Saturday, January 06, 2007

America hates you, Joe Theismann

It's true, you knowCome to find out that Tiki Barber has all but signed a four-year, $10 million contract with Disney to work on ABC and ESPN once his (Peter King: "*cough* *cough* *Hall of Fame* *cough*") career with the Giants is over. Because there's no better time than the week before the playoffs begin to try to nail down what cushy job you'll be doing 10 months hence. You really want to get that kind of thing squared away now because you don't know how long this whole trying-to-win-the-Super Bowl thing is going to keep you tied up.

The New York Post, which is about as unimpeachable a source as you're going to find in the 1200 block of Sixth Avenue, reports that Barber will have roles on ABC's Good Morning America and 20/20, where I pray he goes Dr. D on John Stossel's pompous, pillowy, put-upon multimillionaire ass. What Barber will do at ESPN is still in doubt (kick the shit out of Sean Salisbury?), but speculation has him replacing Tony Kornheiser on Monday Night Football. Which, if that's all they're going to do to Monday Night Football, would be a dreadful mistake. Any new aproach to MNF that doesn't start with giving Joe Theismann's career two hollow-points to the back of its permed head is just killing time.

It's doubtful that Down and Distance has anything noteworthy to add to the immense body of commentary concerning the utter travesty that was the first season of Monday Night Football on ESPN. But if human history has taught us anything (and it hasn't), it's that when good people stay silent, when they choose to look away, when they put their own petty concerns ahead of their fellow men, then evil will flourish. So I will not -- cannot -- stand idly by.

I usually work evenings, but the birth of my son (Hi, Quentin!) kept me home for more than a month, giving me the opportunity to watch Monday Night Football regularly for the first time in years. From the beginning of the season, I had been hearing complaints about how the shift of MNF from ABC to ESPN had been marked by piss-poor announcing, amateurish production values and a wholesale substitution of bells and whistles for, well, football. Still, until I saw the mess for myself, I doubted that the production could be anywhere near as bad as ESPN Sunday Night Football, the slow-motion B.M. that the Worldwide Leader had squeezed out onto the screens of NFL fans for twenty years. No way -- NO WAY -- could the "brain" "trust" in Bristol have assembled a worse announcing team than the ladylike Mike Patrick, the monkeylike Paul Maguire and Theismann, who's both ladylike and monkeylike. Right?

So very wrong.

ESPN at least appeared to get off on the right foot when it announced that the Sunday night crew would not be relocating to Mondays. Unfortunately, instead of disbanding the Keystone Kommentators entirely, the network went with a two-thirds solution. Patrick and Maguire were reassigned to college football, and Theismann was promoted, or whatever you want to call it, to the Monday night booth. Theismann was, by far, the worst of the three. Patrick, for all his bombast and UNBELIEVABLE emphasis on certain, seemingly RANDOM words, was a serviceable play-by-play man. Maguire was really no worse than Brian Baldinger (which is damning with praise so faint you need special instruments to detect it), and for all his arrogance, one thing he had going in his favor was that he spent most of his time telling Theismann -- "Joseph," as he'd say -- to get his head out of his ass.

The only place Theismann has his head more often than up his own ass, of course, was up the ass of whatever poor player had stumbled into his field of vision. When a player screws up on MNF, he does so on national television, and he does so in front off all his fellows, because it's the one game every week that all the players watch. But there's one consolation, and that's that Theismann will be up in the booth making excuses for him. A quarterback throws an interception, and Theismann will say, "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that's the right throw to make." A ball-carrier steps out of bounds when he needs to keep the clock going, and Theismann jumps in immediately with "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, he'll be able to cut that back inside." A gimpy-kneed legend tries to molest Suzy Kolber on the air, and Theismann pipes up, "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she'd say yes, and she'd pay his cabfare home."

Worst of all is when Kornheiser has the audacity to raise a question about a player's effort, about a coach's strategy, about ... well, about anything on the field. Because to Theismann, every question that he himself does not raise is a stupid one. Every question is an ignorant one. And that's why he's compelled to answer every question with a spirited defense of the player in question. His defense is usually ludicrious, and one that he spends the rest of the game hedging, if not contradicting altogether. But no biggie -- by Week 16, America was watching with the sound off anyway.

