Posted: Wednesday January 12, 2005 7:49PM; Updated: Thursday January 13, 2005 1:14PM
Al Michaels and John Madden didn't have many premier games this season on Monday Night Football.
Carlo Allegri/Getty Images
I have streamlined my Seventh Annual TV Commentator Awards. No more pregame shows to be rated, no more postgame things, no talk shows, etc. Because -- and how can I say this without sounding like I'm about 90 years old -- the shows are basically top-of-the-head garbage.
Well, not every bit of them, of course. I'll catch ESPN's Chris Mortensen for information. And the same network's Andrea Kremer is the only one who presented, out of the great expanse of Reggie White memorials, a coherent and three-dimensional picture of the man. But in the meantime ... oh my God, the trash.
ESPN's NFL Countdown, for instance, is an exercise in noise, where facts flee like frightened forest things and a thought expressed at anything but full volume will be mercilessly ground underfoot. Fox's NFL Sunday used to hold my attention, but now they've tricked it up, first with some horrible cartoon, fan fantasy football creation that got you into the show, and which, thankfully they did away with, and then with that Ten Yards With Terry Bradshaw thing.
You know, the quick Q&As. What does Jake Delhomme like better, hunting or fishing? What do all of them like better, Play Station II or Xbox? My God, they're asking about toys. Toys! Why not just get my 4-year old grand-daughter on there. Natasha, what's better, jacks or Slinky?
The best one was when Bradshaw gave Jerry Jones the Q&A routine. "NFL before Fox or NFL since Fox?" Gosh, that's a tough one. Deep thought. "NFL since Fox." Wow? Sound the cannon. Release the pigeons.
And this is what we must listen to, pretending it has been created by adults, for adult consumption. Insults such as that horribly dull, wooden "You've Been Sacked" that masqueraded as halftime entertainment on the Monday night show -- before it got sacked itself. ESPN's Stuart Scott on the Monday Night Countdown, previewing St. Louis-Green Bay: "A game so silly good it'll make you want to sop it up with a biscuit."
Enough already. They'll just have to get by without my help. But I will mention one thing about a trend I've noticed in the regular game telecasts, something that was just raising its head last season but now seems to be spawning: Talking through live action. Failing to describe or even notice it. Talking through a referee's announcement of a penalty, even though it might be important to the game. They just turn down the ref's volume, so that, if I hold my ear next to the speaker, I might get a faint murmur, without really catching the words.
All at the expense of ... what? Story lines. Themes. Informal essays. Anything but honest reporting and a real interest in the panorama that unfolds on the field. The broadcast teams the network consider top of the line are most guilty of this. The guys lower down in the lineup usually keep their ego in check while letting the game dictate the commentary. That is why they are rated higher on my humble chart.
One note -- when I use a single example, it is not just nit-picking. It's something selected as an indicator of the commentator's general style, of more of the same. A few teams will not be listed, and I'm sorry for this but I just didn't get enough looks.
Ron Pitts and Tim Ryan, FOX -- Week 13, Carolina at New Orleans. From Ryan: "Watch Aaron Brooks. He'll usually make his bad decisions the play after a dropped pass -- and there are lots of drops ..." Ryan again: "BrentsonBuckner is reading the center, Bentley. When he drops his rear end, that's when Buckner goes." I smell film study here. Lots of it. These guys pick up things on the first look, not after they've gone to commercial, and the replay has made it easy for them. The Saints' Will Smith gets a sack on a perfect spin move, and both Ryan, a former defensive lineman, and Pitts, a rare back who understands line play, were on it immediately. "The whole key is to spin and not lose ground ... a lot of them spin and stay in place," Ryan says. "And spin too early," Pitts adds. Do you think all those former QBs and WRs in other booths understand this? Or even care? Not hardly. I like the clear-eyed, non-promotional way Pitts and Ryan approach their job. Muhsin Muhammad is having a big day for the Panthers. Is Pitts gushing about it, as so many of them do? Not likely. "Well, he's in his contract year," he says. My kind of announcing, folks. Maybe you'd like a Phil Simms story line, or CrisCollinsworth telling you something's "inexcusible," for about the 20th time. Or John Madden and Al Michaels discussing next year's draft, during the live action, but not me. One more thing and then I'll move on. There's a nice, understated sense of humor at work. Ryan, watching a missed tackle in the 49ers-Seahawks game in Week 3, notes, "Coaches always tell you to watch the belt buckle, when you want to tackle a guy. Well, it never worked for me." "Never worked for me, either," Pitts says. Me either.
