Here's an old rule of thumb I just made up: Never write a critical column about NFL announcers when you're in an ugly mood because every little annoyance will be magnified beyond reasonable proportions. Thus, as I spent the last two days going through the notes I meticulously made during the season, all the old resentments came back, the sneers, the head-banging frustrations, the wonderment at how we can stand still for the unbelievable barrage of crapola to which we've been subjected.
"Here's the story line."
"Coach, what did you tell them at halftime?"
"It's time for smashmouth football."
"You've got to win the battle up front."
Each one of these idiotic clichés is a blade under my fingernail, and usually I just shrug and move on; but after many years of this stuff has turned me so bitter that I can hardly live with myself, it's time to take a stand. Thus what you will get is an announcers rating column, the Tenth Annual, I believe, or maybe Tenth Animal, that will make up for a lack of balance by its grossly unfair nature. Sorry, can't help it. This dark mood just won't go away.
None. Last year's only five-star team, ESPN's second unit, was broken up. Dick Vermeil is tending to his beautiful vineyards in Calistoga, Brad Nessler is back in college and Ron Jaworski ... ah, this is a new, corporate, center stage Jaws who makes me want to cry. More about that later. A lot more.
Sam Rosen and Tim Ryan, FoxThis is what I believe. Big guys are better analysts, and Ryan, a former DT, follows in the footsteps of Matt Millen and John Madden. And Tony Boselli, the former Jaguars' tackle, is on Ryan's heels. The reason is that they come in already fully versed in the intricacies of trench warfare, and they set about, seriously and respectfully, learning the pass-catching game, coverages and such. The fancy people, on the other hand, quarterbacks and the like, figure that their knowledge of what the pretty people do is enough, and they make little attempt to learn about the rough stuff. Thus, their work has a hole in it.
How good is Ryan? Well, how many analysts will tell you who the good BLOCKERS are on kickoff returns? Arizona-Washington -- "Watch Lorenzo Alexander reject Jerheme Urban out of the wedge ..." Kaboom! A former superstar is slipping, he'll tell you about it. The Seahawks' Walter Jones gets stuffed by Cleveland's Robaire Smith on a running play: "You wonder about Walter Jones," says Ryan, who, unlike most of his brethren, does not blindly plug the stars. The Browns' line goes unbalanced on a play, he catches it immediately. He and Rosen routinely will call penalties before the flags are dropped. Rosen is meticulous about telling you who's on the field, when a team goes into a different personnel grouping. There are snappers, too. The Saints' Reggie Bush loses ground, trying to put on a fancy move. "Think four and you'll get more," Ryan mutters. In his and Sam's case, four and a half.
Ron Pitts and Tony Boselli, FoxWow, what a terrific rookie season for big Tony. First look -- that's when he'll see the play in its entirety, before he has the luxury of the replay. This, of course, is the test. He'll diagram the line play, as well, swiftly and accurately. Coverages, too. Nothing like young eyes, folks. He'll pick up blitz schemes, he'll rip the stars as well as the ordinary Joes, which is unusual: "Edgerrin James got off the line too quickly," which was why he was stopped. "Ernie Sims came in high on that one," which was why Marcel Shipp got a touchdown over him. "Frank Gore missed the pick-up," which was why the rush forced an incomplete. Seems trivial, but there are guys who will never criticize a big name player. Pittsie, once a five-star Z announcer, has been bouncing around for a while, but he's latched onto a good partner here. They're not perfect. When a big fight broke out in the Bucs-Lions game, they had a hard time sorting out who did what to whom, but it's only their first year of working together.
Al Michaels and John Madden, NBCThe only thing I ever had against this team was that their attention span would occasionally flag if a game were dull, and they'd get away from it and onto topics of the day. Someone must have had a talk with them at NBC because that hasn't seemed to be a problem anymore. And as I've written before about Sunday night's increased technical equipment, it makes for more comfortable watching, all around. John still has the pipelines to feed him the cogent observation, such as noting that "the Patriots' defense is set up not to let you complete passes outside ... you have to go inside." And he can still bring it when the mood seizes him. On the running style of the Jaguars' tiny Maurice Jones-Drew -- "He can run straight up and still get low."
