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The Shutdown Five: The NFL's best color commentators

MJD
Shutdown Corner

Lists are the one thing in the sports world that can be counted on to consistently fire people up, and that's one thing we don't do enough of here on The Corner: make you angry. Every Monday [or Tuesday, in the event of Memorial Day], Shutdown Corner's presents a list of five NFL-related something. Today, in-the-booth game analysts.

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Between the retirement of the legendary John Madden and the end of the Tony Kornheiser experiment, commentators have dominated NFL-related headlines recently. It seemed like a good time, since the deck had been recently re-shuffled, to rank the best color commentators left in the game.

As always, lists will vary from person to person, but I don't think opinions vary on any subject more than they do on commentators. That's a lesson I learned with the Kornheiser departure post. I was shocked to learn how many people out there loved Tony's work on Monday Night Football. I really had no idea. With that in mind, here's my list, and I'm anxious to see where you disagree.

1. Cris Collinsworth. I guess if John Madden has to go, it's a good idea to replace him with the next best guy out there, and that's exactly what NBC has done. Collinsworth is observant, smart, and likable in a way that I can't quite put my finger on. The NFL is often a culture of large, intimidating men with egos, but Collinsworth seems like a guy who is very unlikely to steal your lunch money and give you a wedgie.

2. Boomer Esiason. Most probably think of Boomer as a studio analyst, but here, I refer to his radio work with Westwood One on the Monday night games. Boomer's very sharp on the radio, and if I ever follow this up with a list of the best play-by-play guys, his partner Marv Albert's getting the number one spot there, too.

His biggest strength would be his willingness to criticize, which seems like it should be a given with all analysts, but it isn't. It's not that I'm looking for someone to sit in the booth and yell at people, but too often, they're afraid to criticize players and coaches. They don't want people to get mad at them. And that's understandable, I suppose, but it makes for a boring broadcast that isn't as honest, accurate or educational as it should be.

3. Ron Jaworski. Jaws is at his best on the "NFL Matchup" show, where he can take your understanding of a play from "pass over the middle for a gain of 14" to something more like what an offensive coordinator or a quarterback sees. In his time in the Monday Night booth, he's managed to bring a little bit of that to the game, but maybe not quite to the level that I would like.

Why this is, I'm not sure. Maybe it was made difficult by the adjustment everyone had to make when Kornheiser moved into the booth. Maybe ESPN doesn't want him to, because they think people will find it boring. Maybe it's just hard to do that sort of thing in the natural course of a broadcast.

His placement at number three here is somewhat of a gamble that we'll see more of the "NFL Matchup" version of Jaws in 2009. We had more of that Jaws in the one game he did alongside ex-coach Dick Vermeil, and maybe we'll get similar results now that he's alongside ex-coach Jon Gruden.

4. Troy Aikman. Aikman will be a controversial selection here, I'm sure. People think he's biased towards the Cowboys. People think he overcompensates for a bias towards the Cowboys to the point where he's actually biased against the Cowboys. People still have lingering opinions about him from his playing days. People think he focuses too much on quarterback play.

The last criticism's the only one I'd endorse, but I wouldn't necessarily see it as a bad thing. After all, quarterback play is pretty important, and it's not like there are a lot of people in the viewing audience who already know what it's like to be an NFL quarterback. He plays to his strengths, and the viewer is better off for it.

5. Brian Billick. Billick's transition from coach to commentator has so far been extra smooth. His reputation as a coach was as an intellectual type who may have also been a tad smug and arrogant. Those aren't bad qualities for a coach, but it's nothing anyone wants to listen to for four straight hours.

But Billick has managed to take the intelligence into the booth while leaving the smugness and arrogance behind. He explains coaching decisions and on-field successes and failures as well as anyone out there, and I think that's the most important quality for a game analyst. If he stays with the TV game, I'm looking forward to him moving up the ladder into more and more prominent roles.

Feel free to rearrange, criticize, add and subtract, and leave your own lists in the comments. I'm curious to see who tickles your eardrums.

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