The last several months have been about on-the-job adaptation in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but the NFL season ahead for Michele Tafoya seems less like a test and more like an impossible riddle:
How does one perform the job of sideline reporter when you aren't allowed on the sidelines?
Tafoya, a longtime Twin Cities resident and Emmy-award winning sideline reporter for NBC's "Sunday Night Football," got to test her redefined job Thursday night when she worked the NFL season opener between the Texans and Chiefs.
"My role is going to be hugely different in that I'm not allowed on the field," Tafoya said on a recent conference call, adding during games she'll be in what she calls "the moat" in the first row up in the stands. "That's going to provide a lot of challenges, but we love challenges on 'Sunday Night Football.' … I'm eager to see how it all works out."
Tafoya said she plans to adjust in many ways, including gathering more information for reports before games start and bringing binoculars for the first time in her career to be able to see things up close.
SNF crew members will be far more isolated than in typical years, Tafoya said, which will make verbal communication even more important. Executive producer Fred Gaudelli said the crews working on graphics and editing will be back at NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, Conn., instead of on location at games.
Tafoya's live halftime and postgame reports will vary. At some stadiums, she said, she might conduct interviews over the phone with coaches. In other places, a coach might meet her in the stands for a socially distanced interview.
"Postgame we are going to have a camera on the field with a monitor to show players highlights. They'll hear me and be able to respond," Tafoya said. "It'll be a chance to have the players watch highlights while we do an interview, which we haven't been able to do in the past. So we look at it as an opportunity."
Some stadiums — such as Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium for Thursday's opener, which was at 25% capacity — allow limited spectators while others — such as the L.A. Rams' new SoFi Stadium on Sunday — will be without fans. For stadiums without any ambient sound, Gaudelli said, NFL Films was able to create authentic noise specific to those stadiums, which fans watching at home will hear.
"I feel like we have a solid plan going into the season," Gaudelli said, "but we know full well we will be adapting and adjusting as the season goes on."
Indeed, Tafoya imagines access could change as the season unfolds. Early in the pandemic, Tafoya was interviewed and was asked to envision what working NFL games in September might look like.
"At that time, I envisioned it will be great, we'll be over this thing, we'll have crowds," Tafoya recalled. "It's going to be unusual. … At least we are going back."