Dan Orlovsky, the Weirdo King of ESPN, Is Now the Lovable Face of Football Media

The one-of-a-kind analyst had a forgettable playing career before turning to TV, where his football knowledge is matched only by his wacky opinions and behavior. After spending a day at work with him, it’s clear that nobody else could even attempt to do it like Dan.
Dan Orlovsky the Weirdo King of ESPN Is Now the Lovable Face of Football Media
Photographs: ESPN, Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

It’s roughly 2:00 p.m. in Bristol, Connecticut, and Dan Orlovsky, the ex-NFL quarterback turned ESPN talking head, is eating for the first time today. Presented with a multitude of tasty options in the company cafeteria, Orlovsky settles down at a table near the window with a plate that’s almost unsettling in its simplicity: two ordinary grilled chicken breasts flanked by a few disks of mozzarella cheese and a couple spoonfuls of pesto. He dips the chicken into the pesto and gives it a preliminary taste test, putting his tongue up to it the way a cat would. Once deemed acceptable, he goes in. He doesn’t usually eat breakfast or lunch—“I love dinner,” he admits—but when he does, as with most other public aspects of his life, he does it in a manner all his own. “I usually eat just grilled chicken with ketchup or something,” he reveals. “My thing is, if I know I like this, why would I get something I don't know I like?” At Thanksgiving dinner this year, his plate was just macaroni and cheese with some Caesar salad. He also harbors a confusing disdain of universally adored foods like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and soda (he doesn’t like any drink with bubbles).

Around campus in Bristol, and elsewhere on the internet, Orlovsky’s diet has become something of a running joke. He’s become famous for having an extremely bland palette, and for digging his heels in to defend his eating habits.

His NFL Live colleague Marcus Spears, an ex-NFL defensive lineman, shakes his head when I broach the subject. “The food is bad, man,” Spears laments. “Stupid. I’m from Louisiana and, obviously, I like to eat. This dude is the polar opposite of what I think food should be.” I ask Spears what would happen if Orlovsky ever encountered some down-South jambalaya or gumbo. “He’d die. On sight.” Fellow panelist Mina Kimes elaborates: “It’s really like, tan food,” she says. “He only eats the color tan. We were at a party in Kansas City for the draft. There was a buffet situation. I watched him grab five fruit tarts and scoop the fruit out of all of them. I’d never seen anything like it.” After getting Orlovsky up to speed on the concept of Husband Meal—the goblin-like meals men devour while their significant other is away—he says he’ll go to Chipotle and get four burrito bowls to last him all weekend. Their ingredients? Double chicken and cheese. That’s it.

All the attention paid to his sustenance belies the fact that Orlovsky has become an increasingly central part of ESPN’s football coverage—one of the main vectors helping the American public understand the sport. For every bizarre and somewhat abominable food take, he’s got 10 astute points about why certain teams are struggling, or why those struggles aren’t as fixable as the average fan sitting at home might think. Personality-wise, he could not be more dissimilar to Chris Berman, the face of the network’s football coverage from yesteryear. But for a new generation, Orlovsky stands to become just as ubiquitous.

Now 40 years old, Orlovsky combines kind eyes and a boyish smile with a tall, strapping physique. He’s handsome and put-together but not in a scary way. It’s not hard to imagine him walking around the financial district of any major city wearing a vest and some chinos. But rather than trying to explain stocks and bonds to you, he wants to make the world understand American tackle football the way it was meant to be: simply.

“I've always just cut on the tape and whatever my eyes see, I take note of,” he says. “I don't ever try to go looking for something narrative-wise, I just watch. But this was all I did in my career. I was always looking for things that stand out, or why things are happening, or whatnot. So I still just kind of do that. I watch the tape, see what it says, and go from there.”

The most remarkable thing about Orlovsky’s success is the way it contrasts with his time as an NFL player. “What I remember about him as a player is absolutely nothing,” Spears jokes, though there is some truth to his barb. During his playing days, Orlovsky was mostly a bench ornament, starting just 12 games in 12 years. Every one of those was for a dreadful team, too. The most starts he ever made in a single year (seven) was for the 2008 Detroit Lions, who became the second team ever to lose every game in a season, and the first since the schedule expanded to 16 games. In his first NFL start during that dubious 2008 season, after three years of watching from the sidelines, Orlovsky committed one of the biggest blunders in league history. Backed up on his own one-yard line in the Metrodome against a fearsome Minnesota Vikings pass rush, the wide-eyed kid took a shotgun snap, dropped back to pass, and waltzed right out of the end zone for a safety. The Lions ended up losing by two points—the closest game of their entire nightmare season—and that became Orlovsky’s claim to fame, sentenced to football blooper reels forevermore.

