From the best to the worst of the NFL announcers
Posted: Thursday February 8, 2007 12:09PM; Updated: Friday February 9, 2007 4:28PM
A new problem has arisen, as I attempt to make some sense out of the many charts that define my Ninth Annual TV Commentator Rankings column. The problem is how do you rate a team when one member is obviously much stronger than his partner? In the old days, I didn't think about it much. People generally were paired up in regimental fashion, but the new NFL Network has neatly skewed that arrangement.
So what I will do, for the first time, is give individual rankings in the case of NFL Net talent. You will also notice that Dick Vermeil will be ranked as an individual for his NFL Net duties, and as part of an ESPN team. I understand that this is a complicated business, but who ever said it would be easy. Once again, some people will be left off because I just didn't get enough looks.
ESPN No. 2 team of Brad Nessler, Ron Jaworski and Dick Vermeil
Like lilies of the valley that raised their heads during the recent warm spell, only to fade into oblivion when the frosts came, they appeared only once. This was for Oakland-San Diego in week No. 1 as the second ESPN game, and the brilliance of their work only pointed out the insipid quality of the network's A team that had preceded them.
Nessler comes from college football, where they work at the job a lot harder, and he was smooth as silk as the play-by-play man. Vermeil and Jaworski? Well, it was like sitting in a team's film room watching a game with the coaches. Everything nailed perfectly on the first look, without benefit of replay, everything laid out without hype or cheapness. And the nuances they caught make you wonder why no one else can see these things.
Example: Randy Moss raises his arms in disgust because his quarterback, Aaron Brooks, has failed to see that he was open. And yes, he did look open at the time, and about 90 percent of network announcing teams would have pointed that out. Jaws nailed him in his tracks, telling us that the ball was already gone when cornerback Quentin Jammer dropped off his coverage on Moss, creating the impression that Randy was free. And Moss was merely doing a cheap trick to embarrass his QB. Yes! That's what is known as analysis.
Dick Vermeil (teaming with Bryant Gumbel) on NFL Network -- We saw him near the close of the season. I'm sorry it wasn't more often. How good? On just about every play you are told exactly what has happened ... "Griffith missed his block and Ware slipped in for the tackle" ... "Johnson didn't read the blocking and hit the wrong hole" ... "good job by DeAngelo Hall of getting a bump that disrupted the pattern." Everything on the first look. No hype, no hysterics, no plugging the superstars. Why can't they all do that? Because the production people really don't understand the excellence of this kind of work.
Sam Rosen and Tim Ryan, FOX
Last year Rosen worked with Bill Maas, who has since fallen from grace and was an infrequent contributor this season. Ryan worked with Ron Pitts, who, unfortunately, had a weaker collection of partners in '06. But the chemistry was bound to be good when two guys who work as hard as these do were paired. I've always appreciated the way Rosen is meticulous in telling you exactly who is on the field. Ryan can break down the work of the front lines as few others can. I can find only two faults. At least in one of their games I saw (Jets-Lions), the production people kept coming in on the play after it started and driving your humble narrator nuts. And when they did Green Bay-Chicago they fell prey to a common disease, Favritis. You know, every pick comes with a copout ("That's just Brett trying to win," etc.), and for some reason the rest of their work gets eroded when the disease strikes. They straightened themselves out the following week.
Kenny Albert and Brian Baldinger, FOX
Baldy has the ability to make the people with him better. The best week I saw Pitts have was when he did the first St. Louis-Seattle game with Baldinger. I like the way Baldy challenges the obvious. When TorryHolt's touchdown put St. Louis ahead with 1:44 left, Baldy didn't share in the jubilation. "I hate to say this," he said, "but did they score too early?'' Right on. They certainly did. Seattle had enough time to storm back and win the thing.
Cris Collinsworth, NFL Network
Surprise, here's a wideout who understands line play, and defense, and just about everything else. He sees things on the first look, he's not afraid to challenge the beloved idols. So why doesn't he get the extra star? Because a few weeks of working with Bryant Gumbel almost broke him, and by Week 15 he was missing plays and getting wrong looks. And when the 49ers' tight end, Vernon Davis, pulled an idiot stunt, putting his foot on top of the pylon after scoring a TD, thereby costing his team 15 yards on the kickoff, Cris chimed in with, "What a great kid he is! We had a chance to sit down with him last night." Oy!
