Changing Approach to Monday Night Football

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By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 3, 2008; 2:04 PM

There was a time when the less-is-more philosophy in the pro football booth was all the rage.

Remember the late, great Ray Scott's touchdown descriptions as he handled the play-by-play of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s? It went something like "Starr...to Dowler...Touchdown."

Pat Summerall continued the tradition for many years with CBS, and later Fox, preferring simply to offer pithy commentary mostly intended to set up his far more effusively verbose colleague, John Madden. Summerall kept the adjectives down, the hyperbole to a minimum and pretty much allowed the viewer to watch a football game with minimal distractions, other than Madden's often brilliant and entertaining take on the action.

When ABC went to three men in the booth with its pioneering telecasts of Monday Night Football, it was the beginning of the more-of-less school of commentary, particularly when another late great, the inimitable Howard Cosell, got his hands around a microphone and began talking...and talking...and talking.

Some might say that Joe Theismann took the yakkety-yak style to its ultimate level when ESPN finally got its first NFL rights contract and teamed him with play-by-play man Mike Patrick and analyst Paul Maguire.

Despite his on-air verbosity, that drove some viewers to turn off the sound, I'm not ashamed to admit I was always a big fan of Theismann, mostly because he was one of the most cooperative and insightful football players I ever covered. And to this very day, he's always called back.

I also thought his unbridled enthusiasm for the game was rather refreshing, and his analysis was usually spot-on, even if it took him awhile just to clear his throat. Still, I was somewhat saddened when ESPN knocked him out of a weekly gig and into semi-retirement after his first season two years ago in a three-man Monday night booth that also included my long-time friend and Post colleague Tony Kornheiser.

Their on-air chemistry left much to be desired, mostly because it often sounded as if Joey T. thought it was simply heresy for anyone in the booth to deviate from all football all the time. Of course, that's exactly why ESPN hired Kornheiser in the first place. Eventually, it cost Theismann his job, though not his very lucrative multi-year contract, which ESPN is still paying, even if Joe T. essentially does not much at all for the worldwide leader.

Last year, ESPN replaced Theismann with Ron Jaworski, and Jaws seemed to get it right virtually from Day One. With silky smooth Mike Tirico, one of the top five play-by-play voices in his business, working as a multi-tasking ringmaster, the ESPN Monday night booth seemed to become a kinder, gentler place, with none of the crackling tension that occasionally marked and marred the first year.

With the exception of having far too many guests in the booth, some of them talking ad nauseum while some of us were trying to focus on football, I thought ESPN presented a mostly solid football broadcast that was only going to get better with time.

And now, in its third season of MNF, the time apparently also has come for ESPN to go back to a little less-is-more approach to its broadcasts, if that's possible with three men sharing that stage. More significantly, they're going to ditch some of the bells and whistles and try to accommodate people who tune in to watch football, and only football.

Isn't that a swell idea?


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