Commentary

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

CBS and NBC coming up tomorrow; All major broadcast pairs are on the radar, plus Fox' studio show

 

The NFL regular season is over and the month-long playoff run will begin to grip America beginning Saturday.

As we wrap up the past 17 weeks, this is my assessment of Fox and ESPN broadcasters. Tomorrow, we’ll have the two older networks, NBC and CBS.

Happy New Year. Here’s to a great 2019!

 

Joe Buck and Troy Aikman-Fox

When he arrived on the Fox NFL scene in 2002, Joe introduced millions of viewers to his uniquely fashioned play-by-play staccato. Like change of any kind or something different from convention, it took years for America to embrace it. 

Buck tends to end many of his economically phrased calls with gushingly-quick scene setters. He leaves nothing for viewer interpretation.

He rarely dwells on what just happened; proceeding instead within the context of his call to what’s next. “Rodgers throws, incomplete to Edwards at the 30. Now Rodgers faces 3d and 8 with 1:30 to go, one time out and the Packers down 7.” Like a coach, he focuses on the task at hand, before the teams are even engaged in their huddles. Who are the role players, what follows immediately and what conditions will they face? He doesn’t leave fans in a lurch. 

Buck almost sounds brash when he executes this self-formatted audio drill but viewers are never left in the dark. It also sets up partner Troy Aikman to immediately delve and opine. 

Aikman too has grown on viewers. He’s fairly blunt and doesn’t yap. Remember the line, ‘It’s not fancy but it’s good.’ Aikman fits the description, except that he’s very good. Troy doesn’t make headline comments. He knows the game and doesn’t over-theorize.

In his book, Lucky Bastard, Buck writes about the three years when both Colinsworth and Aikman joined him in sidekick roles for Fox. Reading between the lines, the sense is that both Troy and Joe are more comfortable in a two-man booth. They’ve been a duo since 2005 and this is their 13th season as such. More fans accept Buck and Aikman every year.

Kevin Burkhardt and Charles Davis – Fox

Kevin brings an easy-going personality to the mic. He’s hardly the programmed cookie-cutter play-by-play announcer; of which regrettably there are many in this commoditized world of  television, cable and streaming. He does lots of baseball and then transitions to football at the end of the World Series. Doing so, he might err using a baseball non-sequitur. So he’ll use good self-deprecating humor to prompt a forgiving smile from his audience.  Kevin has the warmth and easy going demeanor that makes him sound like he’s having fun. (It’s a quality that I love about Gary Thorne, the Orioles voice and ex ESPNer.) If the announcer is genuinely happy so is the viewer.

Davis has a big smile. When he started, he was somewhat stiff. He’s loosened up through the years. Davis is thoroughly prepared but less instinctive. His commentary is studious, somewhat more plodding and ponderous. His smarts were demonstrated in the Dallas-Giants game this past Sunday. When Dak Prescott’s critical throw toward the very end of regulation was caught by a sprawling Cole Beasley deep in the end zone, Burkhardt declared the receiver out of bounds and the Giants winners. But after a pregnant thought, Davis astutely pointed out that Beasley actually landed in the end zone with one knee down and invoked the adage introduced by John Madden, “One knee down is equal to two feet.” Replay showed Davis was right.

 

Thom Brennaman and Chris Spielman – Fox

Three of the Fox teams are part of father and son broadcast families. Joe is the son of Jack Buck, Kenny is Marv Albert’s son and Thom’s dad Marty  is an institution in Cincinnati where he’s called Reds games on Radio since the 1970s.  I always liked Thom . His voice resonates perfectly. It’s distinct and unmistakable. From his baseball experience, he learned to profile players through storytelling. Who are these faces hidden under helmets anyhow? Tougher to do it in football than baseball, less space; the canvas is unforgiving. Yet Thom recognizes the importance of doing so and will when possible. He’s not afraid to ask questions of his partner, Chris Speilman, including “Did you ever spit blood?” Now that will get ears to perk.

