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Intolerable NFL commentators are legion. Of course, some of this is not their fault. We binge-watch the sport once a week, leaving us exhausted, annoyed, tipsy and in need of much needed physical exertion. We take it out on the people talking at us, who are conveniently not in the room to defend themselves.
That said, there has been no shortage of documentation regarding the awfulness of announcers -- there's an entire site titled Awful Announcing. During games, Twitter transforms into a firing squad aimed at conservative playcalling and the commentators who ineptly defend it.
Still, I couldn't find any hard data on just how bad announcers actually are.
So I listened to 32 NFL games -- two per crew -- charting every foolish, false, annoying, ridiculous and downright dumb thing each of them said. I did this not because I enjoy it (it was, indeed, awful) but to determine which NFL crew is the worst of the lot.
In general, there are three types of announcer comments: good, neutral and bad. Good statements offer some type of insight into the game. This is inherently subjective, since different people know different things. Neutral statements constitute the bulk of their utterances: neither offensive nor insightful. As a result, I decided to measure the bad statements.
I divided announcers' verbal infractions into six categories that are not simply pet peeves, but likely to be annoyances for a majority of NFL viewers:
1. Clichés: a lazy conjecture presented as an explanation for an event on the field.
- "They believe they can win."
- "It's all about courage and no fear."
- "[Player X] has a burning desire to get it done."
I also categorized a comment as a cliché if the commentator offered some form of "this team playing poorly needs to play less poorly".
- "I always think it's important to get off to a good start."
- "[Team X] has gotta keep [their opponent] out of the end zone in terms of a touchdown here."
All the above examples are from one quarter of one game.
2. Factual Errors: These are statements presented as fact that can be disproved in the moment by the average football viewer without additional research. Many of these were events the viewer could see better than the commentators.
3. Nonsense: Admittedly, this is a catch-all category for when commentators say something that simply makes no sense. Such a category is unavoidably subjective to a degree, but I counted instances only where a commentator said something truly foolish, rambled incoherently or demonstrated a misunderstanding of a word's meaning. Many are context-specific. Some examples:
- "I'll tell you, about this Chiefs offense, we talked about it on the pregame show I did with Bill Cowher. Can they continue on like this without getting the big plays? We can see the potential's there. And I'll tell you this, that this offensive line, which is young, youngest in the NFL, all high draft picks, if they get it together, its going to change this football team entirely."
- "That is huge for Le'Veon Bell, that six-yard gain." [It was a six-yard gain on first down on the first drive in the first quarter.]
- "A good challenge but maybe not worth the challenge."
4. Self-References: The inspiration for this category came from an old Dr. Z column in which he correctly points out that announcers should never talk about themselves. So any time an announcer talked about himself during the game, it was counted here. Anecdotes regarding what they ate for lunch, what they ate for dinner, what they ate yesterday (most of them were about food, really) were all counted. Most announcers rarely did this, which was a pleasant surprise.
5. Plays Off: This one is straightforward: If you're a play-by-play commentator, you have one job. If the whistle blows and you haven't said a word about the play that just occurred, you took a play off. (This category counted against only the play-by-play commentator, since color commentators bear no responsibility here.)
6. Off Topic: Related to self-references, but these don't have to be about the announcers themselves. Any topic unrelated to the current football game was counted. Are you talking about the current quarterback's college days? Fine. Are you talking about the current quarterback's college roommate who isn't in this game? Off topic.
After charting all 32 games, I collected 650 data points through these six categories, or 20 infractions per game. Some announcers had fewer. Others had many, many more.
Greg Gumbel/Dan Dierdorf: 70 Infractions
This is largely Dierdorf's fault. Gumbel is actually quite respectable, with a mere nine infractions over two games. Dierdorf, however, has a whopping 61 infractions, giving him the honor of the statistically worst commentator in the NFL. Some Dierdorf lowlights:
- He really enjoys using the phrase "at first blush" -- which is a phrase I've heard only Dan Dierdorf use -- incorrectly. The dictionary definition is "as a first impression," yet Dierdorf often uses it to mean "after I have seen five slow-motion replays."
- "BenJarvus Green-Ellis is just a solid, good running back," as a graphic flashes showing he's averaging 2.7 yards per carry this season.
- "I think that's a catch that, more often than not, he almost always makes."
