Boom! Madden on Monday night

Look at this! He's the same great analyst he was on Sunday afternoons. So will he help the ratings? Not as much as some good games would.

Published August 6, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

John Madden made his "Monday Night Football" debut Monday, and it sounded like he and Al Michaels have been doing the games together for about 30 years. Too bad they haven't been. The two are about as good as it gets at their respective jobs.

There's been some talk in the typing classes that because Michaels is not a typically bland, step-aside play-by-play man, there would be tension and ego clashes between the two, but come on. Was anybody really expecting that Michaels wouldn't figure out a way to work with Madden? Madden's a great talker. Michaels engaged him in a three and a half-hour conversation.

Michaels introduced Madden as the former coach of the Raiders making his return to "Monday Night Football" 24 years after his last appearance. Madden, who followed his highly successful coaching career in Oakland with highly successful stints working with Pat Summerall at CBS and then Fox, said he was excited to be working on the show, he always enjoyed coaching on Monday nights and he's always enjoyed the Monday night games as a fan. Then he went right into an analysis of the Houston Texans, who he said he thought would be "the best expansion team we've ever seen."

On the opening kickoff, Texans kick returner Jabar Gaffney fell down at the 15, but wasn't touched, so he popped up and kept running through New York Giants defenders who had momentarily stopped playing, all the way to the 40.

"Sometimes as a coach you like to see that because it's something you can teach," Madden said. "You know, don't think a guy's down. You have to get him down, listen for the whistle, and you play until he goes down. You see, his knee is down but he's not touched. You see? [We're looking at a replay here.] So that's a thing that the Giants are going to work on, I'll guarantee you, this week on special teams."

Of course. Same old Madden, pointing things out, some of them more esoteric than others, drawing on his experience as a coach without being an annoying "in my day" old guy.

A little over eight minutes into the game, Madden was describing the replay of a 20-yard run by Texans back James Allen. "A good block by his left guard," Madden said. "Watch Domingo Graham here, he's going to pull out and lead, and that's the thing that you have to have. You see number 70 right there? He makes that block -- right there! Boom! And then Allen just breaks off that, breaks a tackle right there, makes a little move and ends up with a good run."

"Let it be duly noted: The first Monday night 'boom,'" Michaels said.

But the thing about Madden is that he rarely just does Madden shtick. Because he spoofs himself in commercials, people seem to think Madden's a big ol' clown. He's not. He's a smart observer and a good coach who doesn't take himself too seriously. He's that big slob of a social studies teacher you had in 10th grade, the one who told all the corny jokes. Everybody thought that guy was a goofball too, but damned if you didn't learn something that year.

The big question isn't whether Madden is going to be any good, or whether he'll mesh with Michaels. The question is whether he'll help "Monday Night Football's" ratings, which have famously sagged, declining in each of the last seven years. The answer to that is -- well, did you tune in Monday night to watch the Giants and Texans play an exhibition game because Madden was in the booth? Yeah? OK, would you tune in to the same game three months from now, with the Giants 4-4 and the Texans 2-6 and Madden already feeling like a comfortable old sweater on Monday nights? Didn't think so.

The simple fact is that as much as we all love to play program director, it doesn't really matter who's in the booth for "Monday Night Football." Football fans aren't going to tune out a good game because they don't like the announcers. If they feel strongly enough they'll turn down the volume maybe, but they'll still watch. And, as we learned in the unfortunate Dennis Miller era, non-fans aren't going to watch because of some non-football element that's been thrown in.

The quality of the games is what determines how many people watch. If you put two good teams having good seasons on the tube on Monday night, people will watch. The problem is that when the league makes up the schedule, nobody knows which teams are going to be any good. Football's efforts at creating competitive balance have been too successful for the Monday night franchise's good. Salary cap rules have made it nearly impossible to sustain success, and the road taken by the Giants and the Baltimore Ravens over the last three years -- lousy, Super Bowl, lousy again -- is no longer anomalous.

The competitive balance that gives fans of a 1-15 team hope that the boys will be in the playoffs in a year or two also makes it impossible to tell what late-season games will be attractive. The last five Monday night games of the year will be Jets-Raiders, Bears-Dolphins, Patriots-Titans, Steelers-Buccaneers and 49ers-Rams. You tell me: Which of those will be attractive games?

It was easier in the old days, when the NFL could just pencil in a Raiders-Steelers game, say, or Vikings-Cowboys, and know they'd have a barn-burner between two Super Bowl contenders. ABC had announcers like Alex Karras and Joe Namath and Fred Williamson, and the ratings were just fine, thank you.

There's a lesson here for the baseball owners that the competitive balance they've spent so much time talking about lately isn't necessarily all for the good, but that's another column.

In the first half, Madden was telling a typical Madden-type story about how Dave Casper, whom Madden had introduced at his Hall of Fame induction, didn't know how to acknowledge a crowd with his hands. (Madden, with his observations about minutiae, was sort of a football Jerry Seinfeld before Jerry Seinfeld was Jerry Seinfeld.) Madden talked about how he took Casper aside Saturday morning and tutored him on how to take a proper bow. Michaels played the straight man perfectly.

By the fourth quarter, with the game reduced to the usual exhibition season slop, the two were joshing about "the horse trailer," a term Madden had heard a producer use when talking to Michaels that Madden didn't understand. Michaels confessed he didn't understand the term either, then said it was really an off-track betting parlor. It wasn't very funny. Michaels and Madden get to have a preseason too, after all. But they were clearly enjoying each other's company. And that's a good thing, because if they're enjoying each other, we'll probably enjoy listening to them. That is, if we're watching.

Which we will be. If the games are good.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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