When we as fans, watch an NFL game from start to finish with rapt attention (i.e. the playoffs) it’s easy to get annoyed with the highly paid broadcast tandem assigned to the game we are watching. After all, we have allowed them into our living room as guests for 3 hours, and what they say, and how they say it, can have a direct effect on our enjoyment. (Regardless of our rooting preferences). The worst announcers leave you more angry than if they had eaten all your food, drank all your beer, and started making out with your girlfriend. The best ones make you say: “Hey, that was fun! See you next week!” as they walk out the door.
So with that, let me rank the four different “A-Team” broadcast booths from the Wildcard Weekend.
CBS: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson
Earlier this year, I said that my initial impression of the rookie Romo was good, but that he was “a little chatty.” Now after watching him slice and dice play after play in the Jags-Bills game, I am not afraid to say he’s best TV football analyst in my lifetime. Note: I said “best” which is an important distinction from “favorite.” For many, John Madden will always be your favorite, and you can still argue he’s “the best.” I won’t quibble. I will just say that Romo has cracked the game open on TV in a way that is revolutionary. No, it’s not just him occasionally trying to blurt out a play before it happens. It’s the fact that he is both telling you WHY a play did or did not work, while at the same time thinking about broader game/time/drive strategic decisions. Romo is also funny without trying, genuinely self-effacing, a little bit smart-assy, and best of all – genuinely excited to be watching football! I can only imagine how re-invigorated Nantz must feel, as I said the last few years that Phil Simms was the anchor threatening to drag both of them down. And you can cheap-shot Nantz all you like as the sotto voce voice of the Masters who doesn’t belong in an NFL booth – but you’d be wrong. Nantz’s calls are crisp, energetic, on point and on time. He’s now doing his best work yet on the NFL next to Romo. Oh, and Tracy’s great. Grade: A+
Fox: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews
For some, Buck is too stentorian in his delivery, and just a bit reeking of overconfidence. I disagree. I think Buck is fantastic. He has great command of the game, understands and gets ahead of strategic moments to help set them up, and always delivers a perfect shot of announcer adrenaline on big plays. His partner though? Oooof. Aikman isn’t quite as bad as Simms was in the last few years, but it’s close. Contrasted to Romo, Aikman is great at repeating what you just saw happen in real time, although Aikman merely narrates the slow-motion replay. The how-what-why of any given play – i.e. the stuff we on the couch have little ability to decipher on our own – is almost never revealed. And when a point made with just 4 or 5 words will do, Aikman makes sure to use no less than 50. Worse yet, is that Aikman is a drone. His plodding cadence to every play, is so repeatable that I bet if you stacked his waveforms in an audio editor, they would look virtually identical. He leans on crutch phrases with no nutritional value (“great job” and “excellent play”) and has one of the least critical eyes you’ll ever see when it comes to penalties. (Hint: virtually all of them are “good call.”) And if Troy Aikman has ever said a single funny thing while calling a game, I’ve yet to hear it. Erin Andrews? Still a 10, in my book. Grade: B
NBC: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michelle Tafoya
My annoyance with Michaels and his elongated “whine-calls” is well documented at this point, so I will try not to pile on. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then listen to all the times he groans, growls, and extends a nasally syllable while he waits to see if a catch is made. Al’s saving grace is that he seems to hate replay as much as I do these days, and he loves sliding in a subtle point-spread reference on late game bad-beats. It still doesn’t make up for the fact that on obvious game-breaking plays, Michaels will often call them as a matter of fact 1st-and-10 play in the 1st quarter. The Mohammed Sanu screen pass that broke the Rams back is a perfect example. (You’ll either have to find it yourself, or take my word for it.) On the Collinsworth front, I have grown to be a (mostly) un-apologetic fan. He really peels back layers of the game that are not readily apparent, and doesn’t take himself or the game too seriously. He too could benefit from a less-is-more approach to word count, but so could they all. If only we could do something with that voice. Michelle is great. Whatever she does. Grade: B-
ESPN: Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
Most people simply don’t have a taste for McDonough as a lead-voice on a big weekly national TV game. I get it. He’s like a cup of steaming hot black coffee. No frills. But gets the job done, and done right. I’m okay with him, because his preparation is first rate, and his calls have all the appropriate “punchiness” for the moment. That said, it was unfortunate that he seemed to transcend through his pre-pubescent years on the Kansas City fumble-TD-return-that-never-was, although I can understand how such a play might wreck an announcers vocal chords. Had it stood, it would have been the modern day Joe Pisarcik fumble, only with higher stakes since the “Miracle at the Meadowlands” happened in November, not the playoffs. As for Gruden, well, he played his character reasonably well all these nine years on ESPN. From the very start, it was obvious Gruden was pulling punches on teams, coaches and players while up in the booth. I think I said just a year or two into his stint: “He sure sounds like he doesn’t want to burn any bridges back to the sidelines.” And sure enough, that approach never stopped. Every now and then, Gruden would let some hot truth spill out into his headset. Most of the time, however, it was just giving Frank Caliendo more source material to work with. I don’t know who ESPN thinks is a front-runner to replace him, and I think it would make sense to re-configuring the entire booth (assuming McDonough doesn’t have some insanely huge buyout). And Lisa Salters gives short updates from the sidelines. She’s not Sergio Dipp. Grade: C-