting the teams teetering on the tipping point from failure to success. Last season he wanted to follow Marvin Lewis’ first camp as head coach of perennial losers Cincinnati Bengals. Those plans were scuttled when HBO didn’t pick up the series, but Tuckett’s eye for the underdog story proved accurate.

“We thought it would be interesting to see how the worst team gets ready for a season,” said Tuckett. “They almost ended up in the playoffs and Marvin Lewis ended up as Coach of the Year.”

This year the NFL Network revived the series, and Tuckett thinks the Jaguars, after four consecutive losing seasons, are poised to recapture their early success.

“It’s a fascinating story, them coming back from a horrible first half, a young quarterback and head coach,” said Tuckett. “It would make a great story if we’re back here in February and the Jaguars are playing at home for the Super Bowl. We’d look prescient.”

It wasn’t just a good story that brought NFL Films to Jacksonville. Tuckett said Del Rio is one of the few coaches who would provide the necessary access to film a compelling story. Del Rio worked with the crew three years ago when he coached in Baltimore. He said he learned from Baltimore coach Brian Billick how the cameras can prepare a team to play on a national stage.

“Billick always said the cameras keep the players on their toes,” said Tuckett.

The NFL also saw a chance to drum up publicity for a Super Bowl venue that lacks a national image.

“I think there was an understanding that Jacksonville needed a boost in terms of nationwide exposure,” he said. “It’s probably one of the least publicized Super Bowl cities, it’s sort of drifted to the backwater of the public’s attention.”

Del Rio is one of the few coaches who recognize the value of the publicity, said Tuckett. Still he knows his crew won’t be welcome long if they become a distraction. In small doses, the cameras can help break up camp’s monotony, giving players an outlet to have some fun or blow off steam. But Tuckett said coaches won’t tolerate too much competition for the players’ attention.

The trick is to be everywhere without seeming to be anywhere. It’s a technique NFL Films has mastered after 30 years of roaming sidelines.

“The only way any of this is allowed is because we’re NFL Films,” said Leavy. “The players are comfortable with us. We have an agreement with them that, if they put up their hand, we walk away. We’re not the paparazzi; we don’t chase people through doors and windows.”

The team screens all episodes and has final say over what airs. Leavy said Billick let the series run mostly undisturbed. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was a little faster with the edit button.

Plenty of footage ends up on the cutting room floor. Leavy said a team of 12 editors sift through as much as 250 hours every week. The crew has to pare more than a week’s worth of action into weekly one-hour episodes.

The crew plans several story lines in advance and then lets them develop. Decisions are made on the fly as to which stories get the most air time. The early story lines, scribbled onto a production schedule in one of the crew’s trailers, include “Del Rio and the linebackers,” and “the veterans.” If neither of those pan out, viewers should watch for “Leftwich and the Samoans.”