TV Grades: Nantz, Cowher enhance CBS's grades with Super Bowl XLIV
'The NFL Today' pregame show was safe, smartly produced and straightforward
CBS erred by not asking follow-up questions after running long-form features
Phil Simms backtracked on some comments but rebounded in the second half
The only grade that matters to CBS comes Monday when the initial ratings go public. (Expect the overnights to be huge.) But since we had to sit through an all-day orgy of live Super Bowl coverage from Miami (2:01 -- 10:10 p.m.), let's mark the people who brought you Super Bowl XLIV:
The pregame was what we've come to expect from The NFL Today: Safe, smartly produced and occasionally nonsensical. It took "24 whole minutes for the hosts to mention Brett Favre and speculate whether he'll be back next season," noted the Canadian publication Macleans, so at least that got out of the way early. For the most part, the pregame focused on football-related stories and mixed in musical acts (Daughtry, Wynton Marsalis and Steve Winwood), as well as a live interview with President Barack Obama.
The highlights and not-so-highlights: Last week, analyst Bill Cowher told SI's Peter King that his jailhouse interview with former Steeler and Giant Plaxico Burress was the first time he had ever conducted a media interview. Not surprisingly, the former coach was more advocate than interviewer in his debut, but the Burress get was big news, and the footage was compelling to watch, thanks to producer Charlie Bloom.
The James Brown-fronted feature on post-Katrina New Orleans thoughtfully highlighted the linkage between the Saints and the healing of the community. Such linkage (if you buy into the idea that a pro football team can help heal a community) is impossible to report in a five-minute television segment, but most appreciative was producer Joe Zappulla giving voices to those citizens in the Lower Ninth Ward -- people not often seen or heard on network television. The New York Times called Marsalis's tribute to New Orleans and the Saints "perhaps the best musical segment ever shown on a Super Bowl pregame program." Agreed. The Jay-Z mashup to lead into the Kickoff Show was also killer.
This season, pregame shows fell in love with placing their analysts on a football field, but at least CBS brought Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald and Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis to add authenticity for the segment. (By the way, how great was it that Revis deflected a pass during a segment explaining how Peyton Manning play-fakes?) Katie Couric had a strong, substantive interview with Obama, though there were many on Twitter upset about the dollop of politics during a football holiday. Plenty of people will no doubt whack CBS for the over-promotion of products (Ritz, Pizza Hut etc.), but that's what pays the bills. Invariably, a Super Bowl pregame show comes to resemble the side of a stock car at Daytona.
The not-so-highlights: After a fired-up Cowher screamed about special teams play and mistook Saints kick returner Courtney Roby for Reggie Roby (famed Dolphins punter Reggie Roby retired in 1998 and, sadly, passed in 2005), Brown declared, "Coach will be back on the sideline next year, there is no question about that!" But Brown did not follow up with a question for Cowher. (Then again, when fans wanted information about Cowher's coaching future this season, they simply turned to ESPN's Adam Schefter or Fox's Jay Glazer because that's where they found it, as opposed to CBS.)
Could Colts fans argue they were given short shrift in the pregame? Yep. But the Saints and the city of New Orleans offered producers an endless amount of angles and you can understand the heavy doses of Saints-related content given the Katrina angle. Couric's feature on Drew Brees started strong before quickly heading down Maudlin Avenue by the segment's end. It also featured one of the alltime Q's in pregame history ("Did you help save New Orleans, or did New Orleans help save you?").
Cowher was emphatic that the kicking edge would go to Colts kicker Matt Stover over Garrett Hartley, who ended up setting a Super Bowl record with three field goals of more than 40 yards.
In the end, the pregame show gets docked a half-grade for Brown not asking Cowher about his coaching future, and another half for Boomer Esiason channeling his inner-Sonny Crockett by wearing sunglasses during the outdoor football segment. Grade: B+
Phil Simms had a remarkable season when it came to press coverage. An analyst with an already-excellent reputation, Simms has been the subject of swooning coverage of late, especially among those critics in the important New York market. On a conference call prior to the game, Jim Nantz channeled some of that goodwill when asked how he felt about his partnership with Simms this season. "I feel so good about where we are as a team," Nantz said. "I know people think of us as two guys in the booth, but it really widens out well beyond that. Everything we do revolves around a base group of four (Nantz, Simms, coordinating producer Lance Barrow and director Mike Arnold) and tentacles well beyond that. I feel so good about the vibe I'm getting from people about our team."
