5) Mike Tirico & Jon Gruden – ESPN
Most Popular Grade: B (42.4%)
Analysis: This pairing received the most “B’s” of any booth and 2/3rds of voters gave them an “A” or “B” grade. Mike Tirico is among the best play by play guys in sports and even though he had a couple slips this year, that hasn’t changed and isn’t really up for debate. Let’s talk about his partner, though.
2014 might be the year when Jon Gruden finally put the coaching rumors to bed by signing another long-term contract extension with ESPN. I’m not sure very many people would have thought he’d stick around this long in the business, yet here we are. He’s developed into maybe the most unique broadcasting personality today, and that was on full display this year. How many other analysts bring a shovel and a blender into the booth with them?
What about his analyst work? Gruden was noticeably criticized by Richard Sandomir at the New York Times for his precipitous use of coach-speak in the booth, and we all know about his love for quarterbacks… but I like that Gruden stays authentic to who he is. He doesn’t fall into easy cliches and perhaps the best thing you can say is that he just sounds different than any other analyst. He may never be “the next John Madden” but maybe being the first Jon Gruden is good enough.
4) Kevin Harlan & Rich Gannon – CBS
Most Popular Grade: B (41.3%)
Analysis: This ranking may be the biggest surprise this year. Harlan and Gannon were another new team in the shuffled lineup at CBS and the pairing seemed to click for readers. Harlan has always been an AA favorite and this year was no exception. And although Gannon has never been thought of as a marquee analyst, he never really takes too many missteps. You pair together an exciting play by play guy and a dependable analyst and it’s a fairly decent formula for success.
Over 90% of respondents gave Harlan and Gannon an “A,” “B,” or “C” grade. That’s an excellent rating for what is the network’s #4 broadcast team and it might turn Harlan and Gannon into the next Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts as “the most underrated announcing team in the NFL.”
3) Kevin Burkhardt & John Lynch – Fox
Most Popular Grade: A (41.8%)
Analysis: Interestingly enough, Burkhardt and Lynch teamed with the next broadcast crew in our rankings for the lowest percentage of F votes at just 2.57% of respondents. In the age of Twitter, that may be this team’s most impressive accomplishment. Actually, scratch that. This team’s most impressive accomplishment is still coming out of nowhere last season and vaulting to Fox’s #2 NFL team based solely on their merit as broadcasters.
Burkhardt and Lynch continued the stellar work of their Cinderella rookie season and avoided the sophomore slump in Year 2. There’s such an old-school feeling watching a game with these two because they are very no-nonsense and straight-forward in their delivery. It’s difficult to really unearth a point where you can be critical of their work. While Burkhardt has gotten most of the attention for his incredible rise from Mets reporter to nationally renowned play by play man, don’t underestimate Lynch’s growth as an analyst as well. The rise of Burkhardt and Lynch remains one of the great success stories in sports media in the last decade.
2) Ian Eagle & Dan Fouts – CBS
Most Popular Grade: A (44.4%)
Analysis: “The Bird & The Beard” were so underrated for so long that any underrated announcers are going to be compared to them in perpetuity. In 2014, finally, after years of excellent work, the duo was rewarded with a promotion to the network’s #2 slot. With the CBS/NFL Network Thursday Night Football arrangement, that meant they were calling CBS’s top game on select Sundays. It didn’t mean a playoff assignment though since NBC took CBS’s second Divisional Round game this year.
It’s easy to see why Eagle and Fouts are so well-liked. They have maybe the best chemistry of any broadcast booth in the league. Eagle is so skilled at what he does that you can say that about him and a number of analyst partners over his career. Fouts’ resurrection as an analyst after his stint with Monday Night Football and even calling play by play for ESPN’s college football coverage is also noteworthy. This pair mixes humor and sincerity very well while never losing the importance of the game. And it’s great to finally see their employers catch up to that fact this year.
1) Al Michaels & Cris Collinsworth – NBC
Most Popular Grade: A (59.8%)
Analysis: The Sunday Night Football broadcast remains the gold standard for NFL announcing. Michaels and Collinsworth were the only team to have a majority of respondents give them an “A” grade. That’s insanely impressive given how subjective announcing sports is. As Sean Grande said in our latest podcast, there’s no box score for announcers, no statistical metric to judge their work. And often times your fondness of an announcer boils down to whether you’d want to have a beer with them or not. Somehow in that environment, Michaels and Collisnworth still received almost 60% in “A” votes.
However, there was one moment this year when they fell under a rare piece of criticism for seemingly protecting the shield and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. That segment missed the mark badly, but perhaps it’s a testament to the work of SNF over the years that it was such a surprise and such a story. Even though they’ve been around for a long time, Michaels and Collinsworth are both operating at an elite level in their respective roles.
And as they top this year’s rankings, perhaps it’s fitting that Michaels and Collinsworth call another Super Bowl together this Sunday as NBC has the rights to Super Bowl XLIX.