Tried to watch the Houston Texans vs. the Baltimore Ravens. Honest… really tried. And while the football wasn’t too bad, the announcing left me adrift. Sean McDonough is probably as good at play-by-play as anyone, but John Gruden… well, to put it charitably, he is no John Madden.
But, then, nobody is. And probably, nobody ever again will be.
And that is, perhaps, among the NFL’s greatest problems and may be an insurmountable one.
In its glory years, the game was characterized by many things but at least one of them was gigantic personalities on the broadcasting side of things. When Monday Night Football first appeared on the scene, it was defined by the announcers as much as by the quality of the games.
You could, in fact, make a pretty good case that the players are a lot better these days while the announcers are a lot worse.
When Monday Night Football first appeared and become something of a cultural milepost, you had Don Meredith, Howard Cosell, and Keith Jackson calling the games and providing commentary. Three huge, and unique, personalities.
Meredith, to my mind, gave the viewer a better insight into the core nature of the game than anyone before or since. With the exception, that is, of John Madden. And we’ll get to him.
What Meredith got and conveyed, I think, is this truth: that the game is deadly serious to both fans and players but, in the end, well… as John McCay told a locker room full of nervous USC players before a huge game, “Men, I just want you to remember that no matter what happens out there today, whether you win or lose, there are going to be a billion people in China who don’t give a s**t.”
Meredith would break into a chorus of “Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over” when a team scored a go-ahead touchdown with a minute or so left to play in a game. He had a way of telling you about how vital this or that upcoming play was and then winking at you. He had played well, and lost, in one of the legendary NFL games — the “Ice Bowl” — so he had the bona fides but he never seemed to swank it. He was an original and he had about him a sense of both authority and fun.
Which is to say, he set the table for John Madden.
You don’t have to have ever watched one of his broadcasts to know about Madden. He was a true American original. He had coached a Super Bowl winner before he became a broadcaster and he was as energetic in the booth as he had been on the sidelines. Which is to say… he was a borderline maniac.
He loved the game with a passion that almost made you worry for his health. He was, after all, not someone you would describe as “trim.”
And he was so… well, “excitable.”
But, then, that’s what NFL fans were, back in the day.
They were not so concerned with a correct analysis of the coverage scheme as they were with the way the receiver broke a tackle. That is to say, they were fans, first. And they sensed that Madden was, too. He knew more than they did. Of course, he did. But before he started “breaking things down” (as they now say) he would rhapsodize over a hard hit or a tough catch. He loved the game for what we now call its “fundamentals.”
Madden might have become bigger, even, than the game itself. Hard to imagine anyone in the booth ever again reaching the stature that he attained. Tony Romo is excellent and has, in one season, risen above all the competition. But he isn’t close, as an original, to Don Meredith who was also, by the way, a Cowboys quarterback who never won a Super Bowl.
In the booth, he gives the game a spontaneity and joy that the others now lack and will probably never recapture.
Not, certainly, the ESPN boys who are putting their chips on John Gruden.