NFL Network crew: Cris Collinsworth, Deion Sanders, Marshall Faulk, Tom Hammond, Bryant GumbelA mixed bag. When Deion and Faulk did Cincinnati-San Francisco in Week 15, I was stunned by their insight. I mean, they were giving us stuff such as: Deion on Chad Johnson -- "Any time Chad's in the slot, he's not going deep." Faulk on Johnson vs. T.O. -- "T.O.'s always looking to score, Chad's looking to fall down, after he runs a slant." I mean it was a clinic, a scouting report. Then I thought it through. This is the league's network. It's in its best interest if its broadcast team remained informed. Either Cincy coach Marvin Lewis briefed the boys on the ins and outs of his personnel, or some scout did, because I just don't believe these two announcers would figure this stuff out on their own. Their stuff only served to render more inane Steve Mariucci's comments that followed, during the break. But if they can provide enlightenment, why knock it, no matter where it comes from.
I've also heard them when their scouting report might not have been as incisive, or maybe they hadn't been paying as close attention to it. Deion made a big point of a delay penalty, coming out of a timeout, in the Steelers-Rams game. No, the penalty was motion. "Just put it up and give your receiver a chance," he advises Big Ben, even though his receiver, Santonio Holmes, was tightly covered. Then a mysterious rip of Rams coach Scott Linehan -- "When all is said and done, Scott, just think about that third and short. He should have gone for it" (It was fourth and six). At other times Deion is just silly, usually when he lets his monumental ego take over.
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, FoxDown 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, CBSI'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).
Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf, CBSOne 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, CBSWell, 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, CBSFour 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.
Dick Enberg and Randy Cross, CBSJets at Baltimore, Week 2. Lots of talk about the Jets' failures against Patriots in Week 1, but not a word about Spygate -- but this was probably under orders and not their fault.
Another round of Plug the Stars. Laveranues Coles drops a ball in the end zone and Chris McAlister gets lauded for his coverage, Jaret Johnson makes two goal-line stops and, of course, they are awarded to Ray Lewis. Enberg actually gave Lewis a tackle when he walked over after the play was finished.
Randy on the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew: "A rolling ball of butcher knives." This one actually made me shout at the TV. The quote is more than 30 years old, and it's Texas coach Darrell Royal talking about Cowboys' free safety Cliff Harris. It refers to a big hitter on defense, for God's sake, not a little running back.
Randy on Cleveland rookie tackle, Joe Thomas: "He just smashes the Jets' defense." This one is just nonsense for dramatic effect because Randy is an ex-lineman and he knows the difference between position blocking, which Thomas does, and real abuse. But for all my whining, he's capable of the occasional gem, which is what's keeping this team afloat.
Jets vs. Tennessee, LB Keith Bulluck comes up with an end zone interception. "During the timeout, he watched who the Jets coaches were talking to on the sideline, and he figured out where the ball would go." Yes! Terrific stuff there. I've always felt you could do a lot better on this chart, Randy, if you just apply yourself.
Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston and Tony Siragusa, FoxThis is a very strange team. I caught them in one terrific game. This was in Week 6, Eagles at Jets, and Matt Vasgersian filled in for Albert, who was up with the No. 1 team, subbing for Joe Buck, who was doing baseball. Actually that's one of the things that made it better for me, because Albert has just about given up on down and distance accuracy or trying to spot defensive plays, which means I have to go back to the tape and catch up on all the stuff I didn't get. So I was glad he was absent.
And the boys were on a roll this time, finding a very clear angle on the game ... Jets were killing the Eagles on cutback running in the first half, but then when Philly adjusted to it, New York still tried to push it and got stopped. And, obviously trying to avoid having Pennington put the ball up, failed when they had no choice. A good, neat little picture, and even Goose, who combines analysis with his sideline job, was on top of it.