Ian Eagle and Solomon Wilcots, CBS -- It's the third four-star year for this pair. Generally a good, honest job. Coverages precisely broken down by Wilcots, a former DB. Play by play and the little things only I find important, such as down and distance, accurately presented by Eagle. One jarring note, though. In their Bengals-Redskins telecast I was hearing the names of players who weren't on the field. There was some kind of breakdown. I don't know how high they are on the CBS food chain, fourth string, maybe? Fifth string? Usually as you descend, you get spotters who aren't always on top of their game, production people who might not be as sharp as the guys on the top team. I'm willing to give Eagle and Wilcots the benefit of the doubt because I like them and the way they approach the game.
Kenny Albert and Brian Baldinger, FOX -- My charts' best friend, that's Kenny. Meticulous about spotting the ball correctly. Good on the identifications. Just looked at my notes from last year's column, and I'd found him deficient in both regards. Sure has improved this season. Baldy works hard at his job, watches a lot of film. Did a terrific job on Giants-Cardinals, pointing out that the Cardinals defensive coaches had a perfect read on what the Giants were doing, always a jump ahead. Baldy described how they were catching them max-protecting when they were rushing only three themselves, and the opposite as well, sending in the rushers when the Giants were caught short on protectors. Really brought the cat-and-mouse game into focus and made it a pleasure to watch.
THREE AND 1/2
Kevin Harlan and Randy Cross, CBS -- Up from last year's two and a half. One of the few teams that got a raise on the Z-meter this year, basically because Cross has dropped his cute approach that bothered me for so many years and has decided to take a really good look at what's happening out there. I also liked his observation in the San Diego-KC game in Week 12, matching the the two best tight ends in the game, Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez. Did he get all gushy about this pair? He did not. He mentioned that it really bugged him that two receivers of this caliber could come off the line totally unmolested and allowed to waltz into the secondary free as birds. Harlan is my favorite play-by-play guy because he seems to feel it's his duty to describe the substitutions of personnel in the different packages. If this were England, I'd make he sure he was knighted for this because it just makes my job so much easier, and so few of them do it. Harlan will also, on occasion, actually try to tell you who made the good defensive plays on special teams, even blocks, and practically none of the other network voices bother with this.
Sam Rosen and Bill Maas, Fox -- Rosen is the other guy who will give you a good reading on the players who are out there, instead of blindly going with the original graphic, which is usually wrong. I wish he were better at spotting the ball, but you can't have everything. Very early in the Giants-Redskins game in Week 13 Maas told us that the Skins had a perfect read on everything the Giants were doing, and it sure held up. Next day the New York papers were full of quotes from Giant players, even coach TomCoughlin, about how Washington defensive coach Gregg Williams really had a jump on them. Some days aren't so good, such as the 49ers-Jets game, in which Maas and Rosen blew the whole bit about Jets' defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson getting so upset that he left the booth and invaded the sideline. Generally, though, this is an honest announcing team, and the guys work hard, but Bill, I tell you this as a friend. You must try to cut down on the Leo Gorcey-style malaprops. "It's time to button down the hatches ... The Carolina defense is starting to wilter a bit," etc.
This is the border between good and not so good, and usually it's a crowded position, but this year there are none, zip, nada. Maybe it's because in my old age I'm starting to see things with less tolerance, more starkly.
TWO AND 1/2
Joe Buck, Cris Collinsworth, Troy Aikman, FOX -- I had been tracking a more or less gradual rise for Fox's No. 1 team, but now it drops from last year. Well, Buck, for one thing doesn't care about down and distance or accuracy in his play by play, or even mentioning who makes the tackle. Often I had to run the tape back, even after I'd seen the game, to find out what the defense was doing, because they cut away from the play so quickly without adequate explanation. Add to that the fact that nobody in the booth seems to know or care a hoot about line play. And add to that the fact that early in the season, they were just talking over the live action at times and not even describing it, which represents some real arrogance. Thankfully that was corrected, but in its place was an occasional look through a weird camera they bragged about that brought you the game from a ground-level view -- way behind the action, as if you were seeing things from the worst seat in the house, row one, end zone. All this did was give me a headache, but not as bad as another gimmick they went with at the end of the season -- picking up the kickoff in progress, so poor old Z could not record his hang time.
