Dr. Z will answer select user questions each week in his NFL mailbag.
Preventing, uh, presenting my Something Annual (what is it, Andrew?) my Eighth Annual TV Commentator Awards. And as a departure from my usually miserable demeanor as I rage through this lineup, let me mention a welcome trend this year.
Someone seems to have gotten the word out that when there's a game on, it's supposed to be announced. Thus there were no more of those Suzy Kolber sideline interviews, or at least very few of them, that ran right over the live action. Even John Madden and Al Michaels seem to have been brought to heel, although I did catch Michaels remark grumpily one time, in the midst of a dull contest, "We've been told not to miss a play." I don't know ... maybe it was blind luck or something ... but I, for one, welcome the change and prefer play-by-play to yack yack.
In case you're not familiar with this forum, let me mention briefly how I arrive at my rankings. I'm tougher on a network's No. 1 team, because it's supposed to be better and it has more going for it, such as better production facilities.
I'm big on accuracy, which gets far more points than a few one-liners -- you know, the kind of things that are highlighted in the TV columns in USA Today.
I'll put a bad mark next to a commentator if I hear, "Well, we haven't mentioned his name," usually referring to a defensive player. To me this is the mark of the idiot announcer. What he means is, the spotter hasn't mentioned his name because spotters usually are very big on calling out the guy on top of the pile, or a super star who happens to be in the neighborhood, rather than the true architect of a defensive success.
More prestigious crews would, I assume, have better spotters, although it doesn't always work out that way. And when, ssshhh, a blocker is mentioned, it's usually because the analyst himself picked him out of the swirl. Spotters will highlight the fellas who pull out and lead a play, looking nice and regimental in their uniforms, whether or not they make a block. And as for the almost impossible task of identifying blockers on long kick or punt returns, I only know one announcer who does it ... he always has ... and that's Ron Pitts, and that's another reason why I ranked his team number one. There, I've given it away.
Here, then, are my rankings. Play-by-play men listed first, then the analysts.
None, just like last year and the year before and the year before.
Ron Pitts and Tim Ryan, FOX -- Defending champs, and this was in spite of not having the best of production crews to work with. I'm referring to the midseason Packers-Bears game I watched in which the camera kept missing things and losing plays. Nevertheless, Ryan and Pittsie soldiered on, doing their usual smooth and informative job. You want some examples? Sure.
Carolina vs. Detroit. "The Lions are sliding their protection to the Panthers' right side," Ryan said, "so Carolina stunted back left [and got serious pressure]. Great call by defensive coach Mike Trgovac." Too technical for you? Probably, because few announcers can even spot something like this. OK, let's take it down a notch.
This was after Mike Rucker had beaten Lions' tackle Jeff Backus on a bull rush: "Watch Backus' aiming point," Ryan said. "It was wrong. That's why he didn't pick up the rush."
Pitts and Ryan make their calls quickly, not after they've had a chance to watch the replay.
"Why didn't he have help inside on that pattern?" Ryan said. "Because the other receiver ran 'em all off."
Pitts, at the beginning of a drive: "It's guys like Ricky Proehl who beat people in this situation," and Proehl proceeded to beat people for a decent gain.
Pitts always tries to highlight special teams blockers, probably because he was one himself. I've also always liked his non-straining sense of humor. "Now they're into their flop-ball," he said at the end of one game, as the kneels started.
Kenny Albert and Brian Baldinger, FOX -- I can always relax and enjoy my charting when this pair is working a game because I know Albert will spot the ball correctly and quickly (you'd be surprised how many play-by-play guys can't handle this seemingly simple task) and Baldy will not let his ego get in the way of his work, which is always fair and accurate. Best of all, he won't start wringing his hands and apologizing if a game is low scoring, as if the network is somehow cheating the fans. In fact, I think he actually prefers low-scoring games, as I do, because the line play is more meaningful, and that's his area of expertise. Matt Millen and the younger John Madden also did their best work in low-scoring contests.
Kevin Harlan and Randy Cross, CBS -- An unheard of star-and-a-half jump in the last two seasons for this duo. Harlan ranks with FOX's Sam Rosen as my favorite play-by-play men because someone, once upon a time, seems to have convinced both of them that it's helpful for viewers to know what players are on the field. Thus, they'll let you know who replaces whom, in a nickel or dime package, which third wideout is on the field, which nickel or dime defender. Hey, guys, I know the production people are just itching to tell you to cut out this nonsense and start plugging the super-stars, but just remember that you've got a loyal friend here. Don't give in!
Cross will nail an interesting development, right away, such as K.C. substituting a linebacker for a corner back and switching to a 4-4 against the Chargers in December. He's very good, picking things out on his first look, and he's also toned down the heehaw stuff from his early years and developed a wry and slightly caustic wit that hits home. Thus this twosome now occupies the network's top spot on my sheet.
Al Michaels and John Madden, ABC (when doing an important game) -- I can't help it, I've got to give them two grades, because they change radically according to the significance of the contest. You won't know the second grade for a while unless you peek and drop down in the chart -- way down. The noise, the excitement, the presentation, the extra cameras and better views -- yes, it works on me, too, imparting the feeling that I'm going to watch something special, especially if it's a big game. Madden gets up for nights like this, too. Coaches tell him things they don't give to other announcers. He'll start watching the line, just as he used to once upon a time. He'll be on top of things. It's a good show.
Ian Eagle and Solomon Wilcots, CBS -- Wilcots is the best in the business at telling you what's going on in the secondary, breaking down coverages, etc. Both of them are dedicated to giving full credit to people who perform the mundane tasks, such as drive blocking and holding point at the nose position. A slight warning, though. Fellas, you've got to be just a little more accurate in identifying blockers and defensive stalwarts. I don't have the heart to remove half a star or so for this because your sentiments are so obviously in the right place, but, hey, a friendly warning has been issued.