I don't know anyone who's happy with the current state of NFL announcing. You can't say things deteriorated this season because this has been an ongoing problem for more than 20 years, ever since the Cosell-Meredith-Gifford team peaked and John Madden exploded onto the scene, followed by the networks' collectively deciding, "instead of accepting that these were two once-in-a-lifetime situations that cannot be recreated, we're going to kill ourselves trying to recreate them."And they did. And they failed. And they keep failing.
The thing is, it's not that hard to announce a football game. Consider my favorite broadcasting teams in 2006: Marv Albert and Boomer Esiason; Gus Johnson and Steve Tasker; Brad Nessler, Dick Vermeil and Ron Jaworski; Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth; and Ron Pitts and Jesse Palmer (who called last week's Niners-Rams game). Why is this interesting? Well, Marv and Boomer are calling Monday night games on the radio for Westwood One. Nessler, Vermeil and Jaworski were thrown together for one night only (the second ESPN Monday Night Football game in Week 1). Johnson and Tasker always are buried doing the worst possible CBS games. Gumbel and Collinsworth are doing only six games and can't even be found on some cable systems. And Palmer is best known for breaking the record of "most times 'The Bachelor' used the word 'amazing' " on ABC three years ago.None of this makes sense, right? Well, it actually does. Let's look at those five teams again, because we can cover every problem in the current announcing climate just by mentioning what these guys are doing right: Marv and Boomer: Let's just say that they're more up my alley than their TV counterparts on Monday night. And why? Because they concentrate solely on telling us what's happening and why. They avoid anecdotes and insta-puff pieces and don't worry about appealing to non-football fans with those compact, adorable, 45-second yarns about how some player made it to the NFL even though he was raised by jackals, or some player is playing again even though he donated a kidney to a Somalian refugee he met at a Costco over Thanksgiving, that kind of stuff. (Maybe I'm heartless, but I just don't care. I want to watch football.) Marv and Boomer aren't name-dropping coordinators and deluging us with information and anecdotes that we don't need to hear. They aren't awkwardly setting each other up for jokes and they aren't pushing the game aside for celebrity guests. So what's left? You're not going to believe this, but they're talking about the stuff I want to hear -- like if it's third-and-a-long-4 or third-and-a-short-4, or why so-and-so seems to be throwing more than usual on second down, or who's dominating the line of scrimmage, or what the trailing team needs to do to get back in the game. You know, the relevant stuff. Marv and Boomer have four other distinct advantages. First, they genuinely seem to enjoy each other's company. This has more to do with Marv than anything -- whether it's football or basketball, he has a knack for clicking on the air with his color guy and connecting on a social level, which seems like an obvious talent until you realize that just about nobody else on the planet can do it. Before hooking up with John Madden, the most highly paid play-by-play guy ever, Al Michaels, parted ways with five NFL partners (Dan Dierdorf, Frank Gifford, Esiason, Dennis Miller and Dan Fouts) in the last two decades. Of course, none of this was ever Michaels' fault -- the partner was always changed. I find this interesting.