So why aren't they even lower? Because these are bright guys who are OK when they're in their province, which is the passing game, and I had them at three stars, right until the Minnesota-Green Bay wild-card contest. That one dropped 'em. Brett Favre apologists abound, but when the guy screws it up, for God's sake say it, don't cop out every time. No interception was his fault; it was always the guy running the pattern. How about the one where he overthrew Javon Walker, and Collinsworth said Walker had screwed it up because he was supposed to run a flat pattern instead of going downfield? Uh, if Favre were expecting him to run to the flat, instead of downfield, he would have underthrown the ball, not overthrown it. And then when Favre pulled that weirdie at the end of the half, near the Vikings goal line, running three yards past the line and underhanding it to Walker in the end zone ... and drawing a penalty...and then laughing about it. We heard this from Collinsworth: "The funniest part was Walt Anderson, the referee, could barely make the call without laughing." Hey, I watched Anderson, too, and I didn't see the hint of a smile. And the guys on the Packers weren't laughing after Ryan Longwell missed the subsequent field goal. This is what is known as dishonest reporting. But when Randy Moss caught the fourth-quarter TD and treated the Packer crowd to a dry moon that lasted exactly one second, that's all, we had to listen to this blather from Buck, who got his panties all in a knot: "That is a disgusting act by Randy Moss and it's unfortunate that we had that on our air live." Well, if no one would get to see it, then how could you get anyone to agree with you, Joe Baby? But the thinking of a guy like this extends only so far.
Dick Stockton and Daryl Johnston, FOX -- Another twosome that's dropped half a star, and I hate to do it, because they're good guys, just as Aikman is. First the good: Giants-Dallas, Week 5, alert work at times, especially by the Moose, pointing out things like DBs slipping on their coverage, etc. The bad -- Stockton is generally off on spotting the ball, once as much as five yards. Everything came up late in Chicago-Giants, Week 9 -- the calls, the recognition of the penalty flags. One time a full minute actually went by before they picked up on the fact that the play had been wiped out. "How do you know it was a full minute?" the Flaming Redhead asked me. Because I timed it, that's how. "Oh my God, are you one of those nerdy people who sits there with a stopwatch, timing everything?" Yes I am. That's me. I owe it to my readers, to my conscience. The point is that this twosome had moments in which they were so busy making a point that they lost track of the action. Worse is the way they push the super-stars. Giants-Dallas again, this time the dark side. Roy Williams delivers a cheap shot to AmaniToomer's back. They're all raving about Williams. Another Ronnie Lott, etc. "He's really something," TonySiragusa says from the field. Next play Toomer gets even. He cuts Williams, takes him off his feet, as Tiki Barber goes 55 yards on a screen pass. "His man vacated the area," Johnston says, without mentioning that said man was the great Williams, the second coming of Ronnie Lott.
Dick Enberg and Dan Dierdorf, CBS -- First the good. Jaguars-Colts, Week 7. On top of their game. Caught controversial plays early, such as a reversal when Marvin Harrison was ruled to have touched the end line on a touchdown. Really terrific camera work, too, which made it possible to nail the Harrison play. Plus an obscure one: TarikGlenn's behind knocking the ball loose from DallasClark. Now the bad. Miami at New England. Pushed the stars, lost interest in the game early. Jets-Buffalo, Week 9. Wondered why Chad Pennington was lifted. Never found out that his shoulder was hurt. Where's their sideline guy, Armen Keteyian? Jets-St. Louis: Winning TD came when Jets nickel back Terrell Buckley ran into one of his own linebackers. TV crew never saw it. My theory is, if I can see it, why can't the guys at the game pick it up? They just don't see things they should.
