Is there a sacred formula for NFL pregame shows? Accepted wisdom about whether the chortling good ol' boy quarterback sits to the left of the African-American former player or to the right of the ex-coach angling for a new job in the bigs? A broadcast consultant's report into managing the dynamics of football panels?
Watching the NFL wild-card weekend you'd almost believe there's a Geneva Convention of rules for the highly competitive and (invariably) high-decibel world of pregame shows. What's most striking about the shows is how closely they resemble each other. The lineups for Fox and CBS demonstrate the doppelganger effect in extremis.
Both are hosted by African-Americans - Fox has Curt Menefee; CBS, James Brown.
Both have a dim Hall of Fame QB - Terry Bradshaw on Fox, Dan Marino on CBS.
Both have a Super Bowl-winning coach - Jimmy Johnson on Fox, Bill Cowher on CBS.
Both have retired stars - Michael Strahan of Fox and Shannon Sharpe of CBS - who battle speech impediments. (Fox also maintains former NFL lineman Howie Long, although he often seems to be there only to keep the flat-top haircut alive).
Both shows have their savvy "insider" - Jay Glazer on Fox, Charley Casserly on CBS - with late scoops and injury updates.
And both have enough product placement to keep Madison Avenue humming.
What sets Fox apart from CBS are the wickedly funny spoofs of comedian Frank Caliendo, whose impressions of John Madden and merciless ribbing of the show's panelists is worth suffering all the faux camaraderie that precedes it. Caliendo's Charles Barkley ("Ter-bulor not ter-bul") is a classic.
On the basis of Caliendo, we give the Fox show three footballs out of five while CBS registers 21/2 footballs.
NBC is the rebel without a cause in such matters. As host of the Sunday night game each week, NBC geared its chatter to reflecting the day's activity as opposed to yukking it up about coming games. Hence, less jock and more talk. So we are blessed with the former ESPN duo of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann plus NBC's resident wit Bob Costas coaxing gems out of Indy's former Super Bowl coach Tony Dungy and former defensive back Rodney Harrison.
If NFL pregame shows were given an award, NBC would be class valedictorian with the loquacious Costas and the wise-cracking Patrick and Olbermann (who's best known as Bill O'Reilly's political foil these days). Which is just as well, because the soft-spoken Dungy is next to invisible and Harrison is standard-issue former player. Peter King of Sports Illustrated is the designated journalist. The talk here is witty, with the lobotomy factor kept to a minimum.
The only complaint? For all its smarts, the show is a little bloodless sometimes.
Rating: four footballs.
Its polar opposite is the ESPN pregame session populated by a roster of noisy former players in full frat-house mode and moderated by the sonic booms of veteran host Chris Berman. The former coach here - former Chicago Bears legend Mike Ditka - yells, too. Watching ESPN's show on TSN is like putting your ear next to an outboard motor. ESPN has its version of Caliendo in the droll Kenny Maine, who lampoons the self-serious world of the NFL. Too bad Maine's wry comic gems are often lost in the cacophonous chorus of Tom Jackson, Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson and Ditka.
Rating: Three footballs.Quotable JoeWhy we've missed Joe Theismann, Master of the Obvious. "When you don't have a field-goal kicker who can make the kicks, it's so deflating for everybody." Deflating. We know how that feels. "It's so important to get into the visual sight of the quarterback," the former CFL QB told us Saturday. Yeah, that invisible sight is a real beyatch.Dial R For Referee Finally, was there no one with a rule book at Hockey Night In Canada to help Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson in Saturday's Pittsburgh-Toronto game? The Penguins' Sergei Gonchar scored a goal, but it initially went undetected. Before video could show the goal, Toronto was given a penalty shot when Gonchar was called for a penalty on a Maple Leafs' breakaway by Alex Ponikarovsky.
Hughson and Simpson correctly identified that Gonchar's initial shot had gone in - then asserted that the goal wiped out Gonchar's penalty. Not so. NHL rules say that while you can't have two goals scored on the same play, you can have a goal and a penalty. It's understandable that not everyone would know the rule, but not one person on the No.1 broadcast crew knows the proper rules in time to assist the broadcast crew?
Maybe HNIC needs to add a former referee instead of another former player to extol the wonderful skill sets of fighters - as Kevin Weekes did Saturday?