I don't want to belabor their failures, incident by incident, in that nasty, nagging way, so I'll summarize. For a guy who did a lot of the down and dirty stuff on the field, Johnston seems more at home talking about coverages, etc., than the real meat-and-potatoes elements of the game. Come on, Moose, find a lineman to talk about every now and then, or one of the tough guys on defense. Presumably that job is left to the Goose, but he has had a strange metamorphosis in his career, from rebel to hack ... or flack ... choose one.
A couple of years ago, I practically cheered when he took a shot at that artificial device of recalling their Saturday night meeting with still another "fine young man," and telling us how swell he was. "Who cares?" Siragusa said, creating a stir on his team. "All it is is politics." Yeah! Wow! I loved it. But obviously someone at Fox did not, because it became apparent that they must have had a heart to heart with the Goose. You like your job here? You play ball, got it?
Thus, we must listen to drivel such as, "Brett Favre, now there's a class act" (Green Bay-St. Louis), or "All those who said Favre should retire are eating their words," and this was in Week 15 already, when the issue had been hashed to death. And then, of course, there was the typical fallback topic for the intellectually deprived -- "What did you tell them at halftime?" This howler came during the Divisional playoffs, Green Bay vs. Seattle. "At halftime," the Goose said, "I asked Mike McCarthy what he told them, and he said, 'We've got to stick together and stay with it.'" Gosh, what insight! His team happened to be leading, 28-17, at the time.
Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, FoxThe biggest problem is that network boss David Hill, in a moment of crowning arrogance, decided to do away with lineups at the beginning of the game. Thus we learned about injuries and unusual substitutions only during the course of the action, if at all. "The announcers will tell you all that in their stand-up," he said, but it didn't happen. So the first part of each contest became a mystery, alleviated slightly during the post-season when he broke down and allowed a brief scrawl at the bottom of the screen.
The problem was especially acute during the telecasts by this No. 1 team because neither Buck nor Aikman is concerned with telling you much about defense, who made the tackle, who forced the play, etc., and the production style is to get off a play so quickly that you can't even see the uniform numbers of the people involved. Thus, it is always with a sinking heart that I approach a game this team is working, if I happen to be especially interested in it.
Aikman is very good in breaking down, right, matters of pass and catch, although he's too nice. Well, what the hell, he always was a nice guy, and I certainly didn't complain when he was playing and he made my job so much easier. But gosh, if I hear him say, "You are exactly right, Joe," one more time, I'm going to find someone innocent to yell at.
Buck? How can he be so knowledgeable about baseball and not about our own sport? Believe me, he wouldn't last, trying to bring the same knowledge to the diamond, where the announcing is on such a higher plane.
I have a whole bunch of platitudes I collected from a season of listening to this team. New England-Dallas contest ("I think that's going to be a heck of a game"). Jerry Glanville ("Quite a character"), and so forth. But why be miserable, just for its own sake? ("Because you're a miserable character to begin with," says the nagging voice, and you can just shaddup, OK?)
Don Criqui or Bill Macatee and Steve Beuerlein, CBSCriqui's an old pro who knows what he's watching and gives you an honest day's work. Beuerlein isn't afraid to be critical. I have trouble with reliance on cliché observations, however, such as, in Tennessee-Jacksonville, Week 1, about how you can't run on the big Jaguars tackles, Stroud and Henderson. Except that the Titans were on their way to 282 yards rushing, and MLB Peterson was getting absolutely murdered because those big tackles couldn't keep anyone off him.
And when Macatee worked the Baltimore-Seattle game with Beuerlein, the nuances of line play were basically lost. Darryl Tapp, having a career game against Jonathan Ogden, puts on a furious rush and beats the big tackle, plus the tight end, Sypniewski, and all we hear is that Peterson, the linebacker, is causing a problem with his blitzes. But you know what it's like when announcers are playing out of position.
