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The Big Picture: It's no snap job, but Esiason is catching on

Saturday, January 29, 2000

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Norman Julius Esiason's work in the ABC-TV Monday Night Football booth already has come under steaming criticism and heaping abuse, even before his second full season as Bungle-turned-broadcaster ends tonight in the network's telecast of Super Bowl One More Roman-Numeral Year And I Can Run For President.


Question: Boomer bust?

Answer: Aw, give him another year.

Look, he is normally affable and intelligent and humorous everywhere else but in a broadcast booth beside Al Michaels. Not that their chemistry has been bad in this first MNF, two-man season in 16 years; rather, their chemistry is much better than the toxic waste of words when Boomer first joined Al and Dan Dierdorf in 1998. However, it still isn't as seamless as, say, Boomer surrounded by a postgame gaggle of reporters in the Bungles locker room or next to Cris Collinsworth on his weekly Cincinnati radio show.

The quarterback remains one of the most quotable athletes of the past quarter-century. He remains a lively talk-show co-host on the radio. So it remains to be heard if he can translate that personality, that volubility, into a booth where he's completing maybe 50 percent of his analytical and comical attempts. Maybe.

This is a far more gentle critique than syndicated columnist Norman Chad offered in The Washington Post and other papers earlier this season: "Fortunately, [MNF] finally has a two-man booth. Unfortunately, it's now one man short of an analyst." The pundit later went on to mention a fellow Norman in nearly every one of his December weekly columns.

"I don't really worry about it too much," Esiason said about his reviews. "One of the reasons I took the job was because of the high-profile nature of it. Like being a quarterback in the NFL, you will be criticized on Monday morning. Or, in this case, Tuesday mornings, or whenever Norman Chad's ariticles come out.

"If you listen to our broadcast, we have a lot f information that comes out of our booth. I don't worry about that [criticism] stuff. I feel great that I can be here and be a part of this.

"If we continue to build on this relationship the way it's gone the last seven, eight weeks of the season, I would expect nothing less than an outstanding performance from our booth in this game."

Ah-hah, therein lies the rub. Who really listened to MNF the past two months? I mean, Atlanta-San Francisco in the season finale was about as compelling as "Who Wants To Be A Hundredaire." Woof-woof games cannot be rescued by the booth, not even were Howard Cosell still alive.

The league and ABC seek to remedy that with an open November and December calendar starting next season, with the network choosing the most compelling games to air. As producer Kenny Wolfe said, "This will be a very good thing to have teams fighting for playoff spots and a very compeititve schedule down the stretch."

It won't be a very good thing to add another voice to the mix, such as the Mike Ditka, Bill Parcells or Jimmy Johnson (VP John Filipelli jokes that if all the rumors came true, it would be television's first 11-man booth.) For one thing, Michaels likes the two-man gig: "If we change, it will be our fourth dynamic in four years. Boomer's been in this two-man booth for one year. That's not enough time. . . ." For another thing, ABC brass sees and hears an improvement, and these are the smart people who put Greg and Dharma together, right?

Even with dog games this season and a fourth consecutive booth alteration, the show is still popular, still a network franchise. As cable's growth continues to dilute the ratings, making the numbers lower and lower, MNF pulled in No. 3 among all network prime-time shows - its highest measure there in its 30-year history.

The analyst's work so far is more blow-dry than pure Boomer. Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty described it best: "It's as if someone grabbed him by the wireless microphone and whispered into his ear, 'Act like a TV guy.' "On a conference call this week from Atlanta, Norman Julius sounded more like his old self: insightful, humorous, genuine, metaphorical and analytical.

"While [the Rams'] Kurt Warner is the driver of the bus, Marshall Faulk is the engine - he's the one that makes it go. We're finally seeing the greatness of Marshall Faulk and the kind of player he is."

As for the Titans' Steve McNair, he's "spontaneous with his legs."

Once Boomer can just be as spontaneous with his lips, he'll be all right.

Super-Enhanced TV

Are your mouse and your mind ready for some football?

Enhanced TV, the online complement that entertained an average of 50,000 to 100,000 Web users during ABC-ESPN telecasts of NFL games this season, makes its Super Bowl debut today with an anticipated audience of possibly 1 million.

The folks atetv.go.com merely hope that both they and your local internet service providers can handle the stream of dial ups.

"When Al Michaels asks the TV viewer to get on Enhanced TV... there's less patience on the part of that viewer," said Jonathan Leess, the vice president/general manager/executive producer/quarterback of the Disney-owned ETV. The real-time, split-second simulcast of the game - replete with stats and games that let you try to call the next play - has already proven popular with online regulars who spend 40 minutes on their site, some eight times longer than the normal website stay. Today, ETV types hope to draw the TV viewer who, to abuse the football cliche, doesn't move well in cyberspace.

Such newcomers will learn to enjoy what the regulars find so neat: the updating stats, the instant polls that get on the broadcast, the trivia questions, the Prime Time Player Game. That last one pits you against other online gamers in a real-time version of You Make the Play Call.

The ETV coverage begins with the ABC pregame coverage at 2 p.m.

"To us, this is really a precursor to the future of interactive T," Leess said. "We're just asking people to try this out. The Super Bowl is a tremendous test for us and an important project."

Why? Because their next ETV project is to bring online next month a play-along version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire."

Program notes

Every sports stop on the dial is in Atlanta - CNN/SI, ESPN, the Foxes. . . . But do we have to watch them shiver outside? Don't you guys have a hotel room there?

John Madden unveils his 17th annual All-Madden team on Fox (WPGH-TV 53 locally) at 1 p.m.

Dick Enberg, Billy Packer AND Al McGuire - together again for the first time since the 1981 NCAA tournament final on NBC - will reunite next Saturday at 1 p.m. on the Connecticut-Michigan State hoops telecast. Enberg and McGuire will work together the rest of the season. Maybe they'll combine again during the Final Four.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com

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