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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.

ESPN's Game Day crew was on hand for a two-hour show that included a touching piece by reporter Tom Renaldi focusing on many of the victims, as well as several survivors. Renaldi also asked all the right questions, including a couple of tough ones, in his role as a sideline reporter interviewing school president Charles Steger and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine on the tragedy during the game.

ESPN cameras captured the goosebump emotion of the team in the stadium tunnel just before the kickoff, as well as the frenzied reaction from the 66,000 in Lane Stadium when the team made its entrance onto the field for the first time.

As the parent of a Tech student, I have to admit to tearing up several times during the broadcast, particularly during Renaldi's pre-game piece. And game play-by-play man Mike Tirico, as promised, managed to fully cover the events of April 16 while at the same time following the action in an unexpectedly tense, tight football game against East Carolina -- a 17-7 Tech win -- that nearly became almost as big an upset as Appalachian State over Michigan later in the afternoon.

ESPN handled the entire day with just the right touch, including "not so fast my friend" Lee Corso donning a gobbler Tech mascot head and, surprise, surprise, picking Tech to win.

Special Delivery

NBC got the great benefit of one of the best final rounds of the golf season Monday at the Deutsche Bank Classic with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson going head-to-head in the same twosome in the second FedEx Cup "playoff" event.

When Woods made a 12-foot birdie putt at the 16th hole to get within a shot of Mickelson, followed by Mickelson dropping a 12-footer of his own for a birdie at the same hole to stay two ahead, Johnny Miller had the line of the day -- unless you happen to be working for CBS -- when he said, "if you didn't like that folks, switch to tennis!!"

Mickelson held on for the victory, and PGA Tour executives had to be delighted with a tournament that finally provided everything they'd been hoping for in this new big-money, four-event series at the end of then season. At least they were thrilled until they heard Mickelson's post-match interview, in which he hinted he probably wouldn't be playing this week in Chicago. On Tuesday, he made it official, taking more air out of a concept that originally was deflated by Woods absence from the first event a week earlier in Westchester.

The good news is that both men will be playing in the last event, the 30-man Tour Championship in Atlanta a week after Chicago, and with a little bit of luck, maybe they'll even be paired for the first two rounds at East Lake.

Still, despite the season-long hype of the FedEx Cup by the PGA Tour, reportedly at a cost of about $40 million, the first event in New York had a lower rating than the Little League World Series at the same time. The Boston tournament, with Woods and Mickelson dueling down the stretch on a Monday finish, did far better doubling the previous week's overnight rating for the final round.

Hey Man, Boo!!!

Driving up to Long Island the other day I was tuned in to WABC Radio (trivia time -- an AM New York station that featured a rock and roll disc jockey named George Michael, yes that George Michael, back in the 1970s) and heard a familiar voice doing sports.

It was none other than D.C. native Warner Wolf, the legendary sportscaster in the Washington market also in the '70s and a man George Michael tried to emulate when he got into TV himself. Wolf also could be heard as a pitchman for a local car dealership, and I nearly drove off the Belt Parkway when he uttered one of his signature phrases -- "Come Awn, Gimme a Break!!!!"

Happy to see Warner is still gainfully employed, and wouldn't it be something to hear him do sports again in the Washington market on radio or TV?

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.

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