Some Guy Named Spero

The NFL playoffs are in full swing now, and  I for one want to express my gratitude. Not for the games; sure there’s been plenty of intrigue, action, and excitement, and I like all that as much as the next guy. But I enjoy the playoffs mostly because these games mean a welcome respite for my long-suffering ears.

Meaning, of course, that most of the godawful excuses for announcers have been put out to pasture by now.

The DFR: FootballThe NFL playoffs mean less games played, though you wouldn’t necessarily know that after the first two weekends. With games  televised to national audiences on both Saturday and Sunday each of the first two weekends, it may seem as though the end of the season brings a glut of games. But that is an illusion, caused by the regional nature of most NFL television coverage. During the season, the number of scheduled games ranges from as low as thirteen to a full slate of sixteen games on any given weekend. Even with Thursday and Monday game broadcasts, that can still leave as many as fourteen games in one day, each of which will be shown by one of the league’s television partners. That requires a lot of guys in blazers calling and commenting on the action, with predictable results given the demands of such a schedule.

I get it: they can’t all be as good as Summerall and Madden. But at the very least, we should have more than the bare minimum of good broadcasters.

First let me say, there’s no real problem at the top. As the first two rounds of playoff games have shown, the networks do a good job at filling the top ranks of their broadcasting crews. NBC’s Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, CBS’s Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, ESPN’s Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden, and even FOX’s Joe Buck and Troy Aikman all range from great to perfectly good at calling their games. (Buck gets a ton of abuse, from football and baseball fans, for his work in FOX’s top chair, but I don’t have any particular problem with him. I’m not a Gruden fan, but most viewers like his work, so I concede on Chucky.)

But the bus rolls quickly off the cliff after that top tier. CBS does the best job of maintaining quality. Greg Gumbel, Kevin Harlan, and Ian Eagle form a serviceable trio of play-by-play guys on the level just below Nantz, but even that lineup leaves CBS, on the least demanding weeks of the regular season, with at least one more booth to fill–and woe to you, viewer, if your market falls within the coverage zone for that bush league, dumpster fire “game of the weak,” because you’ll be stuck listening to some guy named Spero. Who? Named what? Exactly.

And that’s just the play-by-play guys. With the analysts–generally the more difficult job to do well–it’s a real crap shoot. Emphasis, all too frequently, on crap.

The situation is hardly better at FOX. After Buck, the play-by-play quality drops off so rapidly that Kevin Burkhardt, who worked this past weekend’s Seattle-Carolina match-up, has apparently “risen” to the top as the network’s number two announcer.

Burkhardt’s work on the Seahawks’ victory demonstrated that he is not ready for primetime. Several times during the game he declared a play’s outcome before he actually had all the facts in place. (Example: Burkhardt completely missed a Seahawks’ fumble that Russell Wilson recovered, instead calling it a keeper by the quarterback). Burkhardt also seems to have taken his broadcasting cues from any number of obscure, hastily hired Olympics announcers, who invariably decide that they can make whatever is happening exciting so long as they JUST KEEP ON SCREAMING! As for his rapport with his analyst partner, Jon Lynch, it’s hard to say if the fault lies with Burkhardt being saddled with Lynch, or Lynch being saddled with Burkhardt.

Lynch, by the way, epitomizes one of the key characteristics that tells you that you’re listening to a bad announcer: he frequently cracks himself up with his own comments. It’s a piece of advice you should pass along to your children and their children and their children’s children, to the seventh generation: if you tune into a game and you hear an announcer laughing at his own jokes, leap for the remote and hit the MUTE button.

As far as FOX is concerned, this situation is a long-standing problem. I still lament the years when the 49ers were awful, when every one of their games hit the local market with FOX’s “Z team” in the booth. Those were painful Sundays, and I’d prefer the network improve their stable of voices, lest those grim days come back.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. Is it really that hard to find good broadcasters? Again, turning to the local scene, the very talented Dave Flemming rose from Stanford University (where he was a student before becoming their football and basketball play-by-play voice) and minor league baseball to the S.F. Giants’ broadcast booth (where he still partners with Jon Miller), and he is now one of ESPN’s rising voices for both football and basketball. Isn’t there a guy like Flemming in every market out there, a talented announcer just waiting to be discovered and rise up the ranks? If even a quarter of the major markets produced someone as good as Flemming–or, we can hope, as good as Buck or Nantz or Tirico–there would be no shortage of quality voices calling the games we love.

I get it: they can’t all be as good as Summerall and Madden. But at the very least, we should have more than the bare minimum of good broadcasters. We give a great deal of ourselves as fans of these games; the least the networks can do is reward us with announcers who make the games that much more enjoyable and worthy of our time and attention.

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