They announce games one play at a time, focusing on the big picture

Sports on Earth does something NFL players have to endure each week, and NFL players probably would love to see:

Intolerable NFL commentators are legion. Of course, some of this is not their fault. We binge-watch the sport once a week, leaving us exhausted, annoyed, tipsy and in need of much needed physical exertion. We take it out on the people talking at us, who are conveniently not in the room to defend themselves.

That said, there has been no shortage of documentation regarding the awfulness of announcers — there’s an entire site titled Awful Announcing. During games, Twitter transforms into a firing squad aimed at conservative playcalling and the commentators who ineptly defend it.

Still, I couldn’t find any hard data on just how bad announcers actually are.

So I listened to 32 NFL games — two per crew — charting every foolish, false, annoying, ridiculous and downright dumb thing each of them said. I did this not because I enjoy it (it was, indeed, awful) but to determine which NFL crew is the worst of the lot.

In general, there are three types of announcer comments: good, neutral and bad. Good statements offer some type of insight into the game. This is inherently subjective, since different people know different things. Neutral statements constitute the bulk of their utterances: neither offensive nor insightful. As a result, I decided to measure the bad statements.

“Bad statements” are divided thusly — clichés (see the headline), factual errors, “nonsense,” self-references, taking plays off (which is a cliche itself, I suppose), and going off-topic. Examples of each:

  • Jim Nantz of CBS: “We go to the combine every March, and they have a way of measuring how fast you run, how high you jump, but they don’t have a way of measuring someone’s heart.”
  • Solomon Wilcots of CBS: “Nobody can catch the ball when it comes out of a Howzerwitz.”
  • Dan Dierdorf, who is retiring from CBS after this season: “Possession is nine-tenths of all that’s good about recovering a fumble.”
  • Tim Ryan of Fox: “Nobody can point fingers; everyone needs to look themselves in the mirror and self-reflect.”
  • Fox’s Tony Siragusa, who belongs in more than one category: “Talked to coach Marc Trestman a … about, you know, about he said to me I said you know this first half was pretty crazy, outrageous, he said as crazy and outrageous as it was, we’re only down seven points.” 

First, the foulups by network:

Next, the bad work of play-by-play announcers …

… followed by their partners the color commentators:

The first problem, of course, is that evaluating an announcer on one game’s performance may not be an accurate reflection of his body of work. (Oops, another cliché.) To measure someone by errors instead of, for instance, a clever turn of phrase (see Scully, Vin) or a well-described (and not overdescribed on TV) play seems incomplete.

My quarter-century of broadcast experience on the side (most of the announcers on this list are not full-time employees of their network) emphasizes to me the basic responsibilities that some announcers miss — score and time (including periods or innings), to name the two most important. After that, you set the stage (down and distance in football, ball–strike count in baseball) and describe what’s happening (where’s the ball on the basketball floor, who has the ball in football, where was the ball hit in baseball, etc.).

I look at these charts, and I think to myself that I’m fortunate I call games on radio now, where listeners know only what the announcers tell them.

But the play-by-play responsibility doesn’t end there. There are commercials to read, and woe be unto you if you mispronounce advertisers’ names or can’t read the spots. You also need to promote future broadcasts or future programming.

The other thing, which you can read in the comments, is that viewers have personal preferences, positive and negative, and their minds will not be changed by documentation otherwise.

Writer Aaron Gordon has interesting things to say about the Fox announcers Packer fans love to hate (who are bringing you Super Bowl XLVIII for Fox, by the way):

It came as no shock that [Joe] Buck is one of the best in the business, with a paltry three infractions over two games. But only 26 infractions for [Troy] Aikman?! The fact that Aikman had a below-average number of infractions was the biggest surprise of the entire experiment.

My theory is that what makes Aikman such an insufferable voice is two-fold: He’s assigned to the very best games Fox carries despite providing no actual insight, and he has a bad tendency to simply re-state what the entire country has just witnessed. While maddening, it didn’t fall into any of the categories of this experiment. He’s rarely wrong and rarely says something totally ridiculous.

Still, Aikman can be prone to gaffes. He forgets players’ names (“I’m thinking of the punishment of … uh, who am I thinking about here …? Dez Bryant.”) and has a legendary capacity for unnecessarily doubling sentence lengths (“Hard to complain about getting the ball and those types of things when you don’t make those types of plays;” “If the defense can hold here on third down and not give up any points, I mean that would be a great possession for them in keeping this short of the Cowboys having to get a touchdown.”) or offering circular explanations (“Eventually, he’s going to break one like he just did.”; “The way that they’ve been able to run the football the way they have.”). The most exemplary instance of the Aikman vernacular was when he began a sentence with the phrase “Yeah no I mean hey.” Five words of complete and total uselessness.

Similar things are said by fans about half of the top-rated prime time announcers, NBC’s Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth:

They’re generally regarded as one of the best in the business, and I agree. Collinsworth is articulate and gives more useful insight than any other commentator, and it’s not even close. But this metric isn’t measuring that. We only want the dirt.

When this crew screws up, it’s because they’re bending over backwards to compliment a superstar or head coach. There’s something about authority and superstardom that makes these two more excited than a creepy old man at a Pilates class. It takes away from what is otherwise a well-called game.

Then there’s the ESPN crew of Mike Tirico and former Packer assistant coach Jon Gruden:

ESPN crews have a historically tough time balancing a vague mandate for general entertainment with calling an actual football game. Gruden, with his 29 infractions, can’t find the sweet spot between impersonating a caricature of a football coach and being a real person. Surprisingly, I counted only one “this guy” over two games. He still leans a bit heavy on “this kid,” though, with seven such utterances.

Some other Gruden quirks: He refers to third-down stops as “get-offs,” which sounds vaguely sexual. Here’s a deranged thing Gruden said:

“People forget Luck didn’t come into a great situation. He had to succeed a guy named Picket Manning. His coach had leukemia. But he went 11-5 and threw for 4,500 yards anyways. How do you top that?”

Yes, he actually called Peyton Manning “Picket” (I’ll ignore the bit about on-field accomplishments somehow mitigating his coach’s cancer). Another real thing Gruden said:

“The one thing I like about Toler and these Indianapolis corners, they are going to come right back the next down. They have no conscience.”

I don’t think Gruden knows what a conscience is, which has troubling implications. He also makes up Olympic events:

“I think this guy can be an Olympian acrobat.”

I like watching Tirico and Gruden, in part because you’re never quite sure what Gruden is going to say. I also enjoy Michaels and Collinsworth, and, yes, Buck and Aikman. (I may be one of the few people who gets Buck’s sense of humor, because we’re contemporaries.) Nantz and Simms are too vanilla, particularly Nantz. (Simms was better on NBC when he had co-analyst Paul Maguire to play off of, and Nantz is on too much CBS stuff.) Other than his game-ending cliches, you always get a solid broadcast from Nantz, but not necessarily something where you think what a witty guy Nantz is.

On the other hand, how Siragusa maintains Fox employment is beyond my ability to comprehend.


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