July 18, 2011

With Peter King on summer vacation, legendary broadcaster Al Michaels agreed to write today's Monday Morning Quarterback column and discusses the nation's thirst for football, the good and bad of hotels and more.

It was at an ABC affiliates' meeting in 1989, in a ballroom at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, that a tape was rolled in front of some 500 television station executives. Its purpose was to get the assembled group stirred about a football season that was still some three months away.

These meetings always feature preview looks at a network's upcoming fall lineup and are designed to get the affiliate body enthused about the to-debut-in-September products. I've been to dozens of these dog-and-pony fests. Most of the presentations involving the upcoming dramas and comedies and made-for-TV movies are usually met with responses that range from polite applause to utter boredom. Then there was this one.

It was a six or seven minute clip that featured highlights from the prior Monday Night Football season. But what set off the most incredible scene I've ever witnessed at one of these affairs was the way the tape opened. There, from the world of country music, stood Hank Williams to ask, "Are you ready for some football?" That's how Hank's now-iconic ditty was born. The place went wild.

This was in June. If that affiliate body could have opened up the season that night, they would have scrapped every other show on their schedules. And over the last 22 years, the answer to Hank's question, across the length and breadth of the United States and into every hamlet, mountain ranger station and goat farm, has been a resounding "YES!!"

I love baseball -- built the early part of my career around it -- but there can't be a sliver of doubt in anyone's mind that football, particularly NFL football, trumps all. The television ratings are spectacular. Sunday Night Football was the No. 1 ranked show in all of television last season. Super Bowl Sunday might as well be declared a national holiday.

And what still amazes me is how a 16-game season can be turned into a 365-day gabfest. That means (excluding playoff games, but including four preseason games) there are 345 NON-game days a year for each team, and fans STILL almost daily think and talk and argue and obsess over their teams.

There are times when I talk to fans and feel that an autumn without football would lead to some small form of a national nervous breakdown. One thing I do know: When this labor dispute is over, either the owners or the players will have won the negotiation game on the equivalent of an overtime field goal. But one team will have won the game within the game by about 71-0. The lawyers. Just bill those hours, baby.

When this labor impasse gets reduced to "millionaires against billionaires," that's a gross oversimplification. It's usually said or written with scorn with the underlying theme being "a pox on both their houses." There are too many good people on both sides. I've known dozens of owners and hundreds of players through the years who've devoted too much time and money and resources to terrific causes to be linked with the devil.

This is just another old-fashioned labor dispute that just happens to be played out in the blinding glare of a national spotlight. Now you want a real "pox on both their houses" dispute? Let's line up hedge fund managers against derivatives traders. Winners get a trip to Pamplona to run with the bulls. But I digress...

And speaking of the millionaires -- the players -- I noticed recently that Joe Gibbs and Herm Edwards have become involved in trying to educate and introduce, in particular, the young players to the world of money management. Good idea. How often have we heard the players talk about how short their careers are likely to be and how they have to become "set for life" while they can? Hold everything here.

Let's say a run-of-the-mill player's career ends at the age of 28 and he's spent maybe four seasons in the NFL. Now, for example, let's say he made a grand total of $4 million. The average worker in this country makes about $50,000 a year. So, in today's dollars, that worker will get to $4 million in 80 years! By that point, of course, he'll be pushing daisies.

On the other hand, the player will still have roughly 40 more productive post-football years. What I'm saying to the players here is learn to take care of your money. Read a couple of books on personal finance. Don't get involved in any investment you don't totally understand.

When I was broadcasting the San Francisco Giants' games in the mid-'70s, we had a good young pitcher by the name of John D'Acquisto. Bright guy. Good guy. On the bus to the airport in Chicago one day, I'm reading the Wall Street Journal and John sits down next to me and says, "You must know about this stuff. My accountant wants me to invest $40,000 in a San Joaquin Valley avocado farm. He says at worst I'll get a 4-to-1 write-off. And it could return 10-to-1."

I asked John how much he was making (I think it was about $65,000) and with a wife and, as I recall, two young children, if he really loved avocados that much. He laughed. And then, to make sure he got the point, I said, "When you're getting a 4-to-1 writeoff, why don't you just call up the IRS, invite a couple of agents over for dinner and then put them up in a guest bedroom for a month. Because you'll be living with them anyway."

