With the playoffs in full swing, what better time to take a look at the NFL announcing landscape. I always admired the ability of Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman to thoroughly grade the NFL broadcasting teams. While we won't quite duplicate that impressive feat, grades will be handed out to the "A" broadcast teams of each network that covers games (yes, including you NFL Net) and provide other thoughts on the announcers that enter your homes on Sundays and beyond. Remember, this is just one man's opinion so please discuss and agree or (mostly) disagree below in the comments. Here is your NFL Broadcasting Manifesto...
Play by Play: Al Michaels, Analyst: Cris Collinsworth
-I justify this grade because I see this team as the only A grade among the top NFL broadcast teams, but I realize that not everyone holds the same belief (folks on AA staff included), especially regarding Collinsworth. Also, I've gotten a few A-/B+ grades in my career as a student, so you can now feel my confusion on how that exactly works. After the departure of John Madden two years ago, Cris Collinsworth had to fill his large shoes in the Sunday Night booth. Over those two seasons, the former Bengals receiver has blossomed into the best game analyst in the NFL and a lot of that is due to the chemistry that he has developed with Michaels and the production at NBC. Michaels and Collinsworth have developed into a great broadcast duo because each compliments the other in the booth.
The NBC telecasts are unmatched in the way games are produced. The mix of stats and information, replays, and commentary are the best in the league. We discovered that Michaels and Collinsworth actually say the least among NFL broadcast teams. The SNF booth is able to let the pictures do the talking without the need to ramble about frivolous things. At pbp, Michaels is understated with a recognition of the moment. Over time, he has become the standard for NFL play by play announcers. There's a tangent here and there with Al, but it's usually innocuous. At analyst, Collinsworth is insightful without bludgeoning the viewer over the head. In my opinion, Collinsworth is the best in the NFL because he's able to say something meaningful without being a shill for any team/player/position. Many analysts want to tiptoe around what's really going on because they are afraid or unwilling to be too critical. This pairing has crossed the threshold where you know it's a big game because Michaels and Collinsworth are at the mics.
Play by Play: Mike Tirico, Analysts: Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden
-The Monday Night booth comes in at a close second in our grades. This is a very good broadcast team that has just a few blemishes that keeps them from an A grade. I enjoy the partnership of Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden, but their obsession and love for the QUARTERBACK POSITION can be just a little nauseating. Let me tell you, this guy Gruden, I like to call him Chuckie, has to be, the most positive analyst, in the history of sports broadcasting. Gruden's penchant for every "this guy" and endless praise hides his preparation and knowledge in the broadcast. Like Jeff Van Gundy, Gruden provides rare analysis as a coach that is just recently out of the game and knows enough tendencies of teams and players to really add something to the broadcast - he was excellent in two college bowl games without this schtick. Jaws has perhaps the best understanding of the game of any analyst due to his film work and applies it well throughout the game broadcast.
As for Mike Tirico, I have a love/hate relationship with him as a play by play man. On golf coverage, he is outstanding. However, in the bright lights of MNF (or some NBA games), you can tell he's trying so hard to make a standout memorable call. A different tone comes over his voice and it makes the viewer think, " how many hours did it take to plan that call?" Sometimes it's an uber-excited call and other times it almost sounds like there's a different attitude in his voice. In fairness, Tirico was recently named broadcaster of the year, is very solid overall, and provides the most facts and info of any play by play man. With Tirico, the viewer is always on top of the action and never bereft of a needed explanation. Again, the MNF crew is a very good three man booth that has just a few minor issues, but overall adds a lot to any broadcast. Most fans would be in favor of keeping this crew together on Monday nights for the foreseeable future after a disastrous decade in the booth.CBS: B-
Play by Play: Jim Nantz, Analyst: Phil Simms
-Hello, friends. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are the singles and doubles hitter of the top NFL broadcasting teams. They don't blow you away or leave you with a "wow, these guys are great!" performance, but they don't cause you to rush for the mute button either. Jim Nantz is the face of CBS sports as he's done play by play for the NCAA Tournament and the Masters for many years. A lot of fans were skeptical when he was named to the top booth for the NFL on CBS a few years ago, but he's grown into the role. Nantz may be a little willowy for football fanatics, but he excels in telling the story of the game and setting the scene. He's even a little more excitable than people give him credit for... all in all, I'd rank him right behind Al Michaels in terms of play by play on the top teams.
Surprisingly, where this booth drops off from the top two teams is Phil Simms. On the whole, the former Giants QB has been a good broadcaster for well over a decade, but recently he seems to err in his analysis frequently. Late in last year's Super Bowl, Simms remarked that the Saints should not blitz Peyton Manning. The next play, Tracy Porter pick sixed Manning for the game-winning TD... on a blitz. This weekend, there were more than a couple times when Phil was in mid-analysis after a play and then had to correct himself when the replay showed something different, whether it be with scheme or player identification. However, there are also times like the 4th quarter onside kick where he gets a call on the money. Overall, Simms has lost a step, but this team still does a respectable job.
