Phil Simms, left, and Greg Gumbel did not fare well this year.
Last year I attacked this subject with light footsteps and a dash of wit. But that was in my younger days. Now, as the shades of night begin to fall, I find myself traveling through a blighted landscape. The business of announcing football games has never, in my memory, been worse.
OK, maybe in the real early days, when studio analyst Red Grange would diagram a pass play by drawing a straight line down a blackboard, things were on the primitive side. But at least they were honest. Maybe it's on orders from the networks, but all I hear now is hype for superstars, storylines and sideline interviews that run right through and obliterate the live action, which will also be totally ignored if it might interrupt a conversation in the booth.
This trend stunned me at first. "How can they fail to even mention the play?" I wondered. Or the penalty? And when it happened, I'd make a little notation to remind myself to call it up on this day of reckoning, for this column. But before I knew it, my notebook had become so overrun by these little notations that I just gave up on them. I mean, practically every announcing team is guilty of this explosion of ego, this total lack of respect for the game that feeds us all.
Oh, I'll still give stars to the different teams, maybe not as many as I used to, but enough to keep people from thinking that I'm ready to retire from the human race. I'll assume that many of these people are merely following instructions and aren't really such bad chaps at heart. But standards keep going down, and three stars these days simply means the ability to get through the game with a minimum of clunkers.
You'll find that generally I favor the lower-rated teams, the ratings being a designation by their network employers, because a minimum of ego is expressed. Here, then, are our Sixth Annual TV Commentators Awards, ranked five stars down to zero. Play-by-play men first, then analysts.
None, for the second consecutive year. Come back, Matt Millen.
IAN EAGLE and SOLOMON WILCOTS, CBS -- Fifth string in the eyes of the network, first string on the Z-meter. Our only four-star repeater from last season. Honesty is what I like about this team. These guys don't get caught up in storyline. They are basically accurate in their calls, and Wilcots, a former defensive back, is skilled at breaking down coverages. Unfortunately my viewing of their work was minimal because, as I said, CBS assigned them the No. 5 spot.
THREE AND 1/2
AL MICHAELS and JOHN MADDEN, ABC -- I've been so down on big John recently that people wondered if I had some sort of personal grudge. No, of course not, we've gotten along just fine through the years. It's just that I thought he had slipped from the days when he was the best. There are still things I don't like about this twosome, mainly the fact that if a game reaches a spread of two or more scores, the attention level wanders and pretty soon they're talking about free agency or baseball or whatever, and should the contest tighten up again, Al and John almost seem annoyed at having to return to it. But Madden has great contacts and people tell him things and he'll drop them on us in a casual way, and if they're about strategy, I know enough to pay careful attention. Madden's observations also have sharpened up since last year. For instance, in the New England-Denver game, he had the Broncos' deliberate safety nailed -- bang! -- before it happened. Michaels always has been a friend of my charts because of his down-and-distance accuracy, and sideline reporter Lisa Guerrero, after letting her commentary run right through live action in the K.C.-Oakland game, calmed down, or was calmed down to the extent that it never happened again.
TIM RYAN and RON PITTS, FOX -- I've only seen them twice because, let's face it, sixth-string teams (and I hope I'm interpreting the lineup correctly ... it's not always easy) don't get the best games. They've both been very strong in the past, and in the New Orleans-Tennessee game, Pittsie called a fake punt in advance, and later, when the Saints completed a 15-yard pass to TE Ernie Conwell over LB Keith Bulluck's coverage, mentioned that Bulluck had just been involved in stopping two power runs, which was why they went after him when he was in man-coverage on the next play. That, friends, is what is meant by analysis.
KENNY ALBERT and BRIAN BALDINGER, FOX -- Last year Baldy, who toils as hard as anyone in the business, teamed with Pat Summerall and his work suffered. This year there's another problem -- Albert, whom Baldinger described as "a dream to work with," isn't a dream to listen to because he's way off on down and distance and correct IDs (which is probably also a fault of the spotter). At his best, such as Giants-Jets, Baldy's simply terrific. For instance: Why was the TE able to block Michael Strahan to the outside?Because he had to hold his position against a possible reverse. Why did Giants' defensive coordinator Johnny Lynn have it in for the Jets? Because it was a Jets' home contest, and Lynn, who once played for that team, couldn't get his kids into the stadium. Great stuff. And I really loved Baldinger's capsule of Jeremiah Trotter and the Redskins, during the Washington-Chicago game:
"Trotter's in the wrong system, but all they do is sign Pro Bowl players without figuring what system they should be in. LaVar Arrington said that 'Nothing ever gets built around here. We have no foundation.'"
