Shutdown Corner - NFL

I miss Tony Kornheiser on Monday Night Football.

Those are words I never thought I'd write, but four weeks of listening to his replacement, Jon Gruden, has made me long for the days of the awkward comments, bad timing and non sequiturs that defined Kornheiser's three-year tenure in the MNF booth.

It's not that Gruden is worse than Kornheiser, because he isn't. Obviously Gruden knows a ton about football -- more than Kornheiser, or myself, or you could ever dream of knowing -- but he isn't yet able to channel his vast knowledge of the game into something palatable for a mass TV audience. At times he can be too wonky and pepper his monologues with so much jargon that it leaves the most knowledgeable of fans scratching their heads. At other points Gruden dumbs down his comments to such a degree that he's left speaking completely in cliche and trite hyperbole.

Here's an exmple of the latter from last night's Packers-Vikings game:

Jared Allen(notes) is having a career night. Earlier he just shows sheer relentlessness. His factor grade is off the charts. The man will not quit. He beats you with his stamina, his conditioning. He plays with great hands. But that motor never stops.

That's scintillating, insightful stuff.

Unlike Cris Collinsworth, Troy Aikman or Tim Ryan (my favorite NFL analysts), Gruden rarely says anything that good NFL fans haven't already noticed themselves. Sometimes he comes close (like when mentioning a team's zone blocking schemes or calling out defensive formations), but even when he does that he still bogs himself down with those tired platitudes.

None of this should come as a surprise, of course, since Gruden has been announcing games for exactly a month. ESPN thrust him into the most high-profile of jobs with next-to-no prior experience. A complete lack of preparation never stops television networks making announcing hires, even though it's a preposterous concept when you really think about it. Would an NFL team hire a coach with no experience? (Other than the Bucs, who replaced Gruden with a guy less qualified for that job than Gruden is for his.)

As I wrote in May when Gruden's hiring was announced:

Just because somebody is good at football doesn't mean they're qualified to talk about it on television. They're two different skill-sets. Newspapers don't hire athletes to write about sports because it's accepted that writing isn't easy. Bad writing is also instantly recognizable.

But, for some reason, television networks assume that clearly, accurately, cleverly and insightfully describing the action in a sporting event and disseminating that information to viewers of varying knowledge levels is so easy that somebody like Jon Gruden can dive right in without any problem.

It's still very early in Gruden's broadcasting career and each of the problems I've mentioned can be corrected upon and improved. (Although we're stuck with his gratin' Midwestern accent and annoyin' habit of droppin' "G"s.) But therein lies another issue: Will we even get to see the fruits of Gruden's broadcasting labors?

Nobody expects Gruden to stay in the booth for long. Most people have him pegged for an NFL (Washington, Dallas) or college (Notre Dame) job in 2010 or, at the latest, 2011. By the time Gruden improves (if he even does), he'll likely be on his way out the door.

Back to the inevitable Kornheiser-Gruden comparisons. On last night's live blog MJD said he'd rather listen to Gruden sing for three hours rather than have to endure another season of Kornheiser. I understand his point. My feeling, though, is that Kornheiser was hired to play a role. ESPN wanted him to be the jester of the MNF broadcast and, like him or not, that's what he did. The network hired Jon Gruden to be a top-notch analyst. Through one month of the season, he's far from one.

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