But since joining ESPN in 2018 after a stint with NFL Network, he’s made a name for himself primarily because the man knows ball. You don’t stick around in the NFL for a dozen years—especially as a career backup—without a deep well of football knowledge and a nuanced understanding of how the game works. “I learn from him on the show, which is such a cool thing,” says Kimes. “When he [analyzes game] tape I’m like, damn, okay!” Every time you watch him, you also learn something new about football, a complicated sport that he has a gift for breaking down in an accessible, digestible way. “What makes him a fantastic analyst is that he notices things, yes, but he communicates them so clearly,” Kimes adds.

Technically a college football and NFL analyst, Orlovsky started dropping in on NFL Live—ESPN’s main football studio show—in 2019, expanding to a daily role in 2020. Getting into broadcasting in the first place began with an idea from his wife, Tiffany. “We were watching the Panthers—because I remember it was a Cam Newton play—and he was like, ‘[The announcers] really missed this. They really should have said this on TV!’ So I was like, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ Oh yeah, I should! So he recorded the play and talked about it like he was an analyst doing the game,” Tiffany expounds. “He was very new to social media. When he put it on Twitter—in his words—it blew up. That’s when he started to realize that he might be good at this. He was a great football player, but this is his way of doing what he was really meant to be doing, which is TV.”

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During football season, Orlovsky is inconceivably busy. This is the way he likes it. “I gravitate toward physical pain,” he tells me, with no trace of humor in his voice. The idea today is to follow Orlovsky as he unfetters his Monday morning football takes. That means I arrive at ESPN’s Seaport studios to begin our day together at roughly 7:15 in the morning. Orlovsky, meanwhile, has been up since 4 a.m. to get a workout in. He was driven from his Connecticut home to the studios in lower Manhattan before the sun came up. He has four kids but is generally good on five hours of sleep. “He’s always on,” Tiffany marvels. “He’s never tired.”

I walk in bleary-eyed and find Orlovsky with his tie slung around his neck, lording over a stand-up desk, going over some last-minute stuff for the shows. When it’s time to button up and take his place at the Get Up desk, his human-espresso-shot energy is matched by Ryan Clark, who literally comes in screaming and holding a cup of Dunkin’. Before the cameras start rolling, everyone does a sort of unique New York warmup to get the vocal cords going. Orlovsky, by the way, serves as the group’s DJ, and today’s song is “Thinkin’ Bout Me” by Morgan Wallen. He roars into every show singing his heart out; later, he’ll bust out bars from ’90s anthems “Under the Bridge” and “One Week.” “I love singing. I’m awesome at it,” he says, providing crystal clear evidence that a quarterback’s confidence doesn’t evaporate once they’re done playing. (Not everyone agrees. “It’s the corniest shit you can imagine,” Kimes says of her friend's music taste. “When he sings along, it’s really something to behold. He’s not awesome at it.”)

Once he’s done shooting the New York–based shows—the morning show Get Up from 8 to 10 a.m., and First Take from 10 to 11, where he sits in the eye of the Stephen A. Smith hurricane—we’re whisked across state lines and up to the sprawling ESPN headquarters in Connecticut, about two hours away. As we head north, he logs into a production meeting on Zoom, wrapping up by the time we hit Yankee Stadium. Once that’s over, he starts digging into game tape—a part of his Monday ritual he can’t afford to skip, even though the game in question is a Buccaneers-Colts matchup he knows he won’t talk about on the air. When I lightly suggest that most people would view this as a waste of time—that is, studying for stuff you know won’t be on the test—he explains that he operates under a constant cloud of “productive paranoia.”

“I think being the most prepared and informed person is never a waste for me,” Orlovsky says. “I used to get mad, because my jaded mindset was like, ‘Everybody should watch the games like I do.’ No. That's what makes me different. But Stephen A., that's not his job. That's also what allows for good conversation. I think that's something that I've learned as well. Everyone has different roles, and none are more important than the other. They're just different and that's what makes a show.”

Notably, Orlovsky watches tape not like the TV analyst he is but like the QB he used to be—that is to say, he watches every single snap. When Laura Rutledge, host of NFL Live, first saw his method, her initial thought was This can’t be sustainable. “Not only has it been sustainable, I’ve seen it increase since that time!” she explains. “He’s amazing.” Tiffany has another word for it. “I think he’s a psychopath with work,” she professes. Even with his never-ending battery, this takes its toll on her husband. “It's not fun all the time,” Dan admits. “I had gotten to the point where I was like, Yo, I don't want to watch football. Because I had gone almost…I think I had two days off in like 111 days.”