Curt Menefee and Tim Green, FOX-- I've actually raised this team a whole star from last year's dismal one and a half because Green, a former DE, is one of the few analysts who knows what's happening up front. And he's gotten away from that inspirational lecture circuit of his. But someone's feeding these guys bad information. Seahawks-Bucs game: "The first first down for Tampa Bay," Menefee says, "and here we are almost through the second quarter." No, friend. It was their sixth. Then there are misidentifications of who's really doing what, based, I guess, on wrong information from the spotters. And finally this one, which didn't affect their rating, only my sanity: Seahawks-Bucs again. From Green, talking about wideout Koren Robinson: "Dropped three passes last week ... a bit of a snide to get out from under." Tim, I know you were an English major at Syracuse and a very bright student, but maybe you ought to read a little Isaac Bashevis Singer. Some of us take it very seriously when we hear a schneid refered to as, ugh, a snide.
Gus Johnson and Brent Jones, CBS -- I've got nothing against this twosome, which I seem to have locked into the two/two-and-a-half level for as long as I can remember. Enthusiastic, yes, and I think they try to do an honest job, but I don't get the feeling they're really on top of things. KC-Tampa Bay. The graphic hasn't listed Jared Allen as a starter at RDE for the Chiefs, even though this is his third week starting, and he broke in with a bang, getting two sacks in his first week with the No. 1 unit and has really become a force. So they just ride with it, never offering a correction. Yeah, I know, a minor fault, but stuff like that just doesn't sit right.
Don Criqui and Steve Tasker, CBS -- Things are falling apart here. Players are misidentified, wrong ball carriers are named, and then a point is made about them. First Indy-Jacksonville game, technical stuff has broken down as well. They go to a commercial, for instance, without telling you a timeout has been called, or by whom. The spotters seem to be asleep. Coverages, double coverages, are not accurately described. Criqui mentions how punter Hunter Smith, "places it beautifully," when it actually comes down on the numbers. Neither one of them has a whiff of what line play is all about. Why not a lower ranking? Because most of the time it isn't this bad, and they're both honest workers.
Dr. Z will answer select user questions each week in his NFL mailbag.
Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, CBS -- They've come up half a star because Jim Nantz replaced Greg Gumbel. And the way Nantz started the season, I told myself, Wow, this is the year the network's No. 1 team finally gets out of jail and onto terra dolce. I mean, Nantz was actually telling you about good blocks in the line, and doing it fairly accurately. But the brass soon put a stop to that nonsense. Story line. Stars. That's what we want here.
Simms wrote a book in which he laid some heavy lumber on fellow members of his profession. Physician, heal thyself. I have half a page of his howlers, but I'll give you only a few. Pittsburgh-Dallas, Week 6: "You need a featured running back if you want to have success running the football." Patriots-Jets, Week 7: "If you want to be really good stopping the run, you need run stoppers inside." Patriots-Steelers, Week 8: "Looks like the football might have touched the top of theground." (You mean it hadn't yet entered the cave?) Indy-Detroit, Thanksgiving Day, describing the harmony among the Colts receivers and their QB: "They have no egos. You don't hear of any squabbles." And this was not so long after that well-exposed sideline shot of Reggie Wayne shoving Peyton Manning. In Phil's defense, when he's really keyed up for a game, he can impart that sense of enthusiasm and excitement. But accuracy is not his long suit.
ONE AND 1/2
Al Michaels and John Madden, ABC -- Now I could be way off, but here's what I think is happening, why a successful three-and-a-half star rating last season has fallen so far. I think there's a huge resentment at the network against the NFL and the doggy games the league has provided this season. ABC has taken a hard pro-choice stance -- when it comes to the schedule, it wants flexibility. Consequently, somehow Madden and Michaels have been steered toward getting off the game action quickly and turning to events of the day or problems of the league, or farm prices in Argentina, or something. I cannot believe that on their own they would show such a lack of interest in the action on the field when the spread reaches 10 points or so, no matter how early in the contest. I think there's bad stuff coming in through their head sets. And that's also why they let Michele Tafoya run her sideline stuff, interviews or whatever, right through the live action, sometimes totally obliterating a play or two or three, which are never followed up. And a game that looks shaky from the start? Forget it.