Here's what you missed this week from the Sports Guy:
• The Leastern Conference
• Beat The Sports Guy
Second, they're doing games on the radio, which means they're not being paralyzed by every replay and replay challenge. For the most part, TV announcers can't carry a conversation when a replay is running; the color guy invariably feels a pressing need to validate the scenes we're seeing, even if it's to say something painfully obvious like, "here's Holt going over the middle, and he just hauls that in and absorbs a big hit right there." When somebody breaks out of a potential conversation to reiterate the most obvious observation possible, that tends to kill the flow of the conversation.(Note: Try this sometime when you're driving with your significant other, pretend you're calling replays about the other cars on the road. And there's the Dodge Stratus with his blinker on. I'm gonna tell ya, this is a huge left turn right here, and watch this, watch how he does it, he NAILS it. See if they go crazy. I bet they do. And yet, just about all of these color guys keep calling games this way. Why? Because everyone else is doing it. It's like the blind leading the blind.) Third, when they're throwing it down to sideline reporter John Dockery, he's not standing there with a rehearsed anecdote; he's a former player who uses his access and experience to provide a different perspective. For example, after a 15-play Indy drive against the Eagles on Sunday, Dockery pointed out that 14 of those plays were run right at Philly's undersized defensive end. I love this stuff. I love hearing that the cleats aren't catching the turf right, that the home team has been talking an excessive amount of trash, that two teammates were just arguing coming off the field, that the starting quarterback looks terrified and overwhelmed. Give me those observations over a story about the punter's pet alligator any day. And many times, Boomer will take one of Dockery's observations and expand on it. Novel concept. Fourth, Marv just wants to call the game and make it more exciting, whereas the new breed of big-name play-by-play guys fancy themselves as announcers, storytellers, analysts AND social commentators. I have always blamed Bob Costas for this because I can't remember anyone doing it before him, but one thing's for sure: it has been taken to another level by Michaels and Joe Buck. Now, just about everyone is following suit. You can't just provide play-by-play these days; you have to unleash a steady stream of opinions, too. And then there's this ... If I could live my life over again and pick one guy to call every NBA game I ever watched on television, I'd pick Marv. If I could pick one guy to call every NFL game I ever watched on television, it would be Pat Summerall. (Note: There's about a 97 percent chance you're sitting there nodding and saying to yourself, "yeah, those would be my guys, too." Remember this feeling. We'll get to it in a second.) Albert has a distinctly nasal voice and always matches the excitement of the game; Summerall's tone rarely wavers and his voice always sounds like he just woke up from a night that was wrecked by scotch and Marlboro Reds. But they're more similar than you'd think. They both have natural feels for the ebb and flow of their respective sports. They rarely stray from the nuts and bolts of the game and always make a point to tell us the yardage, shot clock, third-down distance, score or whatever else we needed to know. They never overload us with useless information or wasted words. They never seem like social commentators or frustrated color guys, just two guys hired to call that day's game. And it always feels like a bigger game when these guys are involved. They also have no contemporary equals. Right now, Mike Breen comes the closest to Marv, whereas there isn't anyone who reminds me of Summerall. And that's the biggest problem with football announcing right now (well, one of the biggest): Nobody is trying to rip off the guys who everyone loved the most. Normally, I despise when people steal from someone else or do a half-assed impression of them and hope nobody else notices, whether it's writing, music, stand-up comedy, late-night comedy, scripted stuff or whatever. There's nothing more annoying than someone who isn't original. In this case? Fledgling broadcasters everywhere, please, you have our permission -- rip off Summerall and Albert. I'll settle for three poor man's Marvs and Pats and maybe even a couple of homeless man's Marvs and Pats. Whatever it takes.