At his worst, Baldinger will offer copouts for egotists such as Terrell Owens -- "They have to get him the ball on the first play" (Detroit game). But the good greatly outweighs the bad, which is more than I can say for most of them.
SAM ROSEN and BILL MAAS, FOX -- Down from last year's four stars because this season Maas has decided to go on the lecture circuit. How many times did I hear, "Well, you see, Sam," and then it's classroom time, with occasional quizzes thrown in. "Sam, what did I tell you about when they line up in three wides...?" etc. Rosen is a personal favorite of mine because he likes to point out who has replaced whom in the nickel, in two tight ends and such, but at times his football knowledge lags a bit. "I don't know whether coaches love that or not," was his cliche response to Donovan McNabb's attempt to throw a block on an end around against New Orleans. Sam, baby, that's the way the play is drawn up. The QB is the lead blocker on reverses. Maas, one of the few analysts who understands line play, sees things quickly, and occasionally he'll offer an eye-opening observation, such as his description of Atlanta's 3-4 defense as being geared toward the flash of its former division rivals, San Francisco and St. Louis, but now must adapt to the power attacks of the Falcons' new division foes, Tampa Bay and Carolina. But he'll also whip some cliche observations to death, such as his gleeful praise of an "Ooooh block!," such as the big hit during a punt return by Atlanta LB Matt Stewart against a Bucs defender who was trailing. Just once I'd like someone to call one of these things accurately, and mention that you get most of your "oooh blocks" when the recipient is in pursuit, and thus a non-factor. Last year Maas' strength was quick play-by-play analysis. Now he's leaning toward the more leisurely area of concept, which is OK at times but not as a steady diet.
JOE BUCK, CRIS COLLINSWORTH, and TROY AIKMAN, FOX -- I'd like to run what scientists call a "control" and see what the two analysts would be like without Joebaby. I'd bet they'd be terrific. Last year I wrote about how his cutesy stuff is merely an anchor that drags the show down, so I don't have to do a repeat. It's FOX's problem and they're going to have to deal with it without my help. I'll say this for Buck: He's OK on spotting the ball. Not great, OK. He'll also lead a discussion that will carry right through and past the live action. Shame on you, boys, for not putting a stop to it. Collinsworth is very quick to spot unsavory things on the field. Unlike some other people, I like it when he's got a hair up his nose and he's ripping, although I don't always agree with him. Aikman, in his low-key and understated way, will lay out the development of a pass pattern for you. I gagged a bit when Collinsworth fell back on that mindless observation, after the Bucs' Michael Pittman caught a 26-yarder against LB coverage in the second Panthers game, "Any time you can get Pittman against linebackers, it's a mismatch." No it's not, pal. It was the eighth time they'd thrown to him against LB coverage and the longest gain up till then had been 7 yards. The guy's not exactly a burner, and, repeat after me, please, "Defenses are designed for LBs to cover RBs." Who's supposed to cover them, Chris -- cornerbacks? Pam Oliver, incidentally, is my favorite sideline reporter because she goes after the news angle. Thanks to Pam, the press box found out that McNabb was out of the NFC Championship because of bruised ribs. No official word ever was piped into the press box.
DICK STOCKTON and DARYL JOHNSTON, FOX -- If I were the director of this team I'd figure out a way to get the Moose enraged every Sunday. When he's angry about something, he's terrific. The prime example was in the Buffalo-Washington game, when a furious Johnston took a big rip at Steve Spurrier's cockamamie pass-protection scheme that assigned a TE to a rushing DE. "It's a just a matter of time," Johnston said. "Patrick Ramsey's not going to make it through the season." And on the next play the Skins' QB was knocked out of the game. And four games later he was out for the year. But Moose happens to be a real nice guy, and most of the time he falls into that ain't-everything-beautiful? mode that makes you want to grab him by the throat. FOX did a really ingenious thing when it dropped Tony Siragusa into the middle of the Stockton-Johnston vanilla pudding. Tony is not known for his exuberant work ethic, but he will shake things up on occasion. I thought the byplay between Tony and the two regulars, during the final Dallas-Washington game, was especially meaningful, on many levels, so much so that I copied it down from the tape. They were talking about the Skins' QB, Tim Hasselbeck, who was, at the time, 4-for-16, passing, and had just completed three consecutive three-and-out series.