Case in point, New England at Miami on December 20. So we get the usual Patriots puff pieces, on Brady and the Belichick defense, etc., and it's like the Dolphins are not even on the field, except for a brief mention of Jason Taylor. But guess what, the Dolphins are actually in it, and in the fourth quarter they're within one score, and they've got the ball. But Madden and Michaels have kissed off the game long before this, and they're talking about Charlie Weis going to Notre Dame, and then prospects in general for the Irish and to dress this up we're hearing the Notre Dame victory march on the sound track. This is while Miami is driving, mind you. So then it gets real tight, and Madden and Michaels are dragged back into it, almost reluctantly, but they haven't really been paying attention, you see, so all they can offer is a cursory description without any real analysis. Which was why the key play of the game was totally blown, when Brady's last pass was intercepted by safety Arturo Freeman, which turned out the lights. Earlier in the game, the Dolphins ran a successful tandem blitz, two linebackers coming up the pipe, forcing Brady into an errant throw. On the last pick, Miami ran the same blitz, with the second guy, Morlon Greenwood, hitting Brady just as he delivered the ball. The Patriots were very sloppy in their blitz pick up, both times, and a point could have been made here, about maybe Weis' split duties causing a decrease in the offensive efficiency. I had seen what had happened, so I waited for the official explanation from the booth. It never came. They went to commercial, which is when they find out what happened, if they missed it the first time. When they came out of it and showed the replay, Madden mumbled something about how "the safety was playing back." Gosh, John, that's why they call them safeties. Not a word about what really had happened. Nope, it just won't do, even though millions of viewers out there love the shtick and the horse trailer and all that crap. I don't and this is my toy.
Thom Brennaman and JC Pearson, FOX-- Sorry, but I didn't catch them often enough, But what I did see was a team whose interest started waning in the late going. This was during Tampa Bay-San Diego, and fellas, this just shouldn't happen. You're young and you should be full of spirit. Please show the necessary enthusiasm in the future.
Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann and Paul Maguire, ESPN -- How is it earthly possible to drop from half a star to none? Easy. They used to provide a teeny weeny bit of information. Now they provide none. And they contradict themselves, often from one series to the next. I don't think they're really fully aware of what they're saying. Theismann in the early KC-Denver game: "The single most classic rivalry in TV." Hmmm. Does Chicago still play Green Bay? Maguire on Cleveland-Baltimore, Week 9: "Jamal Lewis averages six yards a carry. All you have to do is keep giving it to him, and you'll keep getting in second-and-four situations." My God! Brian Billick must be told immediately! Theismann, Bills-Patriots, Week 10, after Brady throws a pick: "You've got to figure the receiver went where he shouldn't." Absolutely. Great QBs never throw interceptions on their own. And through all this, the slow, half goofy drone of Patrick, with every word emphasized, no matter how meaningless. "And tonight! We have sixty-three! Thousand! Fans!" (Whew). Oh, we get some inside stuff all right. Theismann on his exclusive interview with Pittsburgh defensive coach Dick LeBeau during the Steelers-Jaguars telecast: "I saw Dick LeBeau before the game, and I told him, 'Nice to have you back,' and do you know what he told me?" No, what? "Nice to be back." And of course, there's Suzy Kolber and her sideline essays that run right through the live action, and finally, some serious pregame handicapping -- again from Theismann. This was before the contest in which Oakland upset the Broncos: "They can just forget about throwing the ball to Jerry Porter when ChampBailey's on him. There's no place to get the ball in." That was the game in which Porter caught touchdowns off Bailey for 42 and 14 yards, plus another 52-yarder off him. But so what? Who remembers what is said? Who cares? Me, your faithful narrator, your TV guide.
Spiro Dedas and Erik Kramer, FOX -- I caught them on one game, Seattle-Arizona in Week 7, and I think that's the only one they worked. I couldn't find them anywhere else. Dedas is a young guy just getting his feet wet in football. Kramer, the former Lions and Bears QB, was surprisingly perceptive, especially when he was explaining coverages. Very helpful to me, because it's the one area that's severely limited by the boundaries of the TV screen. Kramer was not above the occasional rip, either, when he saw something he didn't like. Glad to have you aboard, fellas.
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.