NFL’s Xs and Os for the average fan or expert: How best analysts became social media stars

Six years ago, Brian Baldinger had a flip phone. Dan Orlovsky and Geoff Schwartz were barely hanging onto their NFL careers. And Ben Solak was beginning his own media career.

What do those folks all have in common, aside from being members of the broader NFL media? They are among the best at breaking down game tape on social media, a space that has exploded in recent years and gives fans of any interest level the opportunity to learn more about football every time they scroll through Twitter.

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USA TODAY Sports caught up with these four tape grinders for a glimpse into their craft and what it means for fandom.

How did they start breaking down film on social media? 

Eventually, a friend of Baldinger took him to the Apple store to purchase an iPhone. If only the friend knew what that would set in motion.

Baldinger, who works for NFL Network, would meet with Daniel Jeremiah — then his fellow analyst and now the network’s draft expert — in the film room at 4:30 or 5 a.m. on Monday mornings and review tape from the previous day in preparation for their show, “The Aftermath.”

“The league hadn’t really sanctioned us to do it yet,” said Baldinger, who now cuts breakdowns for more than 20 NFL teams and posts longer videos on YouTube to “weave in a story.”

Midway through the 2016 season, NFL Network suspended Baldinger for his comments on a Philadelphia radio station saying the Eagles should attempt to injure Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Baldinger, who is nearing 320,000 Twitter followers, had lots of free time and nothing to lose.

“If they fire me — I’m already suspended, what’s the difference?” Baldinger said. “So I kind of just took a chance and it’s just connected so quickly with players and teams that they couldn’t say no to it, to be honest with you. And then it became a thing.”

Orlovsky, who has become one of ESPN’s top NFL analysts in addition to being a color commentator for college games, was sitting on the couch of his Connecticut home watching a prime time Carolina Panthers-Miami Dolphins contest in November 2017. Weeks removed from being released by the Rams, he was coming to terms that his 12-year career as an NFL quarterback was over. That couldn’t dampen the excitement he felt when Cam Newton expertly countered a man-coverage blitz from the Dolphins and scored a touchdown.

“I was raving about it, but no one on the broadcast was talking about it,” Orlovsky, who now has 495,000 Twitter followers, said. “I was just like, dude, the fact they’re not talking about it …”

His wife said he should make a video and “put it on the Internet.” The idea didn’t sit well with Orlovsky, who “thought social media was stupid.” But after a few minutes, Orlovsky muted and paused the television, grabbed his phone and started explaining what happened, how it happened and why it happened.

Orlovsky went to bed and woke up a viral sensation. Peter Schrager of NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” reached out to see if he would do it on their show, and that spawned an entire second career for Orlovsky.

“It’s my favorite thing to do,” Orlovsky said of creating breakdowns and posting them on social media. “I know it’s a big reason of why I got to be on TV and why I am on TV. People desire for it even more now than I did four or five years ago when I started.”

The first time Schwartz went viral, he said, was after the Kansas City Chiefs-San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl in 2020. The eight-year offensive lineman was spotlighting the 1949 Rose Bowl trick play the Chiefs ran for a first down en route to a touchdown. A butter knife was the only instrument available to aid his explanation.

“People really liked the idea of using a knife to be able to explain what was happening,” said Schwartz, who has 146,000 Twitter followers. “It kind of took off from there.”

Schwartz started posting breakdowns as a way to educate fans about offensive line play, which he feels doesn’t receive enough attention on broadcasts.

“It’s one of those things where it’s very intricate and very detailed and you kind of need an eye for — it just helps having played, obviously, to lend your expertise to a position,” Schwartz said.

Solak didn’t have that type of experience but has seen success in the breakdown space. He benefitted from the first wave of social media posts to educate himself and absorbed it all.

“All of a sudden, people start putting stuff that’s on social,” Solak said. “They’re not writing a piece about it. There’s not a clip on ESPN about it. They’re just putting it on Twitter.”

Solak broke into sports journalism through draft coverage, and film breakdowns are “rampant” while evaluating prospects. He began posting plays to Twitter and engaged people in the replies to convey his seriousness and interest.

Now an NFL writer for The Ringer, Solak has a YouTube show — “The Playsheet” — that breaks down plays, game plans and schemes. He has transitioned from using it to build a following to educating, and his breakdown of Patrick Mahomes’ game-changing interception against the Buffalo Bills earlier this season has been viewed more than 234,000 times on Twitter. 

“It helps people who care about the NFL understand it at a high level,” Solak, who has 88,000 Twitter followers, said. “They get this resource right in front of them, it’s on their socials. They don’t have to click any links. They can just click it, watch it, it’s easy to share.”

What makes a video useful? Education, entertainment

For Twitter videos, the breakdowns can’t last more than 2 minutes and 20 seconds. That may not seem like lots of time, but it’s certainly more than the 10-15 seconds a game analyst may have to explain something during a broadcast, Baldinger said.

The most important aspect of any video, all four agreed, is to educate the masses.

“I just want people to say, ‘Wow, I learned something about the game,'” Schwartz said.

“The absolute best part of this job, in my opinion, is getting a fan from some point of understanding to a greater understanding — point A to point B, where they’re learning about football,” Solak said. “If I listen to it back and I like how I explained it, it’s good.

Analysts are often guilty of emphasizing how much they know, Solak said. Instead of explaining a concept, they boast their knowledge.

“People will be like ‘This is Cover 5 bracket.’ That’s useless,” Solak said. “Whenever I go to explain something, I’m explaining it from where I started: zero.”

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