ESPN made a lot of noise just before the season about how it was going back to basics with "Monday Night Football." That meant kicking the celebrities out of the booth and focusing on the actual game, with a larger role for Ron Jaworski's terrific strategic analysis and a much smaller one for the sideline reporters.
Network poobahs told reporters that focus groups in several cities had told ESPN what they wanted to see on ESPN's football broadcasts. You'd better sit down because this might shock you. It evidently shocked ESPN. Viewers wanted to see the game.
This is one of those good news stories. The season debut of "Monday Night Football," the Green Bay Packers' 24-19 home win over the Minnesota Vikings, was a delight. A sideline-reporter-free delight.
"Monday Night Football" had been employing not just one but two sideline reporters, Suzy Kolber and Michelle Tafoya, in its first two years on ESPN. That's an awful lot of "I talked to So-and-So's mom this week" reports and two sideline reporters too many, though both Tafoya and Kolber are excellent when they have worthwhile work to do.
I didn't even realize Tafoya was on hand in Green Bay Monday until she interviewed winning quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Packers after the game.
One holdover from the old days of trying to dress up the game to appeal to the casual fan is Tony Kornheiser, who on Monday just would not let up on the story line of Rodgers replacing Brett Favre. He identified Rodgers' every move as Favre-like and attributed every hand-clap in Lambeau Field to Packers fans seeing Favre when they looked at Rodgers.
He'd already been hitting that theme pretty hard when Rodgers threw a nice bomb early in the second quarter, Greg Jennings making a beautiful catch down the middle at the Minnesota 6-yard line for a 56-yard gain.
"That is exactly the kind of pass that Brett Favre would have thrown," Kornheiser gushed, "and look at the way the crowd responds right now! It's Aaron Rodgers, and he's waking the echoes of No. 4 with a play like that."
Waking the echoes? I don't know. I've been to a lot of football games, some of them before Brett Favre even got to Southern Miss, never mind Green Bay, and I'm pretty sure the home crowd always responds in a favorable manner to a 56-yard pass by the home team to the 6-yard line. Even if the pass wasn't particularly Favre-like in any way.
To be fair, though, this one really was "exactly the kind of pass that Brett Favre would have thrown." That is, forward.
A ridiculous number of bad offensive plays and defensive penalties later, Rodgers did make a Favre-like play, avoiding the rush and making an off-balance touchdown throw to Korey Hall. There was a pregnant pause.
"OK, let me state the obvious," Kornheiser finally said. Somewhere, focus-group members were pounding on their TV screens and shouting, "No!"
"You saw Rodgers on that play almost get hit, make one move, basically falling down, make that kind of play."
"I know what you're going to say," Jaworski offered.
"Well does it? Does it remind you of him at all?" Kornheiser said.
"Yeah," Jaworski said, "it was Favre-like. Are you happy now?"
"Are all the people in here ecstatic?" Kornheiser continued rhetorically.
"Yeah," Jaworski said. "The Packers scored. You've got to let it go, Tony."
"And the game is joined at this point," Kornheiser intoned. "The game is joined. That's a Favre-like play."
The game is joined? What? Meanwhile, the guys in the truck, gamely following the new mandate, were offering up replay after replay of the touchdown. Jaworski finally noticed and said, "All right, I'll go into the football," and began describing the actual play.
Kornheiser can be an entertaining guy. Love him on "Pardon the Interruption" and on the radio. But ESPN should have swept him off of the "MNF" set along with the sideline reports and the obtrusive graphics. Kornheiser is not "the basics."
The opening broadcast was actually a double-header, the nightcap a dog of a game featuring a dog of a team, the Oakland Raiders, who got smoked by the Denver Broncos at home, 41-14, a score that didn't come close to representing how bad the Raiders are, how badly they played and how badly I just insulted the canine species.
Whoever thought the Raiders belonged on national television is in dire need of a long talk with a focus group followed by a career change.
The stink bomb of a game did give announcers Mike Golic and Mike Ditka space to banter a bit. Mike Greenberg had just read a promo for Saturday's USC-Ohio State game when Golic said, "Think that one's going to shape the landscape a little bit in college football?"
Ditka: "That could be a Mini Cooper running into a locomotive."
Golic told a funny story about meeting Ditka, then coaching the Chicago Bears, after Golic's senior season at Notre Dame but before the 1986 NFL draft. They talked for a while and when they parted, "I kid you not," Golic said, "his quote to me was, 'Hey, Mike, good luck in whatever you do.' I immediately thought, 'Well, I'm not getting drafted by the Bears.'" He got drafted by the Houston Oilers in the 10th round.
Ditka also noted at one point that fans in Oakland wear more NFL paraphernalia than fans anywhere else. "These have got to be the greatest fans in the world," he said, "putting up with this."
Golic did a good job of describing what "this" meant and summing up the home team in one sentence. "Boy," he said after a particularly egregious 15-yard loss, "they don't just have two- or three-yard losses, do they?"