The sorry state of Monday Night Football—a review in four quarters
1st quarter: The trouble with Tessitore
Coming back from commercial late in the second half of Week 7’s Patriots-Jets contest, ABC showed a clip of four beatboxers performing the Monday Night Football theme song by the banks of the Hudson River. “Amazing, what the human voice can do. The Monday Night theme, there,” intoned Joe Tessitore, the Monday Night play-by-play announcer. Tessitore spoke with a hushed awe that suggested we had, just then, as we watched four casually attired men make mouth-noise football music on a New Jersey pier, experienced a brush with the sublime.
Tessitore is a merchant of schmaltz. He can fill any crevice in an NFL pancake with warm, earnest syrup, a metaphor I now regret. Clichés are a given in football announcing, but few commentators imbue NFL banalities with the portentous sentimentality that Tessitore brings to bear. It’s a habit that has a ripple effect on Monday Night.
Collecting himself after The Beatbox House’s command performance, Tessitore tossed to a “Monday Night Mic” clip in which viewers eavesdropped on a conversation between New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold and his head coach, Adam Gase, as the Jets trailed the Patriots 24-0:
Gase: Let’s put this ball in the end zone.
Gase: Okay? We get the ball in the second half, okay?
Darnold: That’s right.
Gase: So listen, we gotta reset right now. You hear me?
Darnold: Absolutely. I got it.
Gase: [Does not believe what he is about to say.] You’re—you—you know what to do.
Darnold: [Does not know what to do.] Yeah.
Gase: [Does not know either.] All right? Just trust yourself.
In the course of that exchange, Gase first reminded Darnold that the object of the offense is to bring the ball to the colorful rectangle at the end of the field—obvious, but given the course of the game, a point worth reinforcing. Then, Gase offered a stream of increasingly unhelpful non-guidance, as if Darnold could just Zen meditate himself into properly reading the Patriots’ defense. Oh, and if you could achieve self-actualization before the play clock expires, Sam, that would be a help. Thanks.
Gase was serving thin soup. Despite that—because of that—Tessitore ate it up, magnifying the moment with an exactly wrong takeaway. “I like the way [Gase] just spoke to him. As a 22-year-old quarterback? I thought that was appropriate right there,” the announcer enthused with fatherly approval. Where any rational viewer had seen a conversation between two men facing doom, Tessitore saw a Werther’s Original commercial. “Darnold just needs that encouragement right now,” Tessitore added a little later, even as Darnold’s play made it evident that he needed something more.
Tessitore’s lay-it-on-thick compulsion does a disservice to the more winning moments of the Monday Night production. And there are enough of those. The beatbox guys were good—that’s a fun, distinctive idea for a back-from-commercial bumper. The substance of Darnold and Gase’s chat was silly, but it sure is cool that we got to listen in on it. That execution of “Monday Night Mic” was a strong 15 seconds from the production crew, which may not sound like much, but these 15-second chunks are how live sports producers shape a broadcast.
The trouble is that with Tessitore in the booth, nothing can be a mere 15 seconds. It turns into 20, 30, or more, as Tessitore embroiders every moment with a square of cross-stitched wisdom that we can hang above the toilet in the basement. This habit is not just annoying, it’s bad teamwork. By dispensing his treacle with no sense of proportion, Tessitore makes Monday Night feel laborious—even when the production team has done the work to make it crisp. He makes each beat of the game support more of the broadcast’s emotional energy than it is meant to support. Let “Monday Night Mic” be a killer 15 seconds! Segue. Pivot. Move on.
2nd quarter: The wherefore of Tessitore
I see Tessitore’s goopy style as a problem for Monday Night, but the decision-makers at ESPN do not agree, and they have their reasons.
