Any broadcasters of a live TV event who can hold their concentration for five hours deserve high praise — especially when they are dealing with unpredictable and dangerous conditions.
The CBS Sports crew did that Sunday with its weather-delayed telecast of the Ravens 23-20 loss to the Chicago Bears, providing play-by-play coverage and analysis from Jim Nantz and Phil Simms that was almost as sharp and focused at the end of overtime as it was when the game started more than five hours earlier.
So, hats off to the CBS crew led by producer Lance Barrow and director Mike Arnold in Chicago Sunday.
But let’s not get carried away with CBS Sports itself. Chairman Sean McManus and Co. made two knuckleheaded mistakes Sunday. One was merely annoying, the other maddening.
On the annoying front, when the weather reached the point where play was suspended, CBS gave the Baltimore audience the New York Jets vs. Buffalo Bills game instead of the Cleveland Browns vs Cincinnati Bengals contest.
I guess the thinking – if there was any of that on the part of the folks making the decision – was that the Ravens play the Jets next week. But who cares? The Bengals and Browns are in our division, and that game mattered in the standings.
Eventually, someone did wake up at CBS and give us the Cleveland-Cincinnati game – at least, I hope it was CBS and not its Baltimore-owned station, WJZ, that made the call on which game area viewers would see during the delay.
The more serious mistake: For the millionth time, CBS Sports refused to provide a reporter in the stadium, even though there were tornado warnings. What if the storm that pounded the stadium had followed a less predictable track and people had been injured? What would CBS have done, sent analyst Phil Simms into the stands with a microphone as it sent him to the tunnel outside the Ravens locker room during the delay to interview Ravens President Dick Cass?
Nantz told viewers in his pre-game remarks that they have been talking about the bad weather more than anything else since they arrived in Chicago Friday. So, with all that advance warning, why is your analyst the guy holding the microphone and doing the reporting?
Did CBS Sports learn nothing from its miserable coverage during the Super Bowl delay when instead of real reporters, CBS Sports had its third and fourth team analysts as sideline reporters?
This is what I meant last week when I wrote about McManus not putting his people in a position to succeed. Simms is a superb analyst, sitting in the booth and playing off the smooth play by play of Nantz. But don’t ask him to be a reporter when there is real news - such as a power failure or possible tornado slamming into a stadium with more 60,000 people inside.
Barrow, the producer, did appear to have a formula for the delay, and it was a solid one given the resources he had to work with.
It went like this: Shot of sky (ominous and getting even darker), shot of stadium (getting wetter and emptier), shot of radar showing the storm moving over Chicago from the west, shot of Nantz talking about what viewers just saw. During the pre-game, Simms got to do some weather talk and said how much he “enjoyed playing weatherman.”
With possible tornadoes bearing down on a stadium full of people no one should have been “playing” anything.
McManus, with his stubborn refusal to admit he is wrong about having reporters on hand, dodged a bullet Sunday. And after the critical pounding CBS Sports took in New Orleans last year, there was no reason to risk repeating the mistake.
Maybe the thinking was that WBBM, the CBS-owned station in Chicago, could fill the journalistic void if there were injuries at the stadium, but if that's the case, viewers should have been shown the WBBM presence - not Simms with a microphone interviewing people..
As for the game coverage itself, I have few complaints.
After the broadcast teams of Eagle and Fouts and Gumbel and Dierdorf, what a pleasure it was to be in the hands of a confident, well-prepared team that has its act together in the booth.
After Ray Rice broke off that first big run early in the game, Nantz and Simms were instantly talking about other big runs he made early in key games in the past. That history was there in their heads – they didn’t have to wait for a researcher to hand it to them two plays later.
And typical of their smooth back and forth, as the Bears came out for their second offensive series, Nantz teed it up for Simms, with, “That first series, what did you see out of McCown [quarterback Josh McCown] and the Bears.”
If the cameras showed someone on the sidelines, Simms or Nantz immediately told viewers who it was. I knew almost none of the several injured Bears standing on the sidelines in sweats, and I appreciated it. That almost never happens with Gumbel and Dierdorf of Eagle and Fouts.
On the downside, I thought this crew was uneven on replays.
After the second replay of Rice’s touchdown run, Nantz said, “Oh, my gosh, what about the block by Shipley?”
The replays did show a couple of Bears go flying to the ground but I couldn’t make out the details of how it happened. I wanted a shot that isolated A.Q. Shipley’s block if it was good enough for Nantz to say, “Oh, my gosh.”
I didn’t get that.
But I did get a nice clean replay on Elvis Dumervil’s roughing the passer penalty late in the game. And I appreciated the nice, clean call from Simms, who said: “I do not like that call period.”
With 8:55 left in the second quarter, I was also given two great angles of Jimmy Smith deflecting a key third-down pass in the end zone.
I would have liked more atmosphere on a day when the weather was so extreme. I wanted to feel the wind, wet and mud more than I did.
But Arnold, the director, gave viewers a lot of illustrative close-ups of cleats slipping on the turf and fans in the stands looking like wind-blown survivors on the deck of a cruise ship that is about to go down in a storm on the North Atlantic.
In fairness, I think I wanted poetry, while Arnold was trying to just give viewers a solid feel for game conditions. And where’s the poetry anyway when the Ravens lose a game they should have won – a game that could mean no playoffs for Baltimore this year?