Play by Play: Joe Buck, Analyst: Troy Aikman
-The problems that most of America has with Joe Buck are well known. His dry, monotone style, even for the biggest moments, continually leave fans wanting for more. When Buck's admitted admiration of being a late night talk show host or not having a real love of sports comes into the picture, fans are often more predisposed to disliking him as an announcer. His actual calling of the game is not terrible, but rather ordinary. He's an understated play by play man who does fairly well with facts and telling the story. Sometimes he crosses over into analysis and it boxes Troy Aikman in to how much he can provide. In fact, I thought Buck was as excited as I've ever heard him in the Packers/Falcons game this weekend. (Maybe it was his love for Aaron Rodgers, who Buck said can score with his arm, leg, and mind?) It's when Joe tries to include his cute jokes or "smartest guy in the room" attitude where he gets into trouble. In our weekend open thread, reader domenic commented, "I just threw my couch at the tv when joe buck said 'its loud.'" See this embarrassing WIld Card Weekend moment when he makes a fat joke about Andy Reid. Keep in mind that this clip is at the end of a close playoff game. Whenever I start to slowly change my mind and think that Joe Buck isn't so bad, he comes up with a stunt like this...
As an analyst, Troy Aikman is decent. Unfortunately for him, most of the positive and negative attention for this pairing goes to Joe Buck. Aikman doesn't really add anything special to the broadcast as a Super Bowl winning QB... but he doesn't really take away anything either. He makes some good points, such as explaining how each quarterback could attack certain areas of the defense during the Packers/Falcons game. However, there are other times where he is lacking in any real analysis or forced to piggyback on Buck's extended play by play. These two have the call of the Super Bowl this year, but after several years together that fact gives viewers more angst than excitement.
NFL Network: D-
Play by Play: Bob Papa, Analysts: Matt Millen and Joe Theismann
-Wow. Is this one of the worst broadcast booths of all-time? Only Bob Papa keeps this grade barely above an F, but with Matt Millen and Joe Theismann it certainly cracks the worst five booths ever. Somebody has yet to explain why the NFL Network went the Kotite route by hiring Joe Theismann to partner Papa and Millen after it looked like his career as a broadcaster was over. Papa is a good NFL play by play man, but too often he is caught trying to play traffic cop between Millen and Theismann. Never has a broadcast pairing been so widely criticized by fans and pundits alike. In fact, both Millen and Theismann made our Top 5 Worst announcers at #1 and #3 respectively. You only need to look at the Twitter commentary of this season's first NFL Net broadcast to discover why Millen and Theismann earned their spots on the worst announcers list. It got so bad that the reason to watch these games was the awfulness in the booth more than the game itself.
How could M & T bring a new ridiculous argument to top the previous week? How could they drop analysis so beyond common sense that it was actually worthy of applause? The NFL should be embarrassed that their flagship network actually passes this off as a broadcast team. Maybe NFL Net should go back to Bryant Gumbel and complete the worst broadcast booth of all-time. That trio would be the James, Wade, and Bosh of awful announcers. At the least, if Millen and Theismann remain together, I'm afraid that broadcasts next year could devolve into something like this...
Most Underrated Team - Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts, CBS
-Dan Fouts has come a long way in the broadcast booth from his time as an SNL punching bag alongside Dennis Miller. His first year in the CBS booth paired with Ian Eagle proved to be refreshing. Fouts' time as a play by play broadcaster for West Coast college football games has helped him improve as a broadcaster and made him more in tune with the game and analysis. He'll never be Ron Jaworski, but there has been a definite improvement. Eagle, no matter the sport, has always been underrated as a play by play guy. When I saw the pairing this season, they had a good energy and left me impressed.
Most Awful Rookie - Torry Holt, Fox
-The English language is only so capable in describing just how bad Torry Holt was in his one game in the Fox broadcast booth alongside Chris Rose. Unfinished sentences and missed player names were the norm throughout the broadcast. He made Emmitt Smith sound eloquent and Chris Rose sound like Pat Summerall. Perhaps it was just first time jitters, but if Holt does have a future in the NFL media it isn't in the broadcast booth. Observe in these Panthers-Browns highlights...
Best of the Rest - Gus Johnson & Kevin Harlan, CBS
-These two men deserve better than the fourth and fifth string broadcasts on CBS. Johnson and Harlan are two personal favorites and are well-liked by the masses. Even though they may not be everyone's favorite style, their natural enthusiasm lift any broadcast. Frankly, that's needed when you broadcast games like Bills-Jets, Browns-Ravens, or Broncos-Chargers every week. While both are among the chattiest NFL broadcasters, they provide a wealth of information without overloading viewers. We've talked about the awesomeness of Gus time and time and time again, but Harlan deserves his due as well. His work on Westwood One Radio doing Monday Night Football and the NCAA Tournament is a must listen if you have the chance. Harlan is one of the few broadcasters that can succeed in a hyperspeed radio style on television. There's a rhythm to Harlan's announcing that clicks with the listener and he's great in the big moment as well. It'd be nice to see these two more on higher profile games.
