PFW exclusive: Matt Bowen joining NFL Matchup on ESPN
ESPN football analyst Matt Bowen recently went back through some old clips of his after he got into writing in the media business full time and hated some of what he saw. The former NFL safety could never be confused as someone who doesn’t understand the nitty gritty of football, but what Bowen read bothered him in one clear respect.
“I went back and read some of my stuff I wrote a while back at the National Football Post,” Bowen told Pro Football Weekly by phone this week. “When I first started writing in this business a decade ago, explaining different concepts to people, some of the language I used was just way too complex.
“I had to look back at my old NFL notes and playbooks and say to myself, ‘What was I talking about here? Was this Gregg Williams’ defense? Was this Dick Jauron? Lovie Smith’s defense?’ If I am confusing myself, then I am not doing my job.”
Bowen’s job titles have changed through the years, even in his time with ESPN since joining the network in 2015, but he’s become one of the network’s fastest risers and impressive emerging talents. And his role will change again in a big way for the 2018 NFL season.
PFW has learned that Bowen, who grew up in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and still lives in the Chicago area, will be joining the critically hailed NFL Matchup show — hardcore football breakdowns of the week that was and the games to come.
“Anyone who has spoken with Matt about football or read his columns on ESPN.com knows this role on NFL Matchup is a perfect fit for him,” said ESPN senior coordinating producer Seth Markman, who green-lit adding Bowen to the show. “Matt is so smart at studying film and equally adept at explaining concepts and nuances of the game whether he’s speaking with coaches and players or even casual fans. He will be a great addition to the show this fall and I am excited for him to have this opportunity.”
Louis Riddick had been on NFL Matchup last season, but he’s going on the road in 2018 as part of ESPN’s Monday Night Football halftime and postgame shows with Suzy Kolber and Steve Young. In steps Bowen, who will be on set to form a new trio alongside Sal Paolantonio and longtime producer Greg Cosell, who joined the show on air last year.
Bowen says he wants to take the lesson he learned from his early days in media, trying to take sometimes-complex football concepts and boil them down in an easier-to-absorb way, and funnel that into his new role with NFL Matchup.
“I think this is an environment that fits my skill set and what I do best,” Bowen said. “Analyzing the game through a couple of different lenses. One is as the former player in terms of technique and trying to figure out what the player is thinking.”
The other is through a coaching lens. For the past four years, Bowen has coached the defensive backs at IC Catholic Prep in Elmhurst, Ill., a job he plans to continue with. There he has learned that knowing football and communicating the vital teaching points can vary quite differently from what Bowen learned in seven years playing in the NFL, or even the seven years after that he spent writing about it and talking on air.
“When I first started, I learned some hard lessons,” Bowen said. “I figured out pretty quickly that you can’t talk to a 14-year-old player like you would talk to Champ Bailey.”
The key, he says, is to “find a way to explain the game in a way where everyone can understand,” and he believes that lesson uniquely has trained him for his new role on NFL Matchup.
“It’s no different than teaching English,” he said. “You have 25 students in the class and you tell them, ‘Read Catcher in the Rye and tell me what the ducks in the pond mean.’ You might get 25 different answers.”
Cosell, the nephew of legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell, has been connected with the show since its earliest days in 1984, first as producer and now as executive producer and on-air talent. NFL Matchup has taken on multiple formats, hosted by myriad talents along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to find out when it’s being broadcast. But it has survived for more than two decades on ESPN through cutbacks, personnel changes and different sponsors, and it remains beloved by fans for its deep digging into the game’s inner workings — all in a tidy 30-minute weekly format (which really boils down to about 21 minutes of airtime).
Cosell believes that Bowen is the right fit to keep the show humming.
“He’s a purist with the game,” Cosell said of his new partner. “I always felt that the Matchup show required that. Ultimately, it’s a homework show. You have to love the process, and Matt loves the process.”
They first spoke by phone for about 40 minutes in June when Bowen was told he was brought on board, and he appeared ready to report to work at a time when most of the league was still on vacation.
“Literally in the next 24 to 48 hours after we talked, he’s sending me stuff — concepts, ideas, anything — just to say, ‘Hey, is this going to work?’ His mind immediately works that way,” Cosell said. “I think he sees the game as an academic and intellectual challenge.”
But it also will be a time-management challenge for Bowen. His weeks this fall will be packed. Sundays he spends time writing a fantasy football column for ESPN.com and starting his non-PPR positional rankings to be published Tuesday mornings. On top of that, he’ll be writing football columns periodically based on what happens on the field and what people are buzzing about.
Then starts the prep work and tape grinding for the show all week. On Thursdays he’ll be flying to Philadelphia for the Friday morning tapings of NFL Matchup, which typically will be aired Saturday and Sunday mornings. After that, Bowen will hop on a plane back to Chicago for IC Catholic’s Friday night games. On top of that, Bowen and his wife also have their four children to take care of. No rest for the weary.
“I am going to be honest: I am bringing my coaching gear with me in the bag and probably changing at O’Hare and then going straight to the stadium [IC Catholic is playing at],” Bowen said. “It’s going to be a challenge, I am not going to lie to you. But I am looking forward to it.”
Bowen said he got into coaching for “selfish reasons,” missing the game once his playing days were done.
“I need it in my life,” Bowen said. “I needed to be back on the football field. I needed that balance in my life. … I had to get back into it to fill a need I had.”
You can file his involvement in NFL Matchup in that same category.
“The first thing is, it’s an iconic show,” he said. “I grew up watching this show. To have the opportunity to now be on set and have the chance to work with two of the best in the business in Sal Paolantonio and Greg Cosell, two guys I have learned a ton from … it’s just a thrill.”
Combining his knowledge as a former player and as a current coach to find ways to make the show as palatable as possible — something that any fan of the NFL, from the hardcore X’s and O’s viewer down to the less informed fan who just loves the game can relate to.
“The goal here is to take something ultra-complex — high-level football — and break it down into integral parts to say why or why not a certain play works,” Bowen said. “That’s how you make people understand it hopefully.
“Coaches and players look at the game differently. What I have learned is that if you can teach the game of football, you get better in terms of analyzing the game. That’s really helped me the past four years in terms of my growth. You see things differently.”
And the hope is that NFL Matchup viewers will be the beneficiaries of that. Bowen also sees himself a little differently, as a fan of the game, and wants that enthusiasm to come out in his first season on set.
“I’m emotionally invested in football,” he said. “I still get butterflies in August. I can’t wait to get started.”