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Masters of the Mic: NFL

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Masters of the Mic
Masters of the Mic
Frank Deford details the connection between a fan and The Voice.
Dr. Z thinks solid NFL play-by-play announcers are few and far between.
The gems in the baseball booth stand out like no others, says Tom Verducci.
Jack McCallum wants an NBA announcer to know when to step back.
Michael Farber says NHL broadcasters are a matter of personal taste.
College Football
Stewart Mandel weighs in on the current crop of college football announcers.
College Basketball
Grant Wahl wants those in the college hoops booth to tell him something new.
Jon Wertheim is happy with today's roster of tennis broadcasters.
Chris Lewis reveals his All-Star team of golf announcers.
Best of the Rest
Richard Deitsch fills us in on the top announcers from a variety of sports.

I have to qualify this because, for my purposes, what I want in a play-by-play man is someone who will spot the ball accurately (it's amazing how few of them can do it), who will be reasonably correct in identifying the person who makes the defensive play, who will NEVER ignore live action to keep the storyline going (an alarming recent trend), and ... I guess I'm asking too much here ... will tell you who is subbing for whom in situational packages, such as the nickel. I realize I am calling for the near-impossible on that last one because none of them do it consistently.

1. Paul Christman: Smooth, calm and accurate. I think he would be shocked by the lack of respect announcers show the game these days.

2. Pat Summerall (in the early Madden years): Very professional in his approach, and a great straight man. His wit was cryptic and understated, a perfect foil for Madden's exuberance. They worked better together than any pair I've ever seen.

3. Al Michaels: The most accurate ball-spotter. He also always announces the time left in the quarter before they go to commercial break. Little things like this make my charting a lot easier, and I'll repay the favor by mentioning him here.

I hate to show the white feather, but I'm afraid that's it. I can only find three play-by-play guys. At times one or two may be good in some area, for instance FOX's Sam Rosen at announcing substitutions or CBS' Ian Eagle at getting the defensive calls right, but to put them in the top five all time would be a reach. Curt Gowdy's name always comes up in a historical context, but I can honestly say that I always felt he was just kind of there. He didn't annoy me, he didn't impress me. Just a solid workman.


1. Al DeRogatis: He worked for NBC in the 1960's. Some people found his presentation too technical. Not me. He was an explainer, not a screamer.

2. John Madden: I'm talking about his early years. Three things made him the best of his era, 1) he was always fresh, 2) he didn't talk in cliches, and 3) he was a great watcher. He would see things that I missed on the first viewing, and I used to ask him what was his technique. "Inside out," he said. "Start with the middle three on the line and then fan outward."

3. Matt Millen: Always interested in the immediate action. Didn't disrespect the game by drifting into "storyline." Took a serious interest in line play.

4. Dan Fouts: An underused talent. Got caught in the Dennis Miller, three-in-the booth mishmosh at ABC, but when he managed to get a word in, what he said was both perceptive and accurate.

5. Brian Baldinger: Works fourth- or fifth-string games at FOX, and might never rise much higher because he doesn't play the old corporate game of constantly puffing the superstars. Excellent on line play, and he views a ton of footage each week to get himself ready.


1. Dennis Miller: You hear something funny? I didn't hear anything funny. If he ain't funny, what's he doing announcing games? Beats me. He didn't do it for long.

2. Rush Limbaugh: Bringing this loudmouth into a football studio infuriated me so much that I ... well, it's still getting me so mad that I can't continue. Have to stop and get a glass of water.

3. Me: Yeah, I did three games in 1990 for NBC as third man in the booth. During the last one, Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, I got into this big shouting match with Bob Trumpy, with the mikes on, and the technicians were making sawing motions across their throat and everything. That was my swine song, uh, my swan song for TV announcing. I still think I could have been good at it, given another shot.

4. Deion Sanders:  A lot of hokum, a lot of snake oil sold here, very little work.

5. Freddy "The Hammer" Williamson: Again, very little hard work or preparation for his brief Monday night stint. He figured he'd bluff his way through on charm. Uh uh, doesn't work that way.


1. The "evidently" interview after the 1972 Super Bowl. Tommy Brookshier interviewing Duane Thomas:

Brookshier: Duane, you don't look that fast the way you run, but then you're able to outrun the defensive players. Are you really that fast?

Thomas: Evidently.

Brookshier told me the exchange haunted him for years. He used to have recurrent nightmares about it. "I think of it and I break into a cold sweat," he said.

2. The Heidi game, in which the end of a 1968 Jets-Oakland contest was blacked out. I guess I have to include this because of its historical significance, but I was in the Oakland press box that day and didn't know what had happened until later.

3. Limbaugh's slam of Donovan McNabb that got him bounced from ESPN. Thank God.

4. Now we dip into the realm of the strictly personal -- things which reached me and few others. To lead off, there was Howard Cosell's Monday night halftime interview (sorry, don't remember the year or the game) with vice-president Spiro Agnew. "Mr. Vice-President," Howard said, "your football knowledgability is legendary." Next time I saw Cosell, I said, "Hey Howard, is knowledgability anything like knowledge?" He didn't think it was very funny, but to me that defined the man. Substituting a non-existent six-syllable word for a simple one that everybody knew.

5. The L.A. Rams were killing some team, can't remember the game or the year, but at halftime the NBC crew brought ex-Rams QB and ex-Falcons coach Norm Van Brocklin into the booth. Someone asked him if he thought the Rams would ease off and start playing regulars in the second half. "Naah," the Dutchman said. "Pour it on. Grind their faces in the dirt. Kill em." There was a pause and one of the announcers (I think it was Charlie Jones) said, "You've just heard from a beautiful human being." Another pause, and then Van Brocklin said, "If you don't want me anymore, I've got to go look for my ex-wife in the stands." It's my favorite halftime interview.


1. Chris Spielman: The ex-Bills linebacker currently does college football for ESPN. I heard him call a fake field goal before it happened. Why? Because he saw the kicker spending extra time talking to the coach on the sidelines before he went out. Spielman was on top of everything, all game long. Some network would score a real coup by hiring him, but I don't give them credit for figuring out something like this.

2. Irv Brown: This former referee did last-string college games for ESPN. I don't even know if he's around anymore. He was the best football analyst I ever heard, period. He was so incisive, and did it in such a matter of fact manner, that his excellence wasn't understood. He would lay out everything, the blocking, where the play broke down, who forced the issue, and all of it on a first go-round.

3. Dan Fouts: He's terrific on college ball. He was fine in his brief Monday night duty, as I've pointed out. Bring him back!

4. Howie Long: Get out of that pregame studio, Howie, and get yourself into a booth. It's too easy for you, now. You're too smart for what you're doing, although it makes for very entertaining watching. I want to see you on a live game.

5. Ron Jaworski: I love ESPN's Edge NFL Matchup. I love technical football, although most networks feel that only nerds and deviates are attracted to it. Jaws works his ass off on this stuff, and I want to see that effort channeled into some live games, the bigger the better.

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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.