Sports Nut

Madden Serves Up a Turkey

The announcer’s creaky Monday Night Football debut.

A “curiously retro” Madden debuts on MNF

When the producer of Monday Night Football, Fred Gaudelli, was asked how long it would take for the new announcing “dream team” of Al Michaels and John Madden to mesh, he replied, “I would be shocked if it didn’t happen right away.” Well, consider Mr. Gaudelli shocked, because it sure didn’t happen in last night’s MNF preseason debut.

It can’t really come as any surprise that there will need to be an adjustment period, even with two booth vets like Madden and Michaels. They stepped on each other a few times, and many of Al’s setups fell flat. Michaels’ attempts at humor, like mentioning a collegiate wrestler having a fallback in Vince McMahon’s WWF and noting that a player named Wesly Mallard naturally went to the University of Oregon (nicknamed the Ducks), were ignored by Madden. As the New York Giants controlled the game early, Michaels said, “John, at this point the Texans look like the expansion team, while the Giants are playing like the tried and true team they are.” Madden, who was watching a replay, replied, “Ike Hilliard, he’s a bigger guy, like 210 [pounds].” It worked the other way, too—Madden’s mention of a 30-play limit for Houston Texans rookie quarterback David Carr brought an esoteric reference to “30” being code for “story finished” in newspaper wire copy, a pun only the dearly departed Dennis Miller could appreciate.

More worrisome was the production value of the broadcast. I know it was an exhibition game played in a high-school stadium and that ABC might not be revealing all its bells and whistles, but last night’s MNF debut got off to a shockingly amateurish start. The opening commentary from Madden was deemed so reverential an event that the standard practice of showing the players being talked about (called B-Roll in the trade) was eliminated. Hence, no shots of No. 1 overall draft choice Carr in the moments before his first game. The audio tech, who hopefully was fired immediately post-game, then managed to forget to turn Madden’s mike on after the return from break, and other audio snafus plagued the telecast for most of the first half. Graphics that had the players introducing themselves during the first series, a nice touch from last year’s MNF, have been phased out; worse, the new lineup graphics had all the players left justified, which left an awful lot of empty space to the right on the Texans three-man defensive-line page.

Such shoddy work in the production truck leads one to think that ABC figured, “Heck, we got the best announcers, the rest will take care of itself.” That such a game could have been produced by a pro like Gaudelli (the longtime maestro of ESPN’s Sunday Night Football) boggles the mind. Instead of longing for a return to the “glory days” of Giff, Howie, and Dandy Don, perhaps the suits at the Mouse should slip into dreamy reverie at the memory of Craig Janoff and Kenny Wolfe, the producer/director team who shepherded MNF through the ‘90s and were widely regarded as the best in the business.

ABC is kidding itself if it truly believes a broadcaster, even one as popular as Madden, is going to have a serious effect on MNF’s ratings. The generally held viewpoint is that the network will be happy if the seven-year decline in ratings is merely slowed to a halt. If so, then Madden will have earned his four-year, $20 million contract.

Can the 60-year-old Madden even manage that in today’s crowded sports marketplace? For a guy who is supposed to be the definitive NFL analyst, he is curiously retro, as he showed last night, peppering his stories with Joe Namath references and showing wonder that there are 300-pound linemen who are graceful athletes. Maybe it was all the Hall of Famers in the house. At one point, he chided Carr for not throwing the ball away, instead of scrambling for a couple of yards. That sort of traditionalist thinking immediately brought to mind Madden’s infamous declaration during last season’s Super Bowl that the Patriots should run out the last 1:45 and play overtime instead of going for the win. I won’t say the game has passed him by, but he definitely seems out of step with the way football is played in the 21st century.

His shtick, all that “whap” and “bam” business, is dated as well, not to mention hopelessly overexposed. Michaels heralded the first “Boom!” in MNF history in the first quarter, obviously not having seen the athlete’s foot remedy ad moments before, which features two “booms” from his pitchman partner.

Much has been made (by ABC, that is) of the fact that Madden is popular with the all-important 18-34 male demographic because of his association with the Electronic Arts video gameMadden NFL (fill in the year). While this is true to an extent, Madden himself gave a sobering if unintended reflection on the state of the game’s viewership when he said, “The kids today, they know me from the video game, not from football on TV.” Exactly the problem—those kids weren’t watching him on Sunday afternoons, and it is quite a leap to think suddenly they’ll tune in to watch until midnight during the week.

The hope at ABC is that Michaels and Madden will be so darn charismatic, erudite, and earthy, simultaneously, that the “casual viewer” will be hooked—and of course stay around for those new comedies that were relentlessly promo’d during the game. If so, the duo will certainly have to rev it up several notches from last night. The guys were strangely subdued, given the momentousness of the occasion. Perhaps the terrifying spinal cord injury to Houston’s Leomont Evans killed their buzz. While Evans provided a “This just in!” element to Melissa Stark’s sideline interviews, the injury exposed the announcing team’s biggest omission of the night.

For it was in 1978, a time so beloved by Madden and ABC execs, that a wide receiver named Darryl Stingley was paralyzed during an equally meaningless preseason game, on a crushing hit by Jack Tatum of the Madden-coached Oakland Raiders. Staggeringly, during the 15 minutes Evans lay motionless on the field last night, and throughout the remainder of a game punctuated by updates on his condition from the hospital, Michaels never prodded Madden to expound on the similarity of the situation. And Big John never ventured into that darker bit of the game on his own. He must have felt that in this one case, it isn’t much fun to look back.