David Zurawik

CBS telecast came up short on story of fans' love for Ray Lewis

With a TV event as emotional and epic as the last game in Baltimore for Ray Lewis, it would be a mistake to micro-critique the telecast of the game itself by CBS Sports.

I'll talk about the work of the Ravens' 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts by Jim Nantz and Phil Simms in this review. But the big story was the "last ride" in Baltimore for Lewis, and the performance of CBS Sports Sunday should first and last be judged by how it covered that story.

In terms of preparation and understanding how big the story was, CBS Sports was absolutely on it coming into the game. Producer Lance Barrow clearly had his crew focused and psyched for it.

But by the end of the game, it became clear that even as CBS told the story of this remarkable linebacker's final home game from the point of Lewis and his Ravens teammates, it missed way too much of another huge storyline: The fans of Baltimore bidding an emotional farewell to a beloved and honored athlete.

CBS truly fell down on covering this story during the last four minutes of the game. And I will be honest about it, that failure left me with a bad taste in my mouth for the entire telecast. A really bad taste.

In terms of what CBS got right, start with the images of Lewis arriving in the parking lot at M&T Bank Stadium. As the pre-game show went on, viewers got to see No. 52 revving up his teammates with a pre-game talk.

CBS also picked the right guy to lead its big pre-game package on Lewis in Shannon Sharpe. The former Ravens tight end had a solid interview with Lewis, as well as great mini-interviews with Terrell Suggs, Ray Rice and Haloti Ngata. (If Lewis turns out to be half as good a sports broadcaster as Sharpe, I'll consider him a success in the career he's expected to enter after his last game.)

In his interview with Sharpe, Suggs described the feeling Wednesday when Lewis told his teammates that he was retiring: "It was like the earth shook. It got real quiet."

Everything in the pre-game show was rightfully building toward the moment when Lewis came out of the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium one last time, and when Rice said he would probably be "boo-hooing" as he watched the last entrance by Lewis, he made it OK for everyone watching at home to give into the intense emotions they were feeling as well.

Of course, having rights to the game, CBS was all over Lewis coming out of that tunnel. Visually, the cameras got it all: the smoke and the flames and the dance and the embrace of the stadium turf by Lewis.

CBS understood how much the performance defined Lewis as a singular and even larger-than-life presence in the NFL. But what they missed is the deeper mythic, epic, tribal nature of this ritual: Baltimore's greatest warrior dancing around the campfire one last time on the eve of battle promising victory for Baltimore. And that story is about the tens of thousands of fans in purple at the stadium and the hundreds of thousands of us watching at home.

Sunday was as much about us as it was Lewis -- and CBS never got that right. That hit home for me when I compared the last five minutes or so of the CBS TV call with the call being made on WBAL radio.

While local radio gave a full sense of the crowd chanting for Lewis and the Jumbo scoreboard pulsing and pounding with the raw emotion coursing through the stadium, Simms and Nantz and the cameras were communicating almost none of it on TV.

When Lewis ran out for the last snap even though it was an offensive play, of course CBS showed it, but I had no sense as I watched of the tidal wave of love that had brought him back onto the field. I had to go back and listen to my recording of WBAL radio's coverage for that.

CBS did play some decent catch-up getting a post-game interview with Lewis and tailing him around the field for his final lap of love at M&T Bank Stadium, but for my money, it was too little and too late. A broadcast team that understood how much this day was also about the Baltimore fans would have captured more of that.

I felt like I was almost there at Camden Yards when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record, and that was a local telecast done before HD and millions of new technological advances to enhance the TV experience.

As to Nantz and Simms, I have generally said nice things over the years about both of them. But I truly lost some respect Sunday.

One of the ways you can judge a live TV operation is by the way it reacts when it is thrown a curve. For example, it's prepped for a big pre-planned presidential address in Washington, but a mass shooting takes place in a school 15 minutes before the address is scheduled to start. How does it react to the unexpected breaking news?

Though certainly not on that level, CBS Sports was faced with a similar situation Sunday when it was hot-wired for wall-to-wall pre-game coverage of the Lewis story, only to find out that Bruce Arians, offensive coordinator for the Colts, had become ill and was taken to a Baltimore hospital. Beyond the story line of Arians' health, it also had big implications for the game in terms of a rookie quarterback having to adjust to a new person calling the plays Sunday.

A few minutes into the pre-game show, while the two in the booth were reporting from Baltimore, Nantz said to Simms, "Partner, we're hearing reports right now that Bruce Arians ... and I know you didn't even hear this, but Lance Barrow has just received word from folks on the Indianapolis Colts staff that Bruce Arians, who had been under the weather and we just saw on the field just a short while ago, he has just been taken to the hospital here in Baltimore."

With that, he tossed back to New York, saying, "And we'll have more on that story, which is just breaking here."

Where to start?

The story wasn't just breaking there during the pre-game show that started at noon. Nantz later had to correct the report to say Arians had been taken from the team hotel to the hospital at about 9:30 a.m. -- that he had, in fact, never made it to the stadium.

So, how did they see "him on the field just a short while ago"? Was it video tape from practice the day before? If so, why was it made to look live? One of the two statements from Nantz was wrong.

What I want to know is why if it happened at 9:30 a.m., it was a sudden bulletin on a show that started at noon?

CBS Sports was thrown a curve Sunday and whiffed.

On twitter: @davidzurawik