Just before kickoff in the New Orleans Saints’ divisional playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccanneers last week, Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer reported that Saints quarterback Drew Brees would retire after the season. The news forced an adjustment by the Fox team broadcasting the game. Speculation about Brees’ future had circulated all season long. But the new apparent certainty about that future would need to be addressed should the Saints lose, ending their season and Brees’ career. Once New Orleans fell behind by 10 points in the latter part of the fourth quarter, lead announcers Troy Aikman and Joe Buck turned their attention to Brees’ legacy.

“You’re sitting on that report the whole game,” Buck tells Variety. “Because the game was what it was, which was 10 points at the end, you can kind of start to pull the lid off that and get into it. But it’s a balance, like everything else is when you’re doing a live event. You have to balance the historical perspective with what’s happening on the field in front of you.”

This whole season has been a balancing act for Buck and the rest of Fox’s A-team, which covers the network’s national NFL broadcast every Sunday in addition to Thursday Night Football. Having to decide when and how to pivot from on-field action to discussion of a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback’s imminent retirement is one of countless conventional challenges they face during a game. But this season — one that for them will end after Sunday’s NFC Championship game in which the Bucs will face the Packers in Green Bay, Wisc. — they’re meeting them amid the coronavirus pandemic and the wholesale change it has brought to their work.

Like many people, the Fox crew now operates in a remote-work world. Meetings are mostly conference calls. (They try to eschew Zoom as much as they can.) Intel-gathering exercises such as visiting practice in the week before a game or going down to the field during warmups to buttonhole coaches and players are out of the question.

For Buck, one small but tangible difference has been the seating arrangement. Early in the season, he and Aikman were separated in the broadcast booth by a glass partition. After a few weeks, the glass went away. They now sit at a social distance from one another, out of arm’s reach.

“If I know Troy is talking to our producer in the headset with a talkback button down into the truck, and I’m not sure if he’s hearing me and I’m making a point that I want him to pick up on, in years past I could grab him by the arm and be like, ‘Hey, listen, because I want you to react on this,’” Buck says. “It’s a minor thing, but it’s something I miss.”

Aikman, the Hall of Fame quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl-winning ‘90s teams, has spent much of the last three decades at NFL stadiums. “That’s, that’s probably been the biggest difference — there’s no fans at the games,” he says. “So getting in and out of the stadiums is different, it’s easier. You don’t really see anybody when you walk into the building. That’s unusual.”

Buck and Aikman have been boothmates since 2002. “We’ve been working together 19 years now,” Aikman says. “There’ve been times when for whatever reason we hadn’t been able to see each other until we’ve gotten to the booth on game day. But I’ve never worried one bit about him being ready and nor has he worried about me. We just kind of let it rip, and it works for us.”

Throughout the week, Buck and Aikman will communicate on a text thread with reporter Erin Andrews, who joined their team in 2012. For the announcer and analyst, the booth remains much the same environment as it was pre-COVID. But reporters have seen their world radically changed.

When Andrews learned, prior to the start of the season that reporters would not be allowed on the sideline, she at first couldn’t imagine how she and others would be able to do their jobs.

“I’ll be honest, the first day I heard about it, I cried, because I was worried that Fox was going to do away with the sideline reporter,” she says. Fox assured her that it was working on a solution.

That solution was to place reporters in “the moat” — the stretch of now-empty seats just behind the sideline. It’s a sub-optimal perch, as Andrews learned in November when she was the lone broadcast reporter working the Packers’ game against the Indianapolis Colts and she was standing behind the Packers sideline when Colts quarterback Philip Rivers was injured.

Normally Andrews would have run across the end zone to get to the Colts sideline and start gathering intel on Rivers’ injury.

“Now I’ve got to run up stairs, run through the concourse,” she says. “You’ve got anxiety. You want to stay healthy, you don’t want to run into somebody, you’ve got to keep your mask on. You don’t want to be close to people. So it’s a lot. And I’m used to trucking it around the field 40 to 50 times during a game.”

Tom Rinaldi, who joined Fox this month and has worked with Buck, Aikman and Andrews as a second reporter during the playoffs, has struggled to adjust to the moat after covering college games at ESPN — where he was allowed to roam the sideline at the Sugar Bowl in December.

But Rinaldi sees some upside to the moat, even amid the obvious disadvantages it creates.

“You can see some things unfold that maybe you wouldn’t be able to see from field level,” Rinaldi says. “You might not be able to hear as much or have as much freedom of movement. But you could gain some observation from a different vantage point.”

Andrews took advantage of that vantage point last weekend when, before halftime, she spotted Bucs star receiver Antonio Brown talking with trainers. Then as the team headed into the locker room for halfime, she saw quarterback Tom Brady walk over to Brown to check on him.

“If I had been level with guys, I probably wouldn’t see that,” Andrews says. “But you have a great perspective. I’m not saying I want to be in the moat for the rest of my career, but it was interesting in terms of locking in on a story right away.” (Brown suffered a knee injury and won’t play against the Packers.)

That Andrews and the rest of the team would even be in the stadium was never a given. Buck, also Fox’s lead MLB play-by-play announcer, called several baseball games remotely during the pandemic-delayed season. Many broadcasters were forced to do the same when covering the NBA’s bubble season in Orlando, Fla.

“I think you can do a good game remotely,” Buck says. “I may be in the minority on that.” But, he notes, announcers are able to notice things on the field that they would never be able to see relying on monitors and TV feeds at home. “Would people miss it? Probably not. You don’t miss what you’re not aware of. But I do think it’s been an advantage being at the actual stadium.”

In Green Bay, Buck, Aikman, Andrews and Rinaldi will all be focused on how the Packers’ high-powered offense performs against the Bucs’ young defense. “I haven’t seen anybody able to stop what the Packers are doing yet,” Buck says. “I’m not saying Tampa Bay can’t, but they’re gonna have their hands full.”

But no matter whether the Packers or the Bucs advance, the season will be over after Sunday for Fox’s A-team. (The Super Bowl this year is on CBS.) The end is bittersweet, but also comes with some relief.

“It’s been hard,” Andrews says. “We’re so thankful we had our jobs, and we’re so thankful that the NFL got through this. But I don’t want to travel at all until I get this vaccine. I don’t want to see a plane again for a while. But also I don’t want football to end. It’s been a great distraction from everything. So I am relieved in one way, but I also can’t wait to get going again.”

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