The man who goes to work every day with a productive paranoia doesn’t think of himself as an anxious person outside of work. And the burning desire to be the best football analyst in the world has demonstrably paid off. That self-assured attitude is palpable and deeply rooted. It bursts through the screen when Orlovsky is confidently discussing football on TV, but he also just says it outright during our car ride to Bristol together. “I love being right,” he crows. “I mean, it's a flaw. But that's my game day—my victories are being right when other people aren’t. My victories are finding stuff. That's my wins. I take a lot of pride in that too, I honestly do.” His coworkers certainly know this as well. “He loves being right,” Kimes agrees. “If he’s right about something and it’s proven correct three years later, he’ll text me about it at 5 a.m. It’s very funny.”

This all comes from being a quarterback, the main character on every football field. Orlovsky was always a quarterback, from childhood until he retired from the NFL in 2017, collecting jerseys from the Lions, Texans, Colts, and Buccaneers along the way. “First day of high school football, we did open-field tackling drills and I got absolutely steamrolled by a guy,” he remembers. “The coach stood over me and he goes, ‘This is the last time we do that with you.’” He got behind center and stayed there. And being a quarterback—even a career backup—breeds a certain type of person, one who quite literally has to be über-confident. Otherwise, the entire operation falls apart. Naturally, that plants the idea that you are the most important person, and that can seep into other elements of a young man’s life.

“I do think most of my childhood friends and my father would tell you the center of attention or the know-it-all stuff, that's who I always was,” he says. “I did not do school. I was a terrible student.” His freshman year at the University of Connecticut, he tells me, he posted a 0.67 GPA. “Playing quarterback was my life. It was the only thing that I identified with, and felt worthy of,” he says. When head coach Randy Edsall bluntly informed his underachieving quarterback that he’d never play for him again if he came back with anything less than a 3.0 in the future, Orlovsky says it changed his life. “When you go play college sports, one of the things that you realize is there's a lot of yous out there,” he says. “I definitely needed people in my life to teach me what accountability was, challenge me when it came to my mindset. That's part of being a good quarterback.”

After college, the Lions took Orlovsky in the fifth round of the 2005 draft. He was a backup for Joey Harrington and Jeff Garcia on a 5-11 team, not exactly the savior Detroit needed. But he was in his 20s, making NFL money, and having fun. “I was still being Peter Pan,” Orlovsky says. “I was still being a loser. I had two cell phones. One that was my phone, and then I had a T-Mobile Sidekick that I was using to text this girl or that girl.”

The next year the Lions signed a wide receiver named Mike Furrey. Along with Coach Edsall, Furrey is one of the people that Orlovsky credits with turning his life around. Furrey was six years older than Orlovsky, and had two years of NFL experience on him. He helped Orlovsky understand what being a pro required. One day, they were in the car together. “I'm on the phone, responding to some girl, he takes it and throws it out the window,” Orlovsky recounts. “He was like, ‘It's time to grow up, dude.’ That was a pivotal moment.”

The season without a win was also Orlovsky’s last with the Lions. He signed a $9 million deal with the Texans but never threw a single pass for them in a regular-season game. In 2011—the year Peyton Manning had two neck surgeries and missed the entire season—Orlovsky started five games for the Colts and finally got his first two wins. His last start came in a forgettable 19-13 loss to the Jaguars. He latched on with the Buccaneers in another backup role and wound up back in Detroit for the 2014-16 campaigns, serving as Matthew Stafford’s understudy. There was a training camp audition with the Rams in the summer of 2017, but it didn’t lead to a roster spot, and that was it. His football memory bank includes touchdown passes to Calvin Johnson and Reggie Wayne, practice reps against Dwight Freeney and Darrelle Revis, but very little winning. This gave him a special perspective on the already brutal endeavor of playing professional football. “Not only not winning much, but also just being part of poorly run organizations,” Orlovsky notes. “My vantage point comes from a place of struggle, and not being given a ton of chances for success. I think that does shape my mindset sometimes.” Perhaps that’s why a guy who’s attained massive success in his second career is still grinding like a backup.

When Orlovsky joined NFL Live, Spears knew what his new costar was capable of. “He always had the X’s and O’s,” Spears says. “But he had to learn the entertainment part of TV. The entertainment part, I take credit for. Pushing him and being like, ‘Bro, not everything is super serious!’” Orlovsky remembers it mostly the same way. “Marcus was like, ‘Dan, you care about football too much,’” he says of their early days on set together. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He's like, ‘Dude, we do TV.’ That doesn't mean you go in and just be a complete buffoon, but he was like, ‘You got to get comfortable doing TV,’ meaning, sometimes personality is needed in a certain moment of a show.”

