On any given non-bye week of football, 16 NFL broadcasting crews present the game to viewing audiences. Since the dawn of televised games, networks decided to have a constantly revolving cast of national announcers call each and every tilt, shoving local broadcasters to radio. As a result, you have millions of fans cursing their tv screens, constantly eye-rolling, and straight-up ignoring NFL broadcasters at times as, by unwritten rule, crews must pander to a fictional “national” audience. Due to the number of games on TV and how television executives draw coverage zones, the vast majority of people are viewing the teams geographically closest to them. And unless that nearest geographically located team is placed into a national broadcast slot on Thursday, Sunday, or Monday, broadcasters KNOW that most people watching their game are fans of the teams they are announcing. Yet, these viewers are subjected to very basic facts about THEIR team and common platitudes that describe football because the ones chosen to narrate your viewing experience have only spent the immediate week before Sunday learning about YOUR favorite team. Common refrains that Seahawk fans are very used to are, “Did you know Russell Wilson used to play baseball?” Yes, of course, we do. “Did you know Pete Carroll is the second oldest coach in the league?” Yes, because he’s the coach of the team I like. “DK Metcalf is big.” Yeah, we know. All you have to do is look at him.
Yet, like clockwork, fans of their respective teams are forced to listen to these same old platitudes as if they are something novel. It is also true that some tremendous play-by-play broadcasters and analysts can work actual exciting tidbits and anecdotes in between these tired tropes. There are also those forced to use these same tired tropes as a crutch as they struggle to really glean anything of note from the game playing out in front of them. And then, of course, most sit in between these two poles. Turning this spectrum of broadcaster blah into a genuine ranking has inspired this article, as we will use analysis to determine who is genuinely worth hearing and mark those who are undeserving of your ear space.
Tier: Might as well put on the radio instead
Mark Schlereth / Adam Amin (FOX)
Jay Feely / Spero Dedes (CBS)
Jonathan Vilma / Kenny Albert (FOX)
Platitude Crutch Rating: 9/10
Uniqueness of Voice: Indistinguishable
Believability of Friendship: Perfect strangers
Let’s start by grouping the three worst commentating pairs and use them to explain the ground rules of this system. The Platitude Crutch Rating will determine how interesting and effective the analysis of the game is, with a 0 making you so enraptured by what the screen is saying that you forget that a football game is even being played and a 10 making you cringe because he just described the left guard as a “football guy” for the third time in an hour. By default, this rating is more influenced by the color guy, making Mark Schlereth, Jay Feely, and Jonathan Vilma the easy backstops of this ranking. Like every other analyst on this list, they are all successful, former NFL players. Unfortunately, their abilities did not extend into the booth, as all three deserve to have this rating named after them. Schlereth and Vilma, in particular, as the only thing that escapes their mouths outside the standard platitudes is a strict, dogmatic belief that football can only be played the way it was in their glory years. And that is through running the rock and playing buttoned-up, hard-nosed defense. Even though analytics for years have been piling up evidence that it is, in fact, the opposite case, neither seems to have made an effort to understand the changes occurring in the game they have dedicated their lives to – making it not only dull but frustrating as hell when the only thing they have to say about a struggling offense is that they need to “establish the ground game.” And for Jay Feely, well, he was a kicker. What do kickers know?
As you can guess, uniqueness of voice is simply how interesting a person is to listen to. Does someone have an interesting tenor or cadence? Do they have an accent? Most importantly, do they make what you are watching feel important? Spero Dedes holds the belt for the weirdest voice, as he never really seems to push it past neutral. It’s very monotone, somewhat raspy, and is just plain a bad match for an NFL football game. I feel wrong about the other two. Getting stuck here is slightly unfair, as Albert is a seasoned vet and Adam Amin is very new to the NFL circuit. While neither are truly amazing, both would be a lot higher up this ranking if they weren’t anchored to their respective partners in the booth.
One of the most underrated parts about a team is whether or not you buy them as friends or even like and respect one another. Nothing is worse than dead airspace on a broadcast, and the ability for the two commentators to play off of each other during quiet moments is what truly makes a great partnership. The chumminess of these three crews is very, VERY low. Even if they weren’t newly put together last season, Schlereth comes across as unbearable, and Amin does absolutely nothing to refute that to the viewer. Vilma and Albert seem to have next to nothing in common, giving the impression that they both forget the other one exists outside the booth. Feely and Dedes seem like they could like each other, but they’re both so bland you probably wouldn’t want to spend time in their orbit anyways.
