The words kept coming back to Dan Dierdorf: " Andre Waters is the cheap-shot artist of the NFL.... This is a guy who goes after people with the intention of hurting them."
Dierdorf, analyst for ABC's Monday Night Football, delivered that opinion of Waters, the Philadelphia strong safety, on Oct. 15, when the Eagles were playing Minnesota in Veterans Stadium. The other day, Dierdorf sat behind the mahogany desk in the library of his house in Town and Country, Mo., near St. Louis, and considered the power of the broadcast word. "I'm uncomfortable with this label of being the tough guy in the booth," he said. "I'm not a gunslinger. But I'm not afraid to voice my opinion, and if you do voice an opinion, you're horribly naive to think everybody out there's going to agree with it. And if you voice that opinion with any degree of strength, I think your opposition will respond in kind.
"Now, ask me if I'm comfortable with that. I'm not. I'm at a real...crossroads here. I don't want to be a gunslinger. I got hired to do Monday Night Football because I achieved a reputation at CBS as a good analyst. I'm not looking for the spotlight."
Has blunt opinion become so foreign to network sports television that Dierdorf should become a story himself for calling the ugly ones as he sees 'em? Even when he is correct? In the days following Dierdorf's comment, Philadelphia newspapers and The National ran stories on it and dirty players in the NFL, and the NFL fined Waters $10,000 for lunging at Minnesota quarterback Rich Gannon's knees in that game.
Dierdorf, who will be doing his second Super Bowl broadcast on Jan. 27, must accept the fact that ABC pays him big bucks (about $1.2 million annually) to give its games a harder edge than those of NBC and CBS. The network sees value in Dierdorf's saying, as he did during a Kansas City—Denver game on Sept. 17: "Elway's job is to win. DeBerg's job is not to lose." And when the Vikings get let down by Herschel Walker, there is value in Dierdorf's comment that "[Walker] has been more of a detriment than anything else."
Even with Dierdorf, a viewer occasionally finds himself saying to the TV set on Monday night, "Go further, say more." When ABC returned to Philadelphia on Nov. 12 for an Eagles-Redskins game, Waters nailed Earnest Byner with an elbow to the head on the first play from scrimmage and got a 15-yard penalty. Dierdorf said nothing. Al Michaels just set the lineups. It was Frank Gifford who pointed out Waters's bad-boy history.
Dierdorf's background leads one to expect more than the drone of stats or the screaming declamations that cascade from the lips of many TV analysts. In 1975, midway through his 13-year career as a tackle for the St. Louis Cardinals, Dierdorf began taking regular shifts on KMOX radio in St. Louis. He paid his dues with talk shows and as a drive-time all-news-program host. In 1984, his first autumn out of the NFL, Dierdorf did radio color commentary for the Cardinals, sharing the booth with Jack Buck. He also was the radio color man for the University of Missouri football games and worked with Dick Stockton, Lindsey Nelson and Jim Kelly on assignments for CBS Radio. He was even the color man for the NHL St. Louis Blues.
In 1985, Terry O'Neil, then executive producer for CBS TV, hired Dierdorf. Eventually, he was partnered with Stockton on the network's No. 2 broadcast team. "But when you're Number 2 at CBS, you really understand what being Number 2 means," Dierdorf says. " John Madden's a young man, and he was younger then." So when ABC called with a job offer, Dierdorf jumped.
Because there are so many nonfootball fans flipping channels on Monday nights, the network doesn't want its analyst to just spit numbers. It wants him to say something that grabs the audience's attention. "It's the legacy of Howard Cosell," Dierdorf says. "He made this the star business it is. He was a perfect match for TV, one of the greatest wordsmiths there ever was." In truth, as much as it pains some people to say it, ABC misses the vintage Cosell.
But Dierdorf is a workable long-term solution. He shows flashes of cleverness: When New York coach Bill Parcells barked at punter Sean Landeta after a poor kick during the Giants- 49ers game on Dec. 3, Dierdorf wondered aloud if the coach had a "personal Landeta" against his punter. There's no question that Dierdorf knows the game, and he is good at analysis—as long as he continues to jab with an occasional critical punch.