Chris Collinsworth and Al Michaels just finished their fourth season in the booth on Sunday Night Football. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
With the passing of each NFL season, the tradition started by Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z was to take a look back and break down pro football's best and worst announcing teams.
We at Audibles, with the utmost respect for Dr. Z's work, took up the torch for that task last year. And what follows below is this blog's second crack at trying to sort through hundreds of hours of game broadcasts to figure out which play-by-play announcers and color commentators turned out the finest product over the past year.
This version ranks the top 10 teams that called games on either CBS, FOX, NBC, ESPN or the NFL Network.
Feel free let us know about any disagreements you may have (and we know you'll have them), either in the comments or on Twitter.
10. Marv Albert and Rich Gannon, CBS
Quite frankly, I thought this was the most improved announcing team from last year to this one. Albert, 71, and Gannon definitely seemed more comfortable with each other during their second go-round.
As such, their games were much more enjoyable to listen to and less littered with head-scratching mistakes -- in 2011, for example, Albert asked Gannon if he had ever played overseas and Gannon replied, "Yes, I played in Mexico."
Others may disagree here, but I appreciate that Albert brings a bit of a lighthearted touch to his games. He'll make fun of himself, if he notices a screw-up, but he also occasionally drops a solid one-liner. His best of 2012? When the Jets and Dolphins went to overtime in Week 3, and after the OT coin toss, Albert remarked: "Tim Tebow with the critical calls of heads!"
9. Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots, CBS
The NFL hands out earpieces now at the Super Bowl, so the media can listen in to a broadcast while watching the game. This year, those in the press box had three options: the CBS' TV feed, a Spanish-language broadcast or a Kevin Harlan-Boomer Esiason pairing on Dial Global radio.
For me, the choice to stick with Harlan was obvious. The fact that Harlan had that opportunity proves his announcing chops, as SI's Richard Deitsch examined last week, and Harlan even delivered during the blackout by broadcasting via a land-line phone.
Whether general football fans realize it or not, Harlan remains one of the best announcers out there. He would be higher on this list, too, if he were paired with a more dynamic color commentator.
That's not necessarily a knock against Wilcots -- he does a decent job in the booth, and actually performs very well as a sideline reporter, where CBS used him during the playoffs. Wilcots simply is not on the level of, say, Cris Collinsworth or Mike Mayock.
Still, you could do much worse than drawing this tandem for your team's game.
8. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, CBS
I enjoy listening to Nantz, so much so that I'm even willing to brush aside his occasional screw-up. His most noticeable error this season came when he mistakenly had the wrong team winning a Week 6 Jets-Patriots game.
More often than not, he's solid, if slightly docile. The problem is he's paired with Simms, who needs his own blooper reel.
Late in Super Bowl XLVII, for example, Nantz asked Simms if the Ravens should take a safety rather than punt to Ted Ginn Jr. Simms' response: "I'm thinking ... no, I would not. I would punt it."
The Ravens, of course, then took the safety.
7. Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf, CBS
This is a pretty similar setup to Nantz-Simms -- a reliable play-by-play man paired with a bit of a loose cannon. The main critique of Dierdorf is the same as it was in last year's rankings: He hits only the most basic of concepts, rarely giving the viewer much more than meets the eye.
Dierdorf also did himself no favors in the Ravens-Broncos playoff game, when he barely let Gumbel get a word in edgewise. After Trindon Holliday's kickoff return TD to start the third quarter, Dierdorf rattled off a nearly 100-word explanation of the replay, spanning nearly 40 seconds. When the Ravens lined up for the ensuing play from scrimmage, Gumbel and Dierdorf tripped over each other two or three times, as Gumbel tried to retake the reins.
6. Kenny Albert and Daryl Johnston, FOX
This is almost unfair to Albert. If we were doing straight play-by-play rankings, Albert would be in the top five, possibly for multiple sports. Unfortunately, FOX has teamed him with the Daryl Johnston-Tony Siragusa dog-and-pony show.
With just Albert and Johnston, it would be much more enjoyable -- even if Johnston loses the count sometimes, as in Week 10, when he suggested that the Saints, up 31-27 at the time on the Falcons, take a safety to go up by six (a safety would have made it 31-29).
Siragusa does not bring much to the table from his vantage point on the field, often dipping into the tired "body language" reports to gauge a team's mentality.
5. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, FOX
If Troy Aikman were not Troy Aikman, would he be on FOX's top team? Doubtful. And that's kind of a shame, because Buck is better now as a football play-by-play guy than he ever has been in the past -- a transformation that began last year, when Buck became noticeably more excitable during his calls.
Aikman, however, is closer to Dierdorf area than Collinsworth/Mayock land, in that he gets you the nuts and bolts, but often little else. For an ex-quarterback with Aikman's resume, the expectations are higher than that, especially as higher quality audio allows networks to pick up just about every call made by QBs at the line.
If FOX ever presses Aikman to step up his X's-and-O's game, this duo might ascend higher.
4. Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden, ESPN
Tirico is a phenomenal play-by-play guy. He is constantly dropping both critical information and interesting tidbits to further his broadcasts, and he has not been fazed at all by working with the often cartoon-like Gruden.
Plus, on the fly, Tirico has a knack for expressing exactly what the viewer is thinking. When the Titans and Jets played a brutal Monday night game this season, Tirico's call on the Jets' game-deciding fumble was spot-on:
"That's the way this game should end, that's the way the Jets seasons should end. Ugly! And a loss."
As for Gruden ... take him or leave him. He's not changing. Personally, I find him enjoyable most of the time, even if his "This guy! What a guy!" shtick gets old. His pre-draft QB camp features really spotlight his personality at his best. During the broadcasts we see that more reserved Gruden only when the games are out of hand or boring -- and that's usually when he is most tolerable.
3. Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts, CBS
If you read last year's announcer rankings, nothing at the top of this list should come as a surprise. This is basically how I had the announcing teams rated following 2011, and no one's really broken through to change the status quo.
But that status quo is perfectly acceptable when it comes to Eagle and Fouts. This is technically the No. 3 team at CBS, but it easily could leapfrog Simms/Nantz or Gumbel/Dierdorf and get the job done, if the network were ever so inclined.
Eagle's voice is unique and recognizable, and it pairs well with the homespun Fouts. Sure, you'll get a random Fouts statement of the obvious here and there -- "You're not a winner until you win a game," for example (courtesy of Awful Announcing's entertaining "Straight Outta Stockton" feature from 2012).
More often than not, those are harmless. And there may not be an NFL announcing duo with better chemistry overall.
2. Brad Nessler and Mike Mayock, NFL Network
Mayock kicked off the 2012 season by singing "Play That Funky Music" during a play in the Hall of Fame Game. In his second year with Nessler on the NFL Network's broadcasts, Mayock again proved himself to be more knowledgeable than just about any announcer out there. But the knock from those who were critical hearkened back to that karaoke moment -- Mayock seems to love hearing himself.
Honestly, that trait is far more problematic during NBC's Notre Dame broadcast, when Mayock even adopts a little "Rah Rah!" quality.
Even if the path of Mayock's rising star flattened out a bit this year, there may not be another analyst out there capable of picking so much out of a play. Even before replays roll, Mayock seems to know which blocks hit, where defenders vacated spots and so on.
Nessler, meanwhile, leaves himself almost nothing for which to apologize. He steps back to let Mayock do his thing, all while maintaining the proper enthusiasm for the moment.
1. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, NBC
When it comes to must-follow NFL player Twitter accounts, linebacker Justin Durant's is at the top, especially if you're a music aficionado. On Sunday nights during the season, though, Durant has waged a personal Twitter war against Cris Collinsworth's commentary.
Durant is not alone. There are plenty of people out there who cannot stand Collinsworth.
And I do not get it.
Yes, he'll get a little preachy from time to time, but he's also arguably the best in the business at his job. Look no further for evidence of that than the Saints-Chargers game, when Collinsworth said that a clearly injured Jared Gaither needed help blocking Martez Wilson or "Wilson's going to get a sack to end this game."
Next play: No one helped Gaither and Wilson sacked Philip Rivers to clinch a Saints win.
Collinsworth also has the good fortune to be alongside Michaels, one of the best announcers ever. Michaels can run the gamut from a controversial moment to, say, casually referencing a game's spread without ever sounding out of place.
Unranked: The announcing teams that did not land in the top 10, for various reasons ...
Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick, Bill Macatee and Steve Tasker, Spero Dedes and Steve Beuerlein, Don Criqui and Randy Cross, Dick Stockton and John Lynch, Chris Myers and Tim Ryan, Ron Pitts and Mike Martz, Sam Rosen and Heath Evans, and Gus Johnson and Charles Davis.
In the cases of, for example, Macatee/Tasker, Dedes/Beuerlein, Criqui/Cross, Rosen/Evans and Johnson/Davis, there was not a complete season of work to go on -- those pairings only worked when either CBS or FOX had a full slate of games in a given week.
Among the rest, the toughest omission was Brennaman. He is better calling baseball than football, in my opinion, but even when he sometimes hops up on his soapbox, he's strong with NFL work. Billick, on the other hand, was extremely inconsistent this year. That's right up to and including the Seahawks-Falcons playoff game, in which Billick talked about how the game's result "legitimizes the Seahawks as the number one seed" (Atlanta won). That flub came moments after Billick wondered aloud if, down by six with 44 seconds left, Seattle ought to kick a field goal and try to recover an onside kick rather than, you know, go for the game-winning touchdown.
Of the remaining three play-by-play guys (Stockton, Myers, Pitts), Pitts has the highest upside in that role -- Stockton's best days are behind him. But Pitts needs to free himself of Martz.
As stated earlier, feel free to leave your comments below.
DEITSCH: Simms struggles in Super Bowl broadcast | BURKE: NFL Draft Big Board