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ESPN delivers mostly winning package in Ravens loss

ESPN delivers mostly winning package in Ravens loss
Arizona Cardinals strong safety Tony Jefferson (22) celebrates his interception in the end zone during the final seconds of the game against the Baltimore Ravens, (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

I despise the way ESPN has purged its ranks of anyone who would criticize the NFL or commissioner Roger Goodell. And I could definitely do without Jon Gruden's bluster.

But I have to admit the all-sports channel delivered a winning "Monday Night Football" telecast in its coverage of the Ravens 26-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

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I was determined not to like the pre-game package, but the feature on Ravens kicker Justin Tucker had me smiling in spite of myself by the time they had him kicking beach balls and a loaf of challah to test whether there was anything he couldn't put through the uprights.

The loaf of challah was inspired. (In case you were wondering, the bread didn't make it through the uprights, it exploded off his toe.)

And while I was certain I didn't want to see Tucker's impersonations, his take on Ray Lewis made me laugh out loud.

Maybe I was just feeling goofy, but I even enjoyed the studio segment with Chris Berman that featured three Sumo wrestlers in a 40-yard dash.

The game itself was only about 1,000 times more entertaining than I thought it would be. Much of the credit for that goes to the Ravens unwillingness to lay down and die in the desert despite their dismal record. But ESPN's coverage also helped a lot.

Mike Tirico is an outstanding play-by-play announcer. I have yet to see him lose his focus as so many lesser play-by-play broadcasters do. And he always seems to be totally in the flow of the game – although that is a bit of an illusion, because he is also shaping the flow of the game for viewers by what he chooses to emphasize in terms of story lines, set-ups and statistics. But that's part of the illusion, too.

Typical of Tirico's preparation, when the Ravens opened the second half with short pass to fullback Kyle Juszczyk that went nowhere, the play-by-play announcer immediately noted that the Ravens opened the second half with the same play last week.

Until that moment, I had not appreciated how predictable some of the Ravens' play calling had become. I wonder why none of the CBS folks pointed that out during the previous three weeks.

Gruden was at his best Monday when working in tandem with the production team to show a pattern of play in the game – typically featuring two or three replays with Gruden explaining what's going on in them.

In the fourth quarter, three such packages were offered on the outstanding line play of defensive end Calais Campbell, quarterback Carson Palmer and defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.

I know all three are Cardinals. But until the end of the game, it was hard to find any such effort on the Ravens side of the ball outside of defensive lineman Chris Canty's performance – and both Tirico and Gruden were singing his praises most of the night. So save the emails about the announcers favoring the Ravens opponents.

What annoys me about Gruden is his carelessness with facts and his effort to consistently be at odds with the referees. I blame the former on his history as coach where no one corrects you inside the bubble of the team. The latter, I think, is an effort by him to sound like someone in the tradition of Howard Cosell who calls them the way he sees them – even if that doesn't always extend to the league itself, the hand that feeds ESPN with rights to Monday Night Football.

Indicative of his issues with facts, Gruden described Ravens guard John Urschel as a "Rhodes Scholar" while criticizing a penalty call on Baltimore that involved Urschel lining up and catching a pass from Joe Flacco.

"Urschel's a Rhodes Scholar, Mike. He's not going to forget to report. … That's ridiculous," Gruden said in denouncing the call by the officials.

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While the ESPN analyst is right about Urschel being a very smart guy with an advanced degree in mathematics, the Ravens guard was not a Rhodes Scholar. Facts are facts.

(For the record, it did look like Urschel reported to one of the officials when he entered the game. But replays also showed Gruden wrong on at least two other times when he disagreed with the officials.)

But I will say this, Gruden was superb during the final minutes of the game, telling viewers as the Ravens lined up for the team's final drive that the left side of its offensive line (guard Kelechi Osemele and tackle Eugene Monroe) was out and that James Hurst and Urschel were playing as replacements.

And he was instantly spotting and reporting the changes in defensive linemen that Arizona was making to try and keep fresh legs on the field during that drive.

Whereas some analysts wilt under the pressure of the final minutes in a close game, Gruden got better – appearing to take in everything that was happening on the field in real time and then explaining it between plays.

Maybe that's from coaching, too, I don't know. But in the last two minutes, I could at least understand why ESPN puts up with his act-like-you-know, hotdog style.



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