Sunday, November 28, 2010

Costas, Counterparts Get it Right on Replay

"Football Night in America" made a potentially powerful statement for the good of pro football Sunday night when Bob Costas, the on-site host for NBC Sports, used his weekly commentary segment to point out the myriad problems with the NFL's replay system.

Sometimes Costas rails for no apparent reason in that weekly spot, but with common sense in his corner and so many possible examples to display the flaws of the replay system, the commentator perhaps best known for his baseball work hit a home run.

Costas pegged the problems of replay -- everything from the vested interests of stadium scoreboard operators, who often fail to show replays that could hurt the host team, to the occasional shortcoming of network broadcasts, which might not make the right replay available soon enough for coaches to make a decision about a possible challenge.

In fact, the commentary was somewhat remarkable simply because it mentioned the networks themselves. But that was good, because it was accurate and transparent -- things to which the league itself should strive for the replay system.

With Costas' gravitas, and especially as a result of the high-profile forum in which he expressed his opinion, perhaps there's a chance the NFL might be swayed to alter its archaic system. When former Colts coach Tony Dungy and former NFL defensive back Rodney Harrison both chimed in immediately after Costas to support the idea of change, that only made things better -- at least for the millions of us who watch from home each week and know the frustrating inaccuracies and inefficiencies of the system.

After all, if the idea of replay for NFL games is to get things right, then challenges should be taken out of the hands of coaches and every play in every game should be eligible for review. Coaches, limited to two challenges per game under the current system, might lose an early challenge and then be hesitant to use another later in the game because they fear being left without a challenge for the waning moments of a game.

That obviously erodes the integrity of the game -- and the difference in one play can mean the difference in winning and losing a game, and whether that's the third game of the season or the 13th it matters just as much because one more loss on a team's record could certainly mean the difference between a playoff spot for a team or not.

Dungy missed things a bit when he said the college replay rule reviews every scoring play -- it actually reviews every single play -- but that should be the system to which the NFL aspires.

In the past, the league's perceived arrogance (anything that did not originate in the league's New York offices or form its owners has always been looked down upon, it seems) has been a problem when adjusting rules or making significant changes. Simply because the NFL does not want to be seen as implementing someone else's idea.

Still, a replay system that uses a referee at the stadium but not on the field could succeed. It would avoid the silliness of having the game's referee entering a booth on the sideline and it would seemingly allow replays to happen sooner.

An improved replay system would benefit fans at home, who can often see a good or bad call clearly themselves, as well as fans at the stadiums, who would have to endure shorter breaks for replay reviews under an improved system. Coaches and player would also benefit because their efforts would be rewarded and the game itself would not be perverted -- especially in instances when a team tries to run play quickly, before an initial replay clarifies any possible challenge.

It's just such a logical approach -- that the NFL use technology and make its replay system better -- that it deserves to be evaluated. And, with Costas championing the approach that finally might happen. Thanks Bob!

Friday, November 26, 2010

'Best Day' Hinges on One College Game

While college football analysts and hype masters seem to agree that Friday ranks as the best or most important day of the season, it's not so much a daylong extravaganza as one midday matchup that matters.

The annual Iron Bowl, with Auburn at Alabama this season, matters the most -- and it could be the most competitive game involving ranked teams. What happens in that game could impact the national championship game more than any other result of the day.

Although BCS leader Oregon plays No. 21 Arizona and unbeaten Boise State (fourth in the BCS standings) faces No. 19 Nevada in ranked-vs.-ranked matchups, if either of the underdogs won those games it would be a huge upset.

Defending national champ Alabama is actually favored at home against Auburn. And that in-state contest always comes with high stakes.

Of all the games worth watching during the day, the Iron Bowl seems unparalleled. Sure, West Virginia and Pitt bring emotion and physicality to their game, but the stakes there are not nearly as high -- even with a BCS bowl berth at stake.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving TV Traditions are Not Turkeys

Before the complaints begin and grow a bit louder on Thanksgiving Day, consider this a happy, proactive pitch for tradition.

Football fans will find three NFL games on TV Thursday:
-- New England at Detroit (12:30 p.m., CBS);
-- New Orleans at Dallas (4:15 p.m., Fox); and
-- Cincinnati at the New York Jets (8:20 p.m., NFL Network).

With the 2-8 Lions again mired in a dismal season, some ill-informed and highly opinionated types will no doubt complain about the fact that they always host a Thanksgiving Day game. They'll argue that the game should be rotated among any NFL teams that have an interest.