Stockton: I'll tell you one thing about the Redskins. They now feel they have two quarterbacks they can rely on. Johnston: And that's a great position to be in, in the NFL, to have a guy to be able to come in ... Siragusa: Daryl, you sound like you're best friends with this guy, Hasselbeck. If I had a bad game like that, I'd hope you rip me. Don't be blowing smoke up me ... Johnston: You know what? If you were actually at the meetings, you might get a chance to meet some of these people and see them in a different light than how they play on the field. Siragusa: That's why I don't want to go to the meetings. I just want to tell it like it is. I don't want to be a politician. Stockton: A little behind-the-scenes banter here by our two boys, our two ex-players.
DICK ENBERG and DAN DIERDORF, CBS -- This is probably the highest I've ever ranked them, but as the waves recede around them, they rise to the surface. They're professional. They know how to work a game. Enberg fascination with telling us about grandma's cherry pie and the three brothers in dance class, just as a team would be lining up in its goal line offense, is not so apparent now. Someone must have slipped him the word. Likewise, Dierdorf is not as given to his pronouncements that sound like biblical quotations. Yep, it's a fairly comfortable team now.
TWO AND 1/2
GUS JOHNSON and BRENT JONES, CBS -- Jones is getting some bad advice, which is to keep hyping the stars. You say it might be his own idea? Well, I don't want to believe it, because he's too bright for that. Or at least he was as a player. Those guys at CBS might have laid a network concussion on him. In the Pittsburgh-Tennessee game he spotted a trick play because he observed someone motioning to the sideline. Attaboy, Brent! And in the Houston-Indy contest he noticed that CB Aaron Glenn had been dazed by a whack to the head the play before he gave up a 57-yard completion to Reggie Wayne. Yeah, now we're getting somewhere. But then the crackling voice must have started in his headset, "Start plugging. Get excited. Get hysterical." So when Edgerrin James broke a 5-yarder off tackle because both the DE and LB took themselves out of the play, Jones observed. "It's so great to get James back. He IS the man!" And when Johnson asked him what it's called when Peyton Manning is almost outside the tackle when he hands the ball off, Jones used it as an invitation to hype the QB's faking ability ("He's almost like a coach on the field") and the rest of the blah blah. He was also still flogging the Mike Vanderjagt-Manning feud.
CHRIS MYERS or DAN MILLER with KELLY STOUFFER, FOX -- Stouffer, the former QB, worked two games and I saw both. He was much better with Miller. In the Myers pairing (St. Louis-Arizona) things were just a little bit off. The spotters weren't really that good. It wasn't a comfortable performance. But then everything just seemed to click when Stouffer was working with Miller (Falcons-Saints). They made a point about Saints kicker John Carney being uncomfortable with the new artificial turf in the Superdome, and then there was a shot of a very weak effort in warm-ups, followed by a bench view of the guy looking depressed, all of it serving as an explanation for why the Saints would be going for it on fourth down, instead of kicking the long field goal. Good stuff. I also learned something after the Falcons' Tod McBride intercepted a slant pass and ran it back all the way. "Rule of thumb," Stouffer said. "Never let the defender get inside you when you're running a slant. You've got to flatten it out and stay inside." Good rule in pancake making, too.
DON CRIQUI and STEVE TASKER, CBS -- A hard call because they bat sixth in the lineup and I haven't seen them much. Doubly hard because in my farewell performance of my one brief stint as third man in the booth for NBC 13 years ago, I was part of Criqui's team. He was very patient with me, very kind, although I just knew that inwardly he must have been thinking, "What potato truck did this guy fall off of?" Criqui's an old pro now. Tasker's still enthusiastic and on the rise. They do an honest job.
