After watching ESPN’s “Monday Night Countdown” show, I wondered why they even bothered to play the game.
All I heard for two hours, was how unstoppable Lions receiver Calvin Johnson was, and how all but impossible it was for the Ravens to make the kind of run they made last year without Ray Lewis.
At first, it was just annoying. But then, it became embarrassing when Steve Young and Trent Dilfer started talking about the “moral authority” that Lewis provided for the Ravens – with Lewis sitting next to them on the set.
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Really, I understand that ESPN has a huge investment in Lewis as its new marquee analyst, but don’t demean the Ravens players to promote him. I don’t think I heard the name of Daryl Smith, the linebacker who replaced Lewis, mentioned once in the “Countdown” show.
What about this year’s Ravens and the huge game they were about to play against the Lions? That’s what the pre-game show should be about, not a celebration of the career of your new analyst.
To his credit, analyst Jon Gruden was generally honest and accurate in reporting and critiquing what happened on the field once the game started – even if it contradicted his “Countdown” predictions.
In his pre-game analysis, Gruden zeroed in on the left side of the Ravens' offensive line, describing it as a woeful group – and predicting big trouble for Flacco and the Ravens with Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh on the Lions defensive front
“It’s been a long year for [Eugene] Monroe,” Gruden said, perhaps forgetting Monroe started the season in Jacksonville.
He described Monroe as getting “beaten regularly,” which is not what coach John Harbaugh has been saying of Monroe in recent weeks.
But once the game started, and Monroe consistently kept Suh off Flacco, Gruden started singing the young tackle’s praises.
“I love what Eugene Monroe did against Suh,” he said in the first quarter.
“Eugene Monroe did a fine job on Suh again,” he said with 6:00 left in the second quarter.
Gruden also praised Smith’s linebacker play.
“Great play by Smith,” he exclaimed with 11:00 left in the second quarter.
Conversely, in direct contradiction of the guarantee given by several analysts during the “Countdown” show that Johnson would eat the Ravens secondary for lunch – particularly rookie safety Matt Elam who stupidly called the big receiver out – Gruden chronicled the failures of Johnson in the first half. They included two dropped passes during a first half of being blanketed by the secondary.
Kudos to the production team that midway through the second quarter had the video package of Johnson’s failing to get open time and again even though he was basically facing only one-on-one coverage.
And, again, Gruden offered a sharp, inside bit of analysis explaining how Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees was consistently having the Ravens line up as if they were going to double-team Johnson, only to rotate out of that coverage just before the snap of the ball.
Overall, ESPN’s game coverage was crisp, clean, informed and illuminating.
The chemistry between the producer, director, Gruden and play by play announcer Mike Tirico is in a league with “NBC Sunday Night Football.”
Just before kickoff, as Tirico and Gruden talked about the failure of Ravens running back Ray Rice to get fully untracked, the camera found him in the tunnel waiting to take the field. There was not a half-second delay between the mention of Rice’s name in the booth, and his image filling the screen.
On the Ravens' first defensive series, Tirico told viewers that Elvis Dumervil was taking the field in a third-down package. A lot of fans were waiting to hear whether or not Dumervil would be ready to play – and the guys in ESPN’s booth were on it.
And when one of the officials injured his leg, the producer and director had Gerry Austin, a former ref, on camera within seconds explaining how the remaining officials would re-deploy until their injured colleague got back on the field.
Tirico and Gruden didn’t always get it right, of course. Gruden ran his mouth about what he saw “bad” calls whether he knew what he was talking about of not.
He criticized calls that went in the Ravens' favor twice in the second quarter and was wrong both times. Once he failed to understand that a holding call on a Lions defensive back took place on the opposite side of the field to which the ball was thrown. And he stuck to his guns even after the producer showed a replay of the actual hold.
But that’s Gruden, isn’t it? And I’ll put up with the arrogance and stubbornness for the expertise he brings to the booth.
And how about sideline reporter Lisa Salters telling viewers with 5:44 left in the game that Joe Flacco "appeared to indicate that his knee was all right" after taking a cheap, low hit.
She supported her impression by reporting that Flacco picked up a football and faked like he was going to throw it into the stands at some Lions fans who were heckling him.
The Ravens were saying nothing about the injury. The guys in the booth knew nothing. All we had were pictures of the team doctor and trainers working on Flacco's knee.
Was there any piece of information more important to Ravens fans at that moment? And would ESPN been able to give it to us if, like CBS, it didn't have a sideline reporter?
Salters redeemed any and all sins of ESPN and its self-serving, sell-the-Ravens-short, celebrate-Ray-Lewis "Countdown" show with her professional work on the sideline when it mattered most.