Tom Jolly
Watching the Super Bowl as a fan

I’m watching the Super Bowl as a fan tonight for the first time since 2003, and only the second since 1993. Now that I’m no longer the sports editor of The New York Times, or working in any other role that requires me to focus my professional energy on the game, I can just watch for fun - and that’s a bigger change than most people realize.

Super Bowl Sunday is the most intense event of the year for the Times Sports Department, whether you’re at the game or in the office. An enormous amount of planning goes into providing coverage on the Web and even more to publishing the paper, which is a labor intense operation conducted under incredible deadline pressure.

If the game ends in regulation, it will end some time between 10 p.m. and 10:10 p.m., right as the first edition closes. There’s no wiggle room. If the game goes into overtime, the first edition goes out with a lot of nice pictures from the game, a story about the halftime show and a lot of columns and features that are written in the first half or before the game begins.

Once the game ends, there’s a cascade of new stories, rewritten stories, new photos and graphics, first aiming for the second edition at midnight and then for what’s known as a postscript - pages that are put on after the presses start running.

During the game itself, editors and reporters are in constant communication, seizing on moments as story ideas and then dropping them just as quickly when something bigger comes up. 

While that’s all going on, some reporters and editors are focusing on the Web site, writing for the live blog that provides a running commentary on what’s going on in the game, providing audio observations between quarters and updating photographs and other digital elements.

All of that means watching the game from an entirely different perspective, something a lot of people don’t understand when they hear that you’re covering the Super Bowl, or some other sports event. 

No one who covers the Super Bowl for a newspaper or Web site has the chance to sit back and savor the moment. They’ve got to be immersed in the details, taking notes on who made what play, observing trends and thinking constantly about what they’re going to write about when the moment happens. 

I’ve been fortunate to work with a great many talented people at the Times, with all kinds of skills, and one of the people whose skills I admire most is Judy Battista, who covers the N.F.L. Her ability to distill a game in real time in elegant prose is remarkable and something that I suspect is taken for granted by a lot of readers. 

It shouldn’t be.

While we’ll be watching the fun tonight, she’ll be interpreting what’s happening moment by moment, putting it in a narrative context and writing her story even as the game is going on - with the knowledge that she has to file in two or three takes, once sometime near the end of the third quarter, once near the end of the game and perhaps a third time if the game comes down to the final moments. That’s necessary because of the production requirements of the newspaper. What makes Judy special is that she can do all of that and readers will be greeted with a seamless report on the game, full of detail and insight. 

She’s not alone, of course. The Times has nine reporters and columnists at the game, with a couple of them writing a couple of stories. Two photographers are along the sideline, with runners taking their discs to an office under the stadium for downloading and shipping the images to the officer, where other editors pick through them for the most important and interesting shots.

When the Saints pulled away from the Colts at the end of last year’s Super Bowl, the job was a bit easier. Troy Porter’s interception return for a touchdown was an obvious turning point and when Drew Brees hit Jeremy Shockey with a touchdown pass with more than 5 minutes to go to put the Saints up, 31-17, we could leap into action knowing that the Saints were almost certainly going to win.

But the run of exciting games we’ve seen in recent Super Bowls often make for a mad scramble. When the Steelers beat the Cardinals, 27-23, with 35 seconds to go, Judy not only had to reverse course on her story, several other reporters scrambled to change direction. Suddenly, we needed a piece on Santonio Holmes, whose dramatic catch won the game, and we needed to go bigger on Ben Roethlisberger, who had directed the game-winning drive after the Cardinals had rallied to go ahead.

It’s an adrenaline rush and I have to admit I’ll miss that a little bit. But one other advantage of not being a part of the coverage this year is that I finally get to root for my team. Luckily for me, that’s the Steelers. I’m going to put my feet up and enjoy. 

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