So a cautionary note to the guys coming into the NFL: everyone wants to get into your wallet. Taxes will eat up almost half your salary. Beware the entourage. Beware the jewelry store. Beware the McMansion with dubious resale value. Protect your bread. There's still plenty of life after the NFL, but build up a nice little cushion. The boring investment is often the smart investment. Don't buy oceanfront property in New Mexico. And once in a while you can still hit Vegas because there are few greater thrills in life than a 40-minute roll at the craps table. And make sure to take the odds.

So thank you for coming -- and drive carefully on your way home. Goodnight.

• When a hotel relishes its "hip and trendy" reputation, find another place to stay. Almost every one of these "hotspots" has a "too cool for school," 24-year-old male model wannabe in a black t-shirt who "greets" you at the front desk with terminal aloofness. The rooms are almost always undersized and furnished in post-modern style, which basically means: next time, bring your own furniture. Good luck with your room service order. Beware "boutique" hotels. The only boutique I want to see in a hotel is the one selling sundries and newspapers next to the lobby.

Then there are the 75-year-old, refurbished hotels living on long-gone reputations that have no present validity. I'll never forget seeing Earl Weaver, then managing the Orioles, at the batting cage before the fifth game of the 1979 World Series in Pittsburgh. Earl looked like he hadn't slept in a month. When someone asked if he was all right, Earl said, "Yeah, I'm just exhausted. Couldn't get a wink at the hotel last night." Then the guy asks, "Well, where are you guys staying?" And Weaver says, "We're staying at a [bleeping] hotel that's so [bleeping] old they named William Penn AFTER the hotel." Classic.

• Here's an idea for most airport restaurants, fast-food or otherwise.

Offer your customers a Zantac tablet on the way out. Or put up a sign that says, "Indigestion Guaranteed." Would love to see an investigation into airport commissioners' kickbacks from catering companies. I mean, there can't be any other reason for this to have gone on forever.

And before we jump off the restaurant train, a word about those new eateries (particulary in New York and Los Angeles) that open up to great fanfare (mainly due to bought-and-sold P.R. campaigns). When you hear that you can't get a reservation for three months or you can't get a table after 6 or before 10:30 or you can never get a live voice on the phone when you call in, chances are that the 24-year-old from the hotel (the one with terminal aloofness and the stinking attitude) is now probably working the podium there. The chefs at these joints take themselves much too seriously. In fact, when I hear the phrase "hot new chef," and you can't get in for weeks, here's what I think -- closed in six months.

• And here's a plea to airline cockpit crews -- why do some of you have the mute button on when you know there's turbulence ahead? And I'm not talking about the clear air kind. How hard is it to tell the customers that there's rough weather ahead and we'll be out of it in X number of minutes? In fact, every trip should begin with a what-to-expect weather report. Granted, the majority of crews basically do this but I've experienced dozens of trips where we've hit rough stuff (sometimes for long stretches) and the passengers hear nothing. We know you're up there but why not give us a little information. It's comforting just to hear that you're trying to find a different altitude or whatever as lightning flashes all around. This should be part of the pilots' manual. And while we're at it, maybe the airlines could check their aircraft P.A. systems once in a while. Is it just me or has anyone else noticed you can't make out the announcements on about one in four or five flights?

• And since the heading on this section is Aggravating/Enjoyable, I'd better find something that fits the latter.

I know it's pricey, but when you're domiciling at a Four Seasons Hotel, the road is a helluva lot better experience. They've trained their people brilliantly over the last 30 years and 99% of the time they get it right. You don't always get what you pay for on the road, but in this case it's as close to a guarantee as you'll find.

In my book every other chain is a "Two Seasons." My road credo is "Four Seasons or Bust."

And there you have it. Press '1' if I sound like a crotch. Press '2' if I'm more like a snob. Mahalo and Aloha.

1. I think if I ever underestimated the passion for pro football in this country, that notion was completely dispelled during the lockout.

I have come into contact with literally hundreds of people who've said, in essence, "I can't live without it. They HAVE to play. Tell me they'll reach an agreement. What am I going to do all fall?" I tell them, "It will all work out in the end. Don't fret. Stay optimistic."

I feel like Dr. Phil.

2. I think that every time I hear or read someone making a case for NFL conference realignment, I'd like to sit them down for a history lesson. Almost everything in sports is cyclical, especially in a revenue-sharing world. The NFC or AFC dominates for six or seven years in a row and the knee-jerk reaction is to shake them up. Then the pendulum shifts back and, over time, some semblance of balance prevails. Now I know there are occasional exceptions. I'm sure some Bengal fans would like to curse me out right now, wondering when their time will come. What can I tell them except patience is a virtue. Some day, some day...

