Evaluating sports broadcasting talent is subjective. We each have our favorites. I like Mike Mayock. You like Phil Simms. We all dislike Craig James. While discussing NFL broadcasters over coffee a couple of months ago, James Andrew Miller, the author of the best-selling "These Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World Of ESPN," and I decided it would be fun to pick the 10 people in NFL broadcasting circles who we considered the most indispensable to their networks. (You can follow Miller on Twitter at @ESPNBOOK).
This is not a list of the best or most talented announcers or production people, but which people each network could least afford to lose and why. We each drafted a Top 10 list without consulting each other and our results are below. (Last week when I posed this question on Twitter, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Mike Mayock received the most votes.) Feel free to disagree with our lists, as I know you will.
1. Mike Mayock, NFL Network:Mayock tops my list because he gives the NFL Network a dominant position in two categories. First, he has become the premier television NFL draft analyst, and that is a huge part of the league-owned network's programming from February to April. As important, he (along with Brad Nessler) has solidified the network's Thursday night broadcast after a revolving door of oxygen-sucking analysts (Matt Millen and Joe Theismann).
2. Al Michaels, NBC:All of the football networks have talented No. 1 NFL voices -- yes, I know you hate some of them -- but Michaels is the true heir to Pat Summerall as the league's big-game announcer. While Tom Hammond has called NFL games for NBC, the network has no easy replacement for Michaels, given how important Sunday Night Football is to NBC's revenue.
3. Mike Pereira, FOX:When I named Mike Pereira my broadcaster of the year in 2010, I did so because he provided a game-changing role for FOX as a rules analyst. Viewers have longed for broadcasters to provide accurate explanations from the NFL's byzantine rule book, and Pereira, thankfully, has taken the burden off ex-jocks and announcers. Joe Buck called him the best hire in FOX Sports history and he might be right. He's been a killer app both on television and in the social media space and so far no other network has been able to duplicate what he brings.
4. Cris Collinsworth, NBC:When I asked this question on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, Collinsworth won the popular vote. I rate Michaels ahead of him on the indispensable scale because I think it's harder to replace a great football game-caller. Collinsworth is bright, he prepares, and he's willing to be critical of players and the league when the situation calls for it. I never feel as a viewer that this guy is working for the league. He's working for me.
5. Terry Bradshaw, FOX:If you removed Bradshaw from FOX NFL Sunday, I'm convinced the show would tank, even though Curt Menefee deserves props for getting better as a host each year. Bradshaw creates the chemistry between the analysts (Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson), and he's the rare sports broadcaster who can dance between levity and heft. People like him. Simple as that.
6. Fred Gaudelli, NBC:NBC's Sunday Night Football averaged 21.5 million viewers in 2011 and media buyers, according to Ad Week, say a 30-second spot fetches around $500,000, up nearly 24 percent from last season. SNF is NBC's most important property and Gaudelli has been its producer for the past six seasons. (He's also produced Super Bowls XLIII, XL and XXXVII and will produce Super Bowl XLI in February 2012 in Indianapolis.) The exec is an invaluable part of NBC's success, and his longtime relationship with Michaels and Collinsworth can't be replaced.
7. James Brown, CBS:Brown and TNT's Ernie Johnson are the most ego-free sports broadcasters on television, and the CBS Sports host has an innate ability to defer to his colleagues (generally ex-athletes hired for their outsized personalities and ability to wear suits nicely) while maintaining some order on the set. Brown's move from FOX to CBS recharged the NFL Today after it had been a muddled mess. Can you imagine another host dealing with Shannon Sharpe's nonsense? Trust me, that's not something CBS wants to contemplate either.
8. Mike Tirico, ESPN:Tirico makes my list because there's no ready-made replacement to step into the role between Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski (Brad Nessler is at the NFLN, so he's out for now) on ESPN's most important property, Monday Night Football. Along with preparation, one of Tirico's biggest strengths is that he's allowed his current partners to be the star of the show.
9. Rich Russo and Richie Zyontz, FOX:Russo directed last year's Super Bowl and Zyontz served as the executive producer -- both have worked two Super Bowls for FOX -- but this pick is more of a nod to the top directing and producing teams at each network. You can't replace the best production people in the business easily. A quick example: In 2010, while preparing for a game at the Metrodome, Zyontz left a camera on overnight specifically pointed at the roof. The result the next day was once-in-a-lifetime footage of the Metrodome roof collapsing.
10. Seth Markman, ESPN, Senior Coordinating producer of NFL Programming:
Markman is responsible for all of ESPN's NFL studio content, so feel free to praise or mock him for his propensity to hire ex-coaches and players weekly. He's proved adept at managing egos, and that's not something that can be undervalued at a place like ESPN, where some NFL egos are as large as B.J. Raji. Sure, he caters to (and overvalues) Bill Parcells and Chris Berman, but his under-the-radar moves (hiring Eric Mangini) and trust in his reporters such as Adam Schefter (he could have made my Top 10) and Chris Mortensen has served ESPN well. If he could somehow convince his superiors to make Trey Wingo (call him 10-A on my list) the host of the first day of the NFL Draft -- something most people outside of the Bristol bubble would agree is a smart move -- he may move up this list in the future.