They're wrong. Even if the visiting Patriots, who are 8-2 and might be as good as the Lions are bad, blow out the Lions (and that's likely), the critics are wrong.

Games in Detroit and Dallas remain NFL traditions, TV staples to go with the turkey and then the first wave of leftovers.

Changing teams would not change the ratings that much, either. People will watch. Even the Lions.

They watch with family and friends. Or they watch because they love the NFL. Plus, there's no need to waste A-list teams to try to salvage TV interest or ratings on Thanksgiving Day.

To its credit, the NFL has done a little bit to help -- as evidenced by the visiting teams this year. With New England, the early game has one of the best teams in the league with personalities (especially Patriots QB Tom Brady) who generate a great deal of interest among both casual and hard-core fans. Additionally, at the start of the season the Saints-Cowboys game probably looked like a playoff preview -- that the Cowboys (3-7) have underachieved could not have been expected.

That's the real reason for not altering Thanksgiving Day schedules. The NFL has proven to be so unpredictable (OK, other than Detroit's consistent troubles) that altering things on Thanksgiving Day just to involve other teams or reach for ratings seems silly.

Plus, the NFL does no need to reach. It's going to get ratings no matter what. This season the average viewership for games, all games in TV windows, has been more than 10 million people per game.

Finally, not all other owners and/or fan bases want the games at home. So moving things around might cause as much trouble as it solves. For those who want change, the NFL Network has the best possible thing -- a night game that has existed the past couple years, at varying locations, to complete the NFL's monopoly on the day and provide some inventory for the league's TV network.

That's enough change for me. Other than that, let's stick with the traditional turkey day sites.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

'Mike & Mike' Make Interview Interesting

Sports-talk radio standouts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic made the most of an exclusive, half-hour interview with Tiger Woods on Thursday.

They asked almost everything that needed to be asked and in the process provided the golfer with a forum while still showing they were professionals. Their ability to balance everything from the silly to the serious on "Mike & Mike in the Morning" makes it one of the best shows on sports-talk radio.

After Woods called himself "blessed and balanced" at the start of the interview, Greenie and Golic asked about Woods' behavior, the incident last Thanksgiving that brought all his indescretions to light and his performance on the golf course in the year since then. They had a lot to ask about in half an hour, and did a decent job of getting that done.

As best he could (and as he usually does in interviews), Woods tried to keep anything personal at an arm's length. But he's clearly learned, or is at least trying, to be a bit more human and vulnerable during interviews.

Clearly, Woods wanted to convey his primary focus on his relationship with his children. He did that repeatedly. At times, Woods sounded almost like a counselor addressing the situation. Maybe that's a sign of progress for him -- he said he belives he's a better person this year than last.

Asked if he was happier today than at this time last year, Woods said: "Infinately. It's just amazing how much better I feel internally each and every day."

He was also asked if he had the same drive on the golf course that he had previously. "I have the same drive to get better, no doubt," he said. "That's an each-and-every-day process. But I can't get better as player until I'm beter as a person."

That connection between his children/fatherhood and golf success was the only area Greenie and Golic did not ask about. They never asked if Woods was OK being a better father, which he said he wanted, if it somehow meant he would not be as good a golfer.

The linkage between those priorities would've been interesting because he left no doubt that his children were his No. 1 priority.

Still, things missing from the interview were few and anyone who finds fault would be nit-picking. While Woods came off well, the versatile duo of Greenberg and Golic was the real winner -- as they again proved their skill.

LISTEN HERE for the complete interview.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Vick Creates Headaches for Broadcasters, Too

Along with the defenders he sometimes leaves grasping at air, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has prompted headaches for broadcasters with his re-emergence and success.

Whether on a game broadcast, most recently "Monday Night Football" when when he crafted a dominant performance against the Washington Redskins, or during sports-talk shows on radio or TV, Vick remains a hot-button topic sure to spur reaction.

Because of that potential response, you can often hear the caution in the voice of broadcasters when discussing Vick. While they describe his athletic prowess and success, they also carefully, very carefully, acknowledge his documented off-the-field problems.

While the broadcasters seem unanimous in their opinion that Vick has paid his debt to society for his involvement in the gruesome death of dogs and his role in dog-fighting activities, they know a vocal portion of their audience -- and even if it's a minority it's a loud minority -- might never forgive Vick.

Because of that, the discussion about Vick happens with abundant self-editing and trepidation. It's interesting to hear, if only because it's almost a train wreck waiting to happen because the concern throws the broadcasters off their game a bit, or at least makes them work differently.

