For lovers of technical analysis, the information coming from the NFL broadcast booths each Sundays has never been more exact or sophisticated. Fox’s Daryl Johnston is terrific. So is Troy Aikman, who, despite having a voice that drones like an air conditioner, can really bring it. Both Johnston and Aikman explain the setups and reads and coverages as well as anybody in the biz.
Same with Phil Simms, who operates on the CBS side. I used to be down on Simms because of all his “eems” (“He had ’eem open!) but he handles the game with class and despises hype and flashes his fangs once in a while when things get sloppy or stupid. Simms has become football’s Bob Costas, the protector of the game.
But what you don’t get, or rarely get, from today’s analysts are clever, off-beat stories from the past, or the behind-the-scenes character vignettes. With Aikman it’s always, “I was talking to Perry Fewell …” or “I was asking Mike McCarthy …” All business, like a top-rate Wall Street Journal reporter. I was talking with the CEO of Rent-A-Center and he strongly hinted at the possibility of an earnings miss. Aikman educates you. Good, hard Xs and Os. The big Super Bowl résumé. You’ll take him any day over a one of the parrots, the cliché launchers like ABC’s Jesse Palmer, in the booth.
But once in a while you would like the networks to uncover a guy who will lighten it up a bit, an "A" student who will still fire an eraser at the board or drop an antacid in the goldfish bowl. Someone who injects intelligent levity.
Jon Gruden at ESPN has a pretty good wit. And I was OK with Dennis Miller on Monday night but that experiment failed because 95 percent of the viewers had no idea what he was talking about. Too many references of the obscure … things like Narcisse Fournier or Hartogs’ theorem or the Battle of Tyndaris.
As a play-by-play man, Fox’s Joe Buck tries to churn a few laughs. He’s dying to be onstage at Zanies, the headliner, and have ‘em howling. He’ll make a crack about Aikman heading up the media buffet at halftime or something, but his stiff delivery always ruins it. Even the crickets shut up. If any of you saw his monologues on the majestic “Joe Buck Live,” one of HBO’s real Hindenburgs from a few years ago, you understand why the show was executed after two or three episodes and never spoken of again.
Curt Gowdy used to say that one of the funniest characters he ever met was Don Meredith — “Jeff and Hazel’s baby boy” — a big Texas personality with a slick array of zingers. The two worked together at NBC for a couple of years in the 1970s. However, Gowdy had a serious gripe about his partner and that was the lack of homework that went into Meredith’s broadcasts.
“Don would just wing it most of the time,” Gowdy told me. “He knew some of the players and coaches and he’d ask them a few questions, but when it came to kickoff he’d just say whatever came to his mind. Heck, he never would have had a briefcase if I hadn’t bought one for him.”
One of the best at whipping the eraser around was Tom Brookshier, the late CBS analyst who teamed with Pat Summerall for so many years. Summerall the straight man, Brookie with the twinkle in his eye. He took any chance he could get to crack up the class. I miss that levity, the occasional poke in the ribs, in today’s telecasts.
“We just sat there like two former players talking to each other,” Brookshier once told me. “The formula was rather simple. We just said what we wanted to say. We always felt that the job was never too serious, and I’m not sure that exists in the booth today. Football is such a simple game, yet announcers act like its World War III going on in front of them.”
I remember his story about a Rams game Brookshier was working at the L.A. Coliseum. His producer had sent him down into the crowd for a quick pregame interview with Jonathan Winters, a roly-poly comedian who made goofy faces and used goofy voices.
“Problem was, I didn’t see him anywhere,” Brookshier said. “Then somebody from his section told me, ‘Jonathan isn’t here — and he might not make it. Sometimes he crashes on his way to the stadium.’ I thought, Great … now what?”
Brookshier got lucky. He looked around and saw the old cowboy himself, Roy Rogers, sitting not far away.
“Roy saw me and said if I needed an interview, he’d do it, that he’d been watching Rams quarterbacks since Bob Waterfield. I said OK, and he gets up wearing this red polyester sport coat and we get in position to do an interview.
“Then through my earpiece my producer, Bob Stenner, says, ‘Tom, he’s got dandruff on his coat! Put your arm over Roy’s shoulders so the audience can’t see it!’ I thought, Dear God … what a helluva thing to say in my ear.”
So Brookie and Roy talked about Waterfield, and they talked about The Dutchman and Roman Gabriel, and after a few minutes Brookshier tried to wrap it up until Stenner said in his ear, “We need another 30 seconds! Give me 30 more seconds!”
“So I asked Roy, ‘Where’s Trigger?”
Roy said, “Well, I’m glad you asked that question. He’s stuffed and right in my living room!”
“Then,” Brookshier said, “I heard somebody yell in my ear from the production truck — Holy $&@#, time to say goodbye, Tom!”
Overheard in Detroit — a lively discussion on the state of the Lions and their big 3-and-4 letdown.
“They can chew the fat; let’s see if they can cut the meat.”
I have no idea what that means, but I completely agree.
One last thing on television. It’s impossible to watch game-day highlights on NFL Network if you’re a serious fan. It’s a clean rip-off of another penetrating TV delight, "Mystery Science Theater 3000," where a guy and two talking robots would just sit there firing incessant wisecracks about the crummy film they were watching.
Only no robots here on "NFL GameDay," just Neon Deion and Steve Mariucci and Michael Irvin or Warren Sapp with their slang and dopey commentary, shouting and climbing over each other at every turn. Highlights with Tourettes.
I caught this week’s Carolina-Chicago segment, and it was Deion or Irvin yelling out “Cam! Cam!” everytime they showed Newton with the ball.
Mooch, with sage reactions like “Get it in there!” and “Oooh, nice catch!”
Then Irvin, keeping it real — “Do what you do, Cam! Don’t trust nobody!!”
"Inanity Highlights Theater 1.0"
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.