3. I think one of the great mysteries in the NFL involves the Raiders.

For 20 years, I've asked dozens of insiders, including commissioners, owners and those I felt had accurate inside information: "What is the Raiders' succession plan? Who will own and run the team when (or maybe, if) Al Davis dies? No one has the answer. Even people who like to brag that they're wired on the inside can't give me the answer.

Vegas would take this bet off the board.

4. And on the other side of San Francisco Bay, I think the 49ers">49ers got it right with the hiring of Jim Harbaugh. I think the worst day in the history of that franchise was the day Eddie DeBartolo was linked to a scandal involving then-Governor Edwin Edwards of Louisiana, which eventually led to Eddie's removal as the owner. The Tiffany franchise of the 80s and 90s has been through a dreadful last decade. I think Harbaugh's the right guy for the facelift. And speaking of facelifts...

5. The home of the 49ers, Candlestick Park, is 51 years old but doesn't look a day older than 173. Some future civilization will dig this thing up one day and wonder what the hell those people were thinking in mid-20th century. I announced the games of the San Francisco Giants from 1974 through 1976, so I have some street cred here. That dump is a monument to political chicanery in San Francisco in the late '50s -- the mayor and the developer/land owner were pals -- and that's how Candlestick got built in the worst possible location.

Then again, political chicanery is not limited to any finite era. Or geography. Anyway, I was at a Giants game at AT&T Park two weeks ago, and if that's not the greatest baseball stadium in America, it's at least in your exacta box. Any Giants fans who had to shiver through 40 years at Candlestick must now feel they're in heaven.

6. I think the 2011 season will have its share of officiating controversies, blown calls and teeth gnashing by fans whose teams get the short end of the stick on any given weekend. I also think that NFL officiating crews do a far better job than they'll ever get credit for. These guys will never get the props they deserve. If they could look at every play at six million frames a second, they'd never get anything wrong. But we know it doesn't work that way. They get one shot in the moment. Anyone who thinks the job is easy doesn't know what he doesn't know. All I'm saying is you don't have to adopt a zebra. Just cut these guys a little slack.

7. I think the most hilarious line I've ever heard in my broadcasting career was uttered by Dennis Miller (no surprise), who did two seasons of Monday Night Football with Dan Fouts and me in 2000 and 2001.

This was the "Miracle at the Meadowlands" game in October 2000, when the Jets erased a 23-point deficit in the fourth quarter and beat the Dolphins in overtime in a game that ended well after one o'clock Tuesday morning. The Jets tied the game in the waning seconds of regulation on, of all things, a tackle-eligible pass from Vinny Testaverde to Jumbo Elliott. Elliott was in his 13th NFL season and, as he cradled the ball in his arms, I blurted out, "AND THE PASS IS CAUGHT BY JUMBO ELLIOTT! IT'S THE FIRST CATCH OF ELLIOTT'S CAREER! IT'S THE FIRST TOUCHDOWN OF ELLIOTT'S CAREER!!" To which Dennis, with his trademark nonchalance, simply said, "Well, you couldn't keep him down forever."

8. I think that John Madden is as important and as legendary a figure as anyone in the history of the National Football League. As a coach, he had a magnificent 10-year run, good enough on its own merits to earn induction into the Hall of Fame. As a broadcaster, he was the gold standard. He rewrote the book on how to analyze football, spawning dozens of imitators along the way. But John was THE original.

He made the game more understandable and accessible to tens of millions of viewers and always made it more fun to watch. He completely understood how to combine information with entertainment.

And then he rewrote the book on video games, turning even more millions into football lovers. One of the great joys of my career was the seven-year stretch I had with John. I wish it could have been 27.

Getting paired with John was like winning the lottery. And then I won the lottery again when John retired and in came Cris Collinsworth.

Thank you, Dick Ebersol.

9. I think, as I said in Peter King's MMQB a month ago, that Los Angeles will be the home to two NFL franchises before the end of this decade. But ONLY if a new stadium is built. Otherwise, Los Angeles will have exactly the same number of teams it has now -- none.

There are two plans in the works. One is a site in what's called the City of Industry. Longtime Southern California developer Ed Roski is behind that one. The other site is in downtown Los Angeles, adjacent to Staples Center. Phil Anschutz, the man who got Staples Center built, and Tim Leiweke are the forces behind this proposal. The league would clearly prefer the downtown location. But we all know politics. And there's no way to predict where the monkey wrenches will be thrown.

Only that they will be.

10. I think I'm really happy Peter returns next week. I've used up all my brain cells. Welcome back, PK.

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