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Unforgettable weekend of end-game finishes; 3 on FGs and one in OT; Voices differed but were remarkable

 

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Halberstam

All four critical games were settled on one dramatic final play? You’d have needed a Lloyd’s of London policy to back a bet!

An unforgettable showcase of kicking and quarterback accuracy! An end-game duel between Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen was more a football version of a Mays-Mantle home run derby.

It really happened! How did the telecasters cover this marvelous weekend?

The fact that Al Michaels has been the prime time voice of the NFL for 36 years speaks volumes about his credentials. Few come close. Rarely, if ever, is Michaels criticized. Mistakes, almost never. And who in the world is infallible? Strive for perfection and you’ll produce excellence.

Uncle Al, a young 77, will call the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 13th in his hometown of Los Angeles. His numbers are strikingly compelling and his voice has filled our homes on Sunday or Monday nights since 1986. As Vin Scully might say, “Not a bad few acts!”

I can recall one of my early conversations with Al, when I asked how he approaches huge events like Super Bowls. For a man who has excelled in the network world for decades, his answer surprised me. The bigger the events, he told me, the less he plays them up when he hits the air to do the play-by-play. He makes a good point. Think about it. When fans turn on a Super Bowl, they’re already pumped. It’s been on their radars for weeks. So Michaels maintains his equanimity and presents unflappably. Like umpires making critical judgments, Michaels avoids infusing himself into the event.

It should be accepted universally as a premise by which voices should abide.

Last Saturday, on the 15th, NFL fans settled in front of their TVs for the Bengals’ first playoff game in 31 years. Yes, there was more than one reference to the number 31 by Mike Tirico, so that you’ll never forget it. He betrayed the Michaels Rule, understate don’t overstate. How many times did Mike tell us that Cincy has a chance to break the shackles of a galling post-season slump. 

Tirico, 55, is a play-by-player who’s a jack of all trades, but not a master. Michaels has seen and captioned it all. Tirico is satisfactory but he’s no Michaels. There are strengths behind the mic that are earned only through experience and work in the trenches at calling huge events. It’s about knowing when to take an extra breath and when to pause. Tirico will get better in the years ahead after he gets more big reps.

CBS promotes Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts to #2 NFL teamIan Eagle (left) turns 53 in February. For one thing, he’s smart and quick. He’s particularly well liked in the New York area. He’s also well prepared. He grew up in New York, where like so many other budding broadcasters, he aspired to be another Marv Albert. On-air, Marv had a natural warped sense of humor, nothing contrived. It’s who Marv is and was, like it or not.

Eagle talks too much, his voice is a bit thin. His humor can get under viewers’ skin. For all his vocal snaps, he doesn’t always let the game flow uninterruptedly. Not that I’ve ever heard Ian lose his voice. He hasn’t. But his vocal intensity is often strident, be it early in the first quarter when the game hasn’t taken form yet or late in the fourth when the game is on the line. Not every call merits parallel levels of madness.

Ian’s voice will never be confused with Kevin Harlan, Don Criqui, Dick Stockton or Charlie Jones. He’s no Dan Kelly or Jon Miller either. Eagle is quick witted and he makes me laugh from time-to-time but he needs to sound more even-keeled and natural.

On Saturday, Ian over-reminded viewers how big this game against the Titans is for Cincy. But we knew that already! You’ve already engrained it. Calm Charles Davis was out with Covid. Ian and Davis work symbiotically. So CBS fairly moved up Trent Green from third on the depth chart to second, to partner with Ian. Trent is on the other end of the spectrum. If his pants were burning, he wouldn’t yell fire.

Green is average at best, rarely speaking from the perspective of any position other than a quarterback which he himself was for 15 years. At least he didn’t talk too much. While CBS did the decent thing, James Lofton would have been a better choice. The Hall of Famer is a whiz at explaining football intricacies. He’s emotional too, going with his gut but in a contained manner. He’s pegged way too low by CBS. To some degree, the network has a New York bias and Eagle is very visible in the Big Apple.

The score was tied in Nashville late in the fourth and Cincy began moving the ball languorously so that it could play the clock and manipulate the ball’s positioning for a high percentage field goal attempt. While Eagle gave Green tons of runway, Trent added little, other than an elliptical explanation of how Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill threw a tipped ball that wound up being intercepted. While Ian didn’t turn garrulous, there was a golden opportunity and ample time for a Dick Enberg anecdotal moment. Eagle and Green left priceless time on the table.

The football millions had their eyes on Cincy kicker Evan McPherson whose leg would eventually kick the Bengals into the AFC Championship game next Sunday. Evan was on center stage warming up for the big leg swing. Great anticipation. But the voices sounded like they were out of material, sharing little. Part of it I liked. Silence is golden. It builds drama.

It just so happens though that McPherson has two brothers, both of whom are kickers, one older and one younger. The late Dick Enberg would invariably bring players into viewers’ hearts. Dick would have woven in that little anecdote. He would have put some flesh on the informational skeleton about the rookie who would win the game. 

