Commentary

The Halby’s: CBS and NBC – NFL critiques – from Michaels and Nantz to Collinsworth and Romo; 7 Crews

CBS airs the Super Bowl on February 3d from Atlanta. Esiason sparkles in CBS studio and Dungy is the cynosure of NBC's Sunday extravaganza

With the 2018 NFL regular season behind us, we ran a column yesterday assessing the major ESPN and Fox on-air crews. Today, in part two, we address CBS and NBC.

Agree or disagree, enjoy it. Sports are about fun and games. No reason to develop any agita over this.

Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth (NBC)

Al’s like a comfortable pair of shoes that never wears out. Michaels recognizes, more so than any network announcer, that fans turn on their sets for only one reason, to see the game. If announcers’ roles are to define, elucidate and illuminate without being overbearing, Michaels is the model voice. He enhances viewers’ experiences and never puts himself ahead of the substance of a game. He appeals to the blue collar and white collar, knowledgeable fans and viewers with only passing interest.

The best of the best in the network business aren’t scripted. The game comes to them. While he doesn’t make things complicated, he’s ready when something complicated surfaces. It’s then that he seamlessly unravels matters for viewers in plain terms. You might say that Michaels is a counter-puncher, not a puncher. It’s why he’s so accepted as one of network television’s best-ever play-by-play announcers. 

Joe Buck writes in his book, Lucky Bastard,  about Collinsworth’s tendency at times to make comments for the sake of making news. True or untrue, viewers know he’s there. Collinsworth is animated, impassioned and sometimes almost giddy. A self-made man after his playing career, he’s a student of the NFL as you would expect. (Collinsworth also graduated law school.)

Recently when an onside kick was an option for a team behind late in a game, Collinsworth cogently addressed why it’s an even worse bet now than it has always been; due to a rule change covering how teams are allowed to line-up. He and Al put it in clear terms and had some basic numbers to back up their extrapolation. Good stuff.

***

Jim Nantz and Tony Romo (CBS)

Jim is a solid play caller. You will hear him on this year’s Super Bowl. But if I ranked the four major networks that produce telecasts every weekend, I’d struggle to give Jim one of the top two spots for NFL play-by-play. He does tons of work for CBS and has the most demanding schedule of any of the top play callers. All the golf, basketball and football; it’s a brimming plate. Jim turns 60 later this year. He’s a very easy listen and he’s never overbearing. Still, it might sometimes sound like he’s overselling the game, the league and the network. Jim is smart, a gentleman, positive, has a constant genuine grin and gives off this sense that the world is a great place to live. 

He has done a good job embracing Tony Romo. Ostensibly, for sure, he had a wonderful working relationship with his ex-partner Phil Simms. Romo is more vibrant, talkative and considerably younger than Jim; a different personality from Simms. Yet, to his credit  Nantz adjusted to Romo and their chemistry appears to be good.

Romo’s best decision was retiring from the Cowboys and taking an offer from CBS Sports head, Sean McManus. He was an immediate hit last year and the talk of football fans. He brought a bubbly and stimulating delivery to the booth.  Through his engrossing commentary, Romo gives viewers a sense that he’s actually down on the field playing the game. It’s almost like he’s wearing shoulder pads and a helmet in the booth. It’s likely the one reason he’s drawn great praise.  When one team has the ball, he’s figuratively its quarterback and the same is true when the other team has the ball. He has the galvanizing voice of a kid in a candy store that makes fans want to hear what he’ll say. The great Marty Glickman, longtime Giants and Jets announcer, would tell me that at the end of a broadcast he felt exhausted because he too called games as though he was still on the playing field at Syracuse where he starred for the Orange in the 1930s.

Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon – CBS

To me, Harlan was an acquired taste, Ask me about him now and I’ll tell you that he’s wonderful. Didn’t always think so. I find him exhilarating, if not spellbinding .  Does he shout? I’ve said this on these pages before; he’s sonorously enthusiastic. Kevin is blessed with a voice that has great range to it, unlike others who, when extending their vocal cords, sound like bad chalk against a blackboard. Harlan’s sympathetic to players and rarely indulges in issues outside the lines. It’s okay, not everyone has to jump on the bandwagon of criticism. I’m glad that he rarely rushes to judgment.

In my humble view, he should be cataloged number two behind Nantz. Anecdotally, from my travels through the years, particularly recently, Harlan is one of the first names that pop off the tongues of football fans when asked who they like in the booth. The man has passion, a warm laugh and makes no snide comments. Remember Verne Lundquist. Kevin doesn’t moderate his call the way Venre did, yet he brings a similar welcoming warmth that I find contagious. 

Gannon is fine. he speaks his mind freely and off the top of his head. The ex NFLer brings no agenda to the booth and shares his expertise with viewers through a quarterback’s lens.

Greg Gumbel, Trent Green and Bruce Arians – CBS

I don’t know what the idea was of matching the ex-Cards coach with Gumbel. But so be it. Gumbel isn’t exactly the life of any party but his call is understated if not unnoticeable. This said, I like Greg on big games because he doesn’t overdo it. But when he’s calling a flat and meaningless game, keep the coffee brewing and make sure it’s heavily caffeinated. Talking of sleeping, I did note his quip in the Bengals-Chargers game when the Chargers’ Joe Mixon added to his big rushing total. Gumbel: “He’ll sleep well tonight.”

Did you know that before he got into broadcasting, Gumbel was a pharmaceutical salesperson?

Trent Green didn’t add very much and Coach Arians was throaty, spoke only occasionally and taught little. The best measure of a color commentator is what the viewer learns from him or her. If the answer is nothing, the commentator should find employment elsewhere. A comment like, “They’ve struggled all year with pass protection.” Goodness, you don’t need an NFL coach on-air to tell you so. You would hope that Gumbel, 72, an obvious veteran, would have a beer with the ex-Cards coach and help engage his partner more. Arians has to open up and loosen up. Color commentary on television isn’t the same as answering probing questions from the media after a loss. At one point I said to myself, this guy sounds like Bill Belichick at a news conference, pleading the Fifth whenever he opened his mouth on-air.

Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts – CBS

Ian gets rave reviews. For my taste, he’s a bit too intense and has a limited range to his voice. He’s the polar opposite of Gumbel. When Ian is on, I find myself getting fidgety and jittery, His voice has an angry sound to it. Not every play is the Battle of the Bulge. Maybe, it’s just me? Could be. Granted, all these opinions are subjective like food and pulchritude.

Eagle also has a tendency to do a little radio on TV.  I wish he was a little more relaxed and talked a little more slowly on television. On Eagles-Texans recently, he correctly put a point of emphasis on Philly needing the win to keep its playoff hopes alive. Meanwhile, I’m watching and thinking. How about Houston? How will a loss effect its opportunity to get a bye? I didn’t hear much about it. Ian is excellent on radio play-by-play. While Harlan transitions smoothly between the two mediums every week.

This all said, Eagle is bright, thoroughly prepared, loved by many and has a dry sense of humor. He’ll always do well for himself.

Fouts doesn’t come in with a script. He flies from the seat of his pants and comments instinctively. He’s a Hall of Famer, has been around the league forever and is obviously very knowledgeable.  Sometimes the instinctive approach works and sometimes it doesn’t.  Viewers will get just so much from him, particularly at this point of his career. You would think that with his wealth of experience, he would spin a yarn once in a while.  Did you know that his dad Bob was a longtime sportscaster in San Francisco who called 49ers games at one point? Dan tried play-by-play himself and quickly figured out that the best chair for him is the one next to the play-by-play voice. Good decision.

Andrew Catalon and James Lofton – CBS

I’m warming up to Andrew. He’s young (age is only how you feel) and he’ll get even better. CBS upgraded Catalon last year, from the 6th team to the 5th. He’s 39 and sometimes he pushes the volume up a wee bit. Looking through my notes that I kept on broadcasters this season, I underlined ‘good on play-by-play and versed on rules.’

James Lofton can be quirky at times. Sometimes you wonder what’s next. When he did radio, I sometimes wondered about his filter. He has a little of  Bill Walton’s craziness to him. You never know where his conversations and commentary will head. James is not afraid to be critical; as he did in a game this season. When he saw a player not standing next to his coach who was providing instruction, Lofton, a former coach himself, had smoke coming out of his ears.  I also like the fact that Lofton challenges Catalon. When Andrew said the quarterback has time to throw. Lofton blurted, “No, he doesn’t.” He then went on to explain in simple terms how the set up against a zone works. For what it’s worth, likely not much, Lofton gets decent grades from me. 

Spero Dedes and Adam Archuleta – CBS

I’ve asked this question before. Why hasn’t Spero advanced further up the food chain? He’s fundamentally sound and has a pleasant voice, one  that he moderates when necessary. For some reason, the network moved him down the depth chart a notch, a year ago. He doesn’t get in the way of the game and is right on top of the action when needed to caption a picture. Spero doesn’t yell either. I watched Spero when he called a game that involved Adam Viniateri, who at age 46 and graying at the temples still connects on about 80% of his field goal attempts. Spero told the story about how his interview with him the day before the game was delayed because the kicker was engaged in his vigorous workout regimen. In other words, Spero used his interaction with the kicker to paint a quick human interest profile for viewers. Good stuff.

Archuletta, the former NFL safety, talks sparingly. He repeats what viewers just saw, providing what not why. He did make a point about Josh Allen that resonated. He said that the Bills quarterback, a 7th pick in the first round, should be ready to play in his rookie year. Archuletta said he’s raw.

I noted that Carter Blackburn did at least one NFL game for CBS and thought he did a commendable job. Blackburn, another Syracuse alum, does considerable work for the CBS Sports (Cable) Network. He’s sure-voiced, poised and fluid.  Syracuse dominates the sports broadcast landscape; From the who’s who today to the who’s who tomorrow

**

Studio Shows

CBS has a grounded group in the studio unlike the wilder scene at Fox. James Brown is a seasoned vet. He tried his hand at play-by-play early in his career and determined on his own that his best work is suited for the studio. It’s where he’s now been parked for years and where he continues to host with aplomb CBS’ pre, halftime and post games shows. Phil Simms, lead color commentator with Nantz through the 2016 season, transitioned to the studio well and former Steelers coach Bill Cowher has been a good fit for a while.

It’s Boomer Esiason whose work is remarkable. He’s the only man I ever saw do color covering two sports simultaneously. When he worked Westwood One Monday Night Football games on radio, Boomer had one eye on the football game and the other on a TV set running a World Series game. He dissected the football game on-air, while commenting to those around him about the finer points of the World Series. He’s smart and more energetic than a case of Red Bull. He enjoys holding court and does so well for CBS.

Tony Dungy is the star of NBC’s elaborate Sunday night studio presentation. He’s honest and credible, having earned the reputation as a Super Bowl winning coach. Liam McHugh had a tough role to follow at game sites where Bob Costas had a commanding and unequaled presence for years. Mike Tirico is also smooth as silk in any assignment he’s given. Having Peter King stocks NBC with a thoroughbred in its stable.

The Halby’s: Fox and ESPN, from Buck and Tessitore to Aikman and Witten; 9 NFL crews critiqued

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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S Cornell

Why can’t Tony Romo finish a sentence or a thought? He jumps around so much, he’s impossible, and nauseating, to try to follow. He also gets on ridiculous subjects, stays there and Nantz jumps aboard! Anyone else but these two for the Super Bowl!