Johnson and Tasker: I will always defend Gus Johnson because he could make a chess match sound exciting. In fact, when I'm running ESPN some day, this is going to be its own show: "Things That We Thought Gus Johnson Could Make More Exciting." I'd like to see him do drag races, high jump events, roller derbies, hot dog eating contests and especially cliff diving ... why he hasn't been handed the "Wide World of Sports" franchise is beyond me. Just two Sundays ago, Gus called Pittsburgh's comeback in Cleveland, and he almost had a seizure on the final play, a tipped Hail Mary that Braylon Edwards nearly hauled in while straddling the back of the end zone. It couldn't have been more exciting. Unfortunately, I'm not sure Gus Johnson's energy and enthusiasm can be ripped off, duplicated or even harnessed. He's one of a kind. But I had to mention him.Gumbel and Collinsworth: I'm including them only because of Collinsworth, in my opinion, the best football color guy alive right now. As he proved during Thursday night's Cincy-Baltimore game, he's more prepared, more interesting and more candid than anyone else. Naturally, he's stuck in the studio for NBC and HBO and gets to call only six games a year on the NFL Network. (It's just too bad that the major networks don't run restaurants -- they would hire the best chefs in the country and force them to work as bartenders and sommeliers.) And just to give Collinsworth a higher degree of difficulty, the NFL Network made the curious decision to partner him with Bryant Gumbel, a career studio host with limited play-by-play experience and subpar pipes. All of this because they wanted another big name to promote in their commercials, quality of the broadcast be damned. Even if Gumbel turns out to be fine (and to be fair, he hasn't been bad, although one of my readers compared his debut to the Elaine Dance on "Seinfeld"), aren't you tired of networks saying, "we need a big name, let's give Big Name X our main play-by-play job, cross our fingers and hope he does a good job?" What about finding natural play-by-play guys for those sports? For instance, Breen fell into the lead NBA job for ESPN/ABC after Nessler (2003) and Michaels (2004-05) didn't work out, even though Breen's call of Game 3 of the 2002 Nets-Celtics series was one of the great non-Marv calls in NBA history. Why didn't Breen get the job in the first place? The answer: Because he wasn't a big enough name. Um ... who gives a crap? What about finding the best guy who calls the most exciting game? Shouldn't that be the main objective here? Nessler/Jaworski/Vermeil: Everyone treated it as some sort of bizarre aberration when these guys outshined the signature ESPN team in Week 1. We all agreed they were great, we didn't attempt to understand it, and it was never mentioned again. When I badgered a friend of mine (a longtime TV executive) about it, he told me, "Come on, those guys had a major advantage, Jaws and Vermeil have been friends for 30 years." Wait, what's wrong with hiring announcers who happen to be friends? This is a bad thing???? Could one of the problems be that we keep forcing announcers together who wouldn't hang out under any other circumstances? Could that be why signature teams often sound like they're doing respective shticks over playing off one another and making each other better? Like Madden and Summerall ... those guys LIKED each other. You could tell. That's why they worked well together. Same for Vermeil and Jaws. But when two heavyweights like Madden and Michaels are calling a game together, they're so settled into their respective personalities (cultivated over decades) that it often sounds like they're just trading turns to speak. We shouldn't be watching games and wondering if the announcers are in the same city, if they're getting along, if somebody took a comment the wrong way, if somebody else doesn't have a sense of humor and didn't get the last joke, if the two guys sound like they just met 10 minutes ago. If I were hiring broadcast teams, I'd approach it almost like you'd approach setting two friends up on a blind date. Forget about the names and the bios. Would they click together? Are they a good match? Could I see them hanging out together? That's ESPN's biggest obstacle on Monday nights: the three announcers are trying to find chemistry, almost like a couple trying especially hard on a blind date. Poor Theismann is battling hard-to-break habits that hardened over the past 15 years because of the "play just happened, the whistle just blew, now I have 15-20 seconds to give my take, and I need to start talking right now or else Paul Maguire will interrupt me" syndrome. At this point, you get the feeling he'd sound the same whether he was announcing with Tirico and Kornheiser or the ESPN Deportes crew. But since it's supposed to be an "entertaining" show that appeals to die-hard fans and casual fans alike, he's asked to provide a constant give-and-take with the sarcastic Kornheiser, which isn't exactly Joe's forte. Plus, Kornheiser spends five days a week skillfully doing the give-and-take thing with his buddy Michael Wilbon on "PTI," so he's conditioned to challenge every dubious comment he hears. And Mike Tirico always seems caught in the middle. I'm not saying it's an insurmountable problem, but it certainly has been rocky these first three months, that's for sure.