Someone in the network must have taken pity on what he was seeing, the destruction of a valuable human being, and by the wild-card playoffs they gave Collinsworth a solid pro to work with, Tom Hammond. And presto, he was back to his old self. "You don't throw a screen pass at non-rushers..." "They started in a man to man, but now they're back in a two-deep zone." Whew, that was close.
Marshall Faulk and Deion Sanders, NFL Network
At halftime of the Atlanta-Dallas game, Vermeil's voice went. Faulk and Sanders were snatched off the anchor desk and rushed into service. "I can't watch," I told The Flaming Redhead. But they were just terrific. "Didn't Vick see that Crumpler was open?" Gumbel said at one point. Both guys jumped him immediately. "He couldn't. He rolled to the other side." Everything just seemed so easy to them, so obvious. There was no fooling around, even from Deion, who seems like he's playing some sort of theatrical part when he's on the desk. "You can't throw a shoot pass against Hall," he said, when Tony Romo had messed up on a short throw. "You have to do it against a cornerback who's playing off his man."
1 of 4
THREE AND A HALF ***/
John Madden and Al Michaels, NBC
Part of the ranking here goes into the production, which had lots of cameras and angles and stuff. Part of it goes to the fact that John had his old buddy, John Robinson, in the booth with him, acting as a spotter. I found that out only recently; I had wondered why Madden seemed sharper on his identifications.
Also it seemed that the boys at NBC were dedicated to making sure that the M&M's kept their focus on what was happening on the field. It had been a problem at ABC.
But then, around the 16th week (Philly 23, Dallas 7) storm warnings were sounded, a reversion to the old ways, which used to happen when the game started getting unclose. Interesting anecdotes began to creep into Michaels' conversation, talk of old times. "He's drifting," I told the Redhead. "The riptide's got him." Now a play or two was missed. Not nice to watch. A couple of weeks later, in the wild-card playoffs (Seattle-Dallas), all of a sudden, in a tense part of the contest, they launched into a discussion of whether or not Bill Parcells was coming back. But the tightness of the game brought them back to it, thank God. Who knows what lies ahead?
Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon,CBS
Harlan is the reason for this presentable ranking. Ninth week, Giants-Houston. He nailed the fact that the Texans came out in three backs on their first play, and then switched to three wides, and the fact that the Giants didn't change their defense. And so it went, the guy practically taking it as a challenge to tell you exactly how people were lined up on the field, which, if you really are into the game and not just running a popcorn shuttle from the kitchen, means an awful lot.
And the Redhead asked me the question I'm always asking, "Why don't they all do that?" Why? You ask why? Because such is not for the A team, the No. 1 crew. They don't have to bother with such mundane affairs.
Yes, Kevin's my man. Always has been. Gannon can break down the pass-catch game, but lacks an overview. And when he takes a shot at line play, it's a joke. His evaluation of the Texans top draft choice, Mario Williams, was a typical ex-quarterback trying to evaluate a D-lineman. Oh, we learned about his agility and his ability to play the run, and this was while the Giants' Luke Petitgout was eating him alive, and even TE Jeremy Shockey was pushing him around. So Petitgout goes down and Williams collects a sack off 93-year old BobWhitfield and it was, see, didn't we tell you how great he was? Well, in spite of everything, Gannon seems to be improving, all around. I guess.
Dick Enberg and Randy Cross, CBS
Cross played on a four-star team last year when he was with Harlan, but the split-up has hurt both of them. Enberg's a nice guy, and he adds a certain comfort level to the show, but Cross seems to be taking the easy slide now and then, falling into the "offensive line really did a good job on that play," type of analysis. Sorry, Randy, but you were a guard for many years. We want to hear which lineman did a good job on whom. It's not impossible. If Vermeil can do it, you can.
Ian Eagle and Solomon Wilcots, CBS
This has been one of my favorite teams for a long time, but I want to be fair. In the first week they were missing small things, such as a holding penalty that nullified a TD. It took them a while to catch up to it. By Week 4 they were back on their game. Wilcots did a nice job catching Moss loafing on what appeared to be an overthrow. In Week 5, KC-Arizona, Wilcots, who is very good on defensive backs' play, floundered mightily, trying to break down a key sack by Jared Allen. And so it went, ups and downs. Maybe I'm being too critical. Maybe I just expect more from this team.
