By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Tony Kornheiser played it safe in his "Monday Night Football" announcing debut last night, making few missteps but offering little for the highlight reel. It wasn't exactly clear at times why he was there at all.
It's still early, as the coaches like to say. But on the basis of his first preseason game, Kornheiser, the Post sports columnist and co-host of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," wasn't many of the things that ESPN hired him for. He wasn't especially witty, provocative or insightful in calling the Raiders' 16-13 win over the Vikings from the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
It was enough to make one yearn for Dennis Miller, the comedian whose star-crossed tenure as a "Monday Night Football" analyst in 2000-01 was at least marked by a certain danger, a whiff of the unexpected, or the just plain loony.
Kornheiser mostly spluttered, typically emphasizing the obvious and playing third fiddle to his more experienced mike mates, play-by-play man Mike Tirico and fellow color analyst Joe Theismann.
"You fumble a kickoff on a nationally televised game on the opening kickoff, you want to crawl into a hole!" he offered on the very first play.
"These are not good numbers tonight, are they?" he asked at one point as the passing statistics for Aaron Brooks, the Raiders quarterback, flashed on-screen. Given that Brooks was 0-for-4 passing at the time, the question was either needlessly rhetorical or hopelessly naive.
Hyping next Monday night's game (with a full 3 1/2 quarters still to play in the one he was announcing), he offered, "Reggie Bush is the kind of player people will pay money to see!"
Of course this was a hugely meaningless preseason game, even by the standards of meaningless preseason games. The Raiders-Vikings contest had a few hypeable story lines -- former Minnesota star receiver Randy Moss playing against his old teammates, a new coach for the Vikings -- but all that was dispensed with after about 10 minutes. The game had even less moment than the usual "Monday Night Football" preseason kickoff, the Hall of Fame game from Canton, Ohio (the game and venue in which Miller got off perhaps the best one-liner of his short-lived "MNF" career: "Ironically enough, you can't find any good Cantonese food in Canton").
Kornheiser is the first to admit he's no matinee idol, but he looked oddly washed out under the TV lights (this may explain why ESPN had close-ups of Tirico and Theismann, as well as sideline reporters Michele Tafoya and Suzy Kolber, but not Kornheiser). Some unsolicited advice: Tony, get a tan.
Kornheiser's challenge is to translate his familiar "PTI" personality -- opinionated, sarcastic, bombastic, a little curmudgeonly -- into the announcing booth. That's a tough assignment. Sarcasm can sound mean in the wrong hands. Tougher still, Kornheiser doesn't have Michael Wilbon, his fellow Post sports columnist and "PTI" co-host, in the booth with him. "PTI" is watchable primarily because of the verbal fireworks and good-natured banter between the two.
On "MNF," Kornheiser's foil is Theismann, who -- and let's be charitable to a Redskins legend -- is kind of a stiff. Kornheiser should be bouncing off of him like a Superball. Theismann is plainly knowledgeable about the game but often goes off on his own personal lecture circuit. He's also so smug and pretentious -- did he mention that he used to play the game? Oh, yes, about 12 times -- that he invites deflation. All this could be a good thing, at least from Kornheiser's perspective. Sticking the pin in the Theismann blimp could create some nice tension from week to week.
To his or ESPN's credit, Kornheiser seems to understand the value of a good argument. Getting into one is the problem. Kornheiser did seem to loosen up somewhat as the game wore on, waving red flags at Theismann and drawing him into brief verbal exchanges.
Noting that the Raiders' newly hired assistant coach, Tom Walsh, had left pro football to run a bed-and-breakfast in Idaho, he asked Theismann if he'd have hired him: "Would you be comfortable with Bob Newhart?" Kornheiser taunted. "He ran a B&B!"
"Joe, I know you like Brad Johnson," the Vikings quarterback, he said at another point. "Don't you think Brad Johnson is a downgrade from Daunte Culpepper?" Good question, the kind that viewers might want to hear some opinion-slinging about.
Kornheiser's strongest opinion was his horror near the end of the game when it looked like Minnesota might push the game into overtime -- and keep him from getting to bed.
ESPN tried to force a little of Kornheiser's "PTI" mojo by instituting an in-game mini-feature called "Tony, Tony, Tony!" The idea is to have viewers e-mail their questions to Kornheiser, who answers them on the air. It played like it sounds -- contrived.
"What team deserves a fun nickname?" asked one e-mailer.
"That's the hardest question I ever heard," Kornheiser replied. "I don't know."
After a few moments, he did suggest a nickname (but not which team should get it): "Snakes on a plane."
Kind of reminded you of Dennis Miller. In a bad way.