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In a Word, Wordy

By Norman Chad
Monday, December 4, 2006

When Bryant Gumbel made critical comments about the NFL before this season, outgoing NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue suggested that Gumbel might be relieved of his new duties as play-by-play broadcaster for NFL Network games. As it turns out, the NFL shouldn't have fired Gumbel for his remarks, it should've dumped him because his play-by-play work, well, stinks.

Gumbel once was lord and master of "The Today Show." He might be -- next to Ted Koppel -- the best live interviewer in television over the past generation. He is smarter, sharper and more studied than most every sports broadcaster.

And, at the moment, he makes Homer Simpson sound like Al Michaels.

(Of course, many of you probably haven't heard Gumbel doing games because you don't have NFL Network yet. As Gumbel instructs, you should contact IWantNFLNetwork.com. How about CantBryantGoBackToMorningTV.com?)

Gumbel is unspectacular and uninspired -- his play-by-play voice flat, his play-by-play sensibilities pedestrian. He is wordy and windy, seemingly without emotion or care.

It's like listening to an insurance underwriter giving last rites to the family gerbil.

(I'd like to take a moment here to speak directly to Gumbel's NFL partner, analyst Cris Collinsworth. Cris, you're good, often very good. But you don't have to prove how much you know about football after every play. Ease up here and there. Smell the autumn air. Let the broadcasts breathe -- we need a break now and then. Heck, last week I hit the mute button so often, it filed workmen's comp charges against me.)

Beyond Gumbel's stylistic shortcomings, there are substantive flaws in his game mechanics. See if you notice a trend in Gumbel's play-by-play:

"Johnson finds running room off the left side."

"Plummer looking downfield as he rolls right."

"The give is to Lewis, who tries the left side."

"Palmer will throw on first down, looking right."

"Green swings it to the left side."

On almost every call, Gumbel tells us if it's the left or the right side, an inside carry or an outside carry, the near sideline or the far sideline. On almost every call. Uh, Bryant, IT'S TELEVISION. We can see left, right, inside, outside, short or deep. That's why the late Ray Scott, when Bart Starr pitched to Jim Taylor and Taylor ran 13 yards over left tackle for a score, would simply say, "Taylor -- touchdown."

Sure, if you're doing play-by-play on Apollo 11, I guess you want to tell us, "And Neil Armstrong has walked out onto the moon!!!" but if it's second and eight and Rudi Johnson runs right, you don't have to say, "Rudi Johnson runs right." IT'S TELEVISION.

(By the way, who designed NFL Network's on-screen score graphic, Hermann Rorschach? I defy most viewers to glance at the TV and see who's winning the game -- you've got a better chance of reading an eye chart through a stained-glass window.)

When Gumbel calls rushing plays, a running back usually is "fighting for yardage" or "working his way back to the line of scrimmage." Again and again. And don't get me started on how Gumbel needlessly qualifies every call, saying stuff like " perhaps a loss of two," "he gets to maybe the 24-yard line," "McNair tackled at about the 36." Viewers understand it's not exactly the 36-yard line; why doesn't Gumbel?

(I'm also curious about another Gumbelism, or lack of it: When he hosts "Real Sports" on HBO, we often see him writing on a pad between segments. So if he's scribbling notes furiously during a taped telecast, wouldn't you expect Gumbel to be scribbling notes extra furiously every time he's on camera during NFL Network's live telecast?)

Anyway, I know this is less heady work than, say, interviewing the Saudi Arabian defense minister, but shouldn't the guy doing the job have the basic fundamentals down pat?

What was NFL Network thinking?

Besides, wasn't Greg Gumbel available?

Ask The Slouch

Q. Don't spectators realize how ridiculous they look waving towels at sporting events? (Jim O'Brien; Racine, Wis.)

A. Not half as ridiculous as I look waving a towel from my sofa.

Q. With the postseason coming up in fantasy football, should you sit all your players to avoid injuries if you have secured home-field advantage through the playoffs? (Bob Carroll; Streamwood, Ill.)

A. Pay the man, Shirley.

Q. Has ESPN been honest with its employees about the mass layoffs that will accompany Terrell Owens's eventual retirement? (Philip Murphy; Canfield, Ohio)

A. Pay this man too, Shirley.

Q. John Daly is getting divorced for a fourth time. What are the odds that his or your next wife will be an ex of his or yours? (Walt De Bell; Troy, N.Y.)

A. Pay this man quietly, Shirley.

Q. Do you have a mission statement? (John Andrews; Arlington)

A. Sleep in, avoid beets.

You, too, can enter the $1.25 Ask The Slouch Cash Giveaway. E-mail asktheslouch@aol.com and, if your question is used, you win $1.25 in cash!

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