KEVIN HARLAN and RANDY CROSS -- I like Harlan because he cares about getting the ball spotted correctly on his calls, and also about keeping track of who's on the field in different situations. Toward the end of the season, though, he got onto some weird kick of announcing "The defense is in a 4-3," over and over. I couldn't really figure out the need for it. Maybe he lost a bet. The combination of Cross' moralizing and his heavy sarcasm was, I fear, starting to get to me. Oakland-Detroit, Week 9: "All they've got for receivers are guys like Tim Brown, Jerry Rice and Jerry Porter ... they ought to be able to do a little something with those guys" (except that the Raiders were on their way to a 2-6 record at the time). Same game. Napoleon Harris gets to his feet by pushing off on a fallen Shawn Jefferson in a very nasty way. Jefferson's foot flies up at him. Flag -- on the retaliator, naturally. And Cross weighs in with this big dumb penalty lecture you've heard a million times. Cleveland-Denver game, a hard-fought contest: "Someone forgot to tell them they're out of the playoffs," etc. Hey, don't look at me. I phoned them to remind them. But to his credit, Randy can get it going when he isn't on the soap box. Jets-Houston -- he nails it right away that the Texans deliberately let the Jets score so they could get the ball back, something not many people would pick up on a first viewing.
None. No major generals today.
ONE AND 1/2
CURT MENEFEE and TIM GREEN, FOX -- I thought Menefee was fine when he was with Ron Pitts or Tim Ryan. But something strange has happened to him now. He'll miscall plays. I've seen him off by as much as three yards when spotting the ball. He and Green will yack while penalties are discussed, called and stepped off without bothering to announce them. Ball carriers will be misidentified, and the correction never made. Minnesota-Detroit, Week 3, Vikings' punter Eddie Johnson knocked a 52-yarder into the end zone. "They'll take that," Menefee said, "over what happened last time (26-yard return), trust me." Johnson's next punt was a 47-yarder into the end zone. "The end zone is a bad punt," Menefee said, "when you can back 'em up deep." See that, I trusted you and where did it get me? And from Green, no real insight, nothing to add except the obvious. T.G.'s strategy for the Cardinals in overtime against the 49ers: "Just run Marcel Shipp play after play and get it right down the field." Gosh, why didn't anybody think of that?
GREG GUMBEL and PHIL SIMMS, CBS -- This pains me because Simms is a hell of a nice guy and a person I've consulted with many times through the years. But someone has to tell him that this simply cannot go on any further. There's negative reinforcement at work with the network's No. 1 team. OK, they got through the Super Bowl without any major mishaps, only a few small miscalls, but the regular season, to my way of thinking, was a disaster. Hype, hype, hype, plug the stars, sky's the limit -- just make sure it's a guy in the game you're doing. Denver-Minnesota. Vikes' Kelly Campbell gets a 15-yard flag for fighting. Mike Tice is yelling at him on the sideline. Stuff is happening. Action. We never get any of it. Sideline reporter Armen Keteyian is telling us about Randy Moss' new-found maturity. Moss and Culpepper, Culpepper and Moss. Hype, hype, hype. Here are a few Simmsers: San Diego-K.C. opener: "Will Shields is having one of the best halves any offensive lineman could ever dream of having." This was after Jamal Williams stormed through his brush block for a sack. New England-Indy in November, regarding Colts' DE Dwight Freeney: "Fastest player on the field," neglecting, of course, Patriots wideout and kick returner Bethel Johnson, who ran a 4.2 and later returned a kick 92 yards. "Looked like one of the fastest human beings on earth," Phil says. Tennessee-New England Divisional playoffs: "Tedy Bruschi is one of the two best middle linebackers in the AFC." Well, you see there's a guy named Ray Lewis, and another one named Zach Thomas, and there's Al Wilson in Denver and London Fletcher in Buffalo. I have two pages of miscalls or just plain goofy calls. The Packers' Ahman Green breaks a 98-yarder against Denver. He is untouched. How do we hype that? "Perfect running form." Phil says. Yep, I've got two pages worth, but let's just cut it off here. At one time Simms brought a nice, fresh approach to the game. He worked hard. He was ambitious. Now all the CBS flaks must be telling him how great their No.1 team is. Sorry, but it ain't.