Ron Pitts and ?, FOX
Oh, Pittsie, what are they doing to you? I wasn't happy when they turned you into a play-by-play man (at one time you were the only analyst who actually used to identify the blockers on kickoffs) but even the play-by-play bit worked OK last year when they paired you with Tim Ryan. Now they've got you into some kind of change-your-partners deal, and personally, I don't like it. OK, Pitts and J.C. Pearson in Week 5 was Hype the Stars. Pitts and Baldinger a week later was a pleasure to listen to. Pitts' partner, Terry Donahue, during the New Orleans-Green Bay game in Week 2, had been Johnny one-note for Donahue ... "Gotta keep getting the ball to Donald Driver, their best player." All right, already.
The team seemed better next time I saw them, but by Week 7 (Minnesota-Seattle) it was plug Steve Hutchinson week. The hole could have been on the other side of the line, but it didn't matter, Hutchinson got the credit. And Pittsie was missing stuff. And I hated to see it because at one time I think I had him close to five stars. Finally in Week 12, I saw him do the San Francisco-St. Louis game with Jesse Palmer, and that put the lid on it. He had gone corporate and had given up. Frank Gore broke a 12-yard run without making a cut, through a big hole, and it was "fantastic unbelievable." In the old days Pitts would have called it right ... that no one touched him. So I'm dropping three stars on him for old times' sake. Give him a break, Fox ... one good solid guy to work with, OK? He'll be good again, I promise.
2 of 4
TWO AND A HALF **/
Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, FOX
The first remark of Buck's that I annotated was the following: "The Jaguars need a win." This was in the Dallas game. Their record was 0-0 at the time. Gosh, this is news. I heard Aikman mention, at various times, that third down was they key down to stop people on and almost every other series was called "Crucial." Finally I just fell in alongside them and realized that this is their thing. I do want to apologize to Troy for one thing, though. I should have raised last year's ranking, based on the way he broke down the Seahawks' coverage on Steve Smith in the NFC Championship. The problem was that I was at the game and didn't see my tape of it until I had already written the column. It was great work, absolutely top grade.
Buck seldom tells me anything I don't know, and his habit of totally ignoring guys who make good defensive plays is especially annoying. I kept waiting for Aikman to pick up the nuances of line play, but I'm beginning to think it's a lost cause and just accept the guy for what he is, a very good analyst of routes and coverages. Both of them really let me down, though, when they did Seattle-Chicago in the divisional round without stressing the fact that the Seahawks' secondary was totally crippled.
Dick Stockton and Daryl Johnston, FOX
What is it with these old Cowboys? Didn't they ever watch the guys up front? The Moose chooses to ignore that aspect of the game, and it would be different if he were really outstanding in some other aspect, but things are starting to slip. He totally missed the two-tight end, unbalanced line the Chargers opened with in the St. Louis game he worked with Harlan. It set the tone for a big running day. He was busy talking about another game and never spotted the challenge flag at one point. He's a bright guy. He should be progressing, not regressing.
Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, CBS
Up half a star from last year. At this rate, they'll be in the elite class in five years or so and Simms won't be mad at me any more. The upgrade comes because Nantz is doing a better job spotting correct blocks and defensive plays, and he's actually calling subs as they come in. But one thing really bugged me. They did the Nov. 12 Jets-Patriots game, and their wild-card playoff game. In each one the matter of the Belichick-Mangini feud came up.
Now if I know the reason for it ... or let's say I'm pretty sure I know ... I would assume that Simms knows it, too. It centers around the manner in which New York signed a former Patriots reserve linebacker, as well as the tampering charge filed by the Patriots in the case of Deion Branch. And it's not just between the two coaches, it's an organizational thing. The first time the matter was brought up Simms tossed it off to how competitive Belichick was. The next time it was a pupil-mentor thing. I won't take this any further, but in the background I could detect the odor of rotting fish. Then there was the matter of the rush scheme the Jets used when they upset New England in Foxboro. The situation cried out for analysis. "Mixup in protection," was all we got. Uh uh, not good enough, pal.
Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf, CBS
Had to drop Dan a full star from his Enberg gig because he just doesn't seem to be working it any more. Of course he gets no help from his partner, who offers observations such as, "This Denver running game is amazing, considering they don't have a huge offensive line." Lots of movement with small, quick linemen has been their trademark for more than a decade, but why should we expect a network announcer to know something like that?
