NFL Network has stepped into the big leagues

Eli Manning and the Giants take on the Eli Manning and the Giants take on the Carolina Panthers in a Week 3 matchup Thursday. Photo Credit: AP

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

College football is not the same game as the NFL, as Tom Coughlin helpfully pointed out to Greg Schiano after a disagreement about kneel-down protocol Sunday.

And it's not only coaches (and replacement officials) who must learn that lesson. It also affects the people who bring us the action on television.

That is what makes the NFL Network's announcing crew so unusual. Unlike their counterparts in the No. 1 booths at CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN, Brad Nessler and Mike Mayock moonlight on weekends on big-time college games. So does sideline reporter Alex Flanagan.

The challenge was modest when this group first was assembled in 2011 and NFLN carried games only late in the season as colleges were winding down. Now the network has 13 Thursday games spread over nearly four months, including Giants-Panthers this week.

So how is this going to work, both in terms of logistics and knowledge?

"A little bit crazy,'' said Nessler, who works ESPN games on Saturdays. He now has to study for both upcoming games Monday and Tuesday before focusing on the NFL starting Wednesday, and has no choice but to ditch college teams' practices on Thursdays.

Mayock, briefly a defensive back with the Giants in the early 1980s, is another matter entirely.

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On the one hand, his schedule analyzing Notre Dame games on NBC involves only weekends of home games.

On the other, Mayock is a famously passionate film-room geek who now has two games to obsess over, and seems fully capable of doing so.

"If he's not in the film room or a practice field or a stadium, he's not happy,'' Nessler said.

Here is Mayock's account of his reaction when he saw NFLN's first game would be Bears at Packers:

"I was like, 'Hey, all I've got to do is roll right up the road from South Bend, set up camp in Chicago, I can be in their building Sunday and Monday, jump in the car Monday night, get to Green Bay, be in their building Tuesday and Wednesday and I'm good to go.'

"I get excited about stupid things like that.''

Mark Quenzel, the network's senior vice president, said there are advantages to having college-oriented voices on NFL games.

"These guys have seen a lot of the new players, the rookies -- not just the stars that everybody is talking about,'' he said. "I think that provides us a real benefit, particularly in the beginning of the season.''

Perhaps. More importantly, the network finally has some continuity in its booth after six seasons of turmoil that began with the ill-fated Bryant Gumbel experiment. (Eventually Giants play-by-play man Bob Papa came to the rescue before being let go after 2010 for reasons I still don't understand. But I digress.)

It also has continuity in the form of a full slate of games. "In eight weeks, you are picking up in the middle of the season; you're trying to get your legs under you,'' Quenzel said. "Everybody else has been doing games for half a season, and by the time you feel like you've got a rhythm, you've got a game or two left.''

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The NFL Network largely was a mystery to Cablevision customers since its inception in 2003. But the company, which owns Newsday, came to a carriage agreement with the network in July.

(For those Cablevision customers who do not subscribe to a tier that includes the network, it currently is being offered as a free sample on Channel 11.)

Quenzel said that even though the games are the most important thing the league-owned network offers, they also are a promotional platform for its other programming.

"It allows us to expose our fans, our audience, to the full breadth of everything we bring to the table,'' he said.

Nothing wrong with that, if you're into stuff such as a live four-hour morning show about football. (How did the world get by so long without it!) But for most of us, the game's the thing.

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