1. Al Michaels, NBC:There Is No Substitute. The impeccable pro with the unmistakable voice full of energy and urgency could make a game between an 0-15 team and a 1-14 team seem like a playoff thriller -- thanks to his gravitas, broad knowledge and palpable connection to the glory days of booth broadcasting. When Michaels retires, and perish that thought, it's a cinch somebody will use the old James Bond tune "Nobody Does It Better" under his career-highlights montage.2. Mike Pereira, FOX:Plays-under-review are an entirely different experience at FOX than on the other nets, mainly because super ref Pereira so fastidiously takes viewers through his analysis and, very often, gets it right. Indeed, he's so good and authoritative that one is tempted to agree with him even on those rare occasions when his verdict, and that of the officiating crew, is in conflict. Pereira knows how to watch and when to talk and when to shut up -- a great value-added hat trick that should never be allowed to expire.
3. Jim Nantz, CBS:As lead-ins go, there's probably no more important one on the weekly schedule than the-NFL-on-CBS into "60 Minutes," and Nantz's pedigree makes for the perfect match-up with that august news-division broadcast. Yes, there are times you can't help but feel that Nantz is absolutely exasperated with Phil Simms, but CBS needs its top voice on these Sunday evenings. While Mike Tirico probably knows football better and prepares more thoroughly, it was Nantz who, years ago, ESPN tried to lure away from CBS for its Monday night games. No way: Nantz reigns over one of the great trifectas in all of sports broadcasting -- the NFL, the NCAA tournament and The Masters -- and the list of people who could step in and do all three the way Nantz does them is impressively short.
4. Chris Berman and Tom Jackson, ESPN:During the past three years I've spent living and breathing ESPN, one of the most salient "truths" revealed to me was a simple one: For every person who claims he hates Chris Berman's style, nicknames and gestures, there have to be two or three who simply can't wait to watch him. Berman is "indispensable" to Bristol for the very reason that he sucks up so much oxygen; when faced with that many hours of coverage, and so large a population of reporters and analysts vying for time, you really have to be larger than life to stand out. Berman is. For those who can't tolerate him, Berman's long-time tag-team partner Tom Jackson is there to settle the big guy down now and then.
5. Dan Patrick, NBC:For years now, Sunday Night Football has been one of the few treasures on the NBC primetime schedule. But people don't wait until kickoff time of 8:20 to tune in. For nearly nine million of them, Appointment Television starts with "Football Night in America" -- quite a feat for NBC since games often run late over on CBS or FOX -- where they get to enjoy Patrick, commentator sans pareil. Rodney Harrison and Tony Dungy could be replaced tomorrow and the show wouldn't skip a beat. But it would be downright difficult to find a talent possessing Patrick's knowledge and fluency, the prowess needed to take that show over.
6. Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff, NBC:There's no one currently producing and directing NFL games who doesn't belong in the truck -- it takes a helluva lot of talent to land one of these gigs -- but producer Gaudelli and director Esocoff manage to deliver on an entirely different level from the rest. They consistently and invariably put The Game first, with information relayed to viewers more clearly and accessibly than on any other network. More than that, the team has brought highly creative touches to the broadcast, like having the players introduce themselves and making shrewd, inventive use of still photography. Dick Ebersol has called Gaudelli & Esocoff "the two best hires I've ever had in my sporting life as a producer and director" -- and for good reason.
7. Pam Oliver, FOX: No network has done more to diminish the role and visibility of female NFL sideline reporters than ESPN, where it's all about cut-ins for shows leading up to "Monday Night Football" and virtually nothing pertinent to the game at hand (Reason No. 7,111 to hate three-man booths: they leave no room for anyone else). Over at FOX, however, outside-the-booth reporting is still valued, and for a very good reason: Oliver has earned one of the best reputations in TV sports coverage. Coaches trust her, players confide in her, and she always knows whereof (and who of) she speaks. Oliver is doing her best to keep the role of the NFL sideline reporter alive, and lively.
8. Adam Schefter, ESPN:I once asked this unrelenting, never-sleeping NFL hound if Twitter played a major role in his life, and he said, "I consider it as vital as any of my bodily organs." We can probably mark that down as a "yes." With all due respect to Chris Mortensen and John Clayton, Schefter is ESPN's last line of defense against PFT's Mike Florio and FOX's Jay Glazer, and is an essential force for breaking news in the NFL.
9. Rich Eisen, NFL Network:It's possible no other sports broadcaster has as much pressure on him (or her) as Eisen does at the NFL Network. He not only handles pre-game shows, highlight shows, and halftime duties; he developed the first-ever podcast to double as a weekly TV show. Let's face it, Eisen basically serves as the veritable icon of the whole damn place. Perhaps best of all, Eisen has been able to maintain his trademark wry, sardonic tone while also playing conductor for the entire aggregation. If Eisen were to leave the NFLN, they'd be even further away from levels the mighty MLB Net has achieved.
10. Bryant Gumbel, HBO: HBO isn't an NFL rights holder so this one's out of the box, but "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" is the Meryl Streep of sports shows, frequently nominated for awards and prestigious honors. Season after season, "RS" combines deft storytelling and solid, muscular writing on a level that not only appeals to the intelligent and sophisticated sports viewer, but to everybody else. Its coverage of the NFL in particular seems uncompromised and always entertaining, as evidenced by recent pieces on Plaxico Burress and on the Harbaugh brothers, as well as examinations of players' finances and their myriad substance abuse problems. While "RS" has a varsity team across the board -- including Andrea Kremer, widely and wisely considered one of the best female reporters ever to cover the NFL -- it is host Gumbel who brilliantly navigates this baby through straits and squalls. Should Gumbel and good buddy Matt Lauer ever decide to pack it in and focus exclusively on their own golf games, it seems unlikely that "RS" could survive the loss. Gumbel is that good.