Spielman doesn’t force his commentary. He’s loose. One game he referenced square dancing wherever that came from. He gave us a little history, telling fans that football’s roots were in rugby. Good stuff. President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned into a marvelous speaker when he learned that after peppering attendees with a dozen facts and one anecdote, most of the audience will remember the story not the facts.

 

Kenny Albert and Ronde Barber- Fox

Kenny learned his trade early, worked hard and had the benefit of the training and inculcation of his dad, Marv Albert, a sportscast icon. Kenny is infallible on down and distance, a cardinal requirement of a football announcer and he’s quick witted too. His overuse of numbers with no tangible relevance serves no purpose. In the Green Bay-Giants game, for instance, among sets of data and facts that he shared in one heart-stopping breath, Kenny pointed out that the last Packers team that finished winless on the road was in 1958. That was it. No historical context. If only, he added, “And things changed dramatically the next year when Vince Lombardi arrived in Green Bay in 1959.” Less is more. Put meat on bare bones and viewers will take note.

Barber is weak. He adds little whether it is strategy or insights into players’ thoughts. He rarely provides the audience with what’s ahead and what to expect. His comments are generally hollow. He did have a good line in an early season game in steamy Tampa. When the issue of icing the kicker came up, he said, “It’s too hot in Tampa to put any kicker on ice.”

 

Dick Stockton and Mark Schlereth -Fox

Stockton has been around television for almost half a century and has been on NFL play-by-play for almost as long. After years of calling baseball and basketball too, he’s cut back. His schedule this season was limited to 14 games. Stockton’s voice is still smooth, he doesn’t over talk and is still first-rate on dramatic moments; underscoring them with a critical word or two and then letting the pictures tell the rest. Dick also moderates his excitement; something many younger announcers should learn to do. A big late game play gets more treatment than some fabricated drama early in the first quarter.

He positions plays neatly without making coffee nervous through vocal hysteria. When a receiver makes a catch and begins his sprint down the sideline against a pursuing cornerback, Stockton won’t empty his lungs and foul the air with noise pollution.  He’ll calmly set it up succinctly, “This will be a race to the sticks.”  Viewers’ eyes will see the rest. At 76, he’s still pretty solid. Does he err? We all do. Still, broadcasters forty years younger can learn from from the veteran. Stockton’s body of work is still sound.

Schlereth spent many years in the ESPN studio as an NFL analyst. (Did you know, he was born in Anchorage, Alaska?) He also does sports talk radio, so on game broadcasts he breaks into brief but tempered rants. Through Stockton, Mark’s been the beneficiary of an elder-statesman’s training and experience. Schlereth does have a tendency to talk in generalities and employ words that are in vogue today and gone tomorrow, ‘trickeration.’ Please. (Urban dictionary: A fictitious word commonly used by football announcers to make themselves feel intelligent. When the word they actually mean to say is: Trickery.) Mark used RPO, assuming everyone knows what the heck it means (run pass option). RPO isn’t RBI that’s been around baseball forever. Stop with the acronyms. Don’t assume that every viewer knows what they all mean.

 

Chris Myers and Daryl Johnston -Fox

Chris keeps getting better and better. Good voice and nice cadence; sets up plays and captures big moments well too. He made the transition from ESPN’s studios where he was visible for years. Glad to see him assigned some bigger games this season. He’s also getting more comfortable sharing opinions, “That was a legal tackle by a hair.”

Those impressed with style over substance like Johnston. I’ve never been a fan. Technical jargon and a haughty, dismissive laugh turn me off.  He sometimes talks for the sake of talking. Daryl indiscriminately pulls out maxims from his bag of gibberish, “The Swiss Army knife of the defense.” Please! By the way, Daryl, What the heck are ‘gadget plays?

 

Joe Davis and Brady Quinn- Fox

This duo did lots of college football for Fox which teamed them on at least one  NFL game this season. You might say that Davis is ahead of his years. He’s 31 and was given the hallowed chair of Vin Scully in the Dodger booth when the master retired at the end of 2016. It would be easy to pick this fellow apart, given the fact that he followed an icon. Yet he’s weathered his first couple of seasons in Southern California  with little criticism. He lets the game create a sense of urgency, instead of the other way around; an Al Michaels hallmark. NFL games have inherent components of madness that usually surface each week without much prodding. A callow Davis recognized it immediately. School is still out though on whether Davis is a prodigy or just another talking head.