Ironically, that's the same thing Vick does to opposing defenses -- forces them to alter how they go about their work.

Most interesting, though, people certainly do seem to care about Vick. Although the Eagles dominated the Redskins this past Monday night, the broadcast drew a higher overall rating (6.3) than the more competitive Steelers-Bengals game the week before (6.1).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Miller-Morgan Move: Maybe Meaningful

After 21 years working together and with their contracts expiring, Jon Miller and Joe Morgan were dropped from the broadcast booth for "Sunday Night Baseball" on ESPN.

The all-sports network announced the long-rumored move Monday, but no replacements were named. Apparently, Miller might continue to work with ESPN Radio, but Morgan will not return in any capacity.

Keeping Miller on radio would be nice. He's one of the few remaining "voices" of the sport, which has a rich tradition on radio, and he remains sharp. He was just named to the Baseball Hall of Fame as the 2010 Ford C. Frick Award recipient this summer. He also serves as the voice of the San Francisco Giants. For years before that, he was the voice of the Baltimore Orioles.

Morgan, often criticized as too talkative, should land somewhere. The former Cincinnati Reds second baseman was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990 and he has plenty of knowledge to share.

Where ESPN turns next might be the most meaningful part of the move. And it could be a big move, because "Sunday Night Baseball" production personnel might be involved in the shakeup as well.

By dumping the Miller-Morgan tandem, which might not necessarily have run its course but could logically be due for a change after two-plus decades, ESPN has a chance to reshape its baseball broadcasts. How and why provide the challenges, though.

Most baseball broadcasts have remain relatively unchanged for the past 30 years. More technology has come along (including the ability to supposedly chart the strike zone) and networks have tried in-game interviews with managers and players, but broadcasts maintain the same core DNA as their predecessors from the 1970s.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, because the game itself has not changed all that much and because baseball, more than almost any other sport, values tradition.

Still, there are some (both in baseball and in the media or with TV partners) who have lobbied for some change in recent years and this might be ESPN's opportunity to reshape how it broadcasts baseball.

No changes are going to suddenly attract millions more viewers to "Sunday Night Baseball" or to baseball in general. In fact, with so much baseball on TV, it's always hard to separate what's important from what's mundane. But if ESPN wants to alter its approach a bit for the prime-time broadcast, or reshape things this would be the time to implement those changes.

If it does try something different, it would make the Miller-Morgan move more meaningful. If not, it's just a little move to put different people behind the wheel of the same vehicle.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Interesting NFL TV Results in Reader Poll

With a week to vote in an online poll, USA Today readers selected their favorites among NFL announcers and broadcast teams -- and some of the results were interesting, if not surprising.

First, the winners ...
  • Best Game Analyst: Phil Simms, CBS (29% of vote)
  • Best Play-by-Play: Al Michaels, NBC (42%)
  • Best Game Crew: Al Michaels / Chris Collinsworth / Andrea Kremer, NBC (35%)
  • Best Pregame Show: "Fox NFL Sunday" (33%)
  • Best Pregame Host: Chris Berman, ESPN (38%)
  • Best Insider: Adam Schefter, ESPN (28%)
  • Best Sideline Reporter: Suzy Kolber, ESPN (24%)
  • Best Studio Show: "NFL Matchup," ESPN (48%)
(And the link to Michael McCarthy's column and the vote remains active.)

Perhaps most surprising were all ESPN-related results, for different reasons.

First, while people in the TV sports industry and some media critics sometimes see Chris Berman as caricature of himself at this point, he remains popular among those who voted. He's entertaining and has a diverse and strong studio group to work with, so that helps. While some of his cultural references seem dated at times and the Swami routine might have run its course, people still watch.

Next, "NFL Matchup" was selected as best studio show. That reflects a vote from a hardcore audience that clearly likes the in-depth program, which was almost not renewed for this season. Of course, the field in that category might have been the most thin of all the categories -- because three of the shows up for vote air on either NFL Network and Showtime and simply might be seen by as many fans -- but "Matchup" easily thumped the competition. Fans clearly appreciate a show that puts that type of singular focus on a game.

In the Best Insider category, Schefter's success makes sense. He's good, an excellent acquisition for ESPN from the NFL Network a year or so ago. Combining his sources and work ethic with those of fellow insider Chris Mortensen often makes ESPN an unbeatable combination. What's surprising was the Schefter garnered 28 percent of the vote, just ahead of NBC's Mike Florio (27 percent), meaning Mortensen was not in the top two.

