Sunday, August 26, 2007

Down and Distance mailbag: Joe T

A friend who lives near D.C. writes to tell me that even though Joe Theismann was kicked off the Monday Night Football team with such vehemence that he still has shoe polish in his colon, Theismann continues to torment sports fans in the National Capital Area by way of his gig as a color commentator on the Washington Redskins' preseason broadcasts. This friend asks an excellent question:
"Judging from Internet clamor (which never lies), Theismann's pretty well-reviled, but he's still ensconced in that announcers booth. And judging from the catty remarks of his partner, he's getting paid dumptrucks of money. Who do you think is keeping him around and why? Do the networks feel bad over his turkey drumstick leg? Is it a Snyder thing since he's a former Redskin?"

--J.B. in North Arlington

He's right about the Internet clamor. One of the realities of the Internet is that you can find "haters" out there for just about anyone. But you can also find ardent fans of just about anyone (not just Dean Cain) -- and find them in large numbers. I've read people say some really horrible things about the announcing abilities of Joe Buck and John Madden, but I've also read glowing tributes to those same gentlemen. I've seen wrongheaded yet still spirited defenses of Brian Baldinger, Tony Siragusa, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, even Bill Maas. However, with all the venom I've seen spit toward Joe Theismann, I haven't seen anyone, anywhere, offer a lucid defense of his abilities as an announcer. With the exception of this guy, no one likes him. Everyone thinks he's a blow-dried ass.

So why is he still on TV? Before we get to that, let's address this question: Why is he not on TV more? J.B. pointed out that Theismann's broadcast partner, Mike Patrick, was snarking at him about how much money he makes. Patrick and Theismann used to work ESPN's Sunday night NFL games in a three-man booth with Paul Maguire. When the Monday night package moved from ABC to ESPN, Patrick and Maguire were demoted to college football, and Theismann was teamed up with Mike Tirico and Tony Kornheiser on MNF. After one atrocious, embarrassing, disheartening season there, ESPN gave Theismann the heave-ho and replaced him with Ron Jaworski. Theismann, however, remains under contract to ESPN. I can't find a dollar figure for the contract, but considering that he starred on the network's marquee property, it must be sizeable. So Patrick was referring to Theismann being paid a lot of money by ESPN to appear as an infrequent guest on the Mike and Mike in the Morning radio show and to give his usual infuriating, wrong answers during draft coverage.

The question of why ESPN kicked Theismann off MNF is a good one, and I think it has a lot to do with the aforementioned Internet clamor. Theisman had been doing the Sunday night NFL games on ESPN since 1988. That's almost the Stone Age as far as sports media is concerned. It was before sports radio exploded, before ESPN2, Fox Sports Net or the NFL Network even existed. Not only weren't there sports blogs in 1988, there wasn't even a World Wide Web to put them on. Pete Rozelle was still commissioner, for God's sake. The sports media landscape was totally transformed during the time Theismann was in the Sunday night booth, and as long as he remained in that particular booth, he wasn't going to attract the kind of attention that could hurt him. Yes, he sucked, but as far as blogs were concerned, he'd always been there. He was just part of Sunday night football, the same way Howard Cosell was part of MNF for so long. We screamed at the TV and complained in our posts, and pointed out his tendentious arguments and dickhead tendencies, but ESPN didn't care. They figured he was doing just fine, because they didn't have anything to compare him to.

Then ESPN landed Monday Night Football. Though the Monday package was moving from broadcast to cable, meaning a smaller potential audience, its viewership would remain huge. (Advertisers actually prefer it to be on cable; they have no interest in reaching the kind of people who can't or won't spend money on cable TV.) That means millions of people who had not watched the ESPN Sunday night games regularly would be tuning in. And they would be used to hearing games called by Al Michaels and Madden -- the current gold standard of announcing -- who had done MNF on NBC. When the 2006 season started and these people tuned in the farce that ESPN had created, they were outraged. The Internet exploded with derision and disgust. This time, ESPN was ready to listen.

When you asked people last year what was wrong with Monday Night Football, you got a variety of answers, all of them logical: Tirico sounded thin and reedy, Kornheiser was neither funny nor insightful, the viewer e-mails were embarrassing, the celebrity interviews were an absolute insult, and Suzy Kolber just isn't as pretty as she used to be. What everybody agreed on, though, was that Theismann was an arrogant prick who made the broadcasts unpleasant, if you could watch them at all.

ESPN had been paying $550 million a year for the Sunday night games. When the network picked up the Monday night package, its fee rose to $1.1 billion a year. The network now had twice as much skin in the game, so everything was on the table. ESPN suddenly cared very much about what the bloggers and the callers to sports radio were saying about their NFL coverage. Joe Theismann had kept his job at ESPN for 17 years through inertia: He had been on the Sunday night game telecasts forever. But now he was being publicly identified as a threat to a $1.1 billion investment. He had to go, even if it meant the network would have to eat his contract.

All of which brings us back to the broadcast booth at FedEx Field, where Theismann runs his mouth and defends everything every player does. What's up with that?

J.B. is right in pointing the finger at Dan Snyder. Call Snyder what you will: genius, tyrant, chump, visionary, megalomaniac, dupe, menace, crazy man, whatever. But what he really is, is a star-fucker. Free agents are able to pry enormous contracts out of him based not on their football abilities, but on how much he recognizes their names. Mark Brunell got an $8 million signing bonus even though no one else wanted him. Adam Archuletta got the richest contract any safety has ever received because he was a "star," even though he was the worst possible fit for the Redskins defense. (He excels in run support, not coverage, which is what they tried to use him for.) Remember Deion Sanders? Jeff George? Mark Carrier? Big Daddy Wilkinson? And it's the same with coaches. Steve Spurrier is a star! Give him $25 million! Joe Gibbs is a Hall-of-Famer! Give him$25 million! Defense needs work? Make Marvin Lewis the highest-paid assistant in the league! Offense needs work? Make Al Saunders the highest-paid assistant in the league!

So it is with announcers. During the regular season, games are called by network teams. In the preseason, though, the teams hire their own announcers for those games not being shown on network TV. Some teams use local talent; others hire network guys. The best preseason pairing I've ever heard was Chris Meyers (of Fox) and Jaworski doing Buccaneers games. When Snyder went looking for someone to do 'Skins games, he naturally hit on Theismann. He's got a Super Bowl ring! He was a star with the Redskins! He was on national TV for 18 years! He's got a restaurant in Alexandria!

It's sad, really. Snyder's a damn billionaire. He owns the team. He doesn't have to hire Theismann. He chooses to, out of the misguided belief that because Theismann sat in a network booth for so long, he must be really good. But he isn't good. He's a punk. I'm just glad I don't have to hear his whiny voice anymore.

1 comment:

Nicholas Bergus said...

Parts of his restaurant's site read like a frickin' chopstick wrapper.
Concerning Joe's fine menu, for example (emphasis mine): "The chefs enjoy regular expression of talent with creation of their daily specials."