It's Year Two of the NFL's $17.6 billion network and cable television contract, and not much has changed in the way the league will be covered by its various broadcast "partners" as the regular season opens on Sunday.
With one exception, the foolish firing of Dan Dierdorf from ABC's Monday night team, the lead game broadcasters remain the same at CBS, Fox and ESPN. The one major shakeup involves a totally revamped pregame show at CBS, which aired arguably the worst studio lineup, save for host Jim Nantz, in the recent history of the sport.
The '99 lineup:
CBS: Gone and easily forgotten from "NFL Today" are Marcus Allen, Brent Jones and George Seifert. Allen will offer occasional feature stories, Jones will switch to game analysis and Seifert is coach of the Carolina Panthers, a job better suited to his inimitable brand of (non) communication.
In their place, CBS has taken Randy Cross off game analysis to move into the studio to team with Craig James and, ugh, jarrin' Jerry Glanville. Nantz will continue to host the show, and we can only hope he can keep Glanville somewhat in check.
Glanville said some outrageous things as a Fox game analyst and clearly CBS is trying to set him up as the irreverent Terry Bradshaw type.
Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms will continue as the lead game team, with Dierdorf replacing Cross on the second game with Verne Lundquist. Other teams include Kevin Harlan-Sam Wyche, Ian Eagle-Mark May, Don Criqui-Steve Tasker, Gus Johnson-Jones and Craig Bolerjack-Beasley Reece.
Fox: Although Pat Summerall has lost quite a bit off his fastball and John Madden's act hasn't changed in years, they remain one of the game's all-time great combinations in the booth and should be allowed to work together in perpetuity.
The No. 2 team also is solid, with Dick Stockton and Matt Millen together again, beginning with the Redskins' season opener. However, the depth of Fox's announcing corps pales compared with CBS's, and when Bill Maas, Tim Green or Brian Baldinger are assigned as game analysts for your favorite team, you know it's going to be a long day unless you switch to the radio broadcast.
Fox's studio lineup of host James Brown, Bradshaw, Howie Long and Cris Collinsworth is always worth watching, simply because they genuinely seem to be having so much fun. Bradshaw's ego occasionally runs out of control, but at least Long and Collinsworth have no qualms about putting him in his place. With Brown refereeing, it's a terrific show.
ABC: The network marks the 30th anniversary of "Monday Night Football," and for the second time there will only be two announcers in the booth. Dierdorf, an opinionated presence for a dozen years, added a voice of authority and reason to the telecast and never should have been let go. Al Michaels remains the best all-around in his business, and also is the closest thing to a pure journalist in any football booth these days. He's up on every story line, never shies from controversy and offers terrific play-by-play.
His partner again will be Boomer Esiason, who took some heavy shots from the critics a year ago in his rookie broadcast season, many of them undeserved. Esiason still needs to speak in smaller sound bites, even without Dierdorf in the booth, but he's at his best when he speaks from personal experience. By the way, look for a third man in the booth next year, perhaps Jimmy Johnson or Bill Parcells.
ABC's dreadful pregame show from a year ago has been scrapped, and the start time, 8:20 p.m. last season, is back to 9 p.m. Frank Gifford finally retired, at least from ABC, no longer serving in what amounted to a humiliating halftime role from a Baltimore sports bar.
Lesley Visser is back as the sideline reporter, and the NFL has relaxed the access rules this year to allow her and others in similar jobs to actually report. I'd still like to eliminate those insipid head coach interviews at halftime. The questions are decent, but the answers are dumb and dumber every year.
ESPN: The Sunday night game booth still will have a distinctive Washington presence, with play-by-play man Mike Patrick and Joe Theismann returning, along with Paul Maguire.
Patrick, a longtime Northern Virginian, may be the most under-appreciated play-by-play announcer on television, but he's also among the most solid, both in demeanor and preparation. Theismann never has changed in offering pointed opinion, though he has learned to cut down on the verbiage. Maguire adds a little comic relief, and is quite astute himself.
The two-hour "NFL Countdown" pregame show remains the best of the Sunday studio offerings, though replacing co-host Mike Tirico with Stuart Scott is not exactly my idea of a major improvement, especially if Scott goes into his "boo-yah" "SportsCenter" mode. Chris Berman does enough of that stuff to begin with.
Former Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly, who had a nervous first season, returns for a second year as a studio analyst along with astute Tom Jackson and Sterling Sharpe, whose high opinion of himself is not shared in this corner.
Meanwhile, Chris Mortensen remains the best provider of information on television, and reporters such as Sal Paolantonio, Ed Werder and Andrea Kremer add great substance to the show with special features and newsy game site reporting.