So we moved along when Fox’ number one team greeted millions from frigid Green Bay. Chemistry is critical and Joe Buck (below)  and Troy Aikman have it. When it comes to meat and potatoes, they’re right up there. The two Foxies let the game breathe. Tom Verducci labeled Buck in one simple word, concise. In football, he lays out the fundamentals economically and turns it over to the ambience of the stadium or to partner Aikman.

Joe Buck - WikipediaYou get the sense that Joe and Troy enjoy each other’s company. In a funny way, Aikman reminds me of the late Harry Kalas, the Calvin Coolidge of play-by-play. When he had nothing to say, he said nothing. Late in the game, when San Francisco marched down field in what turned into Robbie Gould’s successful field goal attempt, the fellows in the booth condensed the elements verbally, a swirling snow, a little history, Rodgers’ future and the veteran Gould’s winning field goal. It was done in textbook fashion. Not any attention on either voice. No disruptions.

You turned the set off without having to throw an empty can against the screen to shush them. They followed the TV rules to the letter. They captioned the picture, analyzed what they saw, suggested what to expect, did a quick reset and left the rest to the truck. They didn’t often over-pontificate.

Silence overtook the booth. The Niners set it up for Gould. We saw the kick. It looked good from beyond the goal posts. Still, cautiously, as the ball sailed through the uprights, and only after the officials signaled that the FGA was good did Buck enthusiastically cry “It was down the middle and good. San Francisco is moving on with a 13-10 win here in Lambeau.” It was a typical Buck orderly call, nothing complicated. Nothing chaotic. No screeching!

If that wasn’t enough, yes, there was Sunday.

Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, another happy twosome. Another game that went down to the wire. This one though played to a tight but different beat. A big Rams lead early in the third quarter 27-3 led the usually circumspect Michaels to say that next week it appears that the Rams will take on the Niners for the rights to go to the Super Bowl. Hey, if Uncle Al says it, it’s likely to happen. It did but not the way you’d imagine.

I went out for a  walk in the brisk fifty degree South Florida weather. When I came back into the house, my wife was watching tennis. I went into my home office, casually turned on Al and Cris and guess what?

NBC's Sunday Night Football team of Cris Collinsworth, Al Michaels and Michele Tafoya (not pictured) picked up their sixth straight Emmy Award. - Sports Talk Florida - NThe score tightened and Brady had a shot at a tie. Officials were conferring about the placement of the ball which was a millimeter from the first down marker. As the officials, players and coaches fussed, Al blurted, “Fans are seeing it with their hearts not their eyes,” a phrase made famous by Al’s idol Vin Scully. Then it was Cris saying, “Look what we have now,” in similar Vin cadence of his memorable Kirk Gibson call, “And look who’s coming up!”

A similar plot. A 30 yard field goal by the Rams’ Matt Gay sunk Brady and company at the end of regulation. LA was headed home for a matchup next Sunday with the Niners. Al was right again but not with the ease he thought. Still, the Rams will be playing at home next week.

Three dramatic games, all down to the wire and all won by the road team. The NFL world was mesmerized and in awe.

So you think you’ve seen it all and went to catch a little dinner.

While Collinsworth was still savoring the enormity of the weekend, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo were sinking their teeth into Buffalo at Kansas City which Nantz himself  likely already labeled, “a miraculous one for the ages.” Tony’s enthusiasm was uncontainable. He screamed himself so weak that I’d be surprised he even has a trace of a voice left this morning.

How do you prepare for a game like it? The NFL summarized it best. The league tweeted this morning. “It was the first ever playoff game in NFL history with three go-ahead touchdowns in the final two-minutes of regulation.” And that’s just the beginning. Who knows what else the league researchers will find? If they keep digging, they might even find Jimmy Hoffa’s remains.

In the overtime, when scoring records were being broken repeatedly, Romo was out of control, if not boisterously entertaining. Meanwhile, Nantz kept updating viewers on the striking new records. It was spellbinding television. A couple times Romo tried diagraming plays but got distracted or sidetracked. When Buffalo gave up yardage, getting confused by crossing routes, Tony referenced it, but was driven away by the hysteria in the ballpark.

Nantz was contained but ready to erupt and he did on the winning TD. After Mahomes unleashed the throw, Nantz was at the top of his passionate lungs. He belted out, “He caught it. Game over, Chiefs win.” With help from the truck, which in bold font spelled out Travis Kelce, we knew who snared it.”

You couldn’t have imagined anything more enthralling!

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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 and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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Barry Kipnis
8 months ago

Also, superb job on the radio side by Kevin Harlan on the exciting Niner win over GB. Kevin is clearly distinguishable from the other pbp guys on Westwood One. Great call of Robbie Gould’s FG to win it. I like his “zeros on the clock” – same as he did when the Eagles beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl a few years ago.