When Frank Gifford, in the opening moments of ABC's Super Bowl XIX pregame show, told us almost successively that we'd reached the moment of truth, that the stage had been set and that the place would be rocking, you had to sense we were in trouble.
When Jim Lampley preceded a live interview with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle by telling us about the recent charity-work award Rozelle received, you knew we were in trouble.
And when a camera zoomed in for a closeup of the silver medallion President Reagan had just flipped -- can you imagine the leader of the free world flipping a coin to decide who would kick off in a football game on the day he took his oath of office? -- you knew that maybe, just maybe, this country was in trouble.
Super Bowl XIX, largely, was a bust. President Reagan's swearing in had more suspense than the game. And ABC's six-hour coverage loudly reendorsed a simple fact: the network produces wonderful pictures and lousy words.
The Pep Boys of broadcasting -- Gifford, Don Meredith and Joe Theismann -- did little to enhance the telecast. Gifford, commendably, did solid play-by-play, but was forced to cohabitate in the booth with a two-headed broadcasting monster short on analysis or insight.
In a Super Bowl with very little drama or controversy, there was, amazingly, very little Joe Theismann. Credit Theismann for one thing: he was under control and seldom talked too much. But fault him for another: he had nothing to offer us.
Can you recall one thought-provoking comment by Theismann? Can you recall any forecasts of how plays would develop? Can you recall Theismann even being there? For one 10-play sequence in the second quarter, he mysteriously did not utter a word.
Theismann, inadvertently, accomplished two things. By comparison, he made deposed analyst O.J. Simpson look good. (Simpson, incidentally, was superb in his pregame chores, forecasting Roger Craig's big day and the 49ers' offensive proficiency.) And Theismann helped prove that a three- or four-man booth has no inherent superiority to a two-man team.
In fact, if you have two strong broadcasters -- such as CBS' Pat Summerall and John Madden -- you need no one else. ABC, as usual, tried to make up in numbers what it lacked in quality, even incorporating a hatless Tom Landry to diagram key plays.
Part of Theismann's problems may be blamed on Meredith. After all, as the elder quarterback-turned-analyst, Meredith could've set a proper example. But Dandy Don's disinterest is alarming. He seemingly does little preparation -- getting dressed doesn't count -- and tries to ooh and aah his way through three hours.
When Carl Monroe scored San Francisco's first touchdown, Meredith shouted, "Wendell!!" as in Wendell Tyler. When Miami's Dan Marino was sacked a fourth time, Meredith commented, "Oh, they're going after him."
When Meredith and Theismann weren't talking, ABC's promotions department bombarded us. Networks -- ABC in particular -- have that attitude, "Whether you like it or not, we are going to force every other show on our schedule onto your lap." I saw more of "MacGruder and Loud" and Peter Jennings during the game than I will in any subsequent lifetime of mine.
Contrasting the verbal vacuum was ABC's technical artistry. The cameras missed nothing. Producer Bob Goodrich and director Chet Forte did not give us unnecessary replays. They used a new sideline camera effectively. On four straight plays late in the first half they gambled with live end-zone shots, an angle that is unsettling to many viewers, but one that showed pass blocking and pass patterns unfolding in a different manner.
Some of ABC's graphics were unsettling. As part of its multicolored scoreboard update, ABC used purple. Purple is for new wave nightclubs. And someone in power must convince the network to abandon its scoring-drive graphic, a breakdown of rushes and passes superimposed on a field. Even with a color TV set, the graphic is confusing. In black and white, it looks like a Rorschach test.
If you avoided the pregame show -- sort of a two-hour compression of the two-week pre-Super Bowl newspaper hype -- and if you had the sound down, you may have enjoyed Super Bowl XIX. Forte brought us just the right mixture of stadium color, sideline shots and game action, and, true to his word, the game itself was handled similarly to a "Monday Night Football" telecast.
But in the end, it was the inadequacy of Roone Arledge's Pep Boys that stayed with us. When steady Al Michaels turned it over to Gifford, Meredith and Theismann for a final wrapup, there were no last insights into Bill Walsh's game plan or Dan Marino's surprising inconsistency. Instead, they each talked about the great experience and thanked one another for a great week.
It was enough to make you wish you'd watched "Punky Brewster."