In 1995, the New York Jets played the Buffalo Bills at Giants Stadium. Trailing by eight, the Jets scored as time expired on a Hail Mary pass thrown by Boomer Esiason. The Meadowlands went berserk, but the Jets still needed a two-point conversion to tie it. Boomer's pass was broken up, and the Jets lost 28-26, despite the late heroics.
That sequence has always seemed to be a metaphor for Esiason's second career, that of TV analyst. Great talent, failure to deliver on the big play. That is until now. Boomer is delivering the goods as never before on Westwood One's radio coverage of Monday Night Football. And it's thanks in large part to the man who, coincidentally, called that Jets-Bills game in 1995—Marv Albert. The combination of Marv and Boomer is running laps around the overhyped TV "dream team" of Al Michaels and John Madden.
Before we go any further, full disclosure: It's not stretching things to say that I became interested in a career in sports broadcasting because of Marv, or went to Syracuse University because of Marv. And as for Boomer, as a lifelong Bengals fan, he stands as my second all-time favorite player after the great Ken Anderson.
Marv's staccato style, punctuated by his trademark "Yes, and it counts!", has made him the foremost basketball announcer of our time, perhaps all time. This obscures the fact that he is superb on football as well, going back to his days calling Giants games on the radio in the '70s. He never became NBC's top man during its run with the AFC package mainly due to his loyalty to New York broadcasting. Perversely, doing the Knicks, Rangers, and WNBC local sports alongside his network duties made Marv so ubiquitous it was easy to take his ability for granted.
Aside from the professionalism Albert brings to any broadcast, there is the matchless dry wit that most others on the job strain to imitate. Example—his caption to a bizarre shot of a bulldog with a cigarette in its mouth outside Madison Square Garden during an NBA playoff telecast: "Always so troubling when a dog starts smoking." But he's not just a prankster. Few voices manage to build the drama at the end of the game as well, or are as honest about a poor game, usually by calling it "extended gar-baahhge time."
Likewise, Boomer is one of few former players or coaches who fully embraces the role of critic. He won't excuse a failed pass play with the usual "looks like a little miscommunication there"; he'll say it was either a "bad throw" or "poor route." His bluntness came out during last week's Rams-Bucs tilt. When Terence Wilkins, an off-season pickup who has been slow to master the Rams complex offense, ran a reverse at three-quarter speed, Boomer said it "looked like a play (Wilkins) practiced this week so he wouldn't screw it up."
Esiason is even harsher on coaches. Mike Martz's infuriating habit of calling early timeouts brought this: "I almost have an aneurysm every time I do a Rams game." (Marv responded, "Boomer will try to gather himself as we go to break.") Steve Spurrier got thrashed two weeks ago, after handing Philadelphia three points by going for a fourth down in his own territory late in the first half. "It's one thing to be arrogant or aggressive," Esiason said, "It's another to be downright stupid."
Sharp-eared fans always knew Boomer was a strong analyst. But his run as color man on the telecast of Monday Night Football in 1998 and 1999 was undercut by a frosty relationship with Al Michaels, major domo of MNF. Michaels froze out the cocky Esiason early in their tenure together. The awkwardness culminated in the shocking sight of Michaels wrapping the thrilling Rams-Titans Super Bowl without Esiason even in the booth! Relations were so fractured that Esiason had bailed as Steve McNair was driving Tennessee toward a potential game-tying touchdown.
There are no such problems in the Westwood One radio booth. A key to Marv's success has always been his ability to elicit the best out of whomever he is partnered with, even guys no one else wanted to ride with. This was true of broadcasting neophytes like Bill Parcells and journeymen like Paul McGuire when they took turns with Albert on NBC football games in the '90s, and it is true of the far more polished Esiason now. Allowed to focus purely on the game, rather than struggling to one-up Michaels, Boomer is relaxed and sharp.
In Howard Cosell's Monday Night days, everyone claimed to turn off the TV sound to listen to Jack Buck and Hank Stram do the game on radio, but let's face it, no one switched off Howie. But that's what I'm advocating now. Sure, Marv has his limitations—every pass between the hash marks, whether 5 or 35 yards downfield, is called as "He throws the middle. …" And during his initial MNF radio broadcasts, he has been weak on keeping the viewer abreast of time remaining in the quarter/half/game, understandable on television with the on-screen bug but a cardinal sin in radio. This stands in marked contrast to Michaels, whose understanding of clock management is superior to many coaches in the league.
And then there is the five-second delay radio imposes to ensure no profanity reaches our delicate ears. This is irritating to say the least, and calls for a more radical solution—turn off the Monday Night telecast altogether, not just the sound. You'll be amazed at how good it feels to be freed from the tyranny of those meaningless pass protection replays, which always get this from Madden: "…and it all starts with the blocking up front." So go retro, party with all your rowdy friends like it was 1949, and spend your Monday nights with Marv and Boomer on the radio.