Through 12 weeks, against the spread:
Favorites vs. spread: 75-94-6
The truth is, we don't know if Kornheiser could be the next Cosell because he hasn't found his Meredith and Gifford yet. Stick him with Vermeil and Jaws, have Jaws call the game, and Kornheiser would probably flourish. Maybe it would be a little unorthodox, but who cares? Would you learn something? Would you be entertained? Would you feel like you were a fly on the wall at Jaworski's house as he hung out with two friends and watched a football game? I bet you would. And when you think about it, shouldn't every football game give you that feeling? Maybe I'm making too much sense.Pitts and Palmer: Again, I'm as shocked as you guys. Like anyone else, I naturally assumed Palmer's destiny was either hosting a reality-TV show or judging wet T-shirt contests in Cancun. So I'm watching that aforementioned Niners-Rams game and hearing the color guy just nailing everything -- solid point after solid point, consistently interesting and intuitive -- and nearly had a stroke when they flashed their names coming out of commercial. Wait, Jesse Palmer? "The Bachelor"? This is amazing! This is an amazing experience right now! I'm amazed! Sure, Pitts gets some credit here -- he's one of my favorites because of his humorless, businesslike, Summerall-esque style. He doesn't care about entertaining us. Which is exactly what I'm looking for, in case I didn't make that clear already. (You know when you have the perfect blackjack dealer, one of those no-nonsense guys who deals cards at the right speed, never messes up, leaves you and your buddies alone and even throws you a pack of matches and an ashtray when someone breaks out a fresh pack of butts? That's Ron Pitts. He's indispensable. My goal in life is to play blackjack in Vegas with Ron Pitts dealing -- it would be like two worlds colliding.) But Palmer just cared about picking the game apart and telling me what was happening and why. And you know why he was like that? BECAUSE NOBODY HAS GOTTEN TO HIM YET. He hasn't had a network exec say to him, "Hey, we want to make you one of our marquee guys, but our research tells us that you aren't appealing to casual fans. We need more anecdotes and stories from you." He hasn't been corrupted by TV agents telling him, "Look, if you can keep hitting a home run here, we can potentially get a book deal here, and maybe you can even host a game show or a beauty pageant." He's still watching the game as a fan and an ex-player, not as a grizzled TV guy, so he's not paralyzed by every replay or 12 different rehearsed stories in his head. He's not worrying about meshing with a third guy in the booth or stepping on somebody else's toes. He doesn't have to worry about ticking people off because he doesn't have anything to lose, and he hasn't interviewed enough active coaches and players to have a pleasant working relationship corrupt his judgment yet. He can't lapse into a shtick because he hasn't announced enough games to have a shtick. He's just sitting there with a microphone on and pointing stuff out. Which is what that job should be, right? I know, I know, it's a hard thing to pull off. And there are dozens of outside forces that can conspire against finding the perfect announcing team, much less five or six good ones. But I have hope. And maybe that hope lies in two old buddies who worked together only once, two radio announcers, a guy who sounds like he's recreating Rob Schneider's old Orgasm Guy sketches on "SNL," a future Hall of Fame blackjack dealer and a former "Bachelor" star ... but it's still hope. We can fix this. In fact, things are getting better already. Guess who's the play-by-play guy for Fox's Cards-Rams game this Sunday? (I'll give you a second.) (Keep thinking.) (No, that's OK, don't be afraid to wish for a best-case scenario.) (Time's up.) (Ready?)
The answer: Pat Summerall.I'm not making this up. And yes, having Summerall work a Week 13 game between two crappy teams with Brian Baldinger as his color guy is like asking DeNiro to do voiceover work for "Santa Clause 3" for a scene with Dan Cortese. But you know what? I'm not arguing. Pat Summerall is back, baby! Maybe we can turn this announcing thing around yet. Let's replace his blood and find him an oxygen chamber. Onto the Week 13 picks ... (HOME TEAMS IN CAPS) Vikings (+9) over BEARS
Rex Grossman, huge Coldplay fan. It's all starting to make sense. I have to say, I felt a little bad for the Bears' defensive players Sunday -- they were killing themselves and flying around making plays, and all so their crummy offense could heave the ball downfield hoping for pass-interference flags for four quarters. Then Lovie Smith killed them with four minutes left by incredibly kicking a field goal inside the 20 during a 17-10 game. Hey, Lovie? You still needed a touchdown! Did you really think you were getting a stop or a turnover AND Rex was taking you 80 yards on the road for the winning TD? That was absurd. Plus, it almost caused a riot at Gillette Stadium because the local line had creeped to "Patriots by 5." I'm surprised Lovie got out of there in one piece. STEELERS (-7) over Buccaneers
I'm going against this atrocious Tampa team the rest of the way -- even if I have to take the lamest defending champs in recent memory this week. The 2006 Steelers team picture should just be a frozen turd at midfield. And since I have nothing else to add, here's a question from Kyle M. in Minnesota: "Where does Joey Harrington's Thanksgiving performance rank on the Vengeance Scale? My guess would be somewhere between 1.7 (Goldie Hawn coaching the kids to football glory in "Wildcats") and 1.8 (George Costanza feeding lobster in an omelet to Jerry's non-lobster-eating girlfriend)." Actually, Zack, we're going much lower than that: I'm dropping it right at 1.1 with Zack and Slater pouring punch on one another and the Sammy Hagar-David Lee Roth feud. But I'm glad you asked. Cardinals (+6.5) over RAMS
Flag on the play. Rackers ... to kick off. Touchdown, Torry Holt. (On second thought, Fox is really using Summerall, right? They're not just using his recording sessions from Madden 2002? Now I'm worried. Fox, show us Pat in the booth Sunday so I know he's actually there.) TITANS (+7.5) over Colts
Here's why you take the Titans in this game: Because they're 4-3 in their last seven games, with two of those losses coming by one point to the Colts and Ravens. Because the underdogs are 94-75-6 against the spread. Because the home dogs are 35-21-4. Because Vince Young wins football games.
