Analyst Brian Billick and play-by-play announcer Thom Brennaman delivered smart, smooth and informative coverage of the Ravens' victory over the Dallas Cowboys Sunday on Fox.
The entire production — from Laura Okmin's sideline reports to the myriad and sharply focused angles from which the cameras closely followed key plays — was so vastly superior to what Ravens fans usually get with second- and third-string CBS Sports crews that the telecast felt like a gift from the sports gods on this weekend of mourning Orioles elimination from postseason play.
But before I say too many nice things about the former Ravens coach and his Fox Sports cohorts, I need to say something at the top of this review so that no one misses it: Fox's pre-game show is a disgrace. The team is lazy, slow, cornball and downright moronic at times.
What times, Zurawik? Like when Rob Riggle, the comic relief replacement for Frank Caliendo, came on with his "Big Rig Radio" segment and the big joke was supposed to be how boring it is to have a doctor talking about head injuries in sports. Really, Fox should be ashamed of going for such debased laughs with all the money it makes off players who risk serious brain damage each Sunday in the games it telecasts.
And what does it say about all the phony-faced, sorry-voiced concern the announcers show when someone does get injured on the field?
If there is anyone who would qualify as a grown-up in Fox Sports, I hope he or she will go back and look at the "Big Rig Radio" report and see what an embarrassment this segment is — from the selection of the stereotypes surrounding Riggle in his make-believe studio, to the idiot-jock guffaws back in the real Fox pre-game studio from Curt, Howie, Terry, Jerry and the rest of the middle-school boys' locker-room crew. (And I use the first-name language of the Fox pre-game show itself not to suggest any familiarity with these self-satisfied fools, but to mock the false backslapping, locker-room feel the show tries to generate by being knuckleheaded.)
OK, then. Now that I got that off my chest, here's some nice stuff about Billick, Brennaman and the superb Fox production team that came to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday to televise the game.
Maybe Billick isn't yet in a league with Cris Collinsworth at NBC, but if not, he is the very next cut down in football analysis. I am sure Billick knows as much or more than Collinsworth, but what held him back at first was that it seemed as if he was using the booth not to open up, explain and deconstruct the game for fans, but rather to essentially lobby for another coaching job. As a result, there was endless talk about great calls, great strategies and great moments from his coaching career.
What a pleasure it was Sunday to check back in with him and discover that he has eliminated almost all of that from his booth performance. He seems to have finally accepted himself as a TV analyst, and now I really do believe he is one of the best.
Representative of Billick's superb performance Sunday was his analysis of the 108-yard kickoff return by Jacoby Jones. No sooner had Brennaman completed his live play-by-play call of the touchdown when Billick was already saying, "You gotta stay in your lane."
The folks in the booth had the replay up and ready to go so that Billick could cleanly illustrate how one member of the Cowboys' kicking team got pushed out of his lane just enough by Ravens blockers to open the alley for Jones.
That's what happens when you don't maintain "lane integrity," Billick said, as the play rolled out in slow motion. And despite the quasi-military-coach-talk of the term "lane integrity," you couldn't help but instantly understand what went wrong for the Cowboys — and what it made possible for the Ravens.
And by the way, a Billick telecast used to be filled with terms like "lane integrity," and, according to my notes, that is one of the only times he used such coach-talk all day. And I didn't mind it at all.
One of the sharpest points of contrast between CBS and Sunday's Fox team came in reporting injuries and instantly feeding them into the story lines of the game. When Lardarius Webb went down for the Ravens, the broadcast team was all over it, with cameras on Webb as he lay on the field, and Brennaman talking about the importance of the Ravens defensive back as he left the field.
The director then followed on that by getting Webb in close-up with a hand-held camera once he hit the sidelines and was helped to the locker room.
And a few minutes after that, Okmin was doing a preliminary stand-up report on the injury.
Of course, Fox did not yet know the extent of the injury at that point. Indeed, after the game, it was still not fully known, though fear was expressed that it could be a torn ACL, which would be a major blow to the team.
There were a lot of injuries Sunday, and Fox didn't get them all. But Okmin worked that sideline hard. And the director had her perfectly in synch with her camera team.
She reported on an ankle injury to a Cowboys running back, who returned to the sideline after being attended to in the locker room, with, "Saying they taped up the ankle does not do justice to it. They mummified the foot." That's a reporter thinking about the words she says as she tries to communicate what she sees.
And as she spoke, the camera showed viewers a close-up of the ankle that looked about twice as thick as the other with all the wrapping under the sock.
Really, you watch that kind of effort in a relatively minor part of the telecast, and you wonder how CBS Sports can give us the kind of third-rate coverage it does week after week.
It sure was a nice break to have Fox in town Sunday and be able to spend some TV time with Brennaman, Billick and company.