Monday, September 11, 2006

Rich? Man ... Poor, man.

'Eisen' means 'Iron' in German ... so if Iron Mike Ditka married Rich Eisen, he'd be Iron Mike Iron. Week 1 of the 2006 NFL season requires us to get used to a whole new television regime. Monday Night Football is on ESPN. James Brown has escaped the special-needs classroom at Fox and now hosts CBS's pregame show. The Sunday night games have moved to NBC, which has wrapped all the evening's gridiron-related infotainment into something it calls Football Night in America, which should sound extremely familiar to our friends north of the border. (I understand NBC has had some trouble in the past few years, but stealing ideas from hockey? Is it really that bad?)

As part of its blockbusta deal with the league (theme song by Pink!), NBC became the only NFL broadcast partner allowed to air a highlight show on Sunday nights. That means ESPN's NFL Primetime, a staple of football fans' weekly experience since 1987 and the only NFL recap show on television that showed anything besides touchdowns and sack dances, has been kicked to the slums of Monday afternoon (and yet it's still called NFL Primetime).

But wait, it gets worse. Chris Berman and Tom Jackson are no longer on the show. Like most people, I tired of Berman's act years ago. The "Well-Dressed Amani Toomer" references weren't funny in 1997 and were less so in 2005. "Daylight Come and You Got to Delhomme" not only wasn't funny, it was somehow offensive. And yet ... after so many years on the air, Berman and Tom Jackson just were the voice of NFL highlights. Fans had developed the ability to tune out the nonsense and focus on the useful stuff. There was a sometimes strained but still affectionate relationship borne of time, familiarity and routine. Just like your parents and mine.

Now Primetime has an all-new team. The host is Stuart Scott, a witless caricature of street cred whose vocabulary is as dated as his wardrobe. There are now two analysts where there once was one. The first is Senator Mike Ditka, who still looks like Da Coach of Da Bears but sounds like Da Coach of Da Saints every time he cranks opens Da Pennsylvania Piehole. The other analyst is poor, poor Ron Jaworski, who has one of the sharpest minds in football broadcasting but who is cursed with a tragic flaw: susceptibility to peer pressure. On his own, Jaws is enthusiastic yet levelheaded. In the company of dim bulbs like Scott, Michael Irvin, Merrill Hoge (sometimes) and, I fear, Iron Mike, "levelheadedness" just means he drools out of both sides of his mouth. I don't know whether I can bring myself to watch.

It was because NFL Primetime had been yanked off the Worldwide Leader's Sunday night schedule that I found myself casting about for a recap show when I got home from work late Sunday (actually early Monday). Remembering the ads I saw (over and over) during the preseason, I flipped over to the NFL Network to check out their highlights program, called NFL Gameday.

The show is hosted by Rich Eisen, a onetime ESPN wunderkind (and Stuart Scott sidekick) who has been the face of the network since its inception. Eisen is joined by Deion Sanders and Steve Mariucci. Sanders formerly appeared on the CBS pregame show, before demanding more money and not getting it. His job at CBS was to shout at random about this and that, and to not seriously criticize anyone. This appears to be his role on Gameday, too. Mariucci is in his first broadcasting job after head-coaching stints in San Francisco and Detroit. His job appears to be staring into the camera with sad, nervous eyes and pattering earnestly.

(Crib sheet for first-timers: Sanders is the well-dressed, easygoing, bald black guy. Mariucci is the well-dressed, haunted, white guy whose thick head of hair stands in unspoken contrast to Eisen's rapidly thinning crop.)

You'd think that Mariucci, as the novice, or Sanders, as the motormouth, would be the most prone to foot-in-mouth disease on-air. You'd be wrong, as it's Eisen who apparently says whatever comes into his brain without checking it first against that big machine in front of him with the words on it. In less than half an hour of Sunday night's program, Eisen:
  • Called Trent Green "Carson Palmer," as in "Carson Palmer lay motionless on the ground."
  • Called Plaxico Burress "Eli Manning," as in (honest) "Eli Manning catches this pass from Eli Manning."
  • Called D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the No. 4 pick in the draft, "the No. 1 overall pick."
  • Called Reggie Bush "Reggie Brown."
  • Referred to Eric Mangini as "the first Jets coach to win his opener since Al Groh in 2000," as if he'd stopped some kind of losing streak. There has been only one other Jets coach since Groh.
  • Said Edgerrin James is "the first Cardinal with 26 carries in a game since Emmitt (Smith) in 2004," as if sheer number of carries meant anything. James, acquired for $30 million, had 73 yards on those 26 carries, a 2.8-yards-per-carry average. (To be fair, Sanders chimed in, "We didn't see any productivity from him in the preseason, but he was just saving it all for the big game." So this might be the company line.)

It's still early, but at this point, I may have no choice but to gas up The George Michael Sports Machine. Where have you gone, Irv Cross?

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