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From the couch: TV can’t catch Jets-Vikings lightning

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Brian Lowry

A media columnist and critic for Variety since 2003, Brian Lowry spent seven years at the L.A. Times and has contributed to both NPR and TV Guide Network. He writes weekly for FOX Sports. A UCLA alum, Lowry proudly attended the '95 title game. MORE>>
 
   
 

The lightning storm that delayed “Monday Night Football’s” marquee Vikings-Jets matchup provided the only conspicuous sparks produced during ESPN’s telecast – despite an inordinate alignment, as play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico acknowledged, of irresistible storylines.

Indeed, before the game The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay dubbed it “the Hyperbole Bowl,” a showdown between the NFL’s “two most preposterously over-discussed franchises.”

But ESPN only offered obligatory coverage of the various news hooks that spiced the game – including the investigation into Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, and allegations that he sent inappropriate messages and photos to a female Jets employee during his time with that team. (Chris Mortensen handled those chores, during the pregame and halftime shows.)

The highlight on that front, frankly, was a Wrangler jeans commercial featuring Favre that ran during the game. Here’s a hint to the sponsor: Until speculation about the veteran QB’s behavior is resolved, you might want to withdraw all ads that call unnecessary attention to what’s going on with his pants.

Admittedly, the rain delay got the evening off to an awkward start, as ESPN rotated among its 11 guys in suits – a full football team, if you think about it, counting the four in the studio, four halftime yakkers and trio in the booth – to kill time.

As a rule of thumb, studio fixture Chris Berman and an unscheduled 45 minutes are a really bad combination, and analyst Tom Jackson – normally pretty reliable – didn’t help with his keen observation that for Minnesota to win games, they would be well advised to “score a lot of points.” Gee, got any stock picks to go with that gem?

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To his credit, Jackson also suggested that in the NFL, more than any other sport, teams are “a reflection of the head coach,” which says a lot about the Jets, since sideline chief Rex Ryan has demonstrated he’s no shrinking violet (or shrinking anything, for that matter) with his colorful, free-flowing expletives on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”

Fortunately, all the fiddling ended and the game finally started, where the smooth Tirico is paired with Ron Jaworski and recovering coach Jon Gruden.

The main problem with Jaworski and Gruden is that their analysis (and indeed, even the tenor of their voices) is virtually indistinguishable. Back in the early “MNF” days, Howard Cosell was an annoying know-it-all and Don Meredith was often drunk. At least you knew where they stood.

Despite the blaring tabloid headlines in New York, the color duo was clearly more comfortable focusing on the X’s and O’s, not the personalities. Yes, just-acquired Vikings receiver Randy Moss is a future Hall of Famer, but what about the implications that – from a football standpoint, anyway – he’s kind of a jerk, and the role that played in his abrupt exit from New England?

Instead, they speculated about whether the 41-year-old Favre’s arm was hurting him – especially during the defensively dominated 9-0 first half, which failed to produce a touchdown – while Gruden blasted the Vikings for a spate of penalties he dubbed “inexcusable.” The most exciting flurry came when the skies opened up, which certainly made one appreciate watching from the comfort of home.

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The second half was mercifully (and perhaps inevitably) more exciting. Favre rallied his team with three TD passes – one of them, his 500th no less, to Moss – as the announcers fixated on the latest milestones in his long and storied career.

Tirico, actually, generally acquitted himself more admirably than his analyst sidekicks – hammering the Jets for what he graded a “clock management F” in the closing minutes; neatly revisiting the facts of the Favre controversy; rightly referring to the first 2 1/2 quarters as “sleepy;” and questioning Minnesota’s hesitancy about going for a two-point conversion down, 15-13, in the fourth quarter, which became significant later.

Thanks to the second-half heroics, the ratings will probably be better than most of the game was, relatively speaking. Nevertheless, ESPN had all the elements in place to make its coverage worthy of those headline-grabbing storylines, and ultimately, the “Monday Night” squad still couldn’t catch lightning in a bottle.

Recommended viewing

ESPN does deserve kudos for its “30 for 30” documentary series, with two interesting ones slated for Oct. 12 and 19, respectively: “Once Brothers,” about the relationship between former NBA stars Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, fractured by the Serbo-Croatian war; and “Tim Richmond: To the Limit,” the tragic story of the flamboyant NASCAR driver who died in 1989.

Tagged: Vikings, Brett Favre

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