The obvious storyline for Sunday’s NFC championship game centers on unexpected breakout stars.
There is Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, 24, who entered the season with questions about his ability, only to become an MVP candidate whom his head coach now compares to no less than Michael Jordan.
And then there is … Greg Olsen, 37, the retired, mostly small-market tight end who, due to a wild shake-up in the NFL broadcasting ranks last year, became Fox’s lead game analyst and has quickly become a viewer and critic favorite for his insightful and easygoing manner.
Yeah, that’s right: Olsen will be in the booth at Lincoln Financial Stadium describing the action of two professionally kindred spirits, each of them handed a dream job even though no one was truly sold on their ability to do it, only to exceed beyond the wildest of expectations.
Like Hurts (53rd overall draft pick in 2020) and Purdy (262 in 2022), Olsen wasn’t anyone’s first choice for his job.
Unlike Hurts and Purdy, the broadcaster might not control his own professional fate.
Olsen didn’t become a full-time broadcaster until 2021. He got the chance at the top job only because Fox’s longtime partners, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, left for ESPN last offseason in a mega-money deal.
Fox promoted Olsen along with play-by-plan man Kevin Burkhardt on what was a de facto interim basis.
The long-term plan was made clear in May, when Fox signed none other than Tom Brady to a 10-year, $375 million contract to serve as the network’s lead game analyst “immediately following his playing career.”
At the time, it was expected that Brady would play the 2022 season and then, at age 45, finally retire. There was even speculation that he would be calling games already (Tampa Bay’s season ended in the wild-card round) and certainly by next month’s Super Bowl, which Fox is broadcasting.
Brady, however, hasn’t decided whether he will play another year. Fox has said it has no plans to use him at this Super Bowl, and the Burkhardt-Olsen team will call the game.
Still, an awkward inevitability is hanging out there. Brady is the choice.
“Over the course of this long-term agreement, Tom will not only call our biggest NFL games with Kevin Burkhardt but will also serve as an ambassador for us, particularly with respect to client and promotional initiatives,” Fox stated in May.
It’s that second part — dealing with clients and doing promotional work — that helped Brady command the $37.5 million per year salary — or twice as much as the $18 million per year ESPN reportedly paid Aikman to switch networks.
Tom Brady is, of course, Tom Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl champion and internationally famous icon. He’s the one who can help close a massive sponsorship deal by playing golf with a corporate CEO.
Greg Olsen is the guy who used to be a really good tight end for Carolina.
So it all made sense … until Olsen began charming audiences this season with an elite and likable broadcast style. He was never better than during these playoffs. He was particularly strong during the heated, and potentially confusing, final minutes of San Francisco’s 19-12 victory over Dallas on Sunday.
“Greg Olsen is the fantastic calling NFL games weekly,” ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky tweeted last week. “… Prepared. Timely. Smart. Teaches. Story tells. Don’t make it about him but about the game. Tremendous.”
It seems that Fox has stumbled into its No. 1 color commentator of the future … except it already committed a small fortune to its No. 1 color commentator of the future, even though no one has any idea if Brady will even be a good color commentator.
As a player, no one is better than Brady. And given his ability to excel at most things he applies himself to, it’s certainly plausible that he’ll do a great job in his next job as well.
Still, being a great player and being a great broadcaster are not the same thing. Brady hasn’t called real games. He doesn’t have the reps that come from climbing the ranks.
He has starred in commercials, has hosted “Saturday Night Live” and launched a podcast a few years ago, but that mostly consists of being interviewed by broadcaster Jim Gray. Making sense of a live game is a different animal.
And while the public might already know Tom Brady, that doesn’t mean it’ll like him calling games.
Brady, of course, was once in the Hurts/Purdy/Olsen spot. He was the 199th overall selection in the 2000 NFL Draft, arriving in New England as a fourth-string quarterback with little hope of beating highly paid veteran Drew Bledsoe.
Given his chance due to a Bledsoe injury, though, Brady never looked back. Now he’s the big-name, big-money guy who might get in the way of the guy who similarly seized his professional opportunity.
Yet there is almost no way Fox could pay Brady that much money and not have him broadcast its biggest game of the week. That likely sends Olsen to a lesser game on Sunday and none in the highly visible postseason. Or Fox could try a potentially crowded three-man booth.
Either way, it’s a great gig for Olsen, and Fox has to love that it has such depth.
It’s also an undeniably weird situation.
No matter what, Olsen will be on the mic Sunday. So enjoy him calling the big game while you can. He’s one of the NFL’s fresh stars this season, but unlike the others, he might not be front and center for long.