Tier: They’re fine as long as your team is winning, but will immediately press the mute button as soon as your team starts sucking
Tiki Barber / Tom McCarthy (FOX)
James Lofton / Andrew Catalon (CBS)
Louis Riddick / Brian Griese / Steve Levy (ESPN)
Platitude Crutch Rating: 8/10
Uniqueness of Voice: Mildly intriguing
Believability of Friendship: Eh, maybe they talk at the office
This may be the level that deserves the least amount of discussion, as they don’t lean on common phrasing enough to be unbearable but tend not to really say anything of note. While they aren’t hall of famers, they can do the job. Tiki Barber tends to stan the running game, but his impressive resume as a lead tailback for the Giants at least makes it understandable. James Lofton is an all-time wide receiver who put up 1,000-yard seasons back before it became commonplace. While he’s a bit muted, he at least has the bonafides. Louis Riddick and Brian Griese form the only two-person color tag team in the league, with moderately successful playing and ESPN analyst careers. And though they both look about as different as possible from each other, they have the unfortunate happenstance of sounding somewhat similar to each other. I’m sure if you were in the room with them, you wouldn’t pick up on that. But on TV, where you cannot see their faces, it can be tough to distinguish between the two at any given moment. Either individually would probably be fine, but together it makes the decision to pair them as odd as just about every other ESPN decision from the past ten years.
The play-by-play boys from this grouping are distinguishable, if not the most enthralling bunch. Mccarthy is by far the weakest, embodying every stereotype you would attribute to a longtime broadcaster without anything to really make him special. Catalan has a bit of Spero Dedes in him, that attribute where even when he’s shouting, it feels like his tone is a bit muted, but in a much more polished way. Levy is the one who is most hard-bitten here, as his time as a lead Sportscenter anchor certainly gives him one of the more notable voices in play-by-play. Unfortunately, he’s forced to set up the snorefast duo and gets dragged down because of it.
We’ll keep this one short and say that none of these crews seem like natural friends. Both Barber/McCarthy and Lofton/Catalon crews have been partnered for a long time but have been unable to parlay that into any natural chemistry. Levy certainly portrays a chummy image but is often left hanging by both Griese and Riddick.
Tier: You’re in good, if a little uninspired hands
Daryl “Moose” Johnston / Chris Meyers (FOX)
Mark Sanchez / Kevin Kugler (FOX)
Adam Archuleta / Greg Gumbel (CBS)
Platitude Crutch Rating: 7.2/10
Uniqueness of Voice: You’d pick it out of a crowded room
Believability of Friendship: They probably have each other’s phone number
There are few people I have more sympathy for in this world more so than Daryl Johnston. Before his partnership with heady veteran Chris Meyers, Johnson was stuck in a rare two-and-a-half man booth, where he and Kenny Albert were forced to analyze the game with an on-the-field Tony Siragusa. In his playing career, Siragusa was most known for sitting his fat ass on Rich Gannon’s leg, breaking it, and essentially winning the 2000 Ravens the AFC Championship game. He brought that type of tact to the booth, where he inserted his big stumbling rump into the middle of anything Daryl Johnston was trying to relay to the audience. Fortunately, that triumvirate split a couple of seasons ago. Though Johnston is the epitome of “fine,” he tends to highlight and focus on the essential things happening in the game. Mark Sanchez is new this year to the booth, and you can tell. But, even though he too is famous for a play involving his rear end like the rotund Siragusa, he tends not to fumble his way through the broadcast in quite the same way. Adam Archuleta is a bit of a stale no-name with an uninspiring playing career but is carried by the legendary Greg Gumble.
The real highlight of this tier is the play-by-play announcers, as Meyers and Gumbel have been doing this as long as anyone. Meyers has been forced to partner with some real stinkers in the past, making it a match made in heaven with Johnston. Gumbel was once the #1 for CBS, calling a Super Bowl, and has been around the game for 30+ years. Even if he is partnered with the tepid Archuleta, Gumbel can make a broadcast interesting on his own. Kugler has quite the resume himself but is more known for his career announcing NCAA basketball games. He’s got a distinctive voice and seems to be a steady hand for the newly minted Sanchez.
As I said before, Johnston and Myers seem to be united by their past horror stories. Gumbel could have on-air chemistry with a wall, so throw him in with anyone, and things will seem peachy. Sanchez has potential; Kugler was an excellent choice to show him the ropes.