- After watching Tommy Kelly on the ground, holding his knee for several seconds, "it's some type of leg injury."
- "We've got to do whatever we've got to do to get Chris Johnson the football."
- "Any drive that ends in a kick is a pretty good drive."
- "Possession is nine-tenths of all that's good about recovering a fumble."
Now you know why I popped a bottle of champagne when I learned Dierdorf will retire after this season. I mourn the brain cells lost while listening to him speak.
Kevin Harlan/Solomon Wilcots: 52 Infractions
Eleven is a perfectly respectable number of slip-ups for a play-by-play guy, although Harlan does have a habit of saying "this NFL" as if there is some other NFL. Wilcots, however, surprised me with 41 infractions. In fact, Wilcots unexpectedly proved to be one of the worst announcers by these standards.
By my estimation, Wilcots has the least steady grasp of the English language of any NFL commentator. The following are words Wilcots made up or inappropriately used: droppage, Howzerwitz (he meant howitzer but wasn't even close: "Nobody can catch the ball when it comes out of a Howzerwitz"), rejumpstart, impetus (I've surmised he simply doesn't know what this word means), rambles (he twice meant to say rumbles but failed).
Math is also not a strong suit for him: "Even if they kick a field goal, they're down by eight and it takes two scores to tie the game." I'm not sure if he's just calculating incorrectly or if he's counting a two-point conversion as a separate score. Either way he's wrong.
Wilcots has some strong takes on turnovers as well:
- "Turnovers certainly derailed their opportunity to play at a high level on offense."
- "Weeden has to avoid turnovers in the second half of ball games."
- "You lead that turnover category, it's not gonna be good."
Marv Albert/Rich Gannon: 44 Infractions
Of Gannon's 17 infractions, 11 were clichés. In the Week 4 game between the Bengals and Browns, he actually used the phrase "grab the bull by the horns" (someone watches too much Dodgeball). His most nonsensical comment was "where there's action, there's opportunity," which is equally unintelligible in context. There was also a brief period during the Ravens-Dolphins Week 5 game where he talked about Marv Albert's pink socks. And, quite unfortunately, he said of the Dolphins: "[The Dolphins] compete and they have fun doing it." That doesn't look so great in hindsight.
It was the rare commentating team where the play-by-play guy had more infractions than the color commentator; it's pretty hard to screw up simply restating what you are seeing. With this in mind, let's give props to Marv. He had 27 infractions, more than half of which were factual errors. He mistook timeouts as challenges, booth reviews or clock malfunctions, largely due to his inability to discern referee hand signals. Marv also doesn't know how to use the term "hops" since he claimed Willis McGahee was showing "hops" despite the fact he had not jumped once all game. And like most dads, he still hasn't rid himself of the habit of calling the Ravens the Colts.
Jim Nantz/Phil Simms: 39 Infractions
In all honesty, I'm shocked Simms clocked in with a mere 29 infractions. But his gaffes were perhaps the goofiest of all the gaffes. I really enjoyed when he said, "I've said it, and still believe it," indicating he often doesn't believe what he says, which sounds exactly right. Simms said of Demaryius Thomas: "He's a soon-to-be beast. A superbeast." He also seems to understand how winning works: "We wouldn't think they were top teams if certain teams beat them all the time."
Nantz is mostly solid, but has his moments. He believes the average fan, tasked with naming the top-five running backs, wouldn't mention Jamaal Charles. And in what can be described only as an attempt to craft the most perfect cliché:
"We go to the combine every March, and they have a way of measuring how fast you run, how high you jump, but they don't have a way of measuring someone's heart."
Or this biting insight:
"I think Chargers fans are just thinking they have to find a way to ... uh, outscore them."
(I feel obliged to mention The Book. I did not chart anything about the infamous "Book" which CBS conjured out of nowhere to give their commentators talking points with respect to two-point conversions. Almost everything Simms and Nantz said about "The Book" was archaic and uninformed, but didn't fit squarely into any of my categories.)
Ian Eagle/Dan Fouts: 39
In general, Fouts believes every single play he witnesses is incredibly significant and will alter the psyche of every player on both rosters. A six-yard gain on the first drive? "Huge." A draw play for two yards? "Puts in the minds of the Steelers defense they cannot rush Flacco." (This play occurred with five minutes left in the game.) Kickoff return? "Most exciting play in football." A great catch by a wide receiver? "Deflates the defensive line." A big hit on the quarterback? Forced a delay of game. Every play has a wide-ranging impact only Dan Fouts can foresee and comprehend.