This year’s NFL offseason saw the departure of two people from the Monday Night Football on-air team: Analyst Jason Witten quit TV to go be a football player some more, and rules expert Jeff Triplette was dismissed because ESPN executives were disappointed to find out there is actually only one of him. If the Monday Night overlords were inclined to start from scratch, Witten’s exit provided a pretext. Instead, Tessitore remains. (So does Booger McFarland, who last year was exiled to a clattering cart of video screens known as the “Boogermobile”—this season, he was allowed to come inside to the booth.)
The ESPN executives who run Monday Night Football must be happy with Tessitore’s cheeseball style. They are okay with the schmaltz. Understandably so—it suits the aging franchise.
Monday Night used to be something special. When it debuted in 1970, and for decades thereafter, it was the lone weekly primetime showcase for NFL football. The singular platform of Monday Night gave games a special charge. The splendid opening titles for that first season in 1970 showcased the awesome human and technological effort of the ABC production truck, zoomed in on a TV screen in the control room, and transitioned to a slideshow of football action as seen through the scanlines of a cathode-ray tube. These images spoke to an attitude that became part of Monday Night’s DNA: The broadcast is the real event, more so than the game itself.
For a long time, this swagger was justified. Monday Night was the one game every week that pitched itself to a nationwide audience; there was no regular-season experience quite like it. But now there is Thursday Night Football, and NBC’s Sunday Night Football, which gets dibs on the top-tier matchups that used to be Monday Night’s stock-in-trade. Once, Monday Night was the climax of an NFL week. Now it often feels like a last gasp.
Monday Night isn’t special anymore, but the production never formed a new identity to contend with that reality. So there’s a lot of pretending. We all must pretend it matters when, say, a running back gains more yards in the third quarter of a Monday Night Football game than anyone has before. It’s not clear why the Monday Night-ness of an achievement matters to anyone in 2019—though, did it ever? Regardless, part of the lore of Monday Night Football is that the lore of Monday Night Football is very important indeed.
Tessitore honors the Monday Night legend with zeal. He pretends harder than anyone else. Last season’s Chiefs-Rams game was an electric 54-51 thriller that ranks among the best regular-season contests ever, and Tessitore did the play-by-play. Here is a game that an announcer would dream of, one where the action on the field provides all the material you could need. All he had to do was call the plays.
Yet even as a gripping back-and-forth fourth quarter unfolded, Tessitore kept retreating from the moment and reverting to empty storylines—the “hype” that was being validated, the “energy” in the stadium before kickoff, and above all the Monday Night history being made. As the total points on the scoreboard neared an all-time NFL record, Tessitore said that viewers could “forget the conversation of highest-scoring Monday Night Football game of all time,” a conversation nobody but Tessitore was having.
Tessitore is dedicated to huffing and puffing on the embers of Monday Night’s aura, and that is a big part of why he has his job. His misguided desperation to inflate small moments is an echo of Monday Night’s general desperation to seem bigger than it is. His schmaltz is a salve for the show’s deepest insecurities. Without him, Monday Night Football might have to stop pretending.
3rd quarter: Booger
When Monday Night analyst Booger McFarland was relegated to the aforementioned “Boogermobile” last year, I saw it as an indignity. This was mostly because it would be hard for anyone to look dignified in a Beverly Hillbillies jalopy made of television screens, let alone someone named Booger. But more to the point, Booger often chimed in with illuminating observations on key defensive plays. Given that Tessitore and his 2018 booth partner—a cardboard cutout of Jason Witten—had such dreadfully scant insight to offer, it felt unjust for Booger to be treated as the third wheel, on wheels. He was the only one adding any substance to the telecast!
Booger’s move up to the booth in 2019 is an upgrade from Witten, to be sure. But the promotion has also shown that the Boogermobile was more of a boon to its eponymous occupant than anyone realized. Down on the sidelines, he had the luxury of chiming in only when he had something to say. Upstairs, he’s expected to extemporize on every play. He struggles with the unrelenting pace at times. This Monday, Booger reacted to a big Patriots offensive play by marveling aloud that he had no idea why a Jets defensive back had blown the coverage. “I just don’t know what he was doing there,” Booger kept saying. As an analyst, when you are unable to analyze a play, it’s best not to loudly dwell on the matter.
