The ESPN "Monday Night Football" crew earned my respect before the game between the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals even started. It came during the pregame moment of silence for former Ravens owner Art Modell.
Placed at ground level, a camera shot the length of the field into the top of the stands in one of the end zones. It was shooting into a yellow ball of setting sun that was seeping through the stands onto the field.
The muted sun suffused the entire shot in a golden glow. Just to the right of the golden ball, was the image of Modell on one of the giant high-definition end zone screens.
I am sure there was something elevated, maybe even transcendent, about standing in the stadium at that moment. But for the millions of us watching on TV, I thought ESPN's Monday Night team did a marvelous job with that camera shot of transporting us to that same heightened emotional space.
By the time the the National Anthem was beautifully sung and planes flew low over the field, I felt like I was one with the community of Ravens fans gathered in the twilight in downtown Baltimore.
And Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden knew enough not to say a word until the moment had been experienced cleanly by viewers.
"It makes your hair stand on end," Tirico finally said, affirming what the viewer had experienced.
I don't know if the production team got that shot through planning, as in looking for camera angles and light during their weekend in Baltimore, or through great reaction or even luck. I don't care. It was one of those moments where sports TV feels like poetry. What an apt moment of honor for Modell, who helped make “Monday Night Football’ a reality back in 1970 when he owned the Cleveland Browns and championed the marriage of the NFL and television.
ESPN’s Monday Night team showed some new wrinkles with Ron Jaworski gone from the broadcast booth. This is not a knock on Jaworski at all, but I think having only two voices is a better way to go.
It is not just a matter of losing the clutter that came with Jaworski and Gruden often talking into and over each other as they both did analysis. What I liked best is that you had very little internal chatter among the guys in the booth. Instead of talking to each other and sometimes trying to be funny or artificially clever, both Tirico and Gruden seemed to be constantly talking to the viewer, trying to help members of the audience understand what was happening on the field.
Gruden really does know the game and is good at translating complex developments into simple, understandable language. At one point in the first half, he explained that the Ravens domination of the Bengals started with offensive tempo and then extended into the various personnel packages they were putting on the field faster than Cincinnati could react. As he said it, you instantly knew he was right – and you knew you had no clear sense of it until he gave you the words to understand it.
Not that Gruden is the perfect analyst. He is at his worst when he tries to predict what will happen next.
At 14:52 in the second quarter, for example, he said, “I look for Cincinnati defensively to step it up.”
The Ravens immediately drove the length of the field in four or five plays for a touchdown.
You don’t have to be Nostradamus, Jon. Just stick to what you know.
Tirico is rock solid on play-by-play. And, like Al Michaels, he can kick it up a notch and capture the mood of the stadium or a special moment on the field in a few well chosen and perfectly timed words -- as he did with the opening tribute to Modell.
I have to also commend Tirico for the deft way in which he handled the fact that Gruden’s brother, Jay, is offensive coordinator for the Bengals. He made the potential conflict clear to viewers early on, and he repeated it so that everyone in the audience was aware of the relationship and could judge for themselves whether or not it affected Gruden’s analysis.
I don’t think it did, and that is one more credit to the skill, standards and professionalism of ESPN’s Monday Night Football” and the game this crew brought to M&T Bank Stadium Monday.