You're probably heard the promising news that Jon Gruden will replace the insufferable Tony Kornheiser on ESPN's Monday Night Football announcing team.
That's a good start. Gruden is the most inspired hiring in years, though we're guaranteed no improvements unless Gruden is willing to let his Chucky personality run free on air. I'm hopeful, but not enthusiastic about this last point.
Gruden could work for two reasons. Network announcing teams too often employ former players, members of what Howard Cosell derisively called the "jockocracy." Some players are smart, and provide a comprehensive view of the game. But too many of them lock in on their old positions -- former QBs talk exclusively about quarterback play. Former running backs talk about the backfield.
I've argued that the best choices for the booth would be former coordinators. They study tape for a living and have a comprehensive view of the game. Gruden has been a top-level OC and head coach for years. There's no doubt he will understand the game unfolding in front of him better than most. If he can articulate that insight in simple, real-time terms, we fans will have a chance for enlightenment.
What's more, ESPN uses a three man booth, and Gruden will be paired with tape-head Ron Jaworski. Announcer teams work better when they fill one of two templates: the self-evident, hardcore analyst team, or the Odd-Couple team, where two contrary personalities joust.
Gruden and Jaworski should give us better analysis than we've heard in a while. One expert is good, but he really needs a second strong opinion to maximize his talents. One of the best broadcasts I ever heard came decades ago, in a CBS Sports summer boardcast of a Pan American Games match between the US Mens basketball team and Puerto Rico's. In the booth that day were Gary Bender, Bill Russell and Bobby Knight.
Russell was CBS's NBA commentator and had a reputation for aloofness and arrogance. Knight, as always, was Knight, loud and abrasive. Together, they formed a mutual respect society; I understood after two minutes that neither was bad so much as bored; they didn't have a TV partner who shared their knowledge and passion. They brushed aside Bender, who had the good sense to mute himself, and talked hard-core hoops. I learned more about the game that afternoon that I had in a short lifetime of viewing.
Jaworski and Gruden could give us that transcendent experience. If they're really smart, and brave, they'll take a few hours and watch some old tapes of Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith. Those guys created TV history because they saw themselves as above the game. They were competing with sitcoms on other networks and they were as good, in their time, as the most seasoned comedy teams. In its glory days, Monday Night Football was a sitcom with a football game happening inside it. Ironically, the broadcasts have suffered since the producers started foregrounding the football.
Neither Jaworski nor Gruden are comedians, but they're both rough-hewn types, who don't lack for opinions. If they're willing to take sides in a game and critique the coaches and players, MNF could regain some much needed spark. Jaws and Chucky could do Howard and Dandy one better: they could form a expert and an odd couple booth.
Sadly, I don't think Gruden will be up for it, and I don't know if I can fault him if he doesn't rise to the opportunity. Gruden no doubt wants to return to the sidelines, so he will probably go easy on his coaching colleagues. There's no need to make enemies.
Oh well. If he and Jaws stick to football, and keep Tirico focused on the basics, like down and distance, Monday night football might be watchable again. Kornheiser was an interesting experiment, but his premediated editorials didn't translate well from newspapers, or even from PTL into a medium which relies on quick analyses and a quicker wit. The first time he tried comparing an NFL game to a '50s Broadway musical, I knew the experiment was doomed.
I'll take football talk, in any strength I can get.