Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist
Sports Waves

Analyzing the NFL Analysts

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 5, 2007; 10:59 AM

With the NFL starting its regular season this week, television writers around the country have sprouted cauliflower ears listening to all the network conference calls with various broadcasters talking mostly about themselves. There's usually a dash of football thrown into the mix so the guy in Cincinnati, for example, can ask John Madden what he thinks about the Bengals' playoff chances in 2007.

If Madden says he's certain the Bengals have a shot at going deep in the postseason, the Cincy scribe has himself a sweet lead and a nice headline. Of course Madden, and most of his football broadcasting colleagues, usually know better than to offer a negative response to such a question, so there likely will be plenty of warm and cuddly stories and headlines around the country quoting a big-time broadcaster on the virtues of the home side.

I usually try to avoid most of these conference calls for that very reason, but I also have no qualms about making a few personal predictions, specifically on which of the new boys in the booth or sages in the studio will be worth the price the networks have paid to get them on the air.

With the exception of Ron Jaworski replacing Joe Theismann as ESPN's Monday night analyst, the lead game announcing teams working for the other three network rights holders will remain the same. Al Michaels and Madden on NBC, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms on CBS and Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on Fox represent arguably the most formidable group of football announcers and analysts the game has ever had at the same time.

And judging from what I heard during the preseason, Jaws will do just fine on Monday night, as long as he keeps playing to his strengths -- analyzing specific plays and spotting trends and tendencies. Trading jabs and jibes with my friend Tony Kornheiser may occasionally be necessary, but Tony was put in the booth for some comic and every-man relief, and Jaworski would be wise to give him plenty of space and simply stick to the Xs and Os.

As for the studio shows, the two most intriguing additions will be on NBC, with former N.Y. Giants running back Tiki Barber and Keith Olbermann.

Barber has already come out with guns blazing judging from his comments on his former Giants teammate, Eli Manning, a few weeks ago. Barber set off something of a tabloid firestorm when he described, on the air, Manning's leadership qualities as "comical" last year.

When the usually mild-mannered quarterback fired right back the next day, saying Barber didn't show much leadership when he announced early last season he'd be retiring at the end of the year because he had lost his passion for the game, the New York media had a lovely, lively little mini-feud that kept going for several days.

I always admired Barber's willingness as an active player to stick his chin out and try to give thoughtful and opinionated answers, as opposed to the mealy-mouth pabulum offered up by most 21st Century athletes these days.

And while some writers and broadcasters in the Big Apple tried to paint his comments as a self-serving attempt to hype his presence in the studio, wasn't it nice to hear a former player actually give a brutally honest answer, even if it meant ruffling the feathers of a former teammate. Last time we looked, Tiki's checks are now being signed by NBC/Universal, not the N.Y. Giants, and I hope he takes the same approach all season, as long as he's got his facts right and his best shots are not always directed at the Giants.

Who knows what we can expect from Olbermann, a former ESPN anchor teamed with Dan Patrick who made a bigger name for himself at MSNBC in recent years taking on Fox bully Bill O'Reilly as the anchor of Countdown, an entertaining, news-oriented prime time show. Olbermann has never shied away from controversy, and the NBC pre-game show has a chance to be very special if he stays in that same mode.

Hardly Hokie

ESPN hit most of the right notes this past Saturday in airing the season-opening game at Virginia Tech less than six months after 32 students and faculty members were killed on campus by a deranged student last April 16.

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