ABC has a new man in the booth, Fran Tarkenton, with a nickname designed to set him apart from mere mortals—Sir Francis. NBC and CBS are both bragging about their off-season trade, Curt Gowdy to CBS for Don Criqui, with a sound man to be named later. CBS' cut list from '78 would look sensational on the waiver wire—John Unitas, Jim Brown and Nick Buoniconti—and NBC can almost match it with its own cuts, Paul Warfield and Ed Podolak.
The TV networks are ready for the '79 NFL season, and the fresh new face is Tarkenton, who simply wowed 'em in his first action at the Hall of Fame game. He displayed a willingness to knock—mostly quarterbacks, from Ken Stabler down to Raider sub David Humm—and most of the time he did it with flair, e.g., "Too late, too high and too wide, which means incomplete."
"I like the way Sir Francis talks—right on the line," said Howard Cosell, beaming in the manner of a proud papa who parades a sleepy child out to recite Invictus to the dinner guests.
But in the next two ABC exhibition-game telecasts, Tarkenton pulled in his horns. He had fired some heavy shots in that first game, claiming, for instance, that a missed Cliff Branch block had cost Oakland teammate Art Whittington a 19-yard touchdown run. I reran the tapes of that play. Dallas' Bob Breunig was closing fast on Whittington, narrowing the sideline angle, and it is extremely doubtful that Whittington would have scored. Maybe in light of that sort of thing someone told Sir Francis to ease off a little—at least for a while.
Tarkenton's presence in the ABC booth—he will work six regular-season games, with Don Meredith handling the other 10—has lent a more serious tone to the presentation. Less banter. No "who" vs. "whom" debates. But the criticism I've always had of the ABC crew still holds. Recitation replaces information. Not enough attention is paid to which players actually are on the field.
When Cowboy Strong Safety Charlie Waters went down with a knee injury in the second quarter of the Seattle game, Frank Gifford remarked, "I would suspect we'd see Randy Hughes." Hughes had started the game at free safety and played all the way, and Cliff Harris was the new man on the field.
In the past, ABC has brushed off such criticisms as mere carping. The network feels that it's the magic in the booth that generates the ratings (which, incidentally, last season were the third lowest in the nine years of Monday Night Football). I disagree. I think it's the time slot, plus the attractiveness of the games, plus the technical excellence of the video work. ABC regularly uses 10 cameras; NBC and CBS generally deploy six, although they will go as high as 15 for a Super Bowl.
Personally, I prefer to watch ABC with the sound turned off and the radio turned on. Never did this reap as many dividends as it did last season, when Hank Stram worked a double shift: he did Sunday NFL telecasts on CBS and the Monday night color for CBS radio. Stram reports quickly and in depth, and he throws in enough snappers to keep things lively.
I can still remember Stram calling practically every one of the Vikings' plays against the Bears in a Sunday night game last year. Jack Buck, the play-by-play man, who normally would trumpet such expertise, seemed to back off. I think he was scared that Stram had stolen Bud Grant's game plan. Stram will even analyze a play for you before he has looked at the replay.
Stram and the newly acquired Gowdy will operate as CBS' No. 3 team. No. 2 is Vin Scully-George Allen, freed from last year's three-men-in-the-booth experiment that didn't work. Jim Brown ("Isn't that so, coach?") has been turned loose. The No. 1 team remains Pat Summerall and Tom Brook-shier. Comfortable. Time-tested. No. 4, Lindsey Nelson-Paul Hornung, dropped a notch from its No. 3 slot of last season, and suffers from Hornung's lack of homework. His one-liners just don't do it. The fresh new face on CBS is John Madden, the former Oakland coach, who will serve as an analyst on a number of regional telecasts.
NBC leads off with the very solid twosome of Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen. Olsen was obviously advised by the network to get away from the intensely analytical style of his rookie season in 1977 and became a more outgoing personality in '78. Few color men work harder. I especially like two things about his approach: he doesn't shoot for the cheap one-liners—"They hired me as a color man, not a comedian," he says—and he tries to keep his between-plays comments fairly tight. I can't handle the rambling monologues that are interrupted by the action on the field—"I'll get back to my story right after this play."
No. 2 for NBC is the new team of Jim Simpson and John Brodie. Charlie Jones and Len Dawson are No. 3, and for me they are a very easy listen, because they hark back to old AFL days—and so do I.
The fresh new team on NBC is the No. 4 unit of Criqui and Bob Trumpy. Trumpy, who steps up from last year's No. 5 crew, is a comer whose flashes of insight often jolt you. For instance, when a TD was erased by an illegal pick in a Houston-Cincinnati game, Trumpy had this rare infraction nailed before the official's flag hit the ground. And in the same game he provided this punchy capsule on the Bengals: "A very, very talented team; there's just something haywire upstairs."
That's the lineup for '79. Keep watching the waiver lists.
OUTSPOKEN IN HIS DEBUT, TARKENTON LATER TONED DOWN