A blanket grouping, which I've never done before, but I'm getting tired of leveling the same criticisms at the same people, who are doing the best they can and make some errors, get some things right, don't really tell me anything I don't know. This group includes the following:
J.C. Pearson and either Matt Vasgersian or Matt Devlin, Fox
Gus Johnson and Steve Tasker, CBS
Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Tony Kornheiser, ESPN
I thought that bringing in Jaws for Joe Theismann would change the whole landscape, even one that included the depressing figure of Tony K., but I was wrong. The seeds of hype, of sloppiness and shallow promotion are too deeply sown.
I love Jaworski's Sunday morning blackboard show with Merrill Hoge. Always have. And I know that Jaws spends a lot of time at NFL Films, getting this baby of his absolutely tip top. But is it possible that someone, with days to prepare, can get things right, but miss out when he's under the gun? It certainly seems that way, because for a guy who knows as much football as Jaworski does, he lets too much get by him in the most crucial game situations.
The two biggest contests he worked in the regular season were both near-upsets that ended dramatically, Dallas-Buffalo and New England-Baltimore. Both had the same climax -- the favored team pulling it out at the end against a defense that had gone passive and allowed itself to get worked over. Surprisingly, none of this registered with Jaworski.
It was especially apparent at the end of the Dallas game, when the Cowboys recovered an onside kick and had only seconds left, and the only place they could work the ball was the short sideline, and yet the Bills didn't defend it. They pulled back and gave the Cowboys the game. Friends of mine were calling, wanting to know what the hell was Buffalo thinking. But all this escaped Jaworski.
And so did the situation at the end of the Patriots-Ravens game, when Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan went passive on his rush, dropping to three on occasion, showed the white feather, in other words. How could a guy doing the game miss this? OK, Tony K. hasn't a clue as to what he's watching anyway, but Jaws should have been on top of it.
Plus so many other dramatic elements, such as the way Baltimore's left guard, Jason Brown, was burying Richard Seymour, or the magnificent game the Ravens' Haloti Ngata was having against the Patriots' best lineman, Logan Mankins. These are the grace notes of a football game, but they're outside the realm of a blackboard guy, such as Jaworski. I have a whole roster of disappointments from an analyst I thought would be knock-em-dead in the booth. These are only examples.
The guests that are brought in are absolute abominations, with poor Tirico valiantly pleading to be allowed to squeeze in a brief mention of what's going on down on the field in between Russell Crowe's yacking about his rugby team, or Drew Carey telling us about his love of Cleveland -- that's the city, not the team. How about Vince Vaughn giving us his whole spiel as the Broncos, down by three, are fighting to send the Packers game into OT? Or Deanna Favre, presenting us with Brett Favre clutter, his "impish qualities," that went, nonstop, from 7:15 left in the first half 'til the two-minute warning?
And in Bristol, the ESPN guys smile at the incredible naiveté of one small voice in New Jersey that doesn't have a clue about how money is made via network TV.
I did, however, see moments when a dim flame seemed to animate Jaworski and lead him to lash out briefly at his broadcast partner. Such as the time when Kornheiser said, in all seriousness, that Jacksonville's QB, Quinn Gray, was so inept that the Jags should run on every down. Or when he insisted that LaDainian Tomlinson was unknown because he played in a small market city. Or when, after the 49ers went for a TD against Seattle and Kornheiser said, "I found that very satisfying," Jaws replied, "That's wonderful, Tony. You got all involved in the game." Maybe someday, as Peter Finch did in the movie, Network, Jaws will open the window, stick his head out and holler, "I can't take it anymore!" One can only hope.
Oops, I've forgotten a team, the one-shot threesome of Mikes,Greenberg, Golic and Ditka, lashed to the mast for an evening of Arizona-San Francisco for ESPN's second game in Week 1. Yes, an honest job. Real football. The booth clear of debris. Call it 3 ½ stars.