NEW YORK — After Len Dawson made his debut as a host of HBO's "Inside the NFL" in 1978, he couldn't critique his work because his home city was not yet hooked up for cable TV.
"I live in Kansas City, Mo., and back then I never saw the finished product unless I called up friends in Kansas City, Kan., which did have HBO, and told them I was coming over to watch," Dawson recalled last week before taping the 30th-anniversary show of what has become a television staple for football fans. "It's certainly changed."
All of pro football has changed in those three decades, of course. But the easygoing style and a willingness to broach controversial subjects have remained constants on the program. Through cast changes and competition from all brands of media, the camaraderie of the hosts, the humorous banter and pointed analysis have made "Inside the NFL" appointment viewing not only for fans, but for players throughout the league.
"This show was so original when it began -- no one was doing anything close to what this show was -- and it still has the best of all worlds. Not only do we have previews of upcoming games, but all of this incredible footage from NFL Films," said Cris Collinsworth, who is now the host of the weekly program, along with Dan Marino, Cris Carter and Bob Costas.
The show debuted in a studio in Philadelphia in 1977, with local announcer Al Meltzer and former Eagle Chuck Bednarik as hosts.
A year later, Nick Buoniconti came aboard. He and Dawson clicked immediately and became an institution on the show, lasting through the 2002 season. Before partnering in front of the cameras, they were quite familiar with each other on the field.
"Nick and I started in the AFL in 1962 and I kept saying to him I was the reason he became a starter in New England," Dawson said. "I had a heck of a game up in Boston and Nick wasn't the starter. The coach then said he needed a better middle linebacker and Nick got the job."