Part way through the Pittsburgh, Steelers outrageous Week 4 destruction of the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night, I was jarred out of my nacho-induced food coma by an exchange between NBC's Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels. I had to rewind to make sure I heard it right. They were talking about Don Rickles. Don who? And how was this related to football?
Suddenly, I was more focused on the Rickles reference than a potential sixth touchdown by Ben Roethlisberger. The tie-in, apparently, was Vin Scully's last game. Collinsworth and Michaels wondered aloud, unfortunately, how many people had had such a long and productive career. They came up with Rickles.
In case you didn't grow up in the 1960s, Rickles was a comedian and frequent guest on both the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and the Dean Martin Show. He even made comedy albums, including Hello, Dummy!
Commentary hasn't gotten any better since Week 4. In fact, NFL coverage is perennially bad, frequently verging on incoherent blathering. And, with disappointing frequency, sportscasters miss key aspects of the game, describe plays inaccurately, and get off on tangents from which they struggle to return.
On most Sunday evenings, Collinsworth spouts off arcane statistics. Michaels keeps the audience grounded, reminding us of the here-and-now with comments like, "It is a rainy Sunday night here in Pittsburgh." Collinsworth often uses these comments as a springboard to share other obscure facts, reminiscing about that other rainy-day game back in 1983 when the quarterback also slipped and fell on third-down, fumbling the ball, and then, miraculously, recovering it, albeit for a 23.4 yard loss.
Relative to other commentators, the duo of Collinsworth and Michaels is strong. Phil Simms is a frequent object of derision on Twitter and elsewhere due to his confused, inane comments. There have already been entire articles dedicated to Simmsisms.
Jon Gruden is heavy on enthusiasm, knowledge of technical details of the game, and bizarre analogies. When he attempts to discuss a specific player in more general terms, he becomes a cliche-factory, rarely stating more than the obvious. (Here's a guy who's a real athlete with big-guy size.) When he strings together more than three sentences, there is always the risk that he'll end up sounding like your drunk neighbor who showed up at your house in a vintage Montreal Expos jersey and mistakenly thinks he's there for a hockey game.
Though current NFL commentary provides fodder for Twitter jokes and general entertainment, it does a disservice to sports fans. The great Vin Scully, who will soon be recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, provided accurate, enthusiastic commentary that was equally respectful of long-time fans and newcomers alike. Though he often told stories and commented on babies in the stands, his focus was always the game.
As NFL teams continue to offer preposterous NFL 101 workshops for female fans, it is time for the league as a whole to evaluate the role of sportscasters as ambassadors of the sport. The have the power to educate fans about the game, point out interesting details that might otherwise go overlooked, and entertain. Ideally, commentary would provide an NFL 101 experience while challenging seasoned fans. As things stand, NFL sportscasters are that friend you want to kick out of your living room and not invite back for next week's game.