After six prime-time regular-season telecasts, Monday Night Football has a problem. It's the Joe Namath Problem, which is growing by the week. Namath, the new man in the booth, having succeeded Don Meredith, is O.J. Simpson cloned. They're the same person, saying the same things. The show used to entertain us, inform us, make us laugh. Now it's more tiring than all the blather on Sunday afternoons. The sense of theater that Meredith brought to the show has been replaced by Namath's mostly vapid commentary. Artistically, Monday Night Football is going down the tubes. On the radio call-in shows, fans are saying Joe Willie ought to go back to selling panty hose.
ABC signed Namath for an estimated $850,000 a year to provide a quick fix for the show's declining ratings. Through the first five telecasts this year, the numbers were up 18%, a rise certainly more attributable to close games than to any special chemistry in the booth. Fact is, there is no chemistry. No one plays off anyone else. Absent is the engaging repartee that made Monday Night a happening even for non-football fans. Frank Gifford, who in the presence of his timid partners has turned up the talk meter 300%, is being undressed as a tongue-tied play-byplay man. No one's having fun anymore. There seems to be an I-know-more-than-you rivalry at work: a halfback, a tailback and a quarterback all playing one-upmanship behind the mike.
If ABC News and Sports president Roone Arledge must have three men in the booth, he ought to round out the crew with a non-jock free-lancer—his own Dick Schaap, say, or HBO's Larry Merchant. Don't hire another O.J. (who, by the way, has improved his diction). ABC, of course, wanted Namath for his marquee value. Oh, he knows something about breakdowns in the pass coverage, but that seems to count for less than his name, smile and forehead curl. It's not by coincidence that he's leading the crew in on-camera appearances.
Namath doesn't know if he should be a star, a teacher or a Mr. Nasty who puts down "lousy" passes. Unsure of himself, he becomes redundant. It's as if someone at ABC told Namath, "All right, you be our expert analyst on man-to-man coverage. Seventy-five times a game you tell us who's getting 'man' and who isn't." What Namath should do as a famous quarterback turned announcer, he doesn't do. His thinking is valuable simply because he's Namath, but he rarely tells us which play he would call in a crucial situation. He should amplify a replay, maybe even coach us with chalk on the screen, but too often he parrots what Gifford says. We also ought to hear some vintage Namath stories.
Namath, a sometime stage and TV-commercial actor, is not without a certain presence on camera, and occasionally he at least tries to be insightful. Last week, the referee at one point charged the Rams with a false start on offense and gave the Seahawks a warning. As Simpson and Gifford stammered, Namath speculated that certain Seahawks had been calling offensive signals at the line in order to confuse the Rams. In fact, a Seahawk player had gone into the neutral zone, causing a Ram to break his two-point stance.
Usually, though, Namath just draws on his treasure trove of stock comments. He has one particular broken record that must be driving viewers to despair. The quarterback completes a short pass, the replay is shown and Joe says, "They were in a zone that time. What happened was the receiver found a dead spot in the zone and pulled up for the reception." Namath belabors the obvious in other ways. Late in the Bears-Vikings game with Chicago leading 30-17, he said, "It looks like the Vikings will need two scores to pull this game out." With the Rams on the one in a scoreless game, he said, "This is where the defense gets the gut check. This is their territory down here, and they don't want the goal line crossed."
Before the regular season began, Monday Night producer Bob Goodrich urged critics to give Namath until midseason so the new crew could jell.
Broadway shows, of course, are reviewed on opening night. But an extended honeymoon won't help. Gifford now does what amounts to a radio play-byplay. Halftimes are a disaster, with both Gifford and Namath asking puff questions. The promos for next week's game are more intrusive than ever. This year, in a kind of silent verdict, it seems fans in the stadium have all but stopped hanging out those bed sheets hailing the ABC crew members by name. Smart people.