In this NFL game, silence was golden
Why the Jets-Dolphins game was broadcast 30 years ago without announcers
"We are just moments away from the kickoff of today's Jets-Dolphins game and a telecast that figures to be different. The fact that we try something different and dare to has been greeted with almost every kind of reaction, from good-natured humor to applause to some surprising anger." -- Bryant Gumbel's first on-camera words on Dec. 20, 1980
It was a meaningless, season-ending game for two mediocre NFL teams, but Don Ohlmeyer turned it into a happening -- and a piece of history.
He was the first producer of "Monday Night Football," produced and directed three Olympics broadcasts, won 16 Emmy awards and is a member of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. And yet, one of the stunts that will follow him to his grave was a game without a play-by-play crew.
"All the stuff I've done in my career," Ohlmeyer mused recently at ESPN, "and that's what I'm going to be remembered for. It serves me right."
Ohlmeyer, currently the ESPN ombudsman, announced the decision in October and it served several purposes for the executive producer of NBC Sports. He always had believed that announcers talked too much; here was an attention-seeking vehicle that would drive that point home. And, company man that he was, Ohlmeyer had an eye on the ratings. NBC, with its smaller AFC markets, was giving CBS all it could handle and this might be a way to squeeze a few more points out of an unattractive matchup.
"Here we had this dog of a game," Ohlmeyer said. "Part of my thinking was what could we possibly do to get fans to watch this? People could follow a game with pictures, graphics, and hearing the PA announcer in the background."
Dick Enberg, a current ESPN announcer who was one of NBC's lead football announcers at the time, was not amused.
"My first reaction was of incredible nerve, nervousness," he said at his home outside of San Diego. "We're paid to talk, so all of us want to fill the air with lots of exciting words.
"We all gathered together, hoping that Ohlmeyer was dead wrong. I mean, he was flirting with the rest of our lives. What if this crazy idea really worked?"
Bryant Gumbel, the host of NBC's pregame show, appeared on camera -- in a form-fitting white, V-neck sweater -- before the game, then put his microphone down and walked into the Orange Bowl in Miami.
"The young guy in the white sweater looks fat," Gumbel said, watching a DVD of the game in a midtown Manhattan hotel suite. "This is the first time I've seen that. I thought it was more amusing than anything else. I viewed it as kind of a stunt with a small 's.'"
Gumbel artfully teed up the game without the aid of a teleprompter and returned for several updates as the game progressed. To compensate for the lack of words, Ohlmeyer and his technical people placed sensitive microphones all around the stadium. Problem was, the NFL would not relax its usual restrictions, and NBC was unable to place microphones on players. As a result, even the quarterback's signals are inaudible.
"The audio was not nearly rock-solid," said David Neal, a 23-year-old associate producer at the time, who would go on to direct NBC's Olympic coverage. "There's all sorts of strange noises going on, buzzing and things that sound like a frying pan."
Orange Bowl public address announcer Bob Kaufman was instructed to embellish his usual observations of who carried the ball, down and distance.
"You would hear during the game, 'They're measuring for the first down,' " recalled Michael Weisman, the telecast's co-producer. "And, 'That last drive took seven minutes and 20 seconds.' The graphics also filled in some of the holes."
Ah, those graphics. Those gruesome yellow graphics.
"These were, to us, state-of-the-art," Ohlmeyer said, shaking his head. "They look like troglodyte communication [today]."
Nonetheless, no NFL broadcast had ever featured so many graphics. Weisman's only lament is that NBC didn't employ a score bug and a running clock; they had the technology, they just didn't think of it. Fox was the first, in its debut league telecast, in 1994.
In retrospect, Ohlmeyer said he wishes he'd gone to Gumbel more often. Several times, prerecorded interviews -- with Dolphins coach Don Shula and receiver Duriel Harris -- appeared on the screen.
"Normally, you're following the announcers, and the announcers are directing the flow of the telecast," Weisman said. "Early on in the game we realized that we could do whatever we wanted. We'd sit around in the truck and say, 'Let's play the tape now.' But it would just come out of the blue and didn't make a lot of sense out of context."
There were other moments, in the rewatching, that would have benefited from an announcer's ability to provide that context.
Gumbel pointed to the end of the first half, when the 3-12 Jets found themselves on the Dolphins' 3 with three seconds left on the clock. Instead of attempting a field goal that would tie the game at 10, they elected to go for the touchdown and a lead.
"It lacks a degree of drama," Gumbel said, "unless somebody is there to say, 'All right, here's why we're going to shut up and just watch this. Here's what's at stake.' Whenever they do the match-play championships in golf, on paper it looks like a wonderful idea. In truth, what you find is there's a lot of dead space in between shots."
Said Enberg: "The final outcome, with much relief, was the fact after watching for a quarter or two that, you know, something was missing. It was us. While we are not the most important ingredients in the pie, we certainly are a slice of that pie that gives the whole experience full flavor."
The on-field score -- the Jets won 24-17 -- wasn't as interesting as the reaction logged by the NBC switchboard. Pro: 831, con: 518.
"OK," said Gumbel, crunching those numbers. "What was the U.S. population in those days? Two hundred million? It's not like it was a great game. It's not like the Immaculate Reception happened during this. I can't believe it's anything more than a footnote."
Said Ohlmeyer, "It certainly did a much better [ratings] number for us than that dog deserved."
"This was not some backroom experiment," said Neal. "This was network television at a time when network television was far more dominant than it was today. I think that NBC Sports that day really shone in a petri dish for all to see."
Did NBC's announcers behave differently afterward?
"It improved me," Enberg allowed. "Consciously, to this day, there are moments in every sport that I do when I kind of throw up my hands as if to say to myself and to my partner, 'Let's not talk. This moment is special, we don't need to talk. Let's let it play.'"
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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