It's not fair to review a restaurant on opening night. You have to let the staff work the kinks out before you pass judgment. For the same reason, it seems only sporting to return to John Madden, whose "Monday Night Football" performance was scrutinized by the typing classes, this typist included, after his debut as Al Michaels' partner in an exhibition game in August.
The chic opinion to hold at the finest tailgates is that Madden's best days are behind him, that he's become a self-parody -- Boom! Look at this! Hey! -- who lacks the critical insights offered by younger analysts like Troy Aikman on Fox and Phil Simms on CBS.
I disagree. I'm a fan of Madden. I think he's a solid and insightful analyst with an engaging personality, and his buffoonishness is overstated by people who are overly influenced by his persona on TV commercials, where he plays up his clown side. Three-quarters of the way through his inaugural season on "MNF," he and Michaels, criticized early for not "meshing," whatever that means, have settled in as a comfortable, easy-to-listen-to team. They're not the league's premier broadcasting team, despite working on the premier weekly event, but they're pretty good.
Michaels is more knowledgeable than he usually gets credit for -- I doubt there's an NFL coach who couldn't learn something from him about the bizarrely lost art of managing the clock -- and his voice has become the sound of Monday night in the same way that Pat Summerall used to sound like Thanksgiving afternoon.
Madden was brought in this year to replace the two-year team of the very sharp Dan Fouts, now doing college games with Keith Jackson on ABC, and the very awful Dennis Miller, an admirable broadcasting experiment that worked about as well as the admirable broadcasting experiment "Pink Lady ... and Jeff," except that Miller wasn't as funny. Miller has returned to stand-up comedy, which he's actually good at.
The idea of the switch was to boost ratings, of course. It worked, arguably. "Monday Night Football's" ratings are up, but NFL ratings are up across the board. I'm sticking with my long-held theory that viewers tune in to watch the game, not to listen to the announcers.
So, like most football fans, I rarely listen closely to the chatter on "Monday Night Football" or any other broadcast. I'm there for the ballgame, and sometimes even that's secondary to hanging around with my friends, who, like your friends, are often more interesting than the announcers. Your friends also have the advantage of not being imaginary.
But I listened closely Monday during the Oakland Raiders' victory over the New York Jets, and what I heard is what I usually hear from Madden: interesting analysis, the occasional anecdote from his coaching days and Seinfeld-like observations about the game's minutiae.
In the second quarter, Jets quarterback Chad Pennington rolled out and completed a pass, though he was hit and knocked down. Walking back to the huddle, he picked at a big clump of grass that had lodged in his face mask. Guard Randy Thomas came up to help him and yanked the turf free. Madden noticed it and commented on it, but unlike the great mass of announcers he's influenced, he didn't make a big deal out of it, didn't harp on it as if to say, "Hey, look at me! I'm being funny here." In fact, listen to how he segued into another funny but much more relevant observation:
"What you need your offensive linemen to do is block for you, and then when you get a divot in your head to pull the divot out of your head. Pennington is a rhythm passer, he's not a mobile guy. Talking about his fingers and how long his fingers are, he also has big feet. He wears a size 15 shoe. Now, there's never, in the history of football, been a scrambler or a guy that could run that had a size 15 shoe."
"I never thought of it in those terms," Michaels said, without sounding condescending.
"If you can wear a size 15 shoe and run fast," Madden continued, "they'll put you in the Smithsonian."
And that was it. A fun little exchange, vintage Madden, with some nice "meshing" going on with Michaels, but it wasn't Madden shtick. He wasn't yelling or getting crazy with the Telestrator. And, you know, I didn't know Pennington had size 15 feet, did you?
The thing you forget about Madden if you don't listen much to him is that he's almost always talking about football, even when he's being funny. All the gimmicks, the six-legged turkeys and the Madden Awards and all that, he spends very little time on during a game, and none at all if the game is close. Madden was the first analyst who presented a coach's insight while talking like a regular guy, not like a coach. That, not the patented Madden routine, is what made him special.
He's still John Madden, after all, so you do get the occasional "boom," but only in the context of an observation about the game. Near the end of the first half, he was praising the Jets' secondary, which had been the key to holding Oakland to two field goals: "They never let the Raiders get into that rhythm where they could go boom, boom, boom, right down the field," he said. "I mean, they'd go boom, boom, then they'd stutter a little." He then used highlights to show the Jets defensive backs jamming the Raiders receivers at the line of scrimmage, and then "clamping on" to them in zone coverage, rather than letting them find gaps in the defense.
The talk before the season began was that Michaels, a superstar with a superstar ego, would never step aside and give Madden the space to be Madden. In that opening game, there was some forced humor that didn't fly as Michaels seemed to bend over backward to let Madden be Madden. Four months later, it's still Michaels who's trying too hard. It was Michaels, not Madden, who once again Monday brought up the now tiresome subject of Madden's "turducken," a boneless chicken stuffed into a boneless duck stuffed into a boneless turkey, with stuffing between the layers.
Michaels is better when he stops trying to force the Maddenesque humor and sticks to his own more sardonic style, as when he noted following a Raiders completion during which a penalty flag was thrown that "when the umpire throws the flag, 99.36948 percent of the time ..." He didn't even need to finish the thought: It's holding, which it was in this case. Here's a vote for a little more Michaels ego. Enough with the turducken already.
The Michaels-Madden team is a good one, and it's one we'll probably have in our living rooms for at least a few years. (Madden is 66, Michaels 58.) But it's not the best team going. That would be the ESPN Sunday night team of Mike Patrick, Paul Maguire and Joe Theismann, mostly because of the latter two, who banter and argue amusingly while providing sharp analysis.
Patrick is a solid play-by-play guy who stays out of the way, much as Joe Buck does on Fox, where he's teamed with Aikman and Cris Collinsworth. That team is good, but not as good as the ESPN team because Aikman and Collinsworth agree with each other more often than Maguire and Theismann do. It's fun to note that Maguire, the old AFL linebacker and punter, is sharper on play-calling than Theismann, the modern-day quarterback.
The thing that puts both of those teams ahead of Michaels-Madden is their willingness to criticize players and coaches, which Michaels and Madden tend not to do. The Monday night team is soft. That's too bad. It's easy to forget this now, but Madden used to be a tough guy.
Early in his broadcasting career, in the early '80s, Madden was fresh from his days as the no-nonsense coach of the Raiders. During Hall of Fame induction weekend this summer, Dave Casper, the great tight end who played for Madden, gave several interviews about his rookie year in which he almost sounded like a survivor of childhood abuse. In his acceptance speech, he boiled it down to: "He was on my butt every day."
That Madden, coach Madden, would get on players for sitting on their helmets on the sideline, for dogging it off the line of scrimmage, for running out of bounds rather than putting a shoulder down and trying for an extra couple of yards. He loved tough guys, as he does now, but he also made it clear who, or what, he wasn't so fond of. He doesn't do that anymore.
It's asking for too much to hope that Madden will return to his more critical younger self. Heading into the home stretch of his first season in prime time, it's clear that he and Michaels get along fine, and they're a big improvement over any team Michaels has worked with since he took over the broadcast in 1986.
ABC's biggest problem on Monday nights now is the quality of the games. Two of the last four -- Chicago at Miami next week and San Francisco at St. Louis the last week of the season -- are dogs. If the network can convince the NFL in off-season talks to add some flexibility to the Monday night schedule -- a big if, since the league also has TV deals with Fox and CBS, which wouldn't take kindly to a boost for ABC -- the franchise could be headed for its best era since the salad days of Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith.
Just think of it: Oakland-San Diego, Atlanta-Tampa Bay or Indianapolis-Tennesee next week, then Miami-New England in Week 17. Throw in Michaels, Madden and some imaginary friends ... Boom! Now you've got something.