As nightfall approached, I stood anxiously on 16th Street NW. I wanted out of the city. There was a Sunday night NFL game on television, only it wasn't on every television. So I stood there, like the scraggly hitchhikers you always see on Interstate 95 holding the hand-written placards that say "NEW YORK" or "FLORIDA," only the message I held up read "ESPN."
Getting someplace that has ESPN is going to become a Sunday night priority over the next couple of months. Its eight-game schedule is full of attractive matchups, nearly all of which will have playoff implications. Half of the nation's television homes don't get ESPN, which means the half that do ought to expect company.
ESPN made a lot of positive moves since its four preseason NFL telecasts. It sidelined Allie Sherman and his X/O Cam. It cut out studio intrusions during the game. It essentially streamlined the telecast, focusing on the game itself. There was one move ESPN did not make: the guest analyst remains, and this ill-fated concept apparently will be with us for the rest of the season.
Give ESPN credit -- its production people must have spent the past 17 years watching ABC's "Monday Night Football." The Patriots-Giants telecast Sunday night looked like a Monday night game, from the attractive graphics and the reverse-angle camera to the slow-motion replays and the reaction shots of players and coaches. It was a solid, network-quality effort.
But weighing down the whole production is this guest-analyst thing. ESPN is a Capital Cities/ABC subsidiary, a company that insists on excess in the broadcasting booth. It's a simple philosophy borrowed from the federal government -- if you can find three people to do the work of two, then go right ahead. Thus, the three-man broadcasting booth.
ESPN's three-man booth with a different guest analyst each week is the dumbest TV idea since someone gave Geraldo Rivera a microphone that worked. Sunday's guest, Larry Csonka, had all the charm of a turnpike toll booth. But even if future guest analysts -- among them, John Matuszak, Roger Staubach, Jim Brown and Ed Marinaro -- are better, it will not change the fact that too many voices in too small an area usually creates a headache.
Here is the only statistic that counted Sunday night: After each team's opening series, in which play-by-play broadcaster Mike Patrick had to set the lineups for us, there was not one play that went by without comment from Csonka or regular analyst Roy Firestone. Okay, a couple of times ESPN went to commercial before there was any comment, but you can be sure they were talking all through the break. What this means is we never get relief. It was like listening to elevator music, only the elevator ride lasted three hours.
Firestone directed his first half-dozen comments or so to Csonka, trying to pull the Hall of Famer into the conversation. Often, they both made comments between plays, sometimes continuing all the way up to and past the snap of the ball. This sometimes made Patrick helpless to set the down and yardage for us. I would liken Patrick's situation to putting a pilot into a cockpit, tying his arms behind his back and telling him to fly without touching the control panel.
Just once, it would be refreshing to see NFL broadcasters let the drama and tension of a good game heighten by doing nothing more than setting the situation succinctly before every play. (Where's Ray Scott when you need him?) Instead, Csonka and Firestone both chortled, "We've got a game now," as the Patriots pulled closer to the Giants in the final period.
ESPN's NFL coordinating producer, Steve Anderson, pointed out proudly last week "a subtle change we've made that we think gets the guest analyst more involved: We've moved the guest analyst into the middle of the booth, between Roy and Mike, rather than on the outside of them."
I think ESPN moved the guest analyst the wrong way.