It was with great hesitation that I accepted the assignment of ranking the NFL's announcing teams.
This was, for many years, Dr. Z's territory at Sports Illustrated. Trying to follow him down this road is like being the new QB in Miami after Dan Marino retired.
So, consider this look back at the best and worst announcing jobs of the 2011 NFL season an homage to Dr. Z, who had a series of strokes four years ago that left him unable to write.
Also, it's at this point, right before I launch into the "rankings," that I'll point out these are my opinions -- there was no scientific poll conducted, no votes taken amongst the other SI staffers. I expect everyone to disagree with me (and each other), since all football fans' tastes are different when it comes to what makes for an enjoyable watching experience.
And with that ... away we go:
•Brad Nessler and Mike Mayock, NFL Network: Because the NFL's Thursday night slate didn't start until Week 10, this pairing only worked together a handful of times. But man, were they good.
Nessler is energetic without being overly excitable, saving his best calls for the moments that necessitate them. His demeanor turned out to be the perfect match for Mayock, who was so good that SI's Richard Deitsch named him the "Person of the Year" in his annual Media Awards. Not only does Mayock sound extremely prepared each game, but he takes that knowledge and easily translates it to the viewer.
Thanks to the duo's talents and the relatively weak slate of Thursday games this year, by season's end people were tuning into the NFL Network's broadcasts as much for the announcing as the games.
•Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, NBC: Not everyone's a fan of this pairing -- including the NFL's players themselves, who voted Collinsworth their least favorite commentator in an SI poll. You know what? I get it. There are times when he sounds like he thinks he was the greatest player of all-time.
Collinsworth knows his stuff, though, even if it took him a little while to get comfortable during the Super Bowl. The fourth quarter of last Sunday's game was an example of this pairing at its best: Michaels and Collinsworth were spot on, like when Collinsworth foreshadowed New England's parting-of-the-Red-Sea defense on Ahmad Bradshaw's touchdown.
Combine a knowledgeable analyst with one of the great play-by-play men of all-time, and you're going to get a solid result more often than not.
•Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts, CBS: Technically, this is CBS' No. 3 crew, behind Jim Nantz-Phil Simms and Greg Gumbel-Dan Dierdorf. That's about two spots too low, in my opinion.
Eagle and Fouts have a great dynamic going -- they're solid on the game call without being too serious about it. Fouts is kind of a goofy personality in the booth, and Eagle facilitates that. Most of the credit here, in fact, goes to Eagle, who is as solid as they come on play-by-play duties.
• Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden, ESPN: I know, I know. Gruden's insane, Jaws can be pedantic and Tirico loves to get off topic.
But let's be honest about it: How often is this group boring? Whether it's Gruden mistaking a picture of Michelle Obama for sideline reporter Lisa Salter or Jaworski firing off a curse word after a bad play by Chad Henne, these guys are entertaining together. Given recent "Monday Night Football" groupings, that's something.
• Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, Fox: Buck probably stirs more debate than any announcer out there, mostly because he's ALWAYS ON as the No. 1 guy for Fox's baseball and football telecasts. Cards on the table: I'm not a huge fan. A lot of the time, he sounds disinterested, and Aikman rarely gets all that excited either.
But let's give credit where credit is due. This tandem was at its absolute best during this year's playoffs, mainly because Buck, for whatever reason (some say his increased presence on Twitter has made him more aware of what viewers want) cranked up his energy. His call of Hakeem Nicks' Hail Mary catch vs. Green Bay was terrific.
• Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston and Tony Siragusa, Fox: Siragusa is the lone "sideline reporter" on the list, so maybe it's not fair to include him, but Fox insists on promoting this trio together. And that's a shame, because Albert is a great play-by-play guy and Johnston is a solid analyst. "Goose," however, is a distracting presence who rarely adds anything from his post in the end zone.
• Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, CBS: Truth be told, Nantz and Simms were higher until the AFC title game. But their performance that day highlighted an ongoing issue: These two make way too many mistakes for CBS' No. 1 crew.