There are two kinds of bad Xmas gifts: Copout Gifts and Just Plain Bad Gifts. Every guy reading this needs to avoid them both. Some examples:
Copout Gifts: (1) a gift certificate to a spa (screams, "I put no thought whatsoever into this"); (2) a vacation to any locale that just so happens to have gambling (we're not stupid); (3) a homemade gift certificate promising stuff like taking out the trash, walking the dog, dates or back rubs (cute idea, but they never get turned in and from my experience, they expire); (4) a box of candy (makes us mad because we can't resist and we're already worried about holiday weight); and, of course, (5) cash.
While we're here, four gifts that will work: (1) a Nano IPod with 100 of her favorite songs already on there; (2) quality cashmere anything (scarf, sweater, hat, gloves); (3) a thoughtful book with a nice note inside; and (4) the "Grey's Anatomy" box set (it's the new "Sex and the City"). Also, please don't e-mail Bill to say that I "mailed it in" this week because this stuff is super important. If you still plan on e-mailing him to say that, go to hell.
Here are my Week 13 picks (sent Thursday morning): Bengals -3, Bears -9; Bucs +7; Rams -6.5; Colts -7.5; Jags PK; 49ers +7; Redskins -1; Browns +5; Pats -13.5; Chargers -6; Jets -1; Giants +3.5; Raiders -3; Seahawks +3; Eagles +3.
Last week: 11-5
DOLPHINS (PK) over Jags
I'm totally sold on the Dolphins this season as the "Too Little Too Late Team" that makes a late run and gets its fans all excited for the following season. Maybe they're making this an annual tradition, replacing Dave Wannstedt's annual Hanukkah collapse. Hey, here's a fun e-mail from Mike in L.A.:
I don't trust anyone in the NFC as a TD-favorite against anyone else in the NFL -- except for Tony Romo and the Cowboys. Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd write. Three other Dallas thoughts: 1. For some reason, the whole "Romo got dumped by his girlfriend, now he's the hottest QB and he's going out with Jessica Simpson" thing is giving me flashbacks to the time the Red Sox lowballed Roger Clemens in '96, then he signed with the Blue Jays, lost 20 pounds and won consecutive Cy Youngs. And if his old girlfriend is half as bitter as the Red Sox fans were in the late '90s ... well, Tony might want to get a better alarm for his house. 2. There's nothing funnier than the demeanor of Dallas fans right now. Just go up to any of them and start the conversation, "Hey, congrats on the Cowboys, you guys look like a Super Bowl team, that Romo is great!" and watch the stammering, head shaking and determined "Even though you're completely right, I'm contractually obligated to throw water on your argument or else I'm going to jinx what's happening here and the subsequent collapse will be all my fault" routine that follows. High comedy. 3. Seth from Washington points out, "How much are the Cowboys this year looking like the Miami Sharks from "Any Given Sunday?" You even have Parcells as Pacino and Tony Romo as Steamin' Willie Beamen, it's unreal." Let's hope this leads to Parcells giving his version of the "inches" speech in the movie. Hold on, I gotta watch that on YouTube. I'll be right back. Falcons (+1) over REDSKINS
OK, I'm back. And speaking of coming back, it's the Atlanta Falcons! Come on, like you couldn't see them winning the next two games (road games against Washington and Tampa), followed by a shocking upset against Dallas and everyone on the pregame shows starting the whole, "I'm gonna tell you right now, Michael Vick is finally putting it all together, he is CARRYING this Atlanta Falcons team" crap ... and then they blow their last two games and finish 8-8. Tell me when we're all agreeing to stop making excuses for Michael Vick. Give me a date. BROWNS (+5) over Chiefs
When in doubt, take the points. Hey, aren't we long overdue for one of those "Herm Edwards's team blows the game in the final minute because he screwed up the clock" games? Jets (-1) over PACKERS
