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It's Any Given Thursday for NFL

Jets and Redskins play in the opener on ABC, which will lead into the game with a one-hour music special.

September 04, 2003|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Hank Williams Jr.'s words on ABC tonight will be slightly different.

Instead of "Are you ready for some football, a Monday night party?" Williams will bellow out "Are you ready for some football, a kickoff party?"

Welcome to "Thursday Night Football."

The NFL now has a special opening night.

It's something that began last year, when the NFL season opened with a party in New York and ESPN televised it, along with the game that followed.

The party has moved to Washington -- and to another network.

The festivities, to be televised by ABC as a one-hour special beginning at 5 p.m., feature Aerosmith, Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige performing at the Mall.

Also involved will be more than 20,000 military personnel and their families as part of "Operation Tribute Freedom," an initiative that salutes troops who have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Aretha Franklin will sing the national anthem to conclude the event.

At 6 p.m. comes an interconference game between the Washington Redskins and New York Jets, featuring the announcing of Al Michaels and John Madden, and the sideline reporting of newcomer Lisa Guerrero.

Michaels points out that Madden deserves a lot of credit for starting this Thursday night tradition.

"He always wanted this, going back to his days with CBS and Fox," Michaels said.

Said Madden: "The NFL has a great ending with the Super Bowl, but the beginning has always been, pfffft, nothing.

"The Olympics has a big opening and baseball's opening day is special. We've never had anything like that in the NFL. Now we do."

Madden said that ideally it would be held in New York every year.

Wherever it's held, Michaels and Madden said they're glad to be a part of it.

Said Michaels: "By doing this, the whole weekend is special. We come back Monday night with Tampa Bay at Philadelphia. That's as good as it gets."

ESPN gets things started today at 4 with a special edition of "Sunday NFL Countdown."

The show marks the debut of Rush Limbaugh, who will offer an essay and provide a preview of what his challenges will be each Sunday.

Michael Irvin, formerly of Fox Sports Net, also will make his debut with the ESPN cast that includes Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, Chris Mortensen and Steve Young.

Suzy Kolber will be at the Mall to cover the concert, but this two-hour show will be more football-oriented than the ABC pregame special.

With ABC picking up an extra game tonight, it will not have a Monday night game the final weekend of the season. And that suits ABC fine.

Last year, the network concluded the season with San Francisco at St. Louis, a game that had no playoff implications. This year, ABC concludes with Green Bay at Oakland on Dec. 22, a game that should have playoff implications, particularly with a week left to go in the season.

ESPN, which opens its Sunday night schedule this weekend with Oakland at Tennessee, concludes with Saturday and Sunday telecasts on the final two weekends of the season.

One thing new this season technologically is a sky cam, to be used by ABC and Fox, that will provide a view from above and behind the quarterback. It's an angle that works best for replays, but both networks plan to use it for live action as well.

ESPN, catering to fantasy league players, will have a periodic crawl on the bottom of the screen with pertinent statistics during its Sunday night telecasts.

The fantasy league element also will have an influence on Fox's pregame show, particularly the first 20 minutes, when there will be more statistics and hard-core information

Newcomer Frank Caliendo, who has replaced Jimmy Kimmel, will be featured in the second half of the show. Caliendo is best known for his Madden impersonation.

Madden, who said he hasn't seen any, added: "I understand he said he doesn't do it to be mean, he just does it to make money. I'm just happy for him and his family."

CBS' "NFL Today" cast -- Jim Nantz, Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason and Deion Sanders -- returns intact. As for putting in a comedy segment, CBS Sports President Sean McManus said that is something that might be considered in the future.

HBO's "Inside the NFL," which begins next week, has switched nights, going from 10 p.m. Thursday to 10 p.m. Wednesday. Comedian George Lopez, an addition, will alternate with comedian Wanda Sykes, who returns for a third season.

The show's host, Bob Costas, returns along with studio analysts Cris Carter, Cris Collinsworth and Marino, and reporters Peter King, Armen Keteyian and Brian Burwell.

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