Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth have been together on NBC since 2006. (Ray Carlin/Icon SMI)
For the third consecutive season, the privilege -- and challenge -- of continuing Dr. Z's annual tradition of ranking the NFL's announcing teams falls right here.
The not-so-secret truth behind the task is that there is no way to be right (though, if the past has taught us anything, most will still argue the rankings below are wrong). I polled five people casually this week just on their top three announcing teams, and all five responded with different answers.
Each NFL TV viewer has a unique ear, a different set of criteria he or she wants met by those calling the games. So, let us know what you think of this year's announcing teams, either in the comments or on Twitter. With that, the 2013 rankings:
Outside the top 10: Bill Macatee and Steve Tasker, CBS; Marv Albert and Rich Gannon, CBS; Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick, FOX; Chris Myers and Tim Ryan, FOX; Dick Stockton and Ronde Barber, FOX; Spero Dedes and Steve Beuerlein, CBS; Sam Rosen and Heath Evans, FOX; Andrew Catalon and Adam Archuleta, CBS.
A few of these pairings, like Catalon and Archuleta or Rosen and Evans, simply do not call enough games to really register as threats to the upper echelon. Others just didn't get the job done.
It pains me some to have Albert and Stockton here for the second consecutive year, given how long they've been in the broadcasting game. Albert, 72, clearly has some issues keeping pace with the speed of the NFL game. (Plus, for me, he'll forever be an NBA announcer -- I can't hear his voice without also reminiscing on the brilliant NBA on NBCtheme song.)
Stockton, 71, has not fared much better, and together with Ronde Barber produced some real flubs this year. The Detroit-Washington game in Week 3 was of particular note. That one started with a sack by London Fletcher, whom Stockton referred to as "the old man from the sea."
"Great play by the old, old man," Barber added.
Just ... what?
Stockton also failed on multiple occasions to nail Brian Orakpo's name, and he changed his pronunciation of Roy Helu with each carry -- "Hello," "HE-loo," etc.
The Macatee-Tasker and Dedes-Beuerlein pairings have promise, the latter mainly because Dedes is an up-and-comer. But they're both buried on CBS' depth chart.
Brennaman and Billick again probably are the most high-profile tandem to miss out on the top 10. The slight happened for the same reasons it did last year: Billick botches simple calls as much as he adds real insight, and Brennaman's approach runs too preachy for my taste.
10. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, CBS
Hearing Jim Nantz's voice calls to mind visions of Augusta or the Final Four. That can be a bit problematic from an NFL standpoint, given that he is CBS' No. 1 play-by-play man for the league.
Perhaps his silky smooth delivery would be more memorable were he not paired with Simms, consistently among the most frustrating color commentators out there. Simms' missteps have paved the way for one of the funnier Twitter accounts out there, @philsimmsquotes, which tracks his oft-nonsensical sayings.
A couple of the better ones: "You know the protection is good when you look down the field and no one is open" and "When running an offense you spend a lot of time thinking about how to score." The account also tracks how many times per game Simms uses the phrase "talked about" -- as in, "Well, you know, Jim, we talked about how important ..."
CBS may never shift this pairing from the No. 1 spot. We all know what we're getting at this point.
9. Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf, CBS
Those of you who have played football video games in the past know the announcers therein eventually become a bit of a nuisance because the canned calls start repeating. (My least favorite of all: In the NCAA Football franchise, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit had the same exchange after almost every offensive penalty, with Corso yelling, "Beep beep beep! ... I'm telling everyone that this offense is going in reverse!")
Shy of John Madden's sound effects ("BOOM!"), Dierdof has been the closest real-life version of a video-game announcer. Most of the time, he's stuck to the script, offering generic commentary -- i.e. over the course of a few snaps in the Houston-Baltimore game, he hit us with "That's a big-time play" and "That's a big challenge."
He also did more right than he was given credit for by viewers. Just before halftime of that same game, Dierdorf cautioned that Houston punter Shane Lechler sometimes got too much distance on his punts.
"He could turn the field around," Gumbel said.
"Well, yea, but he also could set up a big return," Dierdorf noted. Lechler then bombed a punt that Tandon Doss raced back for a touchdown.
Sure, it was clunky how Dierdorf got there -- "The one thing about Shane Lechler, every now and then he launches a kick that, you've heard the saying before, outkicks his coverage ..." -- but he got there nonetheless.
