Near the end of last night's Monday Night Football preseason game, the first under the imprint of ESPN, new gabber Tony Kornheiser openly prayed that the Minnesota Vikings would not kick a late field goal and send the game to overtime. This was shortly after calling the game "lackluster." Yes it was, but the same can't be said of Kornheiser's debut.
Kornheiser, who's teaming up with Mike Tirico and Joe Theismann for the glamour telecast, has spent the last few weeks setting the bar as low as possible by playing the schlemiel role to the hilt. He wants you to believe he's Zelig with a microphone, and therefore he accentuates his lack of hair, his inability to stay up past 10 p.m., his fear of flying, and his lack of football credentials. His very first words last night were, "I'm not a Super Bowl winner!" This is all quite calculated, of course—Kornheiser knows he is an extremely gifted broadcaster and, at least in this three-man booth, the smartest guy in the room. He quickly pounced on Theismann when he slammed Green Bay for bringing back Brett Favre, rightly explaining that the politics of the situation made Brett's return inevitable.
If nothing else, Tony K. adds the wiseass Jew element to Middle America's most beloved sport. It's actually a throwback move of sorts—hearkening back not only to the glory days of Howard Cosell but the emerging days when the popularity of the citified New York Giants helped grow the league into the colossus it has become. Kornheiser will become a real treasure if, like Cosell, he refuses to genuflect to the league and the network. He is a self-professed star lover, choosing to worship the big names while ignoring the nitty-gritty of the games he covers. But Kornheiser also maintains a distrust of corporate authority and is unafraid to bite the hand that feeds, as proved by his Lettermanesque baiting of his ESPN Radio bosses until the partnership ended nonamicably in 2004. If Tony stays true to the snarky BS-caller he plays on Pardon the Interruption, MNF is in for a big improvement.
Kornheiser is meant to be the New Cosell, but play-by-play man Tirico did a fair impersonation himself last night. Tirico seemed far more aggro than his usual PGA Tour milquetoast self last night, warning T.K. not to "screw up" the pronunciation of Mewelde Moore's name. A mention of a contractual "poison pill" also led him to say "a poison pill is not what we're hoping to give Tony to keep him quiet." A similar urge to go for yuks overcame Al Michaels when Dennis Miller hit the booth, exacerbating the feeling that you were watching An Evening at the Improv rather than the NFL. Just call the action, Mike, don't get caught up in playing the dozens.
ESPN's production is essentially the same as last year's Sunday night version, save some snazzy new graphics animations. (The score flips to new numbers like track numbers changing at Grand Central Station.) Most notably, ESPN will allow Kornheiser to answer e-mailed questions during the game, which promises to provide at least some distraction from the inevitable blowouts. One dude wrote in to ask why teams don't get snazzy nicknames like "Purple People Eaters" anymore. Kornheiser said he had no clue but suggested that "Snakes on a Plane" would make a good nickname for somebody.
While ESPN tries to inject some life into MNF, NBC hopes to smooth over any remaining stench from its XFL dalliance. The peacock's new Sunday night telecast and studio show, the bizarrely named Football Night in America, featured a laughably enormous cavalcade of on-screen talent. Along with the venerable Al Michaels and John Madden (who increasingly looks like a Madame Tussauds statue of John Madden), the debut telecast Sunday featured ringmaster Bob Costas, analyst Cris Collinsworth, sideline infogal Andrea Kremer, washed-up jock Sterling Sharpe, and recent retiree Jerome Bettis. At one point the Bus squeezed between Al and John for an in-booth spot, part of NBC's strategy to commingle the pre-gamers and in-gamers. During this segment several new Man Laws were enacted.
Bettis is a likable enough personality. More important, he seems insincere enough to have no problem shanking former friends and teammates and opponents when necessary, something few former players are wont to do. He's already got Bill Cowher mad at him after speculating on-air that this would be the Steelers coach's last year in Pittsburgh. Hopefully drawing Cowher's ire won't make Bettis lose his nerve and revert to the usual locker-room-friendly blather.
After one preseason game, NBC has already succeeded in convincing viewers that they think football is important. The challenge for them now is to avoid the temptation to overwhelm the game with talking heads. The success of America's Night of American Football in America doesn't hinge on the guys with the mics. Rather, it will mostly depend on the workability of the NFL's new flexible scheduling plan, which is designed to sub in exciting content for potential snoozers during the last seven Sunday nights of the season. ESPN's Monday night package, though, has no such contingency plan in place. In Week 16, Tony Kornheiser will probably be answering viewer mail about Snakes on a Plane. NBC has to hope that Madden and Michaels will still be talking about football.