Confession time: I tagged along with Jimmy Kimmel when he made the Monday Night Football cameo in Seattle. He was Vince, his cousin Sal was Turtle, our friend Tall John was E, and I was either Johnny Drama or Ari. Anyway, if you think Brett Favre looks bad on TV, wait until you see him missing wide-open receivers and throwing to completely covered guys in person -- it's almost as shocking as seeing Michael Richards do a set at the Comedy Store. He's completely washed up -- and not even in an "aging gunslinger" kind of way, like Elway in the late '90s or Bird in the early '90s. He's just washed up. They absolutely could have won that game and didn't because of him. But I'm glad he's on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. This is ouuuuuuuuur country. PATRIOTS (-13.5) over Lions
Here's the week when Lions fans stop asking each other, "Why the hell haven't they fired Millen yet?" and start asking, "Wait, do you realize we could have taken Leinart last April ... why the hell haven't we fired Millen yet?" (Important note: I did NOT provide the lyrics or vocals for this YouTube video about Tom Brady, although dozens of readers wrote in wondering if I was involved. And I'm still not sure if this was serious or not, but just to be safe, we're giving it a 9.9 on the Unintentional Comedy Scale and an 9.3 on the Intentional Comedy Scale. Tremendous work either way. That would have been the best YouTube clip in six months if not for the Bank of America guys singing "One.") BILLS (+6) over Chargers
Everyone keeps e-mailing me to ask why more people aren't outraged that Shawne Merriman, one of the best defensive players in the league, was caught doing steroids, and yet we're all ready to crucify Mark McGwire right now and deport him to Cuba. You're right, it's a little weird. But here's the big difference: McGwire and Sosa roped us in back in '98. They lied to us. It was like one of those bad '80s movies where somebody pretends to be something they're not, and everyone accepts them until they find out their secret, and then we fly off the handle because we feel like we were deceived by them. But that can't happen with football players -- we're prepared for anything with them. You can't be outraged when you're not even remotely surprised, right? Cowboys (-3.5) over GIANTS
Received the first batch of "when can we change Eli Manning's first name to Fredo?" e-mails this week. And you know what? We're almost there. One more crummy game. Imagine a sold-out stadium derisively chanting, "Fre-do! Fre-do! Fre-do!" as Eli walks off the field after a back-breaking interception? I'm giddy. Texans (+3) over RAIDERS
Please tell me someone's writing a book about this Raiders season. And that the cover will be Art Shell coldly staring toward the field. BRONCOS (-3) over Seahawks
Yes, I'm excited for the Jay Cutler Era. Especially for the part when it gets temporarily derailed later this month because his running backs stink. Some lingering thoughts on a 33-hour trip to Seattle: 1. Loudest crowd I've ever heard. Seems like it's more due to the way the stadium is built than anything else -- for instance, Monday's crowd was 20 percent Packers fans and even they sounded abnormally loud. 2. We decided that Seattle can't be considered an underrated city because everyone always talks about how underrated it is, so now it's properly rated. But can you think of another city other than New York or Los Angeles that had a bigger cultural impact on this country over the past 16 years? Grunge music, Starbucks, microbrews, Microsoft, Amazon.com and even ESPN.com all started there. What other city can come up with six things to compare to those? 3. Highlight of the trip: Finding out that Seahawks tackle Walter Jones has a daughter named Waleria and a son named Walterius.. 4. Seahawks fans really, really, REALLY don't like Jerramy Stevens. It's a palpable dislike. Don't think this won't be rearing its head in January. 5. If you can't get excited to attend a Monday Night Football game when it's snowing out, you need to stop following sports immediately. Panthers (-3) over EAGLES
"Boooooooooooo! Boooooooooooooo! Booooooooooooo!"
This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 12-4
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.