Now that Dierdorf is retiring, people may miss his simple charms more than they expect. Gumbel certainly could, depending on how CBS chooses to pair him up from here.
8. Kenny Albert and Daryl Johnston, FOX
As mentioned in each of the past two years' announcer rankings, it is impossible to separate Albert and Johnston from Tony Siragusa, and together the whole production brings back bad memories of when Monday Night Football overcrowded its booth with sidekicks like Tony Kornheiser and Dennis Miller.
Networks do not often split announcing teams up once they're together, so Albert-Johnston-Siragusa probably will continue to trot out there each Sunday -- even though they were sidelined in favor of Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch for the playoffs. That said, it would be terrific to see what a strong play-by-play man like Albert could do if he drew a more consistent team.
7. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, FOX
No matter where Buck and Aikman fall in these rankings, the cry is always that they're too high. So, I'll just get this out of the way: I kind of like Buck.
That has not always been the case, either for baseball or football. As mentioned in this space last year, though, Buck has improved in the one area that really belabored his broadcasts: emotion. Of course, his critics will point to Super Bowl XLVIII as evidence that he still has trouble cranking it up to 11, even on the sport's grandest stage. His broadcast there was humdrum at best, though the blowout nature of the game certainly didn't help.
Aikman also rarely does him any significant favors. There may not be another color commentator who has to backtrack as much on close calls after seeing replays, though to Aikman's credit he does correct himself when he's wrong in that regard. And he has some head-scratching moments, like one many viewers picked up on in that Super Bowl: saying that the Broncos needed four touchdowns and three two-point conversions to erase a 29-0 lead. That would have done the trick, I suppose, but that's 31 points.
Still, there's something to be said for this team's experience. Fans see more of them than almost any other pairing, so the criticisms come naturally.
6. Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots, CBS
Whether anyone realizes it or not (probably not since this is CBS' No. 5 team), Harlan is one of the NFL's top play-by-play men -- he again handled Super Bowl radio duties for Westwood One. This pairing simply does not have the same standing within its network as veteran groups like Nantz-Simms, and it's not as effective as Ian Eagle-Dan Fouts.
There usually are not any glaring errors when Harlan and Wilcots call a game, but occasionally the small mistakes add up. For example, during Week 6's Cincinnati-Buffalo game, Harlan referred to star Bills linebacker "Kiki" Alonso. Moments later, Wilcots hit us with this: "The pursuit of the Buffalo Bills' defense was so ... indicated on stopping the run that they were not prepared for this reverse action." Did he mean "predicated" there? Or that the Bills tipped their hand before the snap? Wilcots has a few of those moments per game.
Still, this pairing is more steady than not.
5. Brad Nessler and Mike Mayock, NFL Network
This is a drop for the NFL Network team -- after the 2011 season they landed in the "elite" grouping, and after 2012 they claimed the No. 2 ranking. Most of that praise was due to the revelation that was Mayock in the booth. He was extremely comfortable and knowledgeable, and thrived from being paired with the always strong Nessler.
The question after year three of that duo's time together: Is Mayock's approach starting to wear thin?
His ocean of knowledge about the NFL draft makes him a go-to source from January to May, but the constant references -- "So-and-so is 6-foot-2, 230 pounds and ran a 4.6 40 at the combine ... and here's what he did on the last play" -- can drag. There is almost never a moment of silence when Nessler and Mayock are on the air together, mainly because Mayock tends to fill those with facts and figures.
That does not represent a sea change from how he approached the broadcasts over the past two seasons, but it felt more cumbersome this time around.
4. Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden, ESPN
This guy! These guys!!
Gruden is borderline ridiculous -- anyone who can get the phrase "Spider 2 Y Banana" into casual football vernacular has to be living a little outside the box. And yet, somehow, it all works for the most part. Maybe you think Tirico's a little bland or that Gruden's schtick is too much to take 16 times per regular season. Consider this, though: When was the last time you were not at least a little entertained by this team?
This works for a lot of the reasons that the Ian Eagle-Dan Fouts pairing (still to come) does: They don't take the job too seriously, and they seem to genuinely enjoy working together. Yes, it can be a little much when Gruden either loves every player like he's the next coming of Jim Brown or swings the complete 180 to sound utterly disgusted at a team's effort.
