Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Heart of Monday Night

As I often do this time of year, I've been watching a lot of old NFL games from the 1970s on YouTube. The stash gets periodically refreshed after the NFL, in its infinite humorlessness, goes through and forces people to bring down the video they've posted, and at the moment there are, for whatever reason, a lot of Monday Night Football games out there.

It's hard to overstate how culturally significant these were to sports fans of the early 1970s; it was almost literally like the circus coming to town. The fans at the stadia hung banners; the fans at home talked about how much they hated Howard Cosell even as they hung on his every word. With the wisdom of distance, I thought it might be worth assessing how these guys were simply as sportscasters.

Frank Gifford: The Giffer's mind had not yet been melted by overexposure to Kathie Lee, and he was surprisingly good - fluent, smooth, professional, unflappable. He had a voice that went down easy on TV and a way of ignoring the carnival barkers around him to remain focused on the game. Plus, he offered more analysis than your standard play-by-play man.

Gifford's weakness was in the more technical aspects; he often neglected to give us the down and distance, or the time remaining in the quarter, notable omissions in an era when there wasn't a constant box on the screen reminding us of these things. Actually, I blame the producer, who should have been telling the booth to offer up the down and distance, as much as the Giffer.

Don Meredith: The Danderoo was the real revelation to me. Despite his reputation as a singing buffoon, he combined an enormously likable personality with real insight into the game. I watched a Cardinals-Cowboys game from 1972, and Meredith apologized early on because he admitted he was hoping for a Cowboys win, and wouldn't be objective about the game. But he was terrific, thoroughly knowledgeable about the Cowboys and clear-eyed about their shortcomings (they played horribly in the game). The fact that Meredith is honest about his feelings toward his old team makes him more endearing, and more effective.

And the level of his analysis could be shockingly precise: When the Cowboys completed an out pass, he noted that the Cardinal cornerback who had blown the coverage was better at going in than going out. I get the sense that as time went on, Dandy Don forgot about the insight and became more of a personality, but in the earlier games I've been watching, I have no complaints about his performance.

Alex Karras: Karras replaced Meredith from 1974 to 1976 when Dandy Don went to NBC (technically, he replaced Fred "the Hammer" Williamson, who handled the preseason games in 1974 but was found not to be up to the job; both Karras and Williamson were natives of Gary, Indiana). He was pretty good, wryly funny and occasionally incisive on matters of line play. Karras' biggest problem was that he projected zero personality, an odd failing for someone in the middle of a journey from famously violent defensive tackle to a star on Webster. His voice was weak, and he rarely sounded enthusiastic about the games. And he wasn't that funny, although he did later host Saturday Night Live, in 1985, with Tina Turner as the musical guest.

Howard Cosell: Cosell did some things well; he came to the games well-prepared, and had reports from the coaches or a key player or two to offer during the game. He was good about providing context for the players and plays, noting that a certain rush was reminiscent of something O.J. Simpson had done a few weeks earlier. He twice referred to one running back, I can't recall which one, as a speedier Don Nottingham, if you can dig that. And he was good on the halftime highlights, although I did hear him repeatedly refer to a second-year Chargers quarterback as "Don Fouts." (One thing I've noticed about the halftime highlights, which I missed the first time around, was that they had phony crowd noise edited into them. One dead giveaway is that the fans cheer as loudly for the visitors as they do for the home team.)

Aside from that, though, he was terrible. His sense of game time was awful, so that he'd start telling one of his boring stories at a bad moment and have to pick it up again half a quarter afterward. A direct quote: "Should they have declined that penalty, Alex? Answer the question later - we're back to the action now." I don't believe Alex ever bothered to answer the question.

He had a habit of asking his ex-player colleagues questions that were half-needling, half-genuine, like after a pass was thrown by a wide receiver: "You threw a lot of passes like that, right, Giffer?" Mercifully, his ex-player colleagues usually chose not to answer these ridiculous queries. Cosell apparently thought he was being clever, but he was never funny, at all. Occasionally, celebs would show up in the booth, and Cosell would interview them, and he was awful at that, too. He'd ask them questions that provided all the necessary information, leaving the celeb with nothing to say but "That's right, Howard."

And then of course, there was Cosell's famous linguistic perspicacity. He'd toss out words like "revivify" and "truculent" in a way that accomplished nothing but draw attention to Cosell's vocabulary. At least Walt "Clyde" Fraizer would rhyme these things, say "truculent and succulent" and make the whole thing a little fun. Cosell wasn't fun. My favorite exchange in this area came when Cosell described a crowd as "quiescent," to which Don Meredith responded, "What? They're just quiet." Quiet doesn't mean exactly the same thing as quiescent, but then again, quiet would have been a better descriptor of the crowd.

My guess is that ABC set this up as a clash of opposites, the New York intellectual vs. the dumb jock from Texas, but Meredith was as smart as Cosell. And a much better announcer, to boot.

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