But Booger has strong moments, too. After Patriots running back Sony Michel reached the end zone for the first time, Booger narrated the replay:
Let’s watch #72 here, Newhouse, and #84, Ben Watson. They’re going to lead Sony Michel around the corner. […] That’s a good play design by [Patriots offensive coordinator] Josh McDaniels, realizing that Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator, was probably going to bring pressure inside, let’s “pin and pull.” Let’s pin the tight end and pull the tackle to get outside.
Booger illustrated the play’s blocking flow, contextualized the logic of the play call, and introduced some colorful terminology that he immediately explained. That’s a pithy use of a 20-second replay sequence. It may not set him apart from a handful of other commentators who work the Sunday games, but it’s solid work.
Still, I wonder if there are nights when Booger yearns for the simpler days of his overgrown golf cart. Sometimes we don’t understand what we have until it’s too late.
4th quarter: Whimsy
Booger is not the problem with Monday Night, but he isn’t a solution to the broadcast’s identity crisis, either. My selfish desire is for Monday Night Football to rejuvenate itself by embracing whimsy. The production already has traces of silly fun, a looser spirit that occasionally shines through in pre-produced packages, like a statistical snapshot of the New England defense that aired this week.
The sequence operated on the visual metaphor of a Risk-like “PATRIOTS DEFENSE” board game, complete with a detailed map and box art that could have come straight off the shelves of a 1980s K·B Toys store.
Perhaps the only downside of this lively illustration was that the pretend game looked like it might be more fun than the real-life game we were watching, a heartless disembowelment of the New York Jets by Bill Belichick and his minions.
Elaborate graphics like this have to be produced in quantity and on a tight deadline to be ready for each week’s broadcast, so the artists have to be crafty. The plastic-molded figurines on the board are a case in point. They are theme-appropriate, they serve as the “characters” of the sequence, and they add an eye-catching rainbow to the scene. From a production point of view, though, those plastic men are time-savers, because their 3D models are uncomplicated and they come to life with the simplest bits of motion.
In 20 seconds of animation, Monday Night’s art team squeezes in a few other graceful details. The swoops of the camera evoke the Game Of Thrones opening credits. The miniature Bill Belichick drums his fingers on his throne in sinister fashion.
My favorite touch is the turquoise barbarian. A rundown of numbers like this one needs a few seconds at the end where all the essential digits linger on the screen, so the viewer can take in the complete statistical story. To pass this time, the animator leaves that one last marauder slowly waddling toward the fray, until he too collapses, at the last possible instant—a cute punctuation mark that brings the sequence to a close.
It is futile to hope that Monday Night Football would practice this sort of whimsy more often and make it a prominent part of the show’s voice. But whimsy is the perfect antidote to the delusional self-regard that plagues the present incarnation of Monday Night. Instead of holding on to the fantasy that it is still The Most Football Show Of All The Football Shows, Monday Night could instead stand apart by taking itself less seriously than everyone else.
All of which is easy for me to say, but the last time Monday Night’s producers made an effort to lighten up, they added Dennis Miller to the booth, and America did not much care for this experiment. As a result, nothing like it will ever be tried again. Because Dennis Miller was irritating, football can never be funny.
Maybe that’s why they call the guy Booger—we are stuck with him.
Your Week 8 QuantumPicks
Block & Tackle is the exclusive home of the QuantumPick Apparatus, the only football prediction system that evaluates every possible permutation of a given NFL week to arrive at the true victor in each contest. Put simply, Block & Tackle picks are guaranteed to be correct. When a game’s outcome varies from this column’s prediction, the game is wrong.
In Week 7 NFL action, seven games corresponded with the QuantumPicks, and seven games were incorrect. A halfway split with reality, for the second week in a row.
