Once ESPN signs off, coverage hardly of championship caliber

Game Day: Poor ESPN. Chris Berman and cast do a superb job providing news, opinions and features for football fans, easily the best stuff being dispensed on the NFL broadcast front. Then, when time comes for the kickoff . . .

"Are you ready for some women's bowling?" Berman bellowed yesterday, mimicking the Hank Williams Jr. opening for "Monday Night Football," as fans fled to the networks for the conference championship games.


Of course, CBS, NBC and ABC pay outrageous fees to cover the NFL, fees the cables, no matter how successful, can't match yet. It would be a welcome relief to viewers, however, if the nets at least attempted to match ESPN's ability to inform, interest and entertain.

vTC What a culture shock it is to switch from a fast-paced show building excitement via words and pictures for the impending big game only to have a network (NBC) take over with studio analyst Bill Parcells saying, "I'll tell you one thing, Jim Kelly knows how to play the game." Talk about a change in momentum.


If Bob Costas & Company was weak (make that feeble) in the pre-game, it got even worse when analyst Bill Walsh took his chair in front of the game microphone. Rumor has it the ex-San Francisco coach is leaving NBC. Even if it's true, it's too late considering his work on the AFC title game between Denver and Buffalo.

Normally, Walsh draws about 50 percent approval on a regular-season game, his insight offsetting his streaks of pomposity and whiny voice. Faced with a big game, though, Bill often as not sinks nearly out of sight.

It was five plays into the game when Walsh informed us, "Very briefly, Denver is in this game." Thereafter, he was on John Elway's case as though the Broncos quarterback hasn't been an outstanding star for years: "Elway took too much time [to pass]; the breakdown of the play was completely his fault . . . I don't know how Elway gets great athletes to miss him, he's not that fast . . . Elway's continuing to play [after a leg injury] damaged Denver's chances."

Yeah, John, throw those interceptions, and insist you be replaced by a backup who hasn't played all year in the biggest game of the year.

No doubt the length of the season has something to do with it (this is week 20), but John Madden, long known as a big-game performer, was no more than a guy with a very good view of the proceedings during the Redskins' 41-10 pummeling of Detroit on CBS.

A little of John's time-honored mud, blood, sweat, tears, shirt-hanging-out rhapsodizing goes a long way after a decade, particularly when the network is reminding us of the "All-Madden Team" show coming up shortly every other minute or so.

One thing John has going at all times, however, is his total willingness to jump all over the NFL's instant replay headache every time it warrants it, which is often.

A Detroit player had fumbled and no fewer than three officials had jumped in for closer inspection when a Washington player sped away with the ball into the end zone. "This is going to take some discussion," squealed Madden, knowing full well the officials on the field had no idea of what had happened.


The instant replay official heightened the embarrassment with his lengthy deliberations, then made matters worse by somehow awarding blue (the Lions) the ball. Impossible.

During the Broncos-Bills game, a Buffalo defensive back made what appeared to be an interception on his own 2-yard line. Replay showed he hadn't. The on-field call was reversed, pronto, but the fiasco ended up lasting seven minutes. No one but several million viewers, live and via television, had any idea what down it was and where to spot the ball. Actually, all they had to do is ask Bill Walsh.

Easily, the most telling questions and comments during the postmortems were delivered by O.J. Simpson and Madden. "Juice," in his most consoling voice, asked John Elway, "What is the injury?" as though a charley horse matters now that he's off until July.

Madden reviewed the day's happenings and true to the fact his network covers the NFC, theorized, "I don't know that the Redskins can be beaten in the Super Bowl."

On to the stories of Washington and Buffalo, a couple of outdoor teams, playing indoors on the artificial turf at the Metrodome in Minneapolis . . . to daily psychoanalysis of Scott Norwood for losing last year's Super Bowl by missing a field goal . . . to the All-Madden team and the eight-hour pre-game show in a couple of weeks.

Like for both games yesterday, there will be no blimps present, so that's something to look forward to.