In preparing to assemble the first of these weekly power rankings -- encompassing each NFL television outlet's top announcing team -- I conducted a humbling little experiment. I picked a game I hadn't watched on Sunday but had DVRed, turned down the volume on the telecast and took my best shot at providing analysis. Play-by-play was beyond me, I readily acknowledged, but surely after all of these years watching NFL games I could do a coherent, insightful commentary, right? Well, let's just say SI.com has its last-place spot secured. Sure, the pros have a week of preparation under their belt, stat sheets in front of them and behind-the-scenes producers leading them through highlights and graphics and assorted other tidbits. Still, there's no denying that a job every fan believes he or she easily could do is not as effortless as it appears. That's something I'll try to keep in mind while I'm nitpicking my way through Week 1's booth offerings.
David Wilson had just rumbled 13 yards off tackle on the Giants' first offensive play after the running back's fumble inside the Dallas 10-yard line had cost New York a prime scoring opportunity on its previous possession. Michaels started to praise Wilson for "partially atoning for that fumble." Then he caught himself. "Well, I guess you never really atone for a fumble," he uttered, "when you're inside the 10-yard line." Collinsworth seized the moment to jump right in, sarcastically: "Ten yards, that makes up for everything."
This could have sounded like a broadcast booth civil war, but it was far from it. Collinsworth injects improvisation and personality into his analysis, and while it sometimes sounds a bit smarmy, his sense of humor adds flavor to the Sunday Night Football booth's menu. (True, he's an acquired taste for some.) Michaels, nimble enough to juggle little details with the big picture, follows his partner's threads, and easygoing conversation ensues. Isn't that what we're looking for from our game announcers? We don't want silly time, but this isn't PBS Newshour, either. This pair -- the excitable Michaels and the opinionated Collinsworth -- would fit right in on the TV room couch, watching the game and opining on it along with your know-it-all buddies.
The pregame anticipation was killing me. Would the telecast unfold with a Gruden narrative in which the praise-heaping analyst explained to us how new Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly invented the game of football? Or would he extol Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III for being the true architect? As it turned out, circumstances of the game squashed my low expectations. Kelly's innovative offensive scheme started out looking every bit like the glorious creation of a whole new game, and nothing Gruden could say sounded the least bit hyperbolic. A small miracle.
Back in the three-man-booth days, I much preferred to listen to the wonky Ron Jaworski than the happy-talking Gruden. But as Monday Night Football enters its second season without Lawrence Taylor's favorite old tackling dummy, Gruden is embracing his lone-analyst responsibility. He's toning down the platitudes and allowing his insight to step to the fore. We knew he had it in him, based on his coaching background as well as on some of the wisdom that's escaped his mouth in past seasons. The season is young, of course, so regression is always a possibility. But Week 1 presented him with an ideal game scenario to run with, and he didn't trip over it.
Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention Tirico. I actually think he prefers it that way. The guy really knows how to get out of the way of the game ... and of his talkative booth partner. He's no all-star, just a pro, the bizarro Berman.
There was about a minute to go in the first half, and Cincinnati faced second and 14 at its 8-yard line, leading by a touchdown, with Chicago down to one timeout. Best to just run out the clock, right? The Bengals lined up with an empty backfield, though, so it was time for Simms to jump in. With surprise. With disapproval. With something. Instead, he waited until Andy Dalton had thrown an incomplete pass, stopping the clock at 56 seconds, and only then did he comment, "I would have run it." Phil sounded like a second-guesser rather than a proactive strategist, even though the thought was probably in his head before the snap.
Sometimes Simms does seem a beat behind, as if he's waiting for Nantz to tee something up for him, as Nantz often does. Jim talks a lot for a play-by-play guy, sometimes going all radio on us and describing a play that's happening right before our eyes. But he's good at orchestrating the commentary, getting Simms talking when something needs to be said. And once Phil starts talking, he speaks with the authority of a tenured professor. That tone can be off-putting at times, but what's refreshing is his capability for nuance where others might paint with a broad brush. When he was lecturing on Cincinnati's clock mismanagement, for example, Simms noted that had no such criticism of Chicago's timeout management. "They didn't waste timeouts," he said. "In the first half, you use them. In the second, you guard them like gold."
This isn't a two-man booth, it's a 1½-man booth. Buck is appropriately sparing with his description of the game action, feeding us what we need to know and nothing more as each play unfolds. He's as good at this on a football telecast as he is at a baseball game. But he occasionally detours into Commentatorville, which renders Aikman mute. Or not. Sometimes Troy speaks up anyway, just to repeat or rephrase what his play-by-play man has said moments before. Other times, Aikman offers nothing more than an anecdote about his requisite visit with one of the game's quarterbacks the other day. Or he'll pick up the telestrator stylus, to lead us through a replay, and circle the wrong player, so we end up watching a guy who's insignificant to the play.
Aikman, like most former quarterbacks who now work in the booth, is quarterback-centric in his commentary. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since quarterback play does tell much of the story of a game. But Troy's stories don't always transport us toward understanding. When Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers took a late hit near the end of the first half and a flag was thrown, Aikman sort of chuckled and said, "I don't know about that one." Was he questioning the call? Or was he acknowledging the flag under today's rules but making a "back in my day" commentary about how the game has softened since he played? He didn't say. Here's what he did say, much later in the game, after 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had deftly avoided a pass rusher: "You don't see him taking a lot of hits, especially when he can avoid them." Hmm.