Thursday, October 11, 2007

Monday night mea culpa

Down and Distance has made no secret of it's disdain for Joe Theismann, the quarterback-turned-analyst who spent close to two decades making NFL games all but unwatchable on Sunday nights and, for one season, Monday nights. I stand by all that criticism and will continue to do so: Theismann was an average quarterback who parlayed his good fortune -- playing alongside John Riggins, behind a legendary offensive line, in an organization that won Super Bowls regardless of who was the quarterback -- into a reputation as a savvy football expert. But I fear now that my white-hot hatred for all things Joe-T blinded me to other problems with the ESPN version of Monday Night Football. Specifically, Tony Kornheiser.

Last season, I complained that Theismann was talking all over Kornheiser. Every time Tony opened his mouth, Joe jumped on him, dismissing his questions and observations out of hand, always with an I-played-this-game-and-you-didn't arrogance that made me want to hurt his family, bad, and make him watch. This season, however, Theismann has been replaced by Ron Jaworski, hands-down the most insightful and thoughtful game analyst working NFL broadcasts -- a guy whose authority in the booth stems not from simply having played the game, not even from having played in the Super Bowl, but rather from having spent years breaking down game tape and explaining what he sees to the lay audience on NFL Matchup. I thought having him as part of the Monday Night Football crew would elevate the level of discussion significantly.

Unfortunately, that hasn't happened, and the MNF booth remains a place where one personality seeks to dominate another by belittling his contributions and patronizing him personally. The twist in 2007, however, is that the asshole is Kornheiser. Like a high school student who was harassed and bullied as a freshman, or a rookie who was hazed at training camp, Kornheiser is using his newfound seniority to make things tough for the newcomer, Jaworski. Jaws, of course, is a good-natured guy and certainly man enough to take some ribbing. That's not the problem. The problem is that we have to watch this pathetic display week after week.

I hesitate to say that the act has reached its nadir, considering we're only five weeks into the season, but it's safe to say it found a new low Monday night in Buffalo. From his moronic opening essay (Trent Edwards has the same first name as Trent Dilfer and Trent Green!) to his relentless carping on the one thing he knows about Buffalo (it's near Niagara Falls, and people go over Niagara Falls in barrels!), Kornheiser was more than annoying. He was utterly infuriating. I am neither kidding nor exaggerating when I say that more than once, I instructed the television: "Oh God, shut the fuck up!" Kornheiser on MNF is an embarrassment. He was supposedly brought in for his wit and his worldview, yet he isn't funny, and he isn't incisive.

Kornheiser absolutely obsesses over old news. During Mondays Cowboys-Bills game, he returned over and over to last season's wildcard playoff round, in which Tony Romo cost Dallas the game against Seattle by botching the hold on the go-ahead field goal. Sure, that was a big story -- in the offseason. But Romo's phenomenal performance in the first four games of the season made clear that the mistake doesn't haunt him and hasn't affected his confidence. If it doesn't affect him, it's just not a story anymore. And yet here we have Kornheiser, blah blah blah botched snap blah blah blah. Romo had an awful game Monday, turning the ball over six times, and seemingly every time he did, it was another chance for Kornheiser to bring up the screwup in Seattle. Let it go already. Similarly, Kornheiser couldn't let go of the Tony-Romo-is-like-Brett-Favre meme. This storyline got a boost in Week 4 against the Rams when Romo's scrambling turned what should have been a 30-yard loss on a fumble into a 4-yard gain. But by week's end the Romo-Favre story wasn't just tired -- it was exhausted. On NBC's Sunday night game between the Bears and Packers, Al Michaels recounted how Brian Urlacher had described Favre as an "old Tony Romo," clearly a reference to the inane chatter of the preceding week. That signaled as well as anything that there was nothing left to say on the subject, and yet Kornheiser said it anyway. Oh, and did you know that these teams played in the Super Bowl in the 1990s? Not once but twice! And Dallas won one of those games 52-17! That is a lot of points for a team to score!

When Kornheiser does this, he is adding nothing to the broadcast. All of us at home are aware of what happened in Seattle. We've all heard the comparisons to Favre. There is nothing Kornheiser is saying that we couldn't say ourselves -- that we haven't already said ourselves. So why do we need this clown to say it? He's wasting our time.

And the way he responds to Jaworski ... just nauseating. Jaworski is from the Buffalo area (born in Lackawanna) and was understandably excited to be there covering a game. He wasn't over-the-top -- not gushing or anything, and certainly not fawning over the Bills. He was just pumped up to be back home. But every time he said something positive about the team, the city, the ownership, whatever, there was Kornheiser, riding him like a little shit, teasing him about being in the bag for Buffalo. And God forbid that Jaworski, who is actually an effective speaker, should ever garble his words or get his names mixed up. Kornheiser, remember, used to be a writer, and he displays his wordsmithery every week with trite commentaries in the MNF introduction. So when Jaworski calls a guy "Jim" rather than "John," you can be dead sure that Tony is going to point it out -- not by simply correcting him, but by spinning the mistake into a big production: "What did you call him!?! MARSHA Lynch!?! Not 'Marshawn'!?! MARSHA? Is that like Marcia Brady!?! is he married to Tom Brady!?!" (The dialogue is hypothetical, but you get the gist. Also, he'd have pronounced "Tom" as tawm.)

While all of this is going on in the booth, we're seeing stuff happening on the field that we'd really like explained. You have a guy like Jaworski do the broadcast so he can explain to the viewers why something is remarkable (by definition: worthy of a remark). Everyone knows that a circus catch is a great catch; we need Jaworski to show us why a seemingly pedestrian catch is great, too. But he can't do that if Kornheiser is yammering about the Ringling Brothers and their circus. We need Jaworski to show us a quarterback's footwork and tell us how that footwork translates into the ball being on- or off-target 50 yards downfield. He can't do that if Kornheiser is dusting off his Arthur Murray jokes.

I had high hopes when they added Kornheiser to Monday Night Football in 2006. I loved his radio show when I lived in Washington, D.C. He was on local television there, too, and was great. And he's fantastic on Pardon the Interruption, where he plays the foil to the guy, Michael Wilbon, who really should be sitting in the MNF booth. But in all of those forums, he has great control over the subject matter. That means he can prepare his thoughts and arguments in advance, and they don't sound out of place. As part of a broadcast team, however, he has to react to the events on the field. His canned comments fall flat because they're almost always situationally inappropriate. And he's not getting better.

So I was right about Theismann but wrong about Kornheiser. Dump him. Dump Mike Tirico, too. Keep Jaworski. Lure Chris Meyers back from Fox, and you'd have a team that could be the next Michaels and Madden. Or just put Stuart Scott in the booth; at least then we'd know for sure that ESPN didn't give a shit about the viewers.

1 comment:

3000 said...

Spot on with the TK commentary.

Last season I found myself defending Kornheiser and really wanting to like him on MNF, but it's proving virtually impossible this year.