When Pete Rozelle's dream of regularly scheduled prime-time football finally came to fruition with the birth of Monday Night Football 50 years ago, he couldn't have imagined the standard for quarterback play would morph from Johnny Unitas, the winner of the Super Bowl in that 1970 season, to Patrick Mahomes, the winner of the Super Bowl last season.
But it's fitting that Mahomes and Lamar Jackson met in last week's Monday Night Football game, because the game between the NFL's most dazzling talents was among the most highly anticipated of the season. From its inception, Monday Night Football was always intended to provide outsize entertainment that would cross over from the sports world to pop culture, to ensnare an audience bigger than just the traditional male sports fan who watched on Sundays. The plan obviously worked. This Monday's game -- a Falcons-Packers bout, which suddenly shares the evening spotlight with the rescheduled Patriots-Chiefs contest -- is the 800th in MNF history.
Rozelle, the NFL's commissioner for nearly 30 years, was a child of the television era, and he first started envisioning playing at least one game a week in prime time during the 1960s, when Americans spent their evenings watching variety shows, game shows, sitcoms and westerns on the few channels available nationwide.
At first, the NFL thought about playing on Friday nights, until there was an outcry about what that would do to attendance at high school games. Then Rozelle scheduled a Monday game for Detroit's Tiger Stadium between the Packers and Lions in 1964. The game was not televised, but it was a sellout. In the late 1960s, CBS and NBC showed a few Monday night games each season. But after the merger of the NFL and AFL was complete in 1970, Rozelle, a public relations man by training, focused on creating a weekly Monday night game that would be shown on a single network, an ideal promotional vehicle for his newly merged league.
"He understood the power of television and the promotional value of television better than anyone," Joe Browne -- the NFL's former public relations executive, who worked closely with Rozelle -- said last month. "I say that, and people ask, 'Anyone in football?' No, anyone. 'Anyone in sports?' No, anyone. 'Anyone in television?' No. Anyone."
Major League Baseball had already broadcast games in prime time, but the reception to Rozelle's proposal -- even among networks that already showed football games on Sundays -- was not warm.
"As one non-football fan in the CBS executive suite told Rozelle, 'What are we supposed to do with Doris Day if we take your football series?' " Browne recalled.
NBC, which had broadcast AFL games, wasn't interested, either, because it had Laugh-In and a regular Monday night movie on the schedule.
"Network execs always like to stay with what is working, until the ratings start to fall," Browne said.
At the time, there were just three networks, but even third-place ABC was reluctant. ABC's top sports executive, Roone Arledge, was a contemporary of Rozelle's, and he bought into Rozelle's idea of a weekly entertainment spectacle. Arledge convinced his bosses at the network that a football series would be a way to get ABC on equal footing with CBS and NBC. When the ABC executives acquiesced, Arledge decided to create a spectacle. He ordered twice as many cameras as were usually used for a game. He conceived of flashier graphics and the use of instant replay. And he added a third person to the standard two-man announcing crew of Keith Jackson and former player Don Meredith: the bombastic New York broadcaster Howard Cosell. Later, there would be appearances in the booth by movie stars and musicians and, after the advent of MTV, music videos to open the show.
The Atlanta-Green Bay game we'll watch at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN on Monday -- and, really, all prime-time sports -- owes much of its look and feel to those early decisions by Arledge.
The first game ABC showed as part of the deal was a Friday night exhibition contest before the 1970 regular season began between the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers (who are tied with the San Francisco 49ers for most wins on Monday night with 49) in the brand-new Three Rivers Stadium. An off-camera speaker made it clear how unique this otherwise-routine preseason game was when, just before the network switched to Pittsburgh, he announced to the national audience: "Regularly scheduled programs will not be seen tonight so that we can bring you the following NFL exhibition preseason football game live and in color."
The game featured a rookie quarterback for Pittsburgh, Terry Bradshaw, and another debut. Cosell interviewed Giants quarterback Fran Tarkenton on the field before the game. Tarkenton was in uniform, although he was not playing because he was hurt. But that interview startled NBC and CBS, because they had never been given that kind of access to players before -- Cosell's interview was the first time an active player in uniform was interviewed live on the field before or during a game. The sideline interview was born.
"Roone Arledge put a premium on telling stories, engaging people beyond the game," Fred Gaudelli -- who is now the executive producer of NBC's Sunday Night Football, and before that spent five seasons as producer of Monday Night Football -- said last month. "A prime-time event has to feel a little different and be more inclusive than a Saturday afternoon or Sunday afternoon."
The inaugural regular-season game was between the Cleveland Browns -- owner Art Modell, an advertising executive, very much wanted to host the first game -- and the New York Jets, the Super Bowl III champions. That the NFL opted for the glamour of Joe Namath for its newest showcase was an indication that the game would vie for interest that went well beyond sports, setting the stage for how NFL games now dominate ratings week after week. At 50 years old, Monday Night Football (which moved from ABC to ESPN beginning with the 2006 season) is the longest-running sports television series, and the second-longest-running American prime-time show, behind only 60 Minutes. Over the years, the game became a cultural touchstone -- not just for the action on the field, but also for everything that accompanied it.
"Begging my parents to let me stay up for halftime highlights, because you didn't see those," Gaudelli said.
Gaudelli's dad, like many, complained about Cosell, but he was one third of an iconic announcing booth with Frank Gifford (who replaced Jackson in 1971) and "Dandy" Don Meredith. Gifford, the wildly popular former Giant, worked the game for 27 seasons, the most of any broadcaster. But Cosell became the iconic voice of the show. He conducted a classic Monday night crossover interview in 1974, at halftime of a game between Washington and the Los Angeles Rams. Just moments after Ronald Reagan -- then the California governor, six years before he was elected president -- coached him up on football, John Lennon, who knew nothing about the game, told Cosell that it "makes rock concerts look like tea parties." Cosell asked Lennon to compare the game to rugby and soccer, but he concluded the interview with the only question everybody wanted the answer to: "Will the Beatles ever reunite?"
The saddest moment in the 50 years of the show came almost exactly six years later, when Cosell told the millions of viewers of a game between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots that Lennon had been murdered in New York.
Five years after that, the 1985 season provided, just weeks apart, two of the most memorable moments in Monday night history. On Nov. 18, the Giants' Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, who suffered a compound fracture of his tibia and fibula, an injury visible to shocked viewers who also saw Taylor's frantic reaction. That play gave the audience one of the starkest looks it would ever get at the physical risks of the sport.
Two weeks later, the game reached its zenith, both in ratings and in meaning. The 12-0 Chicago Bears, mounting a serious threat to match the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the NFL's only undefeated team, rolled into the Orange Bowl to face the Dolphins -- the current ones and many members of that undefeated team. The Dolphins have appeared on Monday Night Football 85 times, more than any other team, but the buildup to this game was unlike any other, spurring at least one watch party in the dorms at the University of Miami (mine). That game, won by the Dolphins, remains the most-watched Monday Night Football game in history, generating a 29.6 rating and an enormous 46 share.
There has still not been another undefeated team over the course of an entire season, and that ratings record might stand for a while longer. Still, even with prime-time ratings eroding as streaming services and cord cutting has boomed, the NFL has continued to dominate television viewing -- as long-lasting a legacy of Rozelle's invention as any of the games played. Rozelle said he was most proud of three things he did as commissioner: engineer the merger with the AFL, grow the Super Bowl and create Monday Night Football.
"The impact of Monday night prime-time football is similar to the impact of the Super Bowl," Browne said. "You could never, no matter how smart you are, have envisioned its full importance.