Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist
Sports Waves

Notes on One of the Best Sundays in Sports

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 11, 2007; 11:41 AM

You can have Super Bowl Sunday. I'll take the first super-charged Sunday in September any day, what with wall-to-wall, for-real season-opening NFL football, Roger Federer winning his fourth straight U.S. Open title and Tiger Woods showing the competition once again that he's the best golfer there ever was. And so, a few observations from a very long, but sweetly satisfying day spent mostly in the prone couch potato position, pretzels on one side and the remote never far away.

• Chris Berman informed us right from the start of ESPN's opening two-hour pre-game show that he's been at this gig now for 21 years, which, in my estimation, is probably about 20 years too long.

If this guy had been newspaperman, he'd have been fired for plagiarism a long time ago. I mean how many times do we have to hear him go guttural with the now clichèd "frozen tundra of Lambeau Field," first intoned by John Facenda, the great, late early voice for NFL Films. It was Howard Cosell, not growling, barely comprehensible Boomer, who used to call Al Davis's team "The Oak-land Rai-duhs," and Keith Jackson who always talked about "rumblin', bumblin', stumblin,' then bellowing "FUMMM-BULLL!!!" into his microphone as if we couldn't see it for ourselves.

Back-back-back Berman no doubt is a lovely fellow who never met an athlete or a coach in any sport he didn't want to kiss up to. And yet, his tiresome act wears thinner every year, and is one very good reason not to devote two hours before any game to ESPN's more than occasionally laborious, seemingly endless pre-game show.

• As expected, Keyshawn Johnson at least was a most welcome addition to the Worldwide Leader's former player studio lineup. He was not the least bit shy at expressing very strong opinions, and even went toe-to-toe with fellow analyst Mike Ditka on several sharp point-counterpoint exchanges. Emmitt Smith played the Mr. Nice Guy role on the ESPN pre-game set, and if he ever decided to sell that chunk of diamond in his ear, he could probably use the proceeds to pay off the national debt of half the countries in the United Nations. Tom Jackson, also celebrating 21 years on the pre-game, remains an old-school voice of reason, though he was barely able to get a word in over the first twenty minutes of Sunday's show.

• What would ESPN be without the real heroes of the pre-game, that whole stable of former sportswriters who form the true informational backbone of the production? Sal Paolantonio (Philadelphia Inquirer); Rachel Nichols (Washington Post), Ed Werder (Dallas Morning News) and Chris Mortensen (Los Angeles Times), among others. They're all former newspaper reporters who know a good story when they see it and are usually given just enough time to get it on the air before the studio foofs take over.

• Best commercial of the day? That Nike spot showing Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman wreaking havoc from one end of the field to the other in a montage of computer-generated and archived videotape highlights, followed by another series of clips featuring Rams running back Steven Jackson running over, around and through defenders trying to stop him. They both do it in sun, rain and snow, against a wide variety of teams, with stirring music from the soundtrack of "The Last of the Mohicans" in the background.

• The worst? So many to choose from, but I have grown to loathe those fake news conferences using actual clips of coaches like Bill Parcells spliced into fake footage of blithering bozos posing as reporters asking so-called questions in a simulated post-game setting. Mostly, it makes the coaches look like doddering idiots (as for the old bully, Parcells, maybe that's not such a bad thing), but the concept is getting very stale, and really is not all that funny, especially the seventh time you've seen it on the same day.

• The CBS pre-game show had one fresh face, former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, and fellow Pittsburgh native Dan Marino had a little fun with the new guy on the set.

"I got a gift from big Ben Roethlisberger," Marino said, donning a so-called spit shield he said the Steelers' quarterback had given him just in case Cowher ever got in his face, as he did so often with Roethlisberger and other cowering Steelers on the sidelines for so many years. "He said I'm going to need this during the year. I know you get excited sometimes, so I'm ready. I'm going to get some for the whole crew."

Cowher stayed calm for most of the 30 minutes I tuned in, seemed to fit in nicely with the group and was definitely not employing the usual give-'em-nothing coach-speak that marked so many of his sessions with reporters when he was the voice of the franchise for so many years. Cowher also insisted he has no plans to return to the sidelines any time soon, if at all. Don't believe it. Clearly, none of his current on-air cohorts seemed to be buying it.

Still, one of his best self-deprecating lines came when the analysts were asked for their Super Bowl picks. Cowher said he couldn't "believe I'm talking about the Super Bowl before Week One. It goes against everything I believe in."

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