In this mix is also an appropriate perspective on each team, easy set-up points for the analysts in the booth and just the right amount of inflection on big plays.
The man is Mike Tirico, and he is arguably the best NFL play-by-play man on television today.
Lost in all the hype about the Tony Kornheiser experiment (in my opinion, he’s been fine, not spectacular, but certainly not a bust) has been the nearly impeccable work of Tirico.
And such is often the case when it comes to the play-by-play man in sports. The analysts are almost always the stars, but the play-caller is the glue that makes a broadcast booth great.
Tirico is super strength Bondo.
Good play-by-play men are like good referees. You only notice them when they are bad -- or worse. And I have noticed bad play by play work this year. His name is Bryant Gumbel.
Gumbel’s stumbling work on the NFL Network on Thursdays is an assault on the viewer. It’s almost like he was strong-armed into taking the job. Which, if you read the article recently quoting partner Cris Collinsworth, maybe he was.
Collinsworth raved about how “smart” Gumbel is, and how worldly and how he’s a guy who has interviewed presidents and foreign dignitaries.
None of that matters when it comes to football. As viewers, we want simple competence from the booth quarterback. And it’s a lot harder than anybody realizes. Having a resume tape with a sit-down chat with Mohatma Ghandi, doesn’t matter when you say things like “three-minute warning.” (No joke, Gumbel actually said that last week!)
This makes me appreciate the work of guys like Tirico even more.
What you see and hear on game day from a top flight play-by-play man is the culmination of hours and hours of prep work, research, and interviews. Most likely, the guy has also studied tape of each team, in order to be more familiar with how personnel groupings are used and just how certain players look without having to identify them by number.
Tirico, in case anybody hasn’t noticed, is as good as it gets right now.
Without further adieu, here’s my list of preferred pigskin play-by-play men, in both college and pros.
1. Brent Musburger
Ah Brent. I bow to thee. A style that is 100% unique, and to some, slightly annoying. Sure, the “pardner” references can get tired at times, but peel away the typical Brent-isms, and you’ll find a man in total command of his craft. It’s not just that Brent knows how to call a game, he really knows the game -- period.
2. Mike Tirico
Taking over the MNF mantle from legend Al Michaels would be hard enough on its own, but having to break in a newbie like Kornheiser made his job even more difficult. Still, Tirico has excelled at stabilizing that booth in less than a year, and is as sharp as any play-caller in TV today.
3. Joe Buck
Hosting the pre-game show for Fox hasn’t affected his calls on game-day in my opinion, even though I think it’s an unnecessary burden. Buck has a great, cutting wit during games that shows he’s always keenly aware of what’s happening on the field, and what the major story lines are. Losing blowhard Collinsworth from that booth has made both Buck and Troy Aikman even better.
4. Mike Patrick
It was unfortunate that Patrick’s tag-team partners, Joe Theismann and Paul Maguire, got so out of control at the end of their Sunday night run because Patrick himself always brought the goods in terms of play-by-play. My only nit to pick: Patrick tended to be overly syrupy when it came to praising everything from the city he was in to the coaches and down to the players.
5. Verne Lundquist
Perhaps the most underrated play-by-play guy ever. Extremely versatile (hoops, golf) he’s very solid on football, and always gets the most out of his partner -- and he’s had plenty!
As a final note, you may wonder: “Hey, where’s Al Michaels?” Well, he’s not on my list for one reason. I think Michaels is terrible at injecting passion into big plays during a football game. Yes, his pitch will rise on those plays, but it’s almost always in a calculating and drawn out manner.
While nobody is better at slipping in the random over / under commentary late in games (and I do love Al for that!), I just have never bought into the presumption that he’s “one of the best.”
Steve is a native Washingtonian and has worked in sports talk radio for the last 11 years. He worked at WTEM in 1993 anchoring Team Tickers before he took a full time job with national radio network One-on-One Sports.
A graduate of UC Santa Barbara, Steve has worked for WFNZ in Charlotte where his afternoon show was named "Best Radio Show." Steve continues to serve as a sports personality for WLZR in Milwaukee and does fill-in hosting for Fox Sports Radio.