Al Michaels has heard all the talk about going back to a third man in the ABC "Monday Night Football" booth, and he doesn't like it.

Three years ago he worked with Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf. Two years ago, he worked with Boomer Esiason, in place of Gifford (praise be), and Dierdorf. This season, it's been Michaels and Esiason, and on Sunday they'll handle ABC's Super Bowl XXXIV game coverage.

Almost every day, ABC Sports President Howard Katz hears from an agent purporting to represent the usual suspects--Mike Ditka, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells, among others. All are ex-coaches, and all were blowhard media bullies when they were in charge of their respective teams. Now they're all looking for what they perceive to be the easy money of network television.

On Tuesday, rumors were flying around the media center here that an ABC news conference would be the venue for the announcement of Ditka's hiring. Katz even heard it, from several people.

"That's preposterous," he said. "What I've said to all the people who ask is that once we get past the Super Bowl and the Pro Bowl, we'll take a hard look at anyone out there who will make the telecast better. If we were to look in that direction, it would be to complement what we have."

Katz ought to heed Michaels's advice and just say no. Unless the second coming of Howard Cosell should appear (not in our lifetime), two is more than enough to get the job done, especially with the NFL's best play-by-play man in Michaels and up-and-coming Esiason.

One of my so-called distinguished colleagues, Norman Chad, has taken it upon himself to throw bombs at Boomer all season. Maybe it's because they're both named Norman, and no one ever called Chad Boomer.

Whatever, I would respectfully disagree with Chad's opinion that Esiason has been the worst thing to hit "Monday Night Football" since they stuck the Giffer in a bar in Baltimore and made him do gushy features until he ran screaming into retirement.

Considering that he has been in the business for only two years, Esiason has made great strides. A year ago, he was in a three-man booth. While adjusting to a two-seater isn't rocket science, it requires major adjustments to create a seamless, no-glitch broadcast. Esiason is still very much a work in progress, and another year of two in the booth would serve him and the show well.

"He's gotten a lot more comfortable this year," Michaels said the other day. "We also had better games in the second half of the season. Early on, we had a succession of dull games, the worst kind of games, road routs. By halfway through the third quarter, you had a dead stadium and no noise, and by the fourth quarter, you had an empty stadium. Then we had four out of five really good games, and I think we both hit our stride.

"I'm happy the way it is now. I'm always a proponent of consistency and stability. If you make another switch, it's going to be the fourth dynamic in four years. I'd like to see us stay with what we've got. In this day and age, with so much outside clutter we have to get in, all the promos and everything else, you don't need to clutter it any more."

An Eye on the Ratings

If ABC officials are worried that two new teams from smaller markets (St. Louis is No. 21, Nashville is No. 30) playing in their first Super Bowl could present a ratings disaster, they're certainly not saying so publicly.

"If we have a great game, people will watch," Katz said. "There is a tremendous curiosity factor in this game. And ratings for the AFC and NFC championships were very encouraging. It's the Super Bowl; people will watch."

Fox's coverage of St. Louis-Tampa Bay was 2 percent higher than last year's late game between the Denver Broncos and New York Jets. CBS's telecast of Tennessee-Jacksonville was 6 percent lower than the Atlanta-Minnesota game a year ago.

"The Super Bowl is always a matter of degree in ratings," said John Fillipelli, vice president for production of ABC Sports. "At the high end, it will be a 45 to 46, at the low end 39 to 40. Of all sports, the NFL is less a prisoner of teams involved and the markets than other sports. It does have some effect, but I think the effect is negligible."

Snyder Defends Rhodes

Sonny Jurgensen was not exactly shy about questioning the wisdom of hiring former Green Bay Packers coach Ray Rhodes as the Redskins' defensive coordinator the other night on Channel 4's "Redskins Report."

Jurgensen said on the air he had been told by owner Daniel M. Snyder that the man he hired for the position would have to be a viable head coaching candidate if he ever had to make an in-season change.

"That's what Dan Snyder said to me," said Jurgensen, who is here this week covering the Super Bowl for Channel 4. "He said he wanted to have someone with experience. Is he [Rhodes] the guy? I don't know. In today's NFL, do you want a guy who's a defensive specialist? I wonder about that. I want to hear what he [Snyder] has to say."

Reached here today, Snyder said whatever discussions he had with Jurgensen regarding the coaching staff took place when he first took over control of the team last July.

"I respect Sonny," Snyder said. "But I'm very comfortable with our hiring Ray Rhodes to work with Norv [Turner]. We have a great coaching staff in place."