NFL scores big win for fans: How Xs and Os are becoming easier to grasp

Six years ago, Brian Baldinger had a flip phone. Dan Orlovsky and Geoff Schwartz were barely hanging onto their NFL careers. And Ben Solak was beginning his own media career.

What do those folks all have in common, aside from being members of the broader NFL media? They are among the best at breaking down game tape on social media, a space that has exploded in recent years and gives fans of any interest level the opportunity to learn more about football every time they scroll through Twitter.

USA TODAY Sports caught up with these four tape grinders for a glimpse into their craft and what it means for fandom.

How did they start breaking down film on social media? 

Eventually, a friend of Baldinger took him to the Apple store to purchase an iPhone. If only the friend knew what that would set in motion.

Baldinger, who works for NFL Network, would meet with Daniel Jeremiah — then his fellow analyst and now the network’s draft expert — in the film room at 4:30 or 5 a.m. on Monday mornings and review tape from the previous day in preparation for their show, ‘The Aftermath.’

‘The league hadn’t really sanctioned us to do it yet,’ said Baldinger, who now cuts breakdowns for more than 20 NFL teams and posts longer videos on YouTube to ‘weave in a story.’

Midway through the 2016 season, NFL Network suspended Baldinger for his comments on a Philadelphia radio station saying the Eagles should attempt to injure Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Baldinger, who is nearing 320,000 Twitter followers, had lots of free time and nothing to lose.

‘If they fire me — I’m already suspended, what’s the difference?’ Baldinger said. “So I kind of just took a chance and it’s just connected so quickly with players and teams that they couldn’t say no to it, to be honest with you. And then it became a thing.’

Orlovsky, who has become one of ESPN’s top NFL analysts in addition to being a color commentator for college games, was sitting on the couch of his Connecticut home watching a prime time Carolina Panthers-Miami Dolphins contest in November 2017. Weeks removed from being released by the Rams, he was coming to terms that his 12-year career as an NFL quarterback was over. That couldn’t dampen the excitement he felt when Cam Newton expertly countered a man-coverage blitz from the Dolphins and scored a touchdown.

‘I was raving about it, but no one on the broadcast was talking about it,’ Orlovsky, who now has 495,000 Twitter followers, said. “I was just like, dude, the fact they’re not talking about it …’

His wife said he should make a video and ‘put it on the Internet.’ The idea didn’t sit well with Orlovsky, who “thought social media was stupid.’ But after a few minutes, Orlovsky muted and paused the television, grabbed his phone and started explaining what happened, how it happened and why it happened.

Orlovsky went to bed and woke up a viral sensation. Peter Schrager of NFL Network’s ‘Good Morning Football’ reached out to see if he would do it on their show, and that spawned an entire second career for Orlovsky.

“It’s my favorite thing to do,’ Orlovsky said of creating breakdowns and posting them on social media. “I know it’s a big reason of why I got to be on TV and why I am on TV. People desire for it even more now than I did four or five years ago when I started.’

The first time Schwartz went viral, he said, was after the Kansas City Chiefs-San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl in 2020. The eight-year offensive lineman was spotlighting the 1949 Rose Bowl trick play the Chiefs ran for a first down en route to a touchdown. A butter knife was the only instrument available to aid his explanation.

‘People really liked the idea of using a knife to be able to explain what was happening,’ said Schwartz, who has 146,000 Twitter followers. ‘It kind of took off from there.’

Schwartz started posting breakdowns as a way to educate fans about offensive line play, which he feels doesn’t receive enough attention on broadcasts.

“It’s one of those things where it’s very intricate and very detailed and you kind of need an eye for — it just helps having played, obviously, to lend your expertise to a position,’ Schwartz said.

Solak didn’t have that type of experience but has seen success in the breakdown space. He benefitted from the first wave of social media posts to educate himself and absorbed it all.

“All of a sudden, people start putting stuff that’s on social,’ Solak said. “They’re not writing a piece about it. There’s not a clip on ESPN about it. They’re just putting it on Twitter.’

Solak broke into sports journalism through draft coverage, and film breakdowns are ‘rampant’ while evaluating prospects. He began posting plays to Twitter and engaged people in the replies to convey his seriousness and interest.

Now an NFL writer for The Ringer, Solak has a YouTube show — ‘The Playsheet’ — that breaks down plays, game plans and schemes. He has transitioned from using it to build a following to educating, and his breakdown of Patrick Mahomes’ game-changing interception against the Buffalo Bills earlier this season has been viewed more than 234,000 times on Twitter. 

‘It helps people who care about the NFL understand it at a high level,’ Solak, who has 88,000 Twitter followers, said. ‘They get this resource right in front of them, it’s on their socials. They don’t have to click any links. They can just click it, watch it, it’s easy to share.’