(Theismann would think every question from Mike Tirico was stupid and ignorant, too, except Tirico doesn't ask questions. Doesn't do much of anything, really, except play host for the celebrity cocktail party and kick it downstairs to Suzy. For more on Theismann v. Kornheiser, see Big Daddy Drew's excellent open letter at KSK in August)

So I hope we've established that Theismann is a punk and a candyass. Yes, he has a Super Bowl ring. So what? He didn't win Super Bowl XVII. John Riggins won Super Bowl XVII. Theismann, however, lost Super Bowl XVIII a year later by throwing a pick-six from his own end zone with 7 seconds left in the first half. As we're all fond of saying, Trent Dilfer has a Super Bowl ring, too. Shit, Cliff Stoudt has two. That doesn't mean I want Cliff Stoudt on my TV every Monday night writing romantic poetry to Booger McFarland.

If ESPN is looking to make room for Tiki Barber on MNF, I'd suggest they start by taking a rusty wire hanger and vigorously scraping out the inside of the booth. Failing that, they could just pay Theismann the balance of his contract and tell him that if they ever see him around the ESPN campus again, they're calling the cops.

Other thoughts about MNF that I couldn't be bothered to arrange into column form:

Theismann's banality is all the more striking when compared with the TV work of other quarterbacks, including on his own network. At ESPN, Ron Jaworski is the best film-room guy on television, hands-down, and Steve Young doesn't shame himself behind the desk on Sunday mornings. At Fox, Troy Aikman has not only gotten better every year, he's gotten funnier, ridiculing the network's own programs during on-air promos. Terry Bradshaw is an obnoxious yokel because that's in his job description, but when he lets his guard down, it's clear that both sides of his brain work in tandem. On CBS, Phil Simms is never afraid to talk shit about players, though he does it in that weird high voice of his. Dan Marino has been so committed to improving his TV game that it's scary. And then there's Boomer Esiason, who never won a Super Bowl and takes it out on Marino every week. Any QBs on TV worse than Theismann? Yes: Sean Salisbury.

Tirico shouldn't be in the booth. He looks like what you'd get if you asked a composite sketch artist to draw an African-American George Costanza. He sounds like a carnival barker on 5% helium. He gets excited at all the wrong moments, he lets everybody yammer when they should shut up, and he wouldn't keep Kornheiser and Theismann from rubbing up against Matthew McConaughey's leg.

Kornheiser was worse than useless. Aside from the canned essay he read before each game, he brought nothing. At least Dennis Miller wrote out his jokes beforehand and then tried to shoehorn them into the game. Kornheiser would jot down one talking point per half and just repeat it over and over. During the Panthers-Eagles game in Week 13, the first-half talking point was that it was cold in Philadelphia in early December. As the game got underway, Tony K observed with apparent wonder that some men in the stands had removed their shirts. But it was so cold! It gave you the sense that Kornheiser had not only never been to a cold-weather game; he'd never even watched one on TV. As soon as it gets below 45 degrees, the stands fill up with shirtless fat guys with 80-proof blood. The problem is: Kornheiser's shtick only works if he has someone smarter than him to play off of. On Pardon the Interruption, he has Mike Wilbon. On his radio program, he'd dial up John Feinstein or someone Feinsteiny. On MNF, he's stuck in the box with two undescended testicles.

The maddening thing about ESPN's team being so awful is that on the first Monday night of the season, when MNF had a doubleheader, the backup team -- the "B" team -- was fantastic. Tirico, Theismann and Kornheiser worked the early game, Vikings at Redskins, and were by all accounts awful. I was at the game and so didn't see the broadcast, but when I got home, I watched the second game -- Chargers-Raiders -- on TiVo. Brad Nessler handled the play-by-play, and Jaworski and Dick Vermeil did the color. ESPN could have put these three pros out there every week. Instead we get three monkeys scratching their armpits. Remember when ESPN said it was going to cater to the hardcore sports fan?

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