K.C.-Baltimore produced no natural curiosity about why a seldom used K.C. linebacker, Keyaron Fox, was in the game, and even more strange, why he was covering Derrick Mason, a wideout. Ah, let it slide. Who cares, anyway? Much easier to do a riff on how they have to stop Ray Lewis, an angle that even the loyalists were backing off from, as his game slowly declined.
Observations come in generalities...the "outstanding line play," the "good penetration," by the defense, etc. At one time, years ago, Dan had a good eye for line play, especially on offense, but I cringed as I heard him go off on Hutchinson, a guy who looked clumsy and overrated with the Vikings ... "If ever a man defined the position of offensive guard ... " bong, bong, bong, and in the background you can hear the cathedral bells chiming.
3 of 4
ONE AND A HALF */
Gus Johnson and Steve Tasker, CBS
I'm not going to use an elephant gun to bring down sparrows. I thought Tasker would be better by now. He's a bright guy. I've said this before; I get the feeling that the production people are taking away what he wants to do. Johnson is flatly inaccurate. He'll announce his opening graphic, without comment, while a guy who's not on it is making the stop on the first scrimmage. You never know who's in the game. Yardage is regularly screwed up. Why is it so hard? In the Jets-Houston game I counted 23 wrong yard line calls he made. Just to make sure this was no fluke, I did it again in Buffalo-San Diego and got 21. To make up for all this, Gus has turned into an inveterate yeller. "He takes the handoff AND HE'S GOING TO PICK UP YARDAGE!" Sssshh, we can hear you.
Bryant Gumbel, NFL Network
The network couldn't find anyone in the allotted time, so they picked Gumbel, a decent studio talent who has no feel for football play-by-play. He just doesn't understand it, and he embarrasses whomever he's working with by his howlers. Even worse, though, he brings the level of the show down by constantly trying to switch off the action on the field and onto whatever topic strikes his fancy, or perhaps an extended interview with one of the anchor team, sometimes omitting play-by-play entirely.
Joe Theismann, Mike Tirico and Tony Kornheiser, ESPN
I've raged against this outfit for years and it hasn't done a bit of good, so I won't waste an awful lot of space on their newest clown, Kornheiser, or their play-by-play guy, Tirico, who brings you only part of the action, and none at all if there's one of those interminable guest-in-the-booth abominations. But I will say that I approached their Giants-Dallas show in Week 7 with absolute dread because I knew the T.O. stuff would be once again flogged to death in tedious and humorless terms. And they didn't disappoint me. When I die and go to hell, hell will be a Kornheiser bit on T.O.-prolonged indefinitely. What I'd like to concentrate on is one of the more dishonest things I saw in a telecast, and the perpetrator was the one member of the team who knows something about football, Theismann.
Week 6, Chicago at Arizona, a defining moment for the Cardinals and their coach, Denny Green, and their offensive coordinator, Keith Rowen. The Cardinals are driving for the victory. The Bears can't stop them, no matter what defense they throw up. Rookie QB Matt Leinart is killing them with underneath passes, the same way Peyton Manning did in the Super Bowl ... ironic, huh? Down the field they come. Theismann has talked to Rowen, who told him that he knew he could beat the Bears this way ... if only Green would let him do it, but the coach was bugged by Edgerrin James bitching about not being permitted to close out the contest. This was the knowledge that Theismann had in the booth, and at one point in the drive, he muttered, "Don't stop throwing." It just popped out.
But they did stop. They reached the Chicago 23-yard line and brought in two tight ends and two running backs, the ultimate give up. Now Theismann had a decision to make. He could lay out his knowledge of the situation, as practically any honest announcer would, and it would have been fascinating, a real coup for a guy who has been much reviled during his career. But just then Kornheiser came up with one of his grade school pronouncements ... "You have to admit it, don't you ... you're rooting for them." And Joe, given the choice, opted for the low IQ route, a little bantering back and forth with his sidekick.
Well, the Cards' heavy offense was stopped and they missed the field goal and lost the game. And in his postgame press conference Green went into some contrived rage thing about how the Bears were "anointed." And then he made Rowen the scapegoat and fired him. The viewers of ESPN could have been privy to all this ahead of time, they could have been in on a real scoop. But Theismann chose to ignore journalistic integrity and play marbles with Bozo the Clown. Personally, the whole thing makes me sick.