But few announcer teams anywhere (and not just in the NFL) are as worth tuning in for on a regular basis.
3. Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch, FOX
Here's the first time I really started to take notice of this duo: Week 8, Atlanta at Arizona. The Falcons had the ball about six minutes into what was then a 0-0 game, and the Arizona crowd was into it. As Atlanta lined up for a second-down play, Burkhardt and Lynch highlighted that Tony Gonzalez was lined up wide against man-coverage and then ... they stopped talking.
All you heard from there through the snap was Atlanta QB Matt Ryan and the crowd. A similar thing happened before the third-down play. It doesn't sound like much, but knowing when and when not to talk is a real challenge for announcers -- one most fail at.
I grew up listening to Ernie Harwell broadcast the Detroit Tigers over the radio, and of the many, many reasons he is among the greatest announcers of all time is that he allowed the games to breathe. The lulls were artistic, timed perfectly to allow you to get a sense for the fans, the setting, the atmosphere. That's not to say that Burkhardt and Lynch are approaching some legendary level of broadcasting, but they seem to have this very important aspect down to a science.
There's also a growing chemistry here. Truth be told, I never gave Lynch much of a thought as a color commentator last year when he mostly was paired with Dick Stockton. This season, he greatly improved, and being on a team with one of the NFL's up-and-coming talents is part of the reason why.
2. Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts, CBS
This pairing continues to be CBS' best -- which means CBS continues to underutilize it as the No. 3 team on the network behind Simms-Nantz and Gumbel-Dierdorf. (Dierdorf's retirement may open the door for Eagle and Fouts to slide up at least to the No. 2 spot, which would mean playoff assignments and maybe even top billing on Sundays with Nantz-Simms taking on Thursday night duties next season.)
Fouts is like a combination of Gruden and Dierdorf, yet somehow it works. You're not going to get much groundbreaking analysis from him, but he will pick up on all the important details from play to play while saving room for the corny jokes that make him the NFL's version of your embarrassing uncle.
He and Eagle have been working together for years, and that camaraderie shows without being imposing. When calling the Week 14 Dolphins-Steelers game in the snow, Eagle asked Fouts, a former Chargers quarterback, what issues that game's QBs would be up against. Fouts responded by talking about how important it is to maintain footing on a soggy field.
"Or you could just be drafted by San Diego," Eagle quipped.
"Worked for me!" Fouts answered, laughing.
Was it an hilarious exchange? Hardly. But it was one that both hit on an important talking point and displayed the light-hearted relationship the Eagle-Fouts group carries.
1. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, NBC
For the second consecutive year, NBC's Sunday Night Football tandem lands atop SI's announcer rankings.
Any criticisms of Michaels at this point is nitpicking. Even at 69 years old, he remains a sharp, witty play-by-play man who soars because he does not shy away from any moment. In Week 13's Giants-Redskins game, he ripped into Jeff Triplette's crew for a series of botched late calls; in the Pro Bowl, he slipped a gambling reference into his call of the bizarre final play (Antonio Cromartie scored a touchdown that, for some reason, didn't count).
Michaels may do his best work before the game even starts, setting the stage with equal aplomb no matter the matchup. And he sets up Collinsworth perfectly, time and again.
Those who knock NBC's NFL team usually are complaining about Collinsworth. He does have his awkward moments. Case in point: While talking about Aqib Talib during the Falcons-Patriots game in Week 4, Collinsworth made a comment that "whatever [players' off-field] issues have been before, they disappear" when they come to New England. This after an offseason that saw Aaron Hernandez being arrested for murder.
But there is not another color commentator capable of picking up on the intricacies of game with the deftness Collinsworth shows. After Pierre Thomas picked up a first down on the ground for the Saints in Week 10 vs. Dallas, Collinsworth noted that the Cowboys might have no choice but to bring a safety down into the box. On the very next play they did just that, and Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass to the vacated spot. When San Francisco blocked a Seattle punt in Week 2, before the replay even rolled, Collinsworth noted that the Seahawks' players may have heard a whistle coming from the stands.
This pairing has been brilliant for NBC and deserves to be in this No. 1 spot. Another bonus here: Michele Tafoya is the game's best sideline reporter and only adds to the Sunday night broadcasts.