If Davis is understated, Quinn is more animated. What he misses in a lack of older wisdom through limited experience, he makes up to a degree by being upbeat; providing his view of things from an ex quarterback’s perspective.

 

Sam Rosen (works a healthy schedule but not every week). He was teamed with Ronde Barber or Brady Quinn)

Sam’s been a Fox fixture since 1997 , just a few years after the network got the NFL. (He’s one of four network NFL announcers who is 70 or older, Greg Gumbel, 72, Al Michaels, 74, and Dick Stockton, 76. Sam is 71. He definitely has a unique sound, not typical of network trained broadcasters. Rosen is current, very well prepared, has a friendly demeanor and isn’t afraid to ask his partner difficult questions. He asked Barber one Sunday, “What did you mean by that?” Others too often let their commentators slide.

Tim Brando -Fox – (worked one weekend with Brady Quinn)

Concluding with Fox, it was good to see Brando get a game late in the season. He worked with Quinn. He’s done the NFL in the past. Brando delivers a riveting play-by-play broadcast. In my mind, he’s the best college football play-by-play man on TV today. Fox smartly used him on one NFL game instead of drafting hysterical Gus Johnson.

Fox Studio

It’s one big laugh and shouting fest. But smoke comes out of my ears when it comes to Howie ‘Say Nothing’ Long. Everybody else is yakking away and fighting for the mic. Long meanwhile sits prominently in full view of the cameras in the middle of the set with his head down; is he scribbling, doodling or taking a nap? I don’t know.

Is he working on a crossword puzzle? He almost looks frightened and wants to go home. My goodness! There was a four minute segment recently where the man didn’t say a word for 3 minutes and 55 seconds. When he finally opened his mouth, he was mumbling and the other guys were talking right over him. What’s his role? Is it to just fill space on a set? How do I get a job like that? Not good!

 

Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten and Booger McFarland ESPN 

My, they’ve been a lightning rod for criticism. First, moving Sean McDonough off the crew was a mistake. He’s as gifted as they come. He can do any of the three top sports beautifully; baseball, football and basketball. Since he left, it’s been chaotic.

Tessitore differentiated himself from the pack as a college football announcer. He was hardly cookie-cutter in approach; covering the fundamentals rhythmically while sparking the booth with enthusiasm and some drama.

Joe decided to take a different approach to NFL games. It seemed as though he would change his tenor game to game. It certainly was a dramatic change from the smooth McDonough who was a master of  consistency, knowing when to turn it up a notch and when to moderate his call. In the NFL booth, Joe is all over the place, from over-animated and over-dramatic to soft calls that suggest he’s disinterested. When he over-hypes, it’s maddening. It leaves him no room. Too bad, because Joe has talent. He just has to find his way.

Witten is a rookie broadcaster. There aren’t many Tony Romo’s or John Madden’s who become network superstars in one year . Witten is putting too much emphasis on style. One day he’s sounding like ex-teammate Romo and the next day like Daryl Johnston. As Vin Scully says Red Barber told him, be yourself. While that Boogermobile is an eyesore and disruptive, I like McFarland’s sprinkling of comments. He’s passionate, can sound concerned, angry, funny and gruff all in the same sixty second spiel. ESPN will tweak the format a bit next season and the trio will grow on viewers.

 

 

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

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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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Michael Green
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I was a fan of the FOX pre-game when it started, and I think Bradshaw in particular plays his role brilliantly. On Sunday mornings, I usually am on a treadmill and the gym, and I can see the shows on the screens above me, and Howie Long LOOKS like he isn’t interested or having fun. It’s fine to be, as is suggested here about Joe Buck, a bit laconic or detached–that can be a good style in doing play-by-play, and it certainly leaves room for the mega-important analyst to go on … and on … and on (I’m not referring… Read more »