When Baltimore's Michael Oher hobbled off the field injured, Nantz made the (obvious) reference to "The Blind Side" movie, then talked about how Jah Reid would now be protecting "Joe Flacco's blindside." One problem: Oher doesn't play on Flacco's blindside and hasn't for some time. Nantz and Simms then repeatedly misidentified Julian Edelman as Wes Welker, and vice versa. That's an inexcusable mistake to make.
•Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf, CBS: If you're looking for a hyped-up call of the game, keep going to the next duo on this list. Gumbel and Dierdorf are a reliable pairing, however, even if Dierdorf's barebones approach to analysis has started to get lapped by the Mayocks and Collinsworths of the world.
• Gus Johnson and Charles Davis, Fox: Kind of an incomplete grade here, because Johnson and Davis really were paired for college football and only occasionally crossed over to the NFL. When they did, it was a treat for the viewer. I'm sure there are some fans out there who can't get on board with Johnson's superfan-level excitement, but I'm not one of them.
•Marv Albert and Rich Gannon, CBS: It's not the worst draw, by any means, if your team gets handed this duo, even if Albert's reputation exceeds his ability to call NFL games these days. They're dropped because they tend to misread moments, from time to time. To wit: Neither picked up on Stevie Johnson's Plaxico Burress-mocking TD celebration in the Bills-Jets November matchup.
•Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots, CBS: A Wall Street Journalstudy last year found that this team spoke more words per minute than any other tandem. The sample size for that examination was small, but it's part of why Harlan and Wilcots are not higher -- the best announcers know the value of keeping quiet from time to time.
• Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick, Fox: The real issue with the Brennaman-Billick team was front and center in Week 14's Minnesota-Detroit game. The Lions, who a week earlier melted down in New Orleans, committed their first personal foul in the third quarter. Brennaman went nuts -- "So finally, finally, here it is," he shouted. That type of thing happens too frequently; this pairing too often gets stuck on its talking points and can't get away from them.
• Spero Dedes and Steve Beuerlein, CBS: The ceiling might be higher for this duo than any other, unless CBS (understandably) bumps Dedes alone up its ranks. Lakers and Knicks fans -- as well as early-round NCAA Tournament watchers -- know how solid he is calling hoops. Football fans are learning that he's equally as adept for the gridiron.
•Sam Rosen and Chad Pennington, Fox: This is the No. 7 team for Fox, and it's just kind of an odd pairing. Rosen has been calling New York Rangers games forever, with a sprinkling of NFL on the side. Pennington, meanwhile, hopped straight to the booth after retiring from playing. Together, it's a clunky mix that I wouldn't be shocked to see split up in 2012.
•Dick Stockton and John Lynch, Fox: And speaking of clunky mixes ... Stockton is a long-time, respected veteran, but he's about to turn 70 and, unfortunately, is not quite the announcer he used to be. You're likely to hear him make at least a couple of mistakes per game. Lynch, like Pennington, seems to improve the more he's in the booth.
•Ron Pitts and Jim Mora Jr., Fox: I'll understand if this is one of the rankings people disagree with -- I actually like Pitts as a play-by-play man quite a bit. I was a lot less fond of Mora's work this season, starting in Week 2 when he unnecessarily hammered Cam Newton for wearing a towel over his head while Carolina's defense was on the field. It often felt like Mora's analysis jumped from effusive praise to all-out criticism with no middle ground.
• Bill Macatee and Steve Tasker, CBS: Macatee-Tasker represents CBS' sixth team, meaning that it's on the chopping block in weeks the network has a smaller number of games. Tasker does decent work, though Macatee actually sounds much more at home when he's calling tennis and golf, both sports that he calls regularly.
•Chris Myers and Tim Ryan, Fox: There are some announcers who simply do better work in a complementary role. For me at least, Myers is one of those guys. Put him on the sideline or in the studio, and he can be sensational. That delivery does not always translate to the booth, though, for Myers' play-by-play work.
I could see Ryan, on the other hand, becoming more popular. He takes things a little past the Mayock line -- Ryan absolutely knows his stuff, but he can slip into very technical explanations, which must be confusing for casual football viewers.
•Don Criqui and Randy Cross, CBS: You're not alone if you did not hear this team this season -- it was relegated to the bottom of CBS' depth chart and only saw action in a couple of weeks.