HALF A STAR
MIKE PATRICK, PAUL MAGUIRE and JOE THEISMANN, ESPN -- Down a star from last year. A similar drop in '04 and they'll owe me half of one. listening to this trio is like: It's like sitting in a sports bar and trying to watch a game, and right near you are a bunch of noisy drunks. Hey, will you guys pipe down? I'm trying to watch a game. It's third-and-17. "There ARE no plays for third-and-17," Maguire says, and everybody agrees. "See, they just don't have any. There simply aren't any. No plays for third-and-17. They've never drawn up a play for third-and-17." OK, OK already. No plays for third-and-17. Mind if I watch the game? Why did I drop them a star? Because last year Theismann tried to at least add a semblance of sanity to the show, but now he's given up. First half of the Baltimore-Tennessee wild-card game. Theismann is comparing Chris Brown's running style with that of Eddie George. "Chris Brown is completely different from George." Then in the second half, "I see a lot of Eddie George in Brown," Maguire says. Then there's the usual shameful puffing of Ray Lewis. "Don't come this way again," and all that. Meanwhile Tennessee keeps running for big yardage. How about a word about a Titans O-linemen? Are you kidding? This is ESPN. Hype Central. Project! Have fun! Make noise! Just take it down to the other end of the bar, would you, please?
NOT ENOUGH LOOKS
BILL MACATEE and JERRY GLANVILLE, CBS -- The eighth team, by my count, and there are very few weekends with eight CBS games. But I caught a piece of the Cincy-Oakland contest early in the season, and their work was very smooth, very informative. Good stuff. "Sometimes you throw the flag for a challenge to give your defense a rest," Glanville mentioned when the Raiders tossed the red hanky for no apparent reason. And there were many observations like that. Why is this team No. 8? Beats me. I don't think CBS knows where its talent really lies. Projecting them to a full season, I'd give them three and a half stars. That's Glanville and Macatee, not CBS.
CRAIG BOLERJACK and BEASLEY REECE, CBS -- The seventh team. I've always thought Bolerjack was one of the more underrated play-by-play guys in the business. He puts in an honest day's work, with no major ego to get in the way. Beasley's a puzzler -- sometimes interesting, sometimes a little too heavy on the charm.
PREGAME AND OTHER
TIM BRANDO and SPENCER TILLMAN, CBS -- The No. 9 team, and I just know that I'm going to hear from the network, informing me that I've screwed it all up. My information comes from the Farmer's Almanack Catalogue of Announcing Teams. Sorry fellas, but I haven't seen you in a
I asked a club official I'm in frequent contact with if he ever watched any of the network shows. "No," he said. C'mon, you mean not a single one? Not even a little peek? "Well, sometimes the NFL Edge Matchup," (with Ron Jaworski and Merrill Hoge), he said, "but that's the only one with anything interesting on it. The rest is all talk radio.
Yeah, I like Edge Matchup the best, too, but I also have to watch something while I'm setting up my charts on Sunday, so let's touch on the big three and then hit the off button.
Dr. Z will answer select user questions each week in his NFL mailbag.
FOX's NFL Sunday is the best in a no-contest decision. It's coming too easy for Howie Long, though. I just wish he'd get his butt out of the studio and into a booth every Sunday, because I'd like to be able to give out five stars again.
I watch CBS' NFL Today as little as possible. Those guys just don't say anything I want to hear, and I don't see any real work that goes into it.
As far as ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown, well, the way I read it is that some genius in Bristol must have told these guys to take the gloves off and start swinging. Get wild! The same kind of approach that the Sunday night crew takes. I've never heard so much prolonged yelling. I'm sure they've done a head job on Steve Young, because last year he was fairly restrained, but now he acts as if they must have told him, "Ya wanna keep your job, you yell right along with the rest of them." I wonder what it would be like if Bill Parcells were still on the show. Different, I'll bet. Tuning in during the brief period during which Rush Limbaugh graced the program with his presence was nerve-wracking because whenever it looked like they were going to throw to him, it was a race to get to the dial and flip it before he could utter a sound. Sometimes I made it, other times I got burned. When he became canned goods, life got a lot easier. But not quieter.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman covers the NFL for the magazine and SI.com. His Power Rankings, "Inside Football" column and Mailbag appear weekly on SI.com.