Tier: You’ve got my curiosity
Greg Olsen / Kevin Burkhardt (FOX)
Aquib Talib / Gus Johnson (FOX)
Trent Green / Kevin Harlan (CBS)
Platitude Crutch Rating: 6.5/10
Uniqueness of Voice: Instantly Recognizable
Believability of Friendship: These guys actually seem to have each other’s number
Greg Olsen and Aquib Talib are new to the scene, but unlike someone like Sanchez, they haven’t needed to grow into their roles in the booth. Instead, they combine their knowledge that only players who have recently laced up their cleats would know with an actual personality. For a lot of color announcers we have already discussed, it feels like they are acting – trying to live up to some ideal in their mind about what a proper color analyst should be. Talib and Olsen instead strive to be themselves in the booth, bringing humor and a personal flair to a position that for too long has stagnated. Trent Green probably belongs a tier or two below if it wasn’t for who he is partnered with.
All three of these play-by-play guys are among the best in the business and lend their voices to many sports. It embodies what these guys do best, bringing a knowledgeable and entertaining experience no matter the sport you’re watching. For football, in particular, they all bring a unique perspective. Burkhardt embodies an old-fashioned vet but is exceptionally young, keeping calm and even-keeled but can explode in excitement when the occasion calls for it. Johnson brings great anecdotes and tends to strike instant chemistry with whoever he is with in the booth. Harlan has one of the most potent voices in broadcasting and is one of the most humorous.
Green and Harlan seem like the weakest partnership of the bunch, as Harlan’s voice can easily overpower Green’s. Talib and Johnson work perfectly together, as Aquib’s uniqueness is accentuated and grounded by his more experienced partner. Burkhardt instead does a better job of bringing out a different version of Olsen, one that’s more confident in his first season as FOX’s #2 crew.
Tier: You’ve got my attention
Troy Aikman / Joe Buck (FOX)
Tony Romo / Jim Nantz (CBS)
Charles Davis / Ian Eagle (CBS)
Platitude Crutch Rating: 5.5/10
Uniqueness of Voice: Legendary
Believability of Friendship: Best Buds
Aikman and Romo are both a couple of ex-Cowboy quarterbacks, and the gloss of their playing career has remained in the booth. While Aikman has grown a bit tired for some (FOX’s insistence on having him call every Dallas game may contribute to that), he still is one of the sharpest in the booth. Romo has taken the world by storm by using his proximity to his playing days to predict plays before they happen and pairing that with good explainers on the deeper minutiae of the game. Davis also has a wealth of knowledge but is a bit hamstrung by having an identical cadence every time he speaks (it’s a little unnerving).
Their partners in the booth are world-class, as Buck and Nantz have called just about every major sporting championship in the US over the last ten years. While Nantz can be a bit sleepy at times, the excitement of Romo helps counterbalance that. Eagle is probably the most underrated play-by-play guy in the league, mixing his unique voice with many original catchphrases.
Eagle and Davis are a newer pairing, and it sometimes shows as they try to figure out how to highlight each other’s strengths best. Romo/Nantz has been around for about three years now, and with Romo’s lofty contract extension, this pair isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Buck/Aikman have been around a lot longer and haven’t grown stale at all as both have developed a much more IDGAF attitude to their brand the last couple of years.
Tier: Best of the Best
Cris Collinsworth / Al Michaels (NBC)
Platitude Crutch Rating: 5/10
Uniqueness of Voice: The one and only
Believability of Friendship: Probably spend too much time together
Collinsworth is the best in the game, even if there’s been a diverging opinion beginning to form. He’s been doing color for years now and knows the in’s and out’s of the booth better than anybody. Unlike peers of the past generation (i.e., Phil Simms and, to some extent, Aikman), he does seem to be a student of the game, well past his playing career. The Sunday Night Football broadcast has partnered with Pro Football Focus to bring a more modern tone to its telecast, and Collinsworth has invested time and money to understanding the new way of football thought. On top of that, he brings an excitement to the booth that hasn’t dulled in all of his years calling games. His anecdotes are the best due to Sunday Night Football’s enhanced availability with players and staff, meaning he brings information straight from the mouths of the people you’re watching on the field. Even if some young guns like Romo and Olsen are closing the gap, no one is better than Collinsworth.
As good as he is, though, it’s Michaels that is the main draw. Having been the lead play-by-play for NBC for decades, he’s called just about every prominent sporting event possible. Even at the advanced age of 76, Michaels’ banter is still top-notch, his voice never wavering as it tends to do for many broadcasters on the cusp of aging out. Instead, age has seemed to enhance the Michaels experience, graveling his voice and has enabled him to become charmingly curmudgeon. No one really seems to know how long Michaels will stay in the booth, but please enjoy him while you still can.
Together, they are by far the best, if not the oldest pairing on this list. This is wild when considering they head the most modern and polished telecast of all the networks. Unlike many who become set in their ways, Michaels and Collinsworth keep pushing to get better – and in doing so, making it appear they are the best of friends along the way. They are the gold standard.