[16 September 2002]
In its 33rd season and at its fiftieth stadium, Monday Night Football began its latest season with all the pomp and circumstance befitting one of the longest running and most successful sports programs in television history. Fireworks exploded, roaring graphics of animated helmets clashed amid a shower of sparks, and Hank Williams, Jr. belted out his latest rendition of the honky-tonk tune, “Are You Ready for Some Football?”
In addition to this usual fanfare, a number of dignitaries were also showcased before the kickoff between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots, intensifying the show’s already hyperactive introduction. Tiger Woods was showcased in a brief ad for MNF, while Backstreet Boy Nick Carter sang the National Anthem. In addition to this standard assembly of sports and pop stars, George Bush, Sr. was shown strolling on the sidelines, accompanied by the Prime Minister of Japan.
The most visible, and vocal, guest of honor, however, was working during the game. Legendary color commentator John Madden made his regular season debut with the show, bringing with him 21 years of broadcasting experience and 13 Emmy awards. A former fixture at Fox with play-by-play man Pat Summerall, Madden made the jump to ABC’s MNF after Summerall announced his retirement last year. Madden’s addition also came after the release of commentators Dan Fouts and Dennis Miller, whose tenures at the show were brief (both lasting only two years) and tumultuous.
Much of the furor centered on the 2000 decision to insert Miller, a comedian, into a space exclusively reserved for commentators with a background in television broadcasting, football, or both. More specifically, critics argued, Miller’s acerbic wit peppered with obscure references to pop culture would be entirely out of place in the context of the football game.
And, as funny as Miller can be, they were right. Miller’s edgy zingers were often lost on Dan Fouts (ex-quarterback for the San Diego Chargers) and, while Al Michaels appeared to understand the jokes, he seemed unsure of how far to stray from the games themselves in order to indulge Miller’s humor. The trio made for awkward listening. Often Miller’s jests would result in long silences, followed by a totally unrelated comment about the game by one of his fellows. Despite ABC’s best efforts to keep the combo afloat (they went so far as to institute a weekly reference guide to Miller’s comments on their website), the decline in ratings prompted a change.
Madden replacing Miller may seem, at first glance, like jock clichés will be replacing witty banter. But, despite Miller’s penchant for onomatopoeic exultations, this change should not be seen as a dumb guy standing in for one who was too smart for his own good. While many ex-player commentators lack coherence in the booth, Madden (who both played and coached in the NFL) is able to communicate his expertise fluently. In addition to knowledge of the game itself, timing and context (and the ability to convey said context) are all important. Speak too soon and you step over your partners’ comments. Wait too long, and your comments are no longer relevant after the latest play. As Dennis Miller’s rocky tenure proved, a sharp wit does not necessarily a sharp commentator make.
Madden, though, is a sharp analyst who understands his role as a color commentator. In the format of televised football, the play-by-play reporter is responsible for describing the few seconds of live action that make up a football play. With players running in different directions, jumping, diving, falling down, and piling up, football in real speed often resembles barely organized chaos. The color commentator’s job, then, is to make sense of this chaos, often with the help of the inevitable slow motion replay. He (or much more rarely, she) outlines coaches’ strategies, lauds players’ abilities and decisions, and exposes everyone’s shortcomings.
Madden does all of this in the course of a game in a manner that is both easy to follow and informative. He’s able to explain the intricacies of a trap block, for example, without degenerating into the jargon that other (often ex-NFL) commentators too often use. Observing that New England quarterback Tom Brady’s quick passing release negated pressure from Pittsburgh’s defensive linemen, Madden described the technique as “Boom, up, and gone.”
Colloquial without sounding dumb, insightful without sounding pompous, Madden’s color calls are what make Monday Night Football worth watching. Al Michaels (of the famous “Miracle on Ice” call, as the U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Soviet Union in 1980) has remained a consistent presence on MNF since 1986. With the addition of Madden, he finally receives the perfect complement to his live action commentary.
And, despite the gaudy fanfare, the foreign and domestic political figures, and halftime extravaganzas, the commentary is really the most important element of a successful televised football game. At one point in the New England-Pittsburgh game, several miniature, computerized football players appeared on the screen to simulate the live action. During this bizarre graphic, Madden had time to explain how Pittsburgh’s wide receivers were able to use motion before the play to avoid the New England secondary’s aggressive press coverage. Without Madden breaking down the strategy, this CGI tangent would have seemed pointless and indulgent. Madden’s comments, however, provided a lesson on offensive tactics.
Madden is a master narrator of a football game. Amid the grunting and groaning of the linemen, the staccato rhymes of the cheerleaders, and the screaming of thousands of fans, his commentary comes through with a clarity that gives shape and meaning to the sound and fury that plays out on our television sets.