Bill Macatee/Steve Tasker: 26
As the likes of Dierdorf and Wilcots demonstrated, it can be hard to not say anything stupid. So we should commend Macatee and Tasker for cogently announcing games without making fools of themselves. Sure, they don't provide any real analysis, but we need to not expect so much from our ... uh, analysts. After intently listening to every single commentator twice, I now consider it a success if my brain cells don't commit ritualistic suicide.
Although, Tasker did make up the word "physicaler."
Chris Myers/Tim Ryan: 87
While Dierdorf may carry the torch as the worst commentator in the NFL, the Myers/Ryan crew holds the honor of worst tandem. Ryan loves him some clichés, as 20 of his 55 infractions came in that category. Some of his favorites include "peak at the right time," "they believe they can win," "its all about courage and no fear," "this team is building character and starting to believe" and "who's going to step up and make a play?" On four separate occasions he reminded viewers that football is a "win-loss business." He also had this gem at the end of the Week 5 Panthers-Cardinals game: "Nobody can point fingers; everyone needs to look themselves in the mirror and self-reflect." I now imagine Tim Ryan standing in front of a mirror trying to peer into his soul.
Ryan had some noteworthy nonsensical statements as well. He doesn't know when to use "well" vs. "good" ("they play good in December"). I don't know what the phrase "play opportunities" means, but Ryan uses it a lot. He will surely be getting an angry telegram from Bob Costas for the phrase "Dansby shot his gun up inside there." I would be just fine if Tim never says "Pick-six house call touchdown" again. He also believes "People don't know J.J. Watt as a household name" and "[with] social media it's easy to forget how good Arian Foster has been." To begin a sentence with, "The problem with being down 14 points ..." sets the rest of the sentence up for failure. And, perhaps my favorite: "I'll tell ya, Seattle's gotta keep 'em out of the end zone in terms of a touchdown here." No, in terms of bunnies. Seattle has to keep them out of the end zone in terms of bunnies. OF COURSE IN TERMS OF A TOUCHDOWN THAT'S THE ONLY WAY YOU GET INTO THE END ZONE DEAR GOD TIM RYAN.
Chris Myers does more talking than the average play-by-play guy, perhaps as a result of recognizing how bad Tim Ryan is at his job. As a result, Meyers has an inflated rate of 33 infractions for a play-by-play guy. My favorite error Chris Myers -- or any play-by-play guy -- made was mistaking Whitney Mercilus (left) for Brooks Reed (right).
Kenny Albert/Daryl Johnston/Tony Siragusa: 50
A very respectable showing from Albert/Johnston. Kenny is old school, sticking to his play-by-play duties. Nine of Johnston's 17 infractions were clichés, but nine clichés through two games is fewer than most. While nothing spectacular, they don't make me want to drown myself in cheese dip.
Speaking of drowning in cheese dip, let's talk about Siragusa. He's counted on to provide something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike analysis. Siragusa is the worst. He may have fewer infractions than Dierdorf, but he also speaks far less. Here's an actual transcript of Siragusa talking on live television:
"Talked to coach Mark Trestman a ... about, you know, about he said to me I said you know this first half was pretty crazy, outrageous, he said as crazy and outrageous as it was, we're only down seven points."
This took approximately 30 seconds for him to say and provides no more insight than the scoreboard (which is far less obnoxious and doesn't breathe as loudly). On a separate occasion, he gave an injury update for Brandon Marshall, despite Lance Briggs being the injured player. Of Siragusa's 30 infractions, 29 were clichés or nonsensical.
Kevin Burkhardt/John Lynch: 32
Sam Rosen/Heath Evans: 32
These two crews barely exist. Maybe this has more to do with the atrocious games they were commentating, but I don't actually recall a single thing any of them said. They define the "neutral" category of commentating.
Joe Buck/Troy Aikman: 29
It came as no shock that Buck is one of the best in the business, with a paltry three infractions over two games. But only 26 infractions for Aikman?! The fact that Aikman had a below-average number of infractions was the biggest surprise of the entire experiment.
