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TV Commentator Rankings (cont.)

Posted: Thursday February 7, 2008 12:25PM; Updated: Thursday February 7, 2008 10:19PM
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In his second season working games for the NFL Network, Cris Collinsworth saved his best analytical work for the biggest games.
In his second season working games for the NFL Network, Cris Collinsworth saved his best analytical work for the biggest games.
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Collinsworth impressed me last year with his attempt to get into a bit of the line play. This season, it became an afterthought. And one test, at least for me, is whether or not the team can carry on with some semblance of coherence when the game is either meaningless or a blowout. Both Cris and Gumbel flunked on that score when they ditched Colts-Falcons early and went through stretches when they failed to announce whole series. Even ESPN, during one of those maddening guest-in-the-booth horror shows, wasn't as bad. But when he's into a big game, Collinsworth can present a clear overview, which is almost like damning with faint praise.

Hammond, a smooth old pro, filled in when Gumbel went on injured reserve for a Houston-Denver Thursday nighter. Comfortable to listen to, with very little insight provided, but then again, we shouldn't expect that from a play-by-play man. OK, I'll tell you the best thing about the league's network. They give us the national anthems, a great upper for an eccentric such as myself, who times them all.

Dick Stockton and Brian Baldinger, Fox
Down a star from last year. Baldy used to be one of the best, but he has come down with a severe case of talkitis. It's tough to shut him up, and working with one of the most modest and polite people in the business only spurs him on. Which wouldn't be so bad, except that stuff gets missed. Minnesota-Green Bay in Week 10 -- can't run the middle because the Vikes' two DT's are so good, sez BB. But Green Bay is doing just that and both Williamses are getting blocked. And then the Packers load up in their full house, with two fullbacks, and pick up seven, but there's no mention of this because our man just isn't paying attention. Ruvell Martin beats rookie corner Marcus McCauley for 25. "Found the soft spot in the zone," Baldy tells us. Uh, no, Favre was just working on a weak sister, who got killed, once again, in man coverage. The sad thing is that Baldinger is one of the most knowledgeable and insightful people in the business, when he's on his game and especially when he's telling us what happened up front. But less of the yack yack, please, and more attention paid.

Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon, CBS
I'll say it again. Any game Harlan works will get a good grade because he and Rosen are my favorite play-by-play guys. Remember in the old movie, Gunga Din, when the guru is getting the Thuggee insurrection going, and Sam Jaffe tells Cary Grant, "The Colonel's got to know?" Well, that's the theme of Rosen and Harlan: "The viewers have to know," and so they tell us who's on the field and who comes in for whom in the various packages, and proper down and distance and everything else that makes watching a game so comfortable. But I've written this every year. Gannon is good when he discusses pass patterns and quarterbacking, but please, lighten up on those pronouncements. "This game will be won in the trenches." ... "You can't begin a drive with a sack because it puts you in a tough spot, down and distance." ... "This is a tough spot to be in" (Titans down, 28-13, with 4:47 left).

2½ STARS

Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf, CBS
One Sunday, after watching tapes all morning, I tuned in to this team doing San Diego-Tennessee, and I got this strange feeling listening to Big Dan, a sense of actual warmth, like meeting an old friend. It was an odd occurrence, indeed, for a grump such as myself, but then Gumbel came on and my usual sour nature was restored. Dan seemed to be more jolly this season, more comfortable, but his partner had regressed. He will neglect plays completely, every now and then, which I've always felt is the ultimate insult to the contest you're covering. And he's one of the leading practitioners of the "He's got to get untracked," school of broadcasting, which, of course, is pure nonsense. Untracked ... off the track ... right? So I raised them half a star from last year's miserly deuce, but that's as far as I can go.

Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, CBS
Well, Phil used to be a friend, but I'm sure he thinks I'm the worst kind of traitor during the past few years because, as his star had risen to the top of the network's roster, his ability to tell me stuff I don't know has not progressed. Which is a long way of saying that, whereas he'll provide a good sense of excitement when he's doing a significant game, he has fallen into cliché patterns that don't help.

The worst is the search for the eternal "story line," a favorite device of production people but something I've always felt is a deadly trap. "Here's the story line," we hear at the top of the show, or "among the many story lines," etc. No, the story line is what develops from the game itself, and as an old handicapper, I can tell you that most of the time it differs from preconceived notions. So why bother with it at all? Why get locked into such a static device, instead of merely letting the game take its course?

Because, as Emerson said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and in this case it's the variety we find in the regular production meeting in which the guy at the top rubs his hands and says, "OK, what's the story line tomorrow?" And then when it doesn't work out, which usually is the case, the guys doing the game feel betrayed, and like drowning souls clinging to a life raft, they try to hold onto any remnant of that line that they can find. They are trapped.

And Simms, who is blessed by working with one of the smoothest, most competent play-by-play men in the business, feels compelled to constantly remind us about the things he predicted early in the show and how they're working out, etc., neglecting the stuff that he had wrong. Well, I'm sounding like Johnny One Note here, but it's something that's becoming increasingly irritating. Besides, Phil collects plenty of awards for excellence ... he really doesn't need the poor old Doc to join the line of back-slappers.

One word on Phil's behalf, though. I don't like to see him get cheap-shotted. First week of the season, he's doing Jets-Patriots, Chad Pennington goes down with a sprained ankle on a sack by Jarvis Green. Next day, N.Y. Daily News columnist Bob Raissman, who's always loudest when he's the most wrong, takes a rip at Simms for not mentioning that the departure of guard Pete Kendall caused an inferior guy to man his spot, thereby causing the Pennington injury. Except that Green beat a different guy, LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, not the guard. But why be right when you can be loud?

Ian Eagle and Solomon Wilcots, CBS
Four stars at one time, three last year. Fellas, believe me, I'm in your corner. You're good guys. You've got to take hold of this thing. Houston-KC, very first week of the season. Andre Johnson catches a 77-yard TD pass. Max protection, a one-man pattern. Where was Ty Law? Not a clue.

Ravens-Niners, Week 5. Lots of talk about the ineffectiveness of Frank Gore. Hey, guys, the O-line is getting killed. It's one of the worst in the business. How about a quickie montage of the big guys getting driven into their own backfield? Or even mention of it? And then the way Ray Lewis once again is protected. Gore catches a little swing pass and Ray misses him clean. "Makes one man miss," Eagle tells us. Hey, the man has a name and it's Lewis. You've spent all day puffing the guy, as everyone does, so don't chicken out when it comes to his whiffs. C'mon, Ian. C'mon, Sol. You can do better.

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