It's all Howard Cosell's fault. If the legendary Cosell hadn't revolutionized sports broadcasting in the 1970s as the key figure in Monday Night Football's three-man booth, the most memorable in television history, viewers wouldn't have had to endure several decades worth of failed attempts to find another magical trio. Contrary to what TV executives apparently believe, no law requires three broadcasters to call MNF or any other sports telecast. In fact, absent a one-of-a-kind personality like Cosell, two definitely will do.
But the MNF franchise, first on ABC and now ESPN, continues to force the three-man crew upon us, even though it's yet to put together a group that's come close to reaching Cosellian heights. The latest shuffling of the deck, announced Monday, sends former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden in to replace Tony Kornheiser, the columnist-turned-conversationalist. The MNF brass will no doubt count on Gruden, who joins Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski in the booth, to provide that edgy/funny/unpredictable element the franchise seems so desperate to recapture.MORE: Gruden replaces Kornheiser on MNF | REACT
Like most of the legions of MNF third men who preceded him, Gruden will probably fall somewhere in between the train wreck that was Dennis Miller and the amiable but forgettable Dan Fouts. We can only hope when he leaves for his next coaching gig in a year or two, as he inevitably will, the MNF powers that be will consider leaving Gruden's seat unfilled.
Sports fans simply don't need three-part harmony. The games we watch on TV are not so endlessly complex that they require a trio of voices to explain the left tackle just missed a block. If anything, the technological advances on game telecasts in all sports provide so much visual information, the trend should be toward fewer voices, not more. Want to know down and distance? Red-zone efficiency? Field-goal percentage? Batting average with runners in scoring position? It's all on the screen, enough for do-it-yourself color commentary, no verbal explanation necessary.
Monday nights next season will feature the ex-quarterback Jaworski, a game-film junkie who gives viewers every X and O they could desire, and Gruden, fresh off the sidelines. We don't need both explaining the intricacies of the zone blitz. Give us Tirico, a fine play-by-play man, with Jaworski or Gruden, not both. It's no coincidence that from 2002 to '05, Al Michaels and John Madden, a rare two-man team, were the best MNF broadcasting unit since Cosell's day.
Gruden should be aware that since Cosell, no one has really distinguished himself in MNF's third-man slot, nor has anyone lasted more than a few seasons. Some of the personalities who passed through the booth were awful. Take Miller, the acerbic comedian who for some reason seemed too intimidated to use his cutting humor in the booth, much like a nerd who feared the jocks would give him a pounding. Or take Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, who made such a bad impression he was replaced after just a few preseason games. Others were merely bland, like Fran Tarkenton, Joe Namath and Lynn Swann -- all of whom were far more interesting with a football in their hands than a microphone -- and O.J. Simpson. (Remember when being a mediocre broadcaster was the worst knock one could throw at O.J.?)
The three-man concept has managed its rare successes outside the MNF booth. Dick Enberg, Billy Packer and Dick Vitale were entertaining on college basketball for a few seasons, and the current NBA team of Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy has displayed nice chemistry. But trios are usually more effective in the studio than on live events. Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley are the gold standard at the moment for their work on Inside the NBA on TNT.
Barkley's wild-card, what-will-he-say-next presence makes that three-man setup work. If MNF really wants to think outside the box, luring Sir Charles away at the first opportunity might be the place to start. Otherwise, there's no shame in hanging up one headset.