On Wednesday, Google announced that it had reached “quantum supremacy” by using a quantum computer to quickly perform a calculation that would take 10,000 years for an IBM supercomputer to complete. IBM responded by saying that Google had overstated the IBM machine’s processing time by a factor of about 150,000,000%—unlikely to be a rounding error—and therefore Google hadn’t managed quantum supremacy at all. But if you were going to achieve quantum supremacy, wouldn’t it only be proper to simultaneously achieve it and not achieve it? By discrediting Google’s claim, IBM has affirmed it.
Perhaps this is like the peculiar superposition in which the QuantumPick Apparatus finds itself—is it both a perfect football prediction mechanism and, somehow, not perfect? I wanted to find out, so I opened the Apparatus, and all I found inside was a pair of dice. Suddenly there was a thundering voice that sounded like it was coming from everywhere. “Those are mine, don’t touch!” the voice said. “Good God! Fine, I won’t!” I answered. But I did touch them a little. (Overall season record: 60-46.)
Teams determined to be victorious by the QuantumPick Apparatus are indicated in SHOUTING LETTERS.
Thursday Night Football
Washington vs. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (Fox) (timestamped pick)
Sunday Games — Early
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS vs. Atlanta Falcons (Fox)
Philadelphia Eagles vs. BUFFALO BILLS (Fox): This week’s Block & Tackle travel-day fashion plate is Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills, seen here vividly making his way to Philadelphia’s Week 7 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. Targeted eight times in the Dallas game, Mills allowed a mere six catches as the Eagles lost in humiliating fashion to the Cowboys, 37-10. The Philadelphia Inquirer raved that Mills “might have had the best performance of anyone at his position on the team this season, which might not be saying much, but it’s something.” So he’s more than an eye-catching clotheshorse—he’s an arguably adequate football player, too! Keep up the good work, Jalen.
Los Angeles Chargers vs. CHICAGO BEARS (Fox)
New York Giants vs. DETROIT LIONS (Fox): At a height of 6 feet 8 inches, New York offensive lineman Nate Solder is the tallest member of his team and is therefore the man with the least dubious claim to the title of “Giant.” Keep up the good work, Nate.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS vs. Tennessee Titans (Fox)
Arizona Cardinals vs. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (CBS)
Cincinnati Bengals vs. LOS ANGELES RAMS (CBS): I know one football fan who has big plans for this Saturday, and her name is five-year AAA member Barbara Ingram. Keep up the good work, Barbara.
New York Jets vs. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (CBS): The QuantumPick Apparatus foretells a final score of 5-4 in this contest. Keep up the good work, Apparatus.
Denver Broncos vs. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (CBS): To celebrate the beginning of the NBA season, the Indianapolis Colts imagined what would happen if the stars of the Colts had a yelling contest with the stars of the Indiana Pacers. It might look a little something like this. And it might sound a little something like this: “YAAAAAAAAAAAA!” KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK, THE INDIANAPOLIS COLTS!
Sunday Games — Late
Carolina Panthers vs. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (Fox)
Cleveland Browns vs. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (CBS): Every time the TV cameras catch a glimpse of him this season, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft appears to be enjoying the time of his life. Who says you can’t have fun without soliciting prostitution in a strip mall before the game? Oh, right, Robert Kraft said that. Keep up the good work, Robert.
Oakland Raiders vs. HOUSTON TEXANS (CBS)
Sunday Night Football
Green Bay Packers vs. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (NBC)
Monday Night Football
Miami Dolphins vs. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (ESPN)
Teams on bye
The Baltimore Ravens and the Dallas Cowboys have both decided they won’t play football this weekend. What on earth are they up to? It could be anything—a hot dog-eating contest, a soup-eating contest. Anything. They will automatically forfeit, and their transgression will be reported to the commissioner’s office.
Talk backle to Block & Tackle
If you’d like to contact me with an item for Block & Tackle, or just to say hello, you can email me: my first name, at symbol, my full name, dot com. You can also reach me via Twitter. Thank you for reading, and for the funny and smart comments. Until next time, keep on long snappin’.