LANDOVER, Md. -- It's 90 minutes before kickoff and, as the Washington Football Team radio broadcast crew prepares for the Week 2 game against the Arizona Cardinals, there's no buzz in the stadium. There isn't even a player. In fact, it's eerily quiet, save for a handful of workers in the booth and TVs playing in a lounge area. Less than 20 people are inside the stadium.
That's what happens when the game being played is 2,300 miles away from FedEx Stadium.
"It's bizarre; totally bizarre," said WFT broadcast producer Chris Johnson.
It's also the new reality of the NFL. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it is expected that few teams will be sending radio broadcast crews on the road, following the lead of other pro sports leagues. The result: challenges and a touch of anxiety.
"The biggest fear is the unknown," said Julie Donaldson, Washington's senior vice president of media and content, an hour before kickoff. She's also a reporter and analyst on the broadcast that includes fellow analyst DeAngelo Hall and play-by-play announcer Bram Weinstein.
A league spokesman said they haven't told teams their crews cannot travel. But one factor in the team's decision was the heath of Washington coach Ron Rivera, who is dealing with cancer.
"With coach's health, our approach must be flexible," Washington president Jason Wright told ESPN.
The league has made it easier for teams that don't send radio crews on the road by providing them a real-time, non-delayed video feed of the TV broadcast. NFL Films provides this service for the league's international partners so they can call games in their own language. In Washington's booth, they set up two big-screen TVs -- one had this feed; the other provided an All-22 sideline view to help Hall.
During the Week 2 game, the crew had a producer, engineer and an audio producer streaming the feed to the team website. But what the broadcast crew lacked was experience.
Each member of Washington's crew is new to their position: Donaldson, the first woman to be a regular on-air member of an NFL team's radio broadcast booth, had spent the previous 10 years at NBC Sports Washington as a host and reporter; Hall played 14 years at cornerback in the NFL and also works for the NFL Network; Weinstein has been a longtime radio host and is a former ESPN sports anchor.
None of them were hired until this summer, so to prepare, they would gather at Donaldson's house or at Washington's practice facility to call games off a TV feed. They did this four times in the past month, not realizing how much it would come in handy.
"If we tried to do that [game] cold off the TV, it would be a lot worse than it was [Sunday]," Weinstein said. "If the camera shows the wrong thing or takes you to the wrong place, you're in no-man's-land. When I was at SportsCenter, sometimes they rolled the wrong video and it's harrowing for a few seconds. Those few seconds feel like a year. You learn to deal with it."
In those practice sessions, they could stop and talk about how they handled certain situations, especially when trying to make sure everyone in a three-person booth gets a chance to talk. On Sunday, there was no stopping to talk.
"It's a challenge," Hall said. "I think I did a good job in Week 1 because I was able to use my eyes. ... [Now] you have to comment on what they [show on TV]. My eyes are what make me able to do what I do. But we've all got to deal with it."
In Washington's Week 1 home opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, Hall said he'd scan the sidelines after plays looking for clues, checking on quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr., among others. They couldn't do that last Sunday. If there was a commercial break, they were left staring at an empty field.
"You're able to stay in the moment," Hall said of watching a game live. "It's different when you can feel that energy."
And sometimes, the TV feed is just wrong. With 30 seconds left in the third quarter, Arizona faced a second-and-5 from the Washington 20-yard line. Except the TV showed it as third-and-5. After Arizona managed 3 yards on the play, Weinstein's voice rose because it appeared the Cardinals were going for it on fourth-and-2. But after a few seconds, the error was discovered by the radio crew. When they're at a game, they can see the down-and-distance markers and not worry about what's shown on TV.
Washington broadcast crew faces big challenge
The Washington Football Team broadcast crew, in only its second game together, was faced with a difficult task Sunday: calling a game from 2,300 miles away.
There were other times they noticed a difference: When Rivera threw a challenge flag with 7:29 left in the game, nobody in the booth knew why.
