Lost in the shuffle, NBC caught in slow motion First half misses on fundamentals

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sandwiched around Michael Jackson's halftime performance -- by the way, did you think he lip-synced (lip-syncked? lip-sanc?) -- NBC was carrying a football game last night. At least, it was supposed to be a game.

We can't blame NBC for another stinker of a Super Bowl, but the network didn't distinguish itself in the first half, before the rout was on.

For instance, NBC never did tell the audience that most fundamental of facts: who was playing at what position. It's a simple thing, a graphic that lists the players. But not in The Ultimate Game.

The cameras lost the ball when the Buffalo Bills blocked a Dallas Cowboys' punt in the first quarter. Analyst Bob Trumpy sought ** to explain Steve Tasker's block by saying the Cowboys' blockers were confused. On the replay, it appeared that one of the Cowboys just missed a block.

Later on in the quarter, Bills quarterback Jim Kelly fumbled into Jimmie Jones' arms for a Cowboys touchdown. Trumpy laid the blame on Kelly for not identifying Charles Haley's location before Haley swept into the backfield and knocked the ball loose. Maybe I'm a little dense, but wasn't it more important that Bills tackle Howard Ballard barely touched Haley?

Play-by-play man Dick Enberg and Trumpy also didn't keep up with the play early on. A sack and fumble was being analyzed when -- whoops -- the whole thing was wiped out by a penalty. Bills starting center Kent Hull was out for a few plays, apparently hurt, before viewers were informed. Was Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas hurt? It never was clear.

And, come on, did we need to see Kelly's knee twisted four times?

All right, so I sound a little crabby. And it has nothing to do with not being offered any of those Buffalo wings Channel 2 news hounds Stan Stovall and Mary Beth Marsden waved in front of my face during the pre-game show.

But let's be fair. Enberg quickly spotted the Cowboys' move to an extra defensive back on Buffalo's fourth-and-goal in the second quarter, a ploy that paid off with an interception. Trumpy used the telestrator to good advantage in diagramming the way that a Bills safety was mesmerized by Cowboys tight end Jay Novacek, offering no help as Michael Irvin caught a touchdown pass in the first half.

Enberg also didn't hesitate in calling Bills quarterback Frank Reich over the line of scrimmage on his second-half touchdown pass -- even though the officials didn't call it.

Before we got to the second half, though, there was Michael Jackson's halftime spectacular. The Bills apparently made a strategic error in not watching. If they could have copied Jackson's opening move, in which he appeared on top of the scoreboard, then in the middle of the field, they might have made it closer.

The King of Pop likely wouldn't have given up the secret, though. It probably had something to do with those storm-trooper dancers up on stage with him. (What was this, "The Producers"? "Springtime for Hitler and Germany . . . ")

The most telling line of the day came before the second half. Todd Christensen, reporting from outside the Cowboys locker room, said he asked Jimmy Johnson if he had warned his team about the big comeback the Bills had staged against the Houston Oilers. Johnson told Christensen, "We're not Houston."

Trumpy also wasn't Trumpy. At least, he wasn't the annoying one who finds controversy under every yard marker. And, after the early stumbles, Enberg turned in another fine effort, not that he could elevate the game in the second half.

The pre-game show, "Super Bowl Live" (though, with the pre-recorded segments, it should have been "Super Bowl Live and On Tape"), begged at least one question: Is this why David Letterman left NBC?

Jay Leno, who kept his "Tonight Show" slot when Letterman signed with CBS, appeared twice on the pre-game show, speaking with host Bob Costas and in Garth Brooks' self-consciously politically correct music video for "We Shall Be Free."

Otherwise, there were several attempts at humor, some of it enough to make you long for the return of that NFL talent show.

That Ditka-O. J. Simpson computer football match was a real hoot, huh? Give me Reggie White and his machine-gun impressions.

The Christensen-Cris Collinsworth football skills matchup offered Christensen the chance to mug for the camera and to show off his muscled torso, but . . . you sure Reggie White was busy?

What was it with those headsets NBC's field reporters were wearing? With the antennas growing out of their ears, they looked like Ray Walston in "My Favorite Martian."

The biggest misstep of the pre-game was the handling of the segment on the New York Jets' Dennis Byrd. There was nothing wrong with Costas' interview with Byrd and his wife, Angela, as ** they spoke about Byrd's attempt to walk again after what appeared to be a paralyzing injury. But then Fleetwood Mac appeared to sing "Say That You Love Me."

Next up, a piece on the NFC, opening with the Chicago Bears' Mike Singletary saying, "The NFC is broken bones." Great juxtaposition.

But, between efforts to boost Glenn Frey's sagging career, NBC had a few gems in the 2 1/2 hours leading up to kickoff.

* Magic Johnson's "interview" with Cowboys Troy Aikman, Irvin and Emmitt Smith isn't going to make Ted Koppel stay up nights worrying about his job, but it did capture the high-spirited confidence of young athletes.

* NBC's feature on the NFC dominance of the Super Bowl had an NFL Films-type feel, particularly in the way in which interviews were mixed with the highlights. And how about that John Riggins? Clad in black turtleneck and black stocking cap, Riggins looked as if he were about to parachute behind enemy lines with the rest of the Dirty Dozen.

* Rightly so, several of the pre-game reports focused on how tight the Bills seemed. By contrast, a pre-game interview with Cowboys defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt showed him to cool indeed.

Not as cool as Dallas head coach Johnson, though. After everybody saw Smith muss Johnson's 'do on the sidelines, only to have Johnson reappear in the locker room back in full coif, the final question of the Super Bowl was this: Just what is in that man's hair?

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