Simms is too prepared to ever have a really poor game, but this wasn't his best effort. On the second play from scrimmage, Simms made a note of Dwight Freeney's mobility. "You can tell right away that ankle is definitely a problem," Simms said. Indeed, it was a big problem for the Saints in the first half.
Given how much we heard about Freeney before the game, CBS curiously did not focus on him again until he sacked Brees on 3rd-and-3 with 10:09 left in the second quarter. But here was a strange moment from Simms: On the defining play of the first half -- the Colts stopping Pierre Thomas on a 4th-and-goal from the 1 -- Simms curiously described it as "a clever play call" by Saints coach Sean Payton. "I expected them to throw it to the multiple receiver side," said Simms, which would seemingly classify as more a clever play call than the one attempted by Payton.
Simms was better in the second half, and noticed early that Freeney's ankle started to bother him. He also recognized quickly that Reggie Wayne had one-on-one coverage on a huge fourth-down conversion by the Colts with 12:56 in the game, giving viewers the cool fact that Indy had 10 ballboys trying to break in 180 new footballs for Manning. While you needed a NASA engineer to explain what Simms was talking about on the two-point conversion by Lance Moore with less than six minutes left, I liked that Simms admitted he got word on a rules clarification during the break.
But on the play of the game -- Tracy Porter's game-clinching interception for a touchdown with 3:24 left -- Simms missed badly, suggesting the Saints should not blitz on the play and put extra guys in coverage. He then admitted that he was wrong, which is nice, but seemed to contradict himself afterward. Said Simms: "Well, you know, Jim, I was telling the Saints not to blitz, but when moments are crucial in the game, you go with what you do."
Nantz was excellent throughout the broadcast, always letting the action tell the story. He noticed Marques Colston was unattended as the Saints were on the Colts' 30 late in the second quarter and the result was a big 27-yard play. ("Colston in the slot. Left unattended. And there he is! And there's Colston breaking a tackle and down to the 3! There's a mixup on the Colts defense. He was just off on a wing to the right and nobody was on him.") Nantz's call on Thomas' third quarter touchdown was terrific as was his description on Manning's oh-my-God completion to tight end Dallas Clark midway through the third quarter.
Solomon Wilcots had an excellent game from the sideline. He reported cornerback Usama Young was covering Pierre Garcon on the Colts' first touchdown because Saints cornerback Jabari Greer suffered a leg injury. He also reported Greer did not want his medical staff to look at him -- great stuff. Steve Tasker, assigned to the Colts, smartly said in the pregame that the field was a "dry, fast track that would be great for a speed rusher like Freeney." He also noted that Freeney had his ankle taped twice in the second half. CBS no longer uses sideline reporters for its coverage, but because of the size of the telecast, the network wanted the security of having people on the field. Wise move. "Normally, I look at the sideline reporters as more intrusive and if you have sideline reporters there is a tendency to want to get them into the broadcast," said CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus. "I think that often takes away from guys from the booth."
The camera work by Arnold's crew on the two-point conversion and throughout the game was exceptional, and kudos to the director for avoiding a shot of Kim Kardashian after Bush's first-quarter reception. But there was one huge oversight: How could CBS not cut to a shot of New Orleans after Porter's pick? As NBC News's Luke Russert tweeted, speaking for millions: CBS...CUT TO BOURBON ST!" They finally did as the confetti fell from the Sun Life Stadium sky, but too late for many. Grades: Nantz: A-, Simms: B-
Cowher nailed it at halftime on Freeney ("A long halftime, does that ankle stiffen up because he came out hot in the first half?") and foreshadowed the onside kick call by Payton, as he also did during the pregame ("You have to take the chances; you're the underdog coming in."). Esiason said he was wrong about Freeney ("He has been all over the place"), something it would have been nice to hear from Simms during the first half. No doubt fans of The Who enjoyed halftime. The best line I saw arguing otherwise was from comedian Kevin Nealon, who tweeted: "'The Who' should call themselves 'The Was.'" Grade: A- (for studio guys only; I'm no music critic)
Impartiality be dammed: Cowher (who picked the Saints) becomes the first analyst in the history of sports television to broadcast wearing Mardi Gras beads. As Shannon Sharpe manically yapped about something, viewers saw a great shot of a teary-eyed Brees holding his young son, Baylen. Unlike Fox Sports' Chris (Jeets) Rose, Nantz did not get cute on the podium with the winning team. He asked owner Tom Benson what the championship meant to the city and Payton about his gutsy calls in the second half. Said Payton: "Everybody back in New Orleans gets a piece of this trophy ... and I want to hand this Super Bowl to the MVP of our league." He then gave it to Brees. Grade: A- ... Overall Grade: B+