My theory is that what makes Aikman such an insufferable voice is two-fold: He's assigned to the very best games Fox carries despite providing no actual insight, and he has a bad tendency to simply re-state what the entire country has just witnessed. While maddening, it didn't fall into any of the categories of this experiment. He's rarely wrong and rarely says something totally ridiculous.
Still, Aikman can be prone to gaffes. He forgets players' names ("I'm thinking of the punishment of ... uh, who am I thinking about here …? Dez Bryant.") and has a legendary capacity for unnecessarily doubling sentence lengths ("Hard to complain about getting the ball and those types of things when you don't make those types of plays;" "If the defense can hold here on third down and not give up any points, I mean that would be a great possession for them in keeping this short of the Cowboys having to get a touchdown.") or offering circular explanations ("Eventually, he's going to break one like he just did."; "The way that they've been able to run the football the way they have."). The most exemplary instance of the Aikman vernacular was when he began a sentence with the phrase "Yeah no I mean hey." Five words of complete and total uselessness.
Thom Brennaman/Brian Billick: 26
Another solid crew. Billick has more actual moments of genuine knowledge than any other CBS/Fox commentator. He rarely spouts clichés (only one over two games) and even his nonsensical statements are relatively benign. Meanwhile Thom-With-An-H Brennaman's main problem is taking plays off. Of his 14 infractions, half were plays off, more than any other play-by-play guy. Late in games, he kind of checks out. This would be fine if he talked about anything interesting, but he does not.
Dick Stockton/Ronde Barber: 19
A very impressive showing from the Stockton/Barber team. Stockton has some issues with his pacing on sentences -- he tends to say half of a sentence, stop, then finish the rest of it when he feels like it -- which amounts to more of a quirk than an infraction, along the lines of how Phil Simms pronounces "Jim" or "him."
Mike Tirico/Jon Gruden (ESPN): 38
ESPN crews have a historically tough time balancing a vague mandate for general entertainment with calling an actual football game. Gruden, with his 29 infractions, can't find the sweet spot between impersonating a caricature of a football coach and being a real person. Surprisingly, I counted only one "this guy" over two games. He still leans a bit heavy on "this kid," though, with seven such utterances.
Some other Gruden quirks: He refers to third-down stops as "get-offs," which sounds vaguely sexual. Here's a deranged thing Gruden said:
"People forget Luck didn't come into a great situation. He had to succeed a guy named Picket Manning. His coach had leukemia. But he went 11-5 and threw for 4,500 yards anyways. How do you top that?"
Yes, he actually called Peyton Manning "Picket" (I'll ignore the bit about on-field accomplishments somehow mitigating his coach's cancer). Another real thing Gruden said:
"The one thing I like about Toler and these Indianapolis corners, they are going to come right back the next down. They have no conscience."
I don't think Gruden knows what a conscience is, which has troubling implications. He also makes up Olympic events:
"I think this guy can be an Olympian acrobat."
He makes terrible puns which come off as disjointed ramblings:
"My old quarterback was Gannon. This is Glennon, he has a cannon."
And my favorite Gruden backhanded compliment of all time:
"Glennon has some surprising functional movement skills."
Al Michaels/Cris Collinsworth (NBC): 20
They're generally regarded as one of the best in the business, and I agree. Collinsworth is articulate and gives more useful insight than any other commentator, and it's not even close. But this metric isn't measuring that. We only want the dirt.
When this crew screws up, it's because they're bending over backwards to compliment a superstar or head coach. There's something about authority and superstardom that makes these two more excited than a creepy old man at a Pilates class. It takes away from what is otherwise a well-called game.
Brad Nessler/Mike Mayock (NFL Network): 22
In all, I charted eight "partners" between Nessler and Mayock (four each) five "kids" and one "young man." Personally, I expected more on all fronts, but this demonstrates how quickly rarely used words or phrases can become a trademark verbal crutch.
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After all is said, here are your Bad Commentator Awards:
Worst Crew: Chris Myers and Tim Ryan
Least-Bad Crew: Dick Stockton and Ronde Barber
CBS vs. Fox: Fox has the less-bad crews, with 37 infractions per crew beating out CBS's 45.
Worst Prime-time Crew: Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden (ESPN)
Worst Commentator: Dan Dierdorf
The mute button is your friend.
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