There was a time when sports commentators existed for a purpose: to try to explain a complex sport, walking you through the fundamental building blocks of knowledge in order to make you into a knowledgeable, informed fan. The object was to achieve simplicity and clarity.
But in the last decade or so, the number of televised football games has mushroomed, and with them the number of self-styled experts. Every telecast has at least two or three analysts or color men, all speaking in their own brand of subjective jargon, making statements about football based on no discernible evidence. As former New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi once told me, “You can watch football for 20 years, and in one afternoon listening to the guys on TV unlearn everything you know. They make me dizzy.”
I spent the NFL’s opening weekend making myself dizzy listening to pro football commentary. I decided to check some of the broadcasters’ statements against the facts. What did I learn?
Football Is a Physical Game
ESPN’s Tommy Jackson, a former player himself, announced before the New York Giants-Carolina Panthers played that, “We’ve got two physical teams here,” as if this were some kind of insider knowledge. Since every team in the league has an offensive line that weighs in at an average of 320 pounds per man, one wonders how it could be otherwise. Daryl Johnston, also a former player, doing the game with Kenny Albert on The NFL on Fox, said, “The Giants will have to play physical football to beat the Panthers.” Which made me wonder whether there are other teams in the league that could be beaten primarily through psychological ploys. Do some coaches change their game plan at halftime? Do they tell their players: “Guys, you’re hitting a little too hard out there and it’s not helping us. We’re getting our asses kicked. In the second half we’re going to line up and try a more cerebral approach.”
Joe Buck said: “You have to do well on third downs.” Well, yes, you do, because you’ve only got three downs in which to do something before you either punt or try to kick a field goal.
If you have to play “physical” football to win on some Sundays, are there others when being more emotional or intellectual might work? So much football analysis borders on the metaphysical. Players-turned-commentators are much worse in this respect than coaches. Both Ron Pitts and John Lynch, covering the Cardinals-Rams for Fox, questioned whether the new edition of the Arizona team, without veteran quarterback Kurt Warner, “would have the right chemistry” to beat St. Louis.
Chemistry Is Important
Chemistry is an exact science: you add A to B and get C. Lynch sounded much more like he was talking about alchemy than chemistry, twice commenting on quarterback Derek Anderson’s “lack of chemistry with his wide receivers” when he threw the ball behind them on pass patterns over the middle. I don’t know about chemistry, but I think Anderson (who completed just 22 of 41 passes) might have generated better chemistry with his receivers when he was setting up to throw if he hadn’t been knocked on his butt so much by St. Louis pass rushers.
The Team With the Best Defense Wins
If ex-players often seem nebulous, coaches can sound as if they have a head full of concrete. Mike Ditka, who doesn’t seem to have had a new idea about football since Fred Flintstone strapped on his helmet for the Green Bay Pachyderms, said on ESPN before Sunday’s Detroit Lions-Chicago Bears game that, “The team that plays the best defense is going to win this one.” This is the kind of prediction that sounds intelligent because it can never been wrong. The team that plays the better defense–in terms of giving up the fewest points–always wins, and sure enough, Ditka’s former team, “Da Bears,” gave up only 14 points to the Lions’ 19.
Steve Silverman, a Chicago-area writer for College and Pro Football Weekly and author of Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football, has been following Ditka for years, and, over email, Silverman told me he finds the ex-coach’s analysis “mind numbing. He’s always saying things like ‘Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships,’ as if a point scored is somehow worth less than a point allowed.”
If offense doesn’t win championships, why did the New Orleans Saints, who lead the NFL in scoring last year, win the Super Bowl? And if defense is more important than offense, why did the New York Jets, who allowed the fewest points in the league in 2009, lose the AFC Championship game? There’s no point in raising such questions with people like Mike Ditka–and I tried once–because they just ignore you and keep repeating the same clichés. They’re ideologues; if the team that allowed the fewest points didn’t win the championship, then they should have, and the team that did win may have the title but they’re not really the best team.
The worst thing about commentators like Ditka is that they spread an almost impenetrable haze of ignorance around the game to the point where they obscure what you’re actually seeing on the field; to paraphrase what Dr. Johnson said about somebody, they aren’t merely dull, they’re the cause of dullness in others.
You Have To Do Well On Third Downs
Every time I hear a football commentator make a lunk-headed statement, I wonder whether he studied at the Ditka School of Broadcasting. Joe Buck, for instance, on Fox Sunday before the New York Giants played the Carolina Panthers: “You have to do well on third downs.” Well, yes, you do, because you’ve only got three downs in which to do something before you either punt or try to kick a field goal. But if you “do well” on first down and second down–or at least do better than your opponent–you don’t have to worry as much about third downs.
Games Are Decided by Turnovers
As Jon Gruden in the ESPN booth Monday night before the New York Jets-Baltimore Ravens game told us: “This game will be decided by turnovers.” Gruden, former head coach of the Tampa Bay Bucs, should know as well as anyone that interceptions are a definite indication of how well an offense passes or how well a defense prevents the pass, whereas fumbles are pretty much a matter of chance. Real football analysts have known for years that bad teams don’t fumble any more than good teams. Lumping a statistic that measures skill, interceptions, with one that measures dumb luck, fumbles, obscures the issue it’s supposed to illuminate.
Ring Lardner once said of a pretentious broadcaster of the 1920s, “There were two games played yesterday, the one on the field and the one he described.” In the spirit of Lardner, one might say that these days there are two ways to understand a football game: One is to watch it; the other, not to hear it.
Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.