Worst of the Rest - Tony Siragusa & Dick Stockton, Fox
-There are a lot of contenders here from Fox, but Siragusa and Stockton rise above the crowd of mediocrity to be the worst of the rest with Thom Brennaman in their rear view mirror. Siragusa adds absolutely no value to the Fox broadcast as a quasi sideline reporter-slash-analyst. He often goes on about things that have nothing to do with the game and leaves the viewer wondering whether he's actually watching the game in front of him. However, his ramblings are a Barack Obama speech compared to Dick Stockton. Stockton was one of the best in the business... in the 1980s! It's time for him to ride into the sunset. Stockton regularly misidentifies players and game situations and gets extremely excited for 8 yard gains. The Fox booth of Stockton, Davis, and Mora was one of the worst of the season. They rarely deviated from script no matter what occured in the game and Davis and Mora had to coddle to Stockton's musings. For example, this threesome spent the entire second half of the Saints-Rams game waxing poetically about Steve Spagnuolo and Sam Bradford and how well St. Louis was playing... only problem was that it was Saints 31 Rams 6 at the time. As we'll discuss in just a bit, Fox needs a dramatic announcing overhaul.
*To elaborate on the issues at NFL Network... the biggest question in the offseason will revolve around the decision to move forward with the Papa/Millen/Theismann trio into next season. Even though it is the network of the league, there have been countless missteps along the way. Lengthy and toxic cable disputes and bad announcing are a couple of the issues that have plagued the channel. If the NFL wants to move their network forward, the broadcast of live games will have to improve greatly. Good and possibly great analysts are already there including Mike Mayock and Marshall Faulk. Broadcasting moves can be a great thing for a network - look at how successful Gus Johnson has been as an addition to Big Ten Network. That marketing campaign proves that a network brand can revolve around a popular announcer. Will NFL Network listen to fans and make a change?
*The lack of talent from the CBS booths to the Fox booths is simply staggering. Take a look at the different pairings and you can see how superior the CBS broadcast teams are. CBS teams listed first...
1) Nantz/Simms v Buck/Aikman
2) Gumbel/Dierdorf v Albert/Johnston/Siragusa
3) Eagle/Fouts v Brennaman/Billick
4) Harlan/Wilcots v Stockton/Davis/Mora
5) Johnson/Tasker v Rosen/Ryan
6) Macatee/Gannon v Pitts/Lynch
7) Criqui/Beuerlein v Rose (or Myers)/Warner (or Holt)
All the way down the line, the CBS team wins the head to head matchup and people are starting to notice. Even on local Columbus radio last week, one of the topics brought up was how bad Fox announcers are compared to CBS. When Gus Johnson is your #5 broadcaster, you have serious depth. Look at the #2 teams that worked the Divisional Playoffs - Greg Gumbel has announced Super Bowls and Dan Dierdorf has been an NFL broadcast staple for years. On the other side, Kenny Albert is average and Tony Siragusa is nothing but dead weight. In truth, any one of the top five CBS broadcast teams has the talent to be Fox's first or second string broadcast team. Thom Brennaman has experience calling college football national championship games, but the results weren't pretty. Of the rest of the Fox crews, only Brian Billick and John Lynch stand out as being above average. Fox desperately needs a serious overhaul to their announcing situation
*The stagnancy at the top of each network also stands out. Look at how long the top network broadcasters have been in their position:
-Phil Simms (1995 - first with NBC, then with CBS)
-Jim Nantz (2004 - came after studio swap with Greg Gumbel)
-Joe Buck (2002 - replaced Pat Summerall)
-Troy Aikman (2002 - replaced John Madden)
-Cris Collinsworth (2002 - first appeared alongside Buck & Aikman on Fox)
-Al Michaels (1986 - Monday & Sunday Night Football)
The only place with more job security may be the Supreme Court. One has to wonder when someone like Kevin Harlan or Gus Johnson will have a chance to be at the top of the profession? At Fox, it's going to take the Jaws of Life to ever get Joe Buck out of the top football or baseball broadcast booth... unless he pursues that late night career. With the lack of depth at Fox, will someone like Johnson, Harlan, or Eagle make the leap and at least provide competition or an alternative to the #1 job? In terms of analysts, the NBC and ESPN teams are well above the Sunday afternoon options. Hopefully there can eventually be some diversity in the top analyst positions outside white quarterbacks in the near future as well. I wouldn't mind seeing someone towards the end of his career like Darren Sharper as a third man to at least add something new to the top Fox/CBS teams that are getting stale.