FRIDAY MEDIA COLUMN
(Note: please see our last post for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's pre-training camp briefing.)
Some thoughts on the major changes on NFL and college football network TV coverage this season:
### ESPN’s shift from a three-man to a two-man Monday night booth (with Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden): We were skeptical initially, for two reasons: The needling exchanges between Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski made for good television, and Gruden spewed several head-scratching remarks last season.
But Gruden has validated ESPN’s faith, making numerous cogent points, especially about strategy. In Packers-Seahawks, he suggested the Packers run the ball more and go to two tight-end sets to deal with Seattle’s blitz. (Both helped in the second half, after the Seahawks had eight sacks in the first half.)
He also noticed the offensive pass interference – “one of the most blatant I’ve ever seen” - that wasn’t called on the controversial final play of that game. In Falcons-Broncos, he noted Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was causing confusion for Peyton Manning and Denver's linemen by disguising coverages and playing so many players close to the line of scrimmage.
Gruden, often wrong when he predicted play calls last season, has done that less often, instead sometimes suggesting calls instead.
The former coach is still a bit too effusive with praise and irritatingly leans on crutch clichés (“This guy is football player!”). But he has criticized when appropriate, including questioning the Ravens for throwing while leading 41-13 against Cincinnati.
Every spring, Gruden’s charisma and playful personality help make his quarterback specials some of ESPN’s most compelling pre-draft programming. The question remains whether he can display more of that lighter touch on game telecasts, as John Madden did for many years when he sprinkled random musings into his X's and O's analysis.
Incidentally, among the several reasons ESPN removed Jaworski from MNF is that network research showed that a lot of people thought their voices sounded similar and couldn’t tell who was talking.
### New CBS information man Jason LaCanfora: We miss the professorial approach of Charley Casserly, an ace at dissecting film. But LaCanfora, formerly of NFL Network, has served up decent information, including the government’s investigation into the Saints’ alleged cover-up of misuse of Vicodin.
### Jason Taylor in ESPN’s studio: Polished and credible, Taylor has offered sound, understated analysis. His criticism is measured – not as biting as say, Merril Hoge’s. But Taylor would be well served to display more of his dry wit when there’s an opportunity.
### New Fox comedian Rob Riggle: In theory, you can understand Fox wanting a fresh act after nine years of Frank Caliendo. But Caliendo’s talents --- mostly his dead-on impersonations of George Bush, John Madden and others -- lend themselves far better to a short Fox segment that Riggle’s. Riggle’s work has been underwhelming, with jokes such as: “It’s a shame you can’t get fantasy points for DUI [arrests].”
### New Fox analysts Mike Martz and Heath Evans, who replaced UCLA coach Jim Mora and Chad Pennington: Not impressed. Both speak excessively and repetitively. Martz said during his first broadcast, “I know I’m beating a dead horse” when he talked repeatedly about the speed on Tampa’s defense. So stop it!
### Fox’s new prime-time college football package: After opening with a lopsided Hawaii-Southern California game that had no business airing on a major non-cable network in prime time, Fox has been fortunate to get three very good games, including Stanford’s upset of USC. Fox’s Big 12/Pac-10 package is clearly hurting the quality of ABC’s games.
Fox’s studio show, awful initially, has gradually improved because Erin Andrews stopped stumbling over words, and the show added more highlights from other games.
AROUND THE DIAL
### Fox’s John Lynch took a surprising shot at the NFL this week, asserting the league told Fox announcers before the opener that: “We’re close to a deal [to settle the officials lockout], so take it easy on those guys.” As it turned out, a deal – finalized Thursday - wasn’t close at that time, and “they duped us,” Lynch said. “It speaks to the arrogance of the owners.”
Still, a network source said the league did not complain to ESPN about some of its scathing criticism of the officials; Trent Dilfer said “it’s ironic that you, the NFL, is who’s screwing this up”. The NBA’s David Stern and MLB’s Bud Selig typically voice displeasure privately to rights-holders about negative comments and stories more than the NFL’s Roger Goodell does, sources said.
### Former Heat and Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, whose cutting candor would have translated well to a TV job, tells us he won’t be joining ESPN, contrary to a sportsbybrooks.com report. Van Gundy said ESPN decided not to hire him. Word is they couldn’t agree on assignments. “We had discussions and decided to go in a different direction,” ESPN spokesperson Ben Cafardo. TNT hasn’t pursued him.... Former FIU coach and NBA great Isiah Thomas reportedly is a candidate for an ESPN studio job.
### Encouraging sign: The Dolphins’ local TV ratings improved from an embarrassing 13.5 in Week 1 to a 16.7 in Week 2 and a 19.6 in Week 3.
### Good move by WQAM program director Jorge Sedano to pair Clinton Portis with Channing Crowder on a Monday night show. They analyze the game cogently, with plenty of personality. But Crowder, sharp and witty, needs to be more selective in his Jeff Ireland-bashing because it’s perceived as personal.