Back during the energizing years of championship Washington Redskins football in the 1980s and early 1990s, CBS's broadcast team of Pat Summerall and John Madden made many of those games that much more enjoyable. Now that we're entering the 21st century, the Redskins' erratic play often enrages more than it entertains, and sadly, you might say the same about 50 percent of what must be considered one of the great announcing duos in TV history.

On a rare weekend off last Sunday, I was greatly looking forward to watching the Redskins-Indianapolis Colts game from the Waves Cave--a big game with Summerall and Madden's presence, now as Fox's lead NFL team, making it seem even bigger.

But when the game ended, I found myself shaking my head in dismay over the countless mistakes Summerall made during the three-hour telecast. They ranged from misidentifying players, to incorrect descriptions of plays, to even announcing the wrong score at a critical juncture of the contest.

"He gives the ball to Davis, no, that's Brian Mitchell, not Davis," Summerall said early on. Then later: "Mitchell, no, this is Hicks, no, it is Mitchell." Nothing major there, happens all the time. But as the game wore on, my notebook started filling up with other snippets of Summerall slips.

On Colts running back Edgerrin James's spectacular, one-handed touchdown catch along the sideline, Summerall told viewers before the catch that the ball was going out of bounds. On a punt by Matt Turk, Summerall said Turk had gotten off a poor kick. But the Colts return man fielded it at his 8-yard line. How bad could it have been?

There also were errors of omission. On a punt by Indianapolis, the snap bounced to the kicker on one hop, but Summerall never mentioned it. His identification of key players making tackles or other big plays either took too long or never happened. And then, when the Redskins had gotten within three points on a late two-point conversion, he gave the score as 24-20, instead of 24-21.

Are all of these nit-picks? Perhaps. But that many nits also constitute a disturbing pattern. You'd like to think perhaps Summerall just was having a bad day. After all these years, he's certainly entitled, maybe even to more than one. But I've been hearing over the past two seasons, from colleagues and viewers, that Summerall has lost his fastball, and that Madden often bails him out with gentle corrections of wrong information.

This past Sunday, I observed it firsthand. It saddens me to say this, because Summerall always has been the consummate professional, a broadcast icon whose less-is-more style always has been a personal preference over all those babblers and screamers polluting the airwaves these days.

And by no means is any of this meant to infer that Summerall should be taken off games by Fox forevermore. To the contrary, I hope he keeps going for as long as he wants. He deserves to go out on his terms. When he's good, he's very good, especially when he and Madden instinctively finish each other's thoughts and sentences.

Perhaps it's a function of age (Summerall is 69); perhaps it's a function of being on automatic pilot after so many years; perhaps it's a function of not preparing quite the way he did when he was younger. Whatever the reason, I'm all for giving the man the benefit of the doubt, and giving him all the due respect his years of good work merit.

It also must be said as long as Madden stays around, there's absolutely no need to turn down the sound. Despite all the "doinks" and circled turkey legs on Thanksgiving, he remains the most astute analyst of the game on the air, though CBS's Phil Simms is a close second, without the theatrics.

Madden also is not shy about expressing the strongest opinions possible. Early in the Redskins-Colts game, he told viewers, Washington Coach "Norv Turner knows his defense can't stop this offense." When the Colts racked up 121 passing yards in the first quarter, he added, "They've proven they can throw, and the Redskins can't stop them.

Later, Madden surely offended Redskins fans by saying: "The Redskins will probably make the playoffs, but they are not a playoff team. They're on track to be a playoff team because they'll have three first-round picks" in 2000.

Poor Taste

It was bad enough that Fox aired some of the most tasteless promos ever seen for upcoming new shows during the Redskins-Colts game--a machine-gun blazing Santa ("Futurama") and something called "Malcolm in the Middle."

But someone at Fox, and every other network, ought to have more sense than to air that Bud Light ad with a guy on a ledge contemplating suicide. If this is Madison Avenue's latest attempt at humor--especially during the holiday season, when depression runs amok in the land--this is not funny. The commercial should be canned forever.

Top Billing

ESPN's year-long athlete of the century series reaches its denouement today, with No. 1 and No. 2 revealed on ABC, starting at 5 p.m. Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan are the final two, after Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali were revealed to be Nos. 4 and 3, respectively, Friday night.

Secrecy, a rare commodity in the TV business, so far has ruled on the end of this series. Even Sunday host Dan Patrick didn't know the identity of the athlete of the century late this past week. He taped the introduction to the final announcement four times, once for each of the final candidates.

"There are no right or wrong answers in this," said ESPN and ABC host Robin Roberts, one of 48 panelists who picked the top 100 athletes of the century. "The fact that we've caused this great debate to me is what it's all about."