More often than not, though, everything is super serious to Dan Orlovsky. He believes in the concept of “earning the day,” meaning he has to log some sort of productive accomplishment before going idle, which itself is kind of a foreign concept. “I struggle to just chill, I struggle to just hang out, I struggle to not be productive and not be doing something,” he says. “I don't believe that I'm entitled to enjoying my life. My mom and dad split up when I was young, and got married and divorced a bunch. I started getting up early probably around 13.” His first job was a landscaping gig—real, grueling manual labor—when he was 14. “My dad was like, ‘Get up.’ I was trained to be a morning person. Funny story: My wife is not. That lady loves to sleep. When we first got married, I would get up at five, six in the morning, go get work done, work out. I'd get home at 10:00, and she would just be waking up. That would drive me nuts. I'd be like, ‘What are you doing?’ That was one of our first things in marriage, learning from each other and being like, ‘Damn, she's not you, you're not her.’”

He’s working to get better at it, though, and praises an in-law for a basic pearl of wisdom that helps him mellow out. “My wife's mom is a Parrothead. She's changed my life for the better in this regard: You gotta enjoy your life.”

When his work day ends around 5 p.m. and we go our separate ways, I am exhausted, falling asleep in the backseat of the car heading back to New York. When I wake up somewhere in the unfamiliar woods of western Connecticut, I can’t help but think about two things. One: how alien my behavior would be to Dan Orlovsky, and how he’d probably encourage me to kick my sleepy tendencies. Two: how much fun it was to be around him.

“I think the reason people like him so much—this is going to sound corny, but fuck it—he’s a great teammate,” Kimes effuses. “What makes him so rare is that he both treats everybody with respect but also pushes people to be better. He works so hard that everyone around him feels compelled to work at a similar level. He pushes me to be better, and then when we are better, he celebrates us more than anybody I’ve ever met in my life. I owe a lot of my career over the last couple of years to him, frankly.”

This is another offshoot of the quarterback syndrome that’s infected him since youth. “When you're the backup quarterback, you're always in teach mode,” Orlovsky realizes. “If you get to play in a game, that's a rarity. Your value has got to be with learning things, being able to explain this thing to the starter or the second-string tight end or the backup tailback. And you've got to be liked in the locker room!”

After observing him fully in his element, I can’t help but see examples of this everywhere I look. I watch him teach America about why Mac Jones is “broken,” and why Jalen Hurts’ unshakable poise makes him “Tom Brady–ish”. I also see how people light up when they’re in the same room as him, a carryover from those days when he had to ingratiate himself to an entire roster of people who came from much different backgrounds than his. “I wasn't exposed to people who didn't look like me much in my life,” he says of his upbringing in whitewashed Connecticut. “Then going to college, and being able to play college football, was very different. We had 10 white kids. The white kids were the minority and Black kids were the majority. I think sports allows you to see way past all that stupid on-the-surface stuff. I always tell people, most of my adult friends weren't white, because of sports. They just weren't. And they aren't. [I’ve had an] unbelievable life journey of realizing there's other people in the world that you can grow to love, that don't look and sound and think like you. But we're the same person. You're the same person as me, except you might be a Black kid from Miami, Florida. But you love ball, so...”

A legion of football lovers now regularly welcomes Orlovsky into their living rooms, earbuds, and collective psyches. He’s no longer waiting in the wings, hoping to someday get a shot at proving he belongs. And there’s no longer any doubt about his talent either.

Once I’m back in New York, I’m starving. I retrieve a takeout quesadilla with a side of guacamole (a food he will eat—unless it has red onion). Orlovsky is on my mind and, in classic form, it’s both because of his oddball traits and the captivating qualities that make him the de facto mayor of Bristol. I snicker at the fact that he doesn’t push vegetables super hard on his kids (because, he explains, that would feel hypocritical). I chew on one of his modern football beliefs—the idea that linebackers “don’t matter.” I think about how every person who walked past him in a hallway or greenroom had an affectionate smile for him, and how he reciprocated with thoughtful, attentive conversation. Tiffany tells me that beneath it all, he’s actually very sensitive, and will regularly cry at movies. Spears calls him a brother, Rutledge hails the chemistry he’s created on set, and Kimes gasses him up for always being a supportive ally. I can safely say that I fully get it now—the Orlovsky experience distilled—as evidenced by the one thought that just won’t leave my brain: I definitely earned this day.