ESPN gets off to rocky start in look and sound of Ravens prime-time game

ESPN broadcast team

What was going on with ESPN's "Monday Night Football" during the first quarter?

The primary camera shot was so far back and wide, I thought I was looking at high-school game film shot with a Kodak from atop press box – in 1967. OK, I am exaggerating, but not by much. Really.

Meanwhile, the audio had an echo on it as if play-by-play man Mike Tirico's voice was also being piped over the stadium PA system.

I don't want to sound superficial, but this is, after all, the look and sound of a prime-time telecast. How could ESPN get off to such a misguided start on the two most basic aspects of the telecast?

Struggling with the distance of the perspective and submarine-ish sound, I was reminded of the irony that as much as NFL football is spectacle, it is an up-close-and personal intimacy that makes for great telecasts. NBC's Sunday night telecasts have been textbook in that regard – another reason Sunday night not Monday has become the big-big stage of prime-time football.

Things did improve in terms of overall perspective by the end of the first quarter, but there were basic problems in production and direction that remained with the ESPN telecast.

In terms of camera placement and selection, for example, the director chose to have cameras on the two coaches, John Harbaugh, of the Ravens, and Jack Del Rio, of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and there wasn't much happening with either of them in the first half.

Yet, we kept getting tight shots of their basically expressionless faces.

Typical of the camera use and empty gimmicks was a triple shot the director gave us of Del Rio, Harbaugh and Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew as the teams waiting for replay ruling on a Jones-Drew fumble on the one-yard line early in the game.

The three close-up faces were enclosed in a graphic that looked like the front of a jukebox or pinball machine or something, but since all three looked on stone-faced, it was an absolute empty and meaningless bit of imagery.

And the crazy thing is, the director held the shot and held the shot and held the shot – like he was going to hold until hell froze over or something happened. I don't know what the weather was like in hell at that moment, but there was nothing happening on my TV screen with that jacked-up, empty shot.

On the other hand, the broadcast team of Tirico and analysts Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski was focused, strong and totally in synch with one another.

Tirico is a real talent – the best play-by-play man this side of Al Michaels. And like a great bassist in a jazz trio, he is superb at setting a steady rhythm for the overall telecast while also bringing each of the other voices in at the right times.

Tirico is also quick to correct and quip his way through any mistakes his colleague in the booth make -- as when Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was called Cam Newton.

"I guess you were trying to get the Ravens some offense anywhere you could," Tirico said to Jaworski in setting the record straight.

Tirico himself called Flacco Ben Roethlisberger, but he caught himself as the "berger" was hardly out his mouth.

I have ripped Gruden in the past, but either he has gotten a lot better – or I have simply learned to appreciate his talents. I vote for the former. Specifically, I see him pressing a lot less to make controversial or in-your-face statements – the kind of in-the-booth act that he seemed to think he had to perform to match his coaching persona.

He started into a bit of rip on the refs after five minutes of consultation that resulted in a fourth down simply being played over. He suggested the NFL have refs on standby, as it were, in a "bullpen." And they could then be called in "to make the right calls." But he said it without conviction or passion, as if he was kidding and perhaps even mocking the guy he used to be in the booth. Jaworski and Tirico kidded along.

 I like the new, more self-assured, less-hot-dog Gruden a lot more. And I think the chemistry with Jaworski has never been better.

Jaworski was excellent in de-constructing the wretched quarterback play on both side of the ball in the first half. The former quarterback breaks down passing games and defensive back play as well as anyone in the booth anywhere.

He wasn't pulling any punches with Jaguars' quarterback Blaine Gabbert, when he reacted to a video replay of the rookie falling to the side and failing to follow through to avoid a hit by saying, "You got to step up into that pocket, boy. This is a young man still learning to play the game with bodies flying all around him."

And Gabbert looked better than Joe Flacco in the first half – at least he got his team in field goal range twice.

Brace yourself for this observation: If there was a criticism of the way the guys in the booth called the game in the first half it was that they were too nice to the Ravens. Part of that was the result of their pre-game build-up of Baltimore.

When it became obvious early on that the bad Ravens were the ones who showed in Jacksonville Monday, the guys in the booth should have dropped the script and started unloading on them earlier.