What makes a video useful? Education, entertainment

For Twitter videos, the breakdowns can’t last more than 2 minutes and 20 seconds. That may not seem like lots of time, but it’s certainly more than the 10-15 seconds a game analyst may have to explain something during a broadcast, Baldinger said.

The most important aspect of any video, all four agreed, is to educate the masses.

‘I just want people to say, ‘Wow, I learned something about the game,” Schwartz said.

‘The absolute best part of this job, in my opinion, is getting a fan from some point of understanding to a greater understanding — point A to point B, where they’re learning about football,’ Solak said. ‘If I listen to it back and I like how I explained it, it’s good.

Analysts are often guilty of emphasizing how much they know, Solak said. Instead of explaining a concept, they boast their knowledge.

“People will be like ‘This is Cover 5 bracket.’ That’s useless,’ Solak said. ‘Whenever I go to explain something, I’m explaining it from where I started: zero.’

The methods to the group’s madness vary. Orlovsky watches every snap of the NFL season. Baldinger will watch every game from the previous Sunday over Monday or Tuesday, usually 15 hours a day.

“It’s just a big salad, and you’re just literally picking fresh ingredients every week and throwing it into the mix,” said Baldinger, who was an offensive lineman for 13 years and called games on TV for Fox from 1997-2009. ‘You just build up a database of information about teams — trends.’

‘Come join Baldy in the film room. This is what I’m looking at. That’s kind of the feeling I want people to have.’

There is no tried and true formula, Baldinger said. Sometimes it’s to be loud, obnoxious and funny.

On the flip side, Orlovsky muzzles his voice and deploys a hushed tone if he’s cranking out a video at dawn while his four children remain asleep. The goal remains the same.

“People want to feel like you’re talking with them, not at them,’ said Orlovsky, who said he pictures himself from his playing days sitting next to a teammate in the meeting room with nothing but a clicker and laser pointer. ‘I also say that when you watch someone on television, one of the things I try to get across, I want people to feel like I’m just like them, essentially. I just played football for a really long time.’

The charm 

Schwartz — who played for the Panthers, Vikings, Chiefs and Giants — gained social media fame by using utensils as pointers. The graininess of a #BaldysBreakdowns clip can be the sweetest of aftertastes on a victory Monday for a winning fanbase.

With every ounce of technology at his disposal, most of those breakdowns are simply Baldinger holding up that iPhone to the computer screen.

“People are like, ‘You got to improve your technology. The audio stinks,” Baldinger said. “I like it raw. I want people to think they’re in the film room with me and they’re watching with me.’

No, these breakdowns won’t win Emmy Awards for graphics. Nobody will argue their authenticity, however — the stray fingers in the corner of the screen are proof.

‘I do think there is a charm in that. I sometimes choose to use a spoon,’ said Schwartz, who has a tripod, a fast forward-rewind remote and light to enhance his videos. Instead? ‘I will choose to record on my iPhone.’

‘I think there’s kind of a romance to the way Baldy does it,’ Schwartz added. ‘Again, the most important part is what you say. The enthusiasm that he shows — what I hope I have in my videos — shines through. People like that we enjoy the game of football.’

Orlovsky watches tape in hotel rooms, at airport terminals and at ESPN headquarters. Several of his videos posted this week are clearly from the passenger’s side of a motor vehicle.

‘The raw, organic, natural, ‘this dude’s a freakin’ nerd’ part of it,’ Orlovsky said, ‘I don’t know, people like it.’

For Solak, there is an expectation of polished material in his content because he is a journalist, he said. That level of professionalism helps guard against anyone who wanted to question his authority.

‘I love the Baldy shaky cam … it makes me smile,’ Solak said.

Regardless of the bells and whistles in the production, they do not wish to waste anybody’s time. Orlovsky will practice several times before taping, and if he mumbles or lacks a level of clarity, he will redo it. Solak said he will record 10 to 15 takes, primarily to make sure he can squeeze everything into the 2-minute, 20-second window and to ensure he didn’t stumble over any words.

Part of what makes the work exciting, Baldinger said, is that he can analyze all of the teams and watch the seeds of future success be planted in places the mainstream media like to bash. For example, he sang the praises of the Chicago Bears coaching staff despite the 2-4 start, and the team pulled off a road upset of the New England Patriots on Monday. 

‘I do this for two reasons. One, I do because it’s for the fans. I think they like it and I think they deserve better feedback and better information,’ Baldinger said. ‘And two, it’s my way of giving back to the game. The game has been really, really good to me and all my brothers who have played. But I feel like the game has to be played a certain way.

‘There’s a history to this game and playing it the right way. And I feel like I want to be that voice that helps promote and carry the game.’

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY