John Madden was a shitty commentator.
Yeah, I said it. Blasphemy? Sure. Fuck it — if you can’t handle the truth, go cry in a corner.
To be fair to ol’ John, he only sounded like an idiot. A Super Bowl title and an outstanding win/loss ratio as a head coach provides evidence that his brain may in fact be more turducken than turd. And Madden isn’t the first color commentator to stink it up on television. Hell, this isn’t the exception we’re talking about here. No, when it comes to football commentating, mediocrity is the rule, cliches are the norm, and John Madden is just the beaming Buddha who all the commentating monks aspire to become.
(I have to be specific here. I’m going to limit the playing field to just football commentators. And by “football”, I mean “gridiron” — American and (its ugly, poor, hopelessly inept inbred hillbilly cousin) Canadian football. We’re really just talking NFL. This is not to say that commentators get any better when you switch sports. Trust me when I say that Bumbles muttering “It’s all happening here at the Oval” is just as tiresome as anything John Madden and his ilk could dish up.)
Why football? Well, nowhere else do I get a weekly, nonstop 10-hour barrage of material to dissect. Nowhere else do I have literally dozens of play-describers to wade through in a single day (thank you, Sunday Ticket!). And nowhere else is there such a glaring discrepancy between the pack and the cream of the crop. And when I say “cream of the crop”, I’m talking, of course, about NBC’s Sunday Night Football color commentator Cris Collinsworth. Where John Madden was a stammering, jolly-jowled twit, Cris Collinsworth is the lanky professor delivering insight with wit.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the ineptitude of said “pack” is to highlight a few common follies. While Collinsworth (let’s call him C-squared because that’s what I’m gonna call him, dammit) occasionally trips in one of these potholes, he rarely does so more than a couple times in one broadcast, and I’ve never seen him twist his ankle and go down like a bag of limp dicks the way most of his contemporaries do, suffocating under the weight of their own cliches to the point where turning the TV’s sound off completely is less a favor to Mom than a sonic mercy-kill.
So without further ado, here are just a few categorical examples of the fucking lame-ass stupid shit that football commentators do and say on a regular basis:
You see this a lot. A running back takes the hand-off, follows his blocks right, looks to cut left, is mowed down by a surge of linebackers and safeties. One offensive lineman is caught in the tide, flopping clumsily backwards like a snared tuna until he crumbles under the wave. Everyone jumps up except the lineman. He’s down for the count, rolling around, clutching his lower leg.
High definition’s a helluva drug. Within seconds, we’re treated to ultra slow-motion replays from three different angles. You can quite clearly see the lineman’s leg pinned between the weight of a linebacker and the pads of his own running back. You wince as a safety joins the dogpile and the lineman’s knee folds backwards like a straw. It happens so slowly, you can actually hear the crrreeeeeeaaaak-CRACK in your head. You’re pretty sure football players aren’t meant to move about like velociraptors — that knee is right fucked, no doubt about it.
As you try your best not to heave the beer and wings you just scarfed back onto the coffee table, the cameras cut to medical staff attending to the injured player. They try to bend the knee, try to move it upwards, but the player will have none of that. Too much pain. Yes, that’s a major knee injury — we’re likely talking about several torn ligaments, if not damage to the cartilage or even broken bones. I’m no doctor, but I’ve done enough stupid shit to recognize the various sources of pain. The cause-effect chain is pretty simple when it comes to these things.
For some reason, though, despite collective decades of bruising on-field encounters, of twisted ankles and sprained wrists and broken fingers and the occasional blown-out joint, not a single football commentator can put 2 and 2 together to get that elusive 4.
(I’ve watched a group of commentators spend five minutes debating a leg injury — two were certain it was an ankle, while the other two knew for a fact that it was a knee — when the visual evidence left no doubt that the player had gone down to a back injury. He lay there clutching his lower back, and the attending medical staff didn’t pay attention to anything but his back. Yet these commentators were flabbergasted by half-time reports that it was, indeed, a lower back injury. “That really looked like a bad shot to the knee,” one said. “I would’ve thought it was the knee, for sure.” No shit, Sherlock. We already know you’re a moron. No need to repeat yourself.)
The example I created above is typical. While multiple variables may be involved — lots of contact points means lots of potential injuries — the replays that all of us at home get to watch are the same replays those commentators are watching up in the box, and they’re clearly showing a dude taking a sick shot to his poor Gumby knee.
Yet here’s a likely commentator conversation as the lineman writhes on-field:
Idiot A: “Oh, that does not look good. He’s in a lot of pain.”
Idiot B: “Yeah, it looks like he’s gone down with an injury after that play.”
Idiot A: “It’s definitely an injury. He does not look comfortable.”
Idiot B: “Not at all. He’s in a lot of pain.”
*replay airs with knee clearly bending the wrong way*
Idiot A: “Looks like his leg’s trapped.”
Idiot B: “You know, I’ve seen a lot of those. That’s usually the ankle.”
Idiot A: “It looks like his ankle. He’s in a lot of pain, you can see they’re falling on his ankle…”
Idiot B: “Definitely his ankle. Those are big boys falling on his ankle, he’s got it caught under them…”
*replay airs again with an even closer shot of the knee buckling like some alien robot*
Idiot A: “Usually with an injury like that it’s the tendons — the Achilles, something like that.”
Idiot B: “This really does not look good. He’s picked up a bad injury…”
Idiot A: “Lots of pain. Ankle injuries like that can mean the end of your season.”
Idiot B: “They’re taking him off on the cart. Boy, you hope he’s okay. Hurting your ankle like that is no joke.”
No, it isn’t. You two, on the other hand, are jokes. Wish someone would break your ankles. And bust your knees while they’re at it. My man C-squared would’ve shut his fucking mouth right from the start.
Commentators can probably be forgiven for not understanding injuries. After all, they aren’t doctors or physios. They’re just broadcasters and ex-jocks. People getting hurt is for other people to know about. All these geniuses care about is the game itself.
So let’s talk about the game. To win a football game, you need to score points. To score points, you need the ball. To get the ball, you either need to get a turnover (fumble, interception, or downs), or you need to force your opponent to kick the ball to you. Once you have the ball, you hope to get it into the endzone for 6 points, but 3 points from a field goal isn’t a bad second option. And if you do score that touchdown, you’d like to ice it with the extra point to make sure you get yourself more than two field goals clear.
What’s the point? Winning a football game involves lots of kicking. It’s a routine part of every football player’s experience. You’re looking at at least ten to twelve kicks on the day, more than half of which are likely to be punts and kickoffs.
I could go on about how head coaches in the NFL should be fired for ignoring such an important part of their game-day strategy — in fact, often their kick/punting strategies amount to pure superstition, e.g. “icing the kicker” or, for those of us who are or have been kickers and know what’s up, “you’re completely wasting a time out, fool” — but I’ll refrain. Instead, I’ll keep whining about commentators.
Kicking is actually not that complicated. It may be simpler to me than many others — I’ve been playing rugby my entire life, most of that in positions where kicking is a required part of the on-field repertoire. It seems obvious to me that kicking a torpedo is going to provide more distance but probably less height than a ball punted end-on-end. It seems obvious to me that an onside kick is only going to work 20-30% of the time if you don’t get enough hangtime on it to give your players a chance to get to the ball. It seems obvious to me that kicking with someone running free to pressure you is going to be much more difficult and result in improvisation (e.g. kicking at a steep angle to avoid the block). It seems obvious to me that kicking at altitude is much easier than kicking at sea level and that the ball will spend a lot more time in the air.
Most importantly, it seems obvious to me that kicking is all about rhythm. It’s like a golf stroke. If you get the mechanics down, then it’s all about concentrating and going through the motions. The results follow automatically. It’s very easy to see if a kicker has middled it or shanked it.
To hear football commentators dissect kicks, though, you’d think we’re talking about Laplace transforms.
It’s not that they struggle to describe what’s happened. I mean, they definitely do struggle, but it’s more than that. They’re reduced to pure guesswork. It’s like they’re reliving their SATs — “It’s always C, it’s always C, if you don’t know it’s always C… why the fuck do I have to take these tests when I have those football scholarships?”
I want to list examples of all the cock-ups I’ve heard relating to punts and restarts, but I’m boring myself. Instead, let’s just focus on field goals. One commentator explaining a botched field goal to another is like the blind leading the blind in a vast void with no possibility even for echo-location.
“Looks like he doesn’t really get hold of that one.” No, you’re an idiot. He clearly does — he’s middled it so that it accelerates off his foot, the ball flips beautifully end over end, and its flight never deviates from the original line. What he’s done is fuck up his aim — he’s shifted the angle of his run-up too much and never had a chance of making that kick (unless, ironically, he’d managed to shank it over).
“This kick is 53 yards, but his range is 55 yards so he should make it.” No, you’re an idiot. A kicker’s range describes one of two things: 1. the longest kick he’s ever made in a game, or 2. the longest kick he can make with any sort of regularity in practice. Either way, his chance of making a kick within a few yards of his “range” is low, probably below 20%, especially when he has kicker-hating linemen barking in his face.
“[Kicker from sea-level team]’s longest is 55 yards — this one [at high altitude in Denver] is 57 yards so it’s probably not within his range.” No, you’re an idiot. The only exception to my example above is kicking at altitude. At extreme altitude (e.g. Denver), the ball can easily travel 5-10 yards further than a kicker is used to. A kicker with a range of 55 yards has a range of 60+ yards here. 57 yards is suddenly a 20-30% kick, which is even better than typical “range”. It’s no accident that even mediocre kickers regularly put over 50+ yarders when they play the Broncos.
“This one looks like it’s wide left… no, it’s over!” You’re an idiot. First of all, you fucked it up even though there are two big poles (known as GOAL POSTS, for chrissakes!) to help you figure out what’s what. Second, it was fucking obvious from the start that it was going straight down the middle. I know the ball was kicked from the right hashmarks, but you don’t need a protractor to see that the angle was never sufficient to push it anywhere clear of the posts.
“Looks like he hit it well but somehow it still missed from 30 yards out.” No, you’re an idiot. Either he obviously didn’t hit it well — if it wobbles like a drunk turkey, it’s a shank — or he did hit it well and you’re too blind to see the obvious deflection from a defender’s hand that the other 15+ million of us watching the broadcast clearly saw. And what truly blows my mind is that you’re going to keep missing that deflection despite four slow-motion replays.
“This one’s a chip shot [from 35 yards out]” versus, one quarter later, “This is a tough one [from 40 yards out]”. You’re an idiot. With the exception of kicks at the far end of one’s range (for most kickers, that’s 47+ yards), every kick is a chip shot. Like I said, it’s a mechanical stroke. You’re looking to go through your routine and hit the sweet spot. Believe me, kickers who miss 40-yarders are annoyed every single time they miss that kick, and they don’t somehow feel better about making these kicks than the 35-yarders.
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Simply put, every time a commentator tries to explain anything about a kick, a kicker, a punt, a punter, or, in fact, balls touching feet or the players whose feet touched said balls, they are “wah wah”-ing like Charlie Brown’s teachers. Even C-squared fucks this up from time to time. Please, friends, ignore at will.
Okay. Commentators aren’t doctors, and they aren’t kickers. Give ’em a break, right? Most of them threw the ball, caught the ball, or laid a licking on people who threw and/or caught balls. Why would they be experts at things they never did?
Fair enough. But unless I’m completely insane, I do believe they’re all delivering English broadcasts in — wait for it — ENGLISH, right? I mean, they are, right? Right?
Right. They are. English broadcasts are by definition done in English. So if they’re speaking English, they have at their disposal the same parts of speech that I do, right? I’m talking about all those pesky little bits and pieces that get Frankenstitched into sentences: nouns, adjectives, pronouns, articles, conjunctions, prepositions, adverbs. Oh, and also, verbs. Let’s not forget verbs. Because, you know, without a verb, a sentence kind of, well, sort of, well, it doesn’t really exist.
In other words, without English verbs, you can’t make English sentences. So if there’s one thing we all better know damn good and proper, it’s the verb. Right? I mean, am I right? Verbs are gold!
The beautiful thing about verbs is that they pack a punch. The other beautiful thing about verbs is their sheer variety. There’s a verb for everything. Shit, you can turn any fucking word into a verb. And we love verbs so fucking much, we even gerund the shit out of them to turn them back into nouns, just to get a little bit extra verb into our daily rations.
We who speak English love the verb. We depend on the verb. We are human, and we need the verb.
Ah, but this is not true of the Maddens of this world. Football commentators do not require the lowly verb. No, they do not need the color and scope of action words, for they have created their own phrase that is, at once, all-verbs-and-none. This phrase simultaneously describes what one player has done well while catching within its ephemeral trace the negative simulacrum of that moment, which is, indeed, that-which-his-opponent-has-not-done-well.
It is a phrase we will hear at least sixty times between kickoff and time expiration. It is a Medusa phrase, scaring the shit out of verbs and turning them into gerund stone. It is a phrase so mediocre and vapid that only the true monks of Madden could propagate it with such inerrant zeal.
The phrase? “… does a good job of …”
I actually marvel at this grammatical turd. It’s hardy, like a cockroach. Just try to eliminate it and see what happens. It’s ingrained now. More than that, though, is its sheer versatility. You can substitute the phrase for just about anything that should’ve been a verb and still have a sentence that makes some sort of sense.
I guess that’s not too nefarious. The real problem is that this turd sucks the color out of surrounding language until everything is diarrhea-dull.
Imagine, if you will, a great tackle. The receiver catches the ball over the middle and gets leveled by the strong safety. How could we describe this play?
“He gets smashed by the safety!” or “The safety crushes him!” or “A tremendous mid-field collision!” or… well, yeah, we could keep going.
But, on any given Sunday, all these beautiful possibilities get reduced to the lowest turd denominator. Inevitably, this play becomes, “The safety does a good job of hitting the receiver.” See, I can’t even put a fucking exclamation mark there, it’s so fucking dull.
According to football commentators, every action taken on a football field amounts to “doing a good job of”. The defense does a good job of sealing the run inside. The quarterback does a good job of going through his reads and throwing to the open receiver. The offensive line does a good job of giving the quarterback time to throw. The cornerback does a good job of making a play on the ball. The [noun] does a good job of [gerund] [actual content of idea].
Pray tell, why can’t you just USE THE FUCKING VERB LIKE A VERB?! The defense seals the run inside. Or better yet, the defense forces the run inside. Sorry, what? Oh, that doesn’t tell us that the defense did something well. Hmm, that’s true. Let me think… Ummmmm… Oh, I have an idea! How about ADJECTIVES? Or ADVERBS? Seems to me these things are pretty common, too!
The defense forces the run inside brilliantly. The quarterback goes through his reads and throws a perfect pass to the open receiver. The offensive line gives the quarterback plenty of time to throw. The cornerback makes an incredible play on the ball.
It’s really not that difficult. This is basic shit we were taught in elementary school and then practiced in junior high. This is how we’re supposed to communicate with each other, goddammit.
My main man C-squared rarely does this shit. It seems like he understands how verbs, adjectives, and adverbs work. And his commentary is all the richer for it. Let’s forget, for a moment, his remarkable ability to read the game, or his gift for explaining in simple terms the complex mechanics of any play (compared to those gibberish Xs and Os John Madden loved so much). I’m more impressed by his willingness to just use English. To actually describe what’s happened by, you know, describing it. To use verbs.
Commentating implies speaking. It implies describing. It implies analyzing. All of that (in an English broadcast) implies using English. It’s a versatile language. Great commentators should have a powerful command of this language. Mediocre commentators, on the other hand, will continue to just do a good job of describing injuries and kicks. It appears that they struggle to see, struggle to understand what little they do see, struggle to think about what little they do understand, and struggle to communicate what few weak thoughts remain.
I know football isn’t exactly the most cerebral of pastimes, but I’m not asking for much. Let’s hope the monks of Madden become the mendicants of Collinsworth.