Finally, the vote for sideline reporters was surprisingly close and drew less total votes than any other category. While Kolber got 24 percent of the vote, Andrea Kremer of NBC (21 percent) and Tony Siragusa of Fox (21 percent) were close behind. And they're not even close to being the same type of sideline reporter. While Kremer and NBC work to position her as an information source, Siragusa provides just as much comedy as information.

Most interesting, or maybe obvious, was the level of interest in sideline reporters. Make that the lack of interest.

Specifically, the Best Insider candidates attracted more than 9,700 combined votes while the Best Studio Show category attracted 9,358. For Best Game Analyst it was 8,365 and Best Play-by-Play drew 7,298.

For Best Sideline Reporter, the total was 6,980. So people clearly do not care as much about news from the sideline during games. Or at least they do not care enough to share their opinions about the work of the sideline reporters.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Another Week, Another NFL Replay Fumble

OK, the NFL might be an unchallenged ratings giant and the league might provide great week-to-week television programming, but its replay rule continually proves flawed -- and that's just about the most visible marriage of TV and the sport.

Even worse, the flaws inevitably, inexcusably impact the integrity of the game.

Credit standout NFL beat reporter Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for shedding light on the latest failing. After the Steelers passed on a replay challenge Sunday night against the Saints, coach Mike Tomlin told the media: "When you're on the road, you don't get [good] looks at replay." At least that was the quote from the Post-Gazette after the game.

After some digging, Bouchette pretty much determined that there was no missing word ("good") in the quote. The Steelers coaching staff in the press box, the folks who would normally let Tomlin know whether or not to challenge a call, really did not get a look at the replay.

That's because the TV in their coaching box was not tuned to the game. And, according to Bouchette's report in Wednesday's Post-Gazette, an NFL spokesman said it was the coaches' job to make sure they requested the channel be changed.

Really? That just sounds like passing the buck.

OK, coaches from any team should have enough self awareness to have the game tuned in on the monitors or TVs in their coaching box -- and to their discredit they did not -- but the incident just provides another example of the sometimes random nature of the NFL replay rule.

If the league wants to utilize replay, it should be its responsibility to make sure the tools are available and working. In this case, that's the TV in the coaches' box.

And the inability or unwillingness to do that, and to require it of host teams as opposed to visitors having to ask for it to happen, just provides another example of the system's failings.

The challenge portion of the rule itself is a disservice to the integrity of the game. Asking coaches to choose when they want a replay is unfair -- a replay referee should examine every play no matter what. After all, when it supposedly means more, in the final two minutes of a half, a replay official does that anyway.

Well what does that person do for the other 28 minutes of each half? They're not working in any capacity that clearly benefits the game, but they're probably getting paid. And does that mean those long stretches, a majority of the game, mean less than the final two minutes of each half?

Plus, there are always the moments when one team hurries to the line, trying to get a play off before a replay can happen on a potentially controversial play. If a team can get things moving before a coach on the sideline gets word from his assistants in the booth have time to challenge the play, well, so much for the integrity of the game in that instance, too.

An always working replay official could prevent that from happening. And a replay rule that works consistently would be the best possible option. Someday the NF might get it right.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ratings Confirm Dominance of NFL

It was noted in The New York Times (in two different places), USA Today and at locations across the Internet, but it was news almost every sports fan in the United States already knew -- because they made it happen.

A regular-season football game pulled a higher rating than Game 4 of the World Series on Sunday. The Steelers-Saints matchup attracted 18.1 million viewers, compared to 15.5 million viewers for Game 4 of Giants-Rangers.

Yawn. Yep, that's no surprise. The football game held the attention in our house, too.

It's been that way since the start of the NFL season. Just last week the NFL announced that the 12 most-watched programs of the TV season to this point have been a dozen of its games.

While top-notch sporting events remain strong draws on TV, nothing compares to the NFL.

Still, the World Series was successful by many measures. It finished as one of the lowest-rated Series ever, but it helped Fox draw enough viewers to have the best week among all broadcast networks.

What remains, though, could be one final NFL victory. The concluding Game 5 of the World Series drew 14.9 million viewers Monday. It was up against "Monday Night Football" on ESPN. That matchup, Texans-Colts, might not carry the cachet of Steelers-Saints the night before, but if the football game (when final ratings come in tomorrow) drew more viewers than the concluding game of the Series that's just another football victory.

And the NFL will work to expand its dominance as the season continues with national broadcasts moving to Thursday nights and Saturday nights once college football season winds down.