"I only barely caught that out of the corner of my eye," Weinstein said. "We're sitting there going, 'I don't even know what that's about.' For sure you get caught in moments like that."
Turns out, the challenge was for Arizona having 12 men on the field.
"We would have seen the whole field and seen the 12th guy running off," Hall said of the difference of relying on the TV versus seeing it live.
Later in the game, Weinstein had to delay a touchdown call on an 11-yard run by running back Antonio Gibson. He was hit inside the 1-yard line and fell at the goal line. The TV announcers immediately called a touchdown, but with the sound off, the broadcast crew needed verification from the officials. The camera zoomed in on Gibson and while some Washington players celebrated, there was still doubt.
As Johnson said, they couldn't see the referees and TV didn't put up a touchdown graphic for nearly five seconds. That's an eternity on a radio call. Though Johnson was on a feed with the satellite truck at State Farm Stadium, he only hears the communication in the truck and not the audio feed from the game.
"If we see the field of play," said Johnson, who has worked in college and NFL booths since 2000, "we see the stripes go up in the air with the touchdown call."
But it's not as if the radio crew spent time discussing their predicament. Instead, they focused on their notes or talked about the game or a playcall. Hall wanted Washington to target wide receiver Terry McLaurin more, believing he could beat cornerback Patrick Peterson. McLaurin finished with seven catches for 125 yards.
They're too busy acclimating to their new roles, not to mention enjoying them, to be frustrated about not working at an away game. Hall would excitedly point to an open wide receiver or slightly rise from his seat in anticipation of a big play. In those moments, it didn't matter where the action was occurring.
Weinstein's voice filled the booth with excitement after scoring plays. Donaldson stares intently at the screen, sometimes motioning her arm forward as a player runs. When running back J.D. McKissic had a nice run, she quickly shared with the listeners one of the many nuggets stored in her brain: how the coaches feel he creates problems for a defense and can run well inside despite being only 5-foot-10, 195 pounds.
"I don't think they were fazed at all by the difficulties," Johnson said.
Early in the broadcast (heard on The Team 980 and WMAL 105.9FM/630AM in the team's coverage area) the crew mentioned they weren't at the game and, at one point, Hall broke down a good coverage by referring to a player at the bottom of the screen.
"I say bottom of the screen because we're looking at it on the TV," Hall told listeners.
During Washington's Week 1 rally against the Eagles, the group agreed they could feel momentum changing. Donaldson kept her eye on the Washington sidelines and could tell listeners the defensive line was huddling together, or that a player -- linebacker Cole Holcomb -- was limping off the field or getting looked at by a trainer.
Though Washington had a mini-rally in Arizona, the booth wondered whether there was any legitimate momentum or a mirage. During this time, as they called the game, the field in front of them at FedEx Stadium was being doused by the sprinkler system.
"This is a very emotional game," Donaldson said. "From play to play, emotions swing up and down. Part of a job as storytellers is to convey that through the airwaves. That's where we're at a big disadvantage. It impacts the storytelling. We're stuck painting a picture off a picture someone painted for us."
Because there are things they can't get from a TV feed, Donaldson said it puts extra pressure on her to gather good information throughout the week.
"For me, it's trying to get in touch with as many players and coaches as possible," she said. "The conversations I have with them that become relevant during the game."
After Sunday's game, the crew treated their day as if they'd played in a game, wondering what they could do better and rehashing what they learned.
"The whole situation is surreal," Johnson said. "It's hard to comprehend that we came to an empty stadium, an empty parking lot, for a road game and called it from the home stadium."
Despite the challenges, there's an understanding that they are fortunate to be calling games. And even though there was no buzz in the stadium, the same internal excitement as in the opener sprung up when the game began.
"It's a little different when you're staring out into an expanse and nobody's there," Weinstein said. "But the same feelings were drawn up again today. ... We'll do whatever they give us. Whatever we get, we'll make it work."