Like so many others, I found myself a little freaked out by the final installment of “Monday Night Football.” The way ABC presented that Jets-Patriots game, you would have thought “Seinfeld” was wrapping up or something. When the game finally finished, Al Michaels appeared ready to start bawling on live TV. He really did. I kept waiting for them to break out that Green Day song as a final touch.
Which begs a simple question: Has the phrase “Monday Night Football” meant anything beyond “Cool, there’s a game on tonight!” since Howard Cosell left in 1983?
Despite one of the most successful runs in the history of prime time (36 years), you could make a pretty good case that ABC actually underachieved with the show. Just add up the number of announcers, sideline reporters and halftime hosts from 1983 to 2001 alone — this wasn’t exactly the ’98 Bulls breaking up here. Besides, isn’t the Monday night franchise simply moving down the dial to ESPN? Maybe the Worldwide Leader is available in 20 million fewer homes than ABC, but do you know anyone in any of those 20 million homes? More importantly, will your football routine change on Monday nights next year? I didn’t think so.
That didn’t stop the broadcast of Monday’s Jets-Pats game from attempting to become the sports equivalent of Johnny Carson’s final show, or the national media from pounding that “Farewell To An Icon!” angle into the ground over these past few weeks. Apparently we were supposed to care more than we did. Believe me, I’m in the exact target audience of people who should have been affected by Monday night’s game. I grew up in the late ’70s preaching to the altar of Cosell’s halftime highlights, one of the five coolest things on television at that point. When Earl Campbell ripped off four touchdowns against Miami, I remember where I watched the game. When Cosell announced John Lennon’s death, not only did it happen during a Pats game, but our kicker was lining up to kick a field goal.
So when they showed those old clips Monday, they meant something to me. But I didn’t care about any of the post-Cosell clips, with the possible exception of the dude who jumped into the runway to catch that field goal. And that was the biggest problem here — comparing the Cosell Era to the post-Cosell Era was like comparing the Beatles to Wings, or even the Smashing Pumpkins to Zwan. It’s not even remotely worth it.
Two things made the Cosell Era stand out. First, you couldn’t replicate the Gifford-Meredith-Cosell team if you tried (as ABC slowly found out). Gifford was the most popular football player of the ’50s and ’60s, a matinee idol in every sense, as well as one of the few athletes who successfully crossed over into broadcasting. Meredith was a force of nature, just a likable guy who appealed to everyone in every part of the country. And Cosell pretty much hijacked that show and made it his own personal pulpit — he was the one who transformed that telecast from “mere football game” to “polarizing television event.” Whether you hated Cosell or loved him, you had an opinion about him. He mattered.
More importantly, we had like only six channels back then. Maybe “Monday Night Football” was a huge deal, but so was “Fantasy Island,” “The Incredible Hulk” and everything else. Yeah, the Meredith-Gifford-Cosell team meant something to me, but so did Bill Bixby and Cheryl Ladd. So did Jimmie Walker. So did Donny Most and Mindy Cohn, for God’s sake. Growing up in the late ’70s, there really wasn’t much to do. I’m telling you.
And that’s what confused me about Monday night’s telecast — they were saying good-bye to an era that everyone had already dismissed and digested. Sure, I miss Cosell and Dandy Don, but I also miss seeing Charlene Tilton in her soaked bathing suit after falling into the dunk tank on “Battle of the Network Stars.” What’s the point? The fact remains, “Monday Night” started losing its cultural relevancy in the early ’80s, as soon as everyone started getting cable and Cosell called Alvin Garrett “that little monkey” during a Redskins game in 1983. Once everyone realized that the man was slowly losing his mind, that was it for him and the show. It became a simple prime-time sporting event after that.
(Were there some good memories over the years? Absolutely. Of course, I have just as many fond memories of CBS’s NBA coverage in the ’80s — their outstanding opening music, Brent Musburger yelping “You’re looking live at the Boston Garden,” Pat O’Brien calmly interviewing Moses Malone at halftime and keeping his legs crossed the entire time, even Tommy Heinsohn trying to pretend that he wasn’t rooting for the Celtics during every big Bird-Magic game. But that’s just me.)
The bigger issue here (and one everyone fails to mention) was how many mistakes were made since Cosell’s departure. With the exception of Dennis Miller’s hiring, ABC made a concerted effort in the post-Cosell Era to emphasize football and steer away from the entertainment angle. They just hired the wrong guys and gave them the wrong directions, so there was a perception that they were tinkering just to get headlines. Even stranger, sports TV writers mistakenly believed that we cared about this stuff — what was happening at halftime, who was joining the booth, the new faces on the sidelines — when we were watching only because we needed a football fix, because we liked one of the teams, because we wagered on the game, because (in later years) we had fantasy guys involved. With the exception of Miller’s first few games, nobody was watching for the announcers. And yet, ABC and all these sports TV writers made us think we cared.
Did you see that Boomer Esiason is joining Monday Night Football?!?!? Wow! That’s big news!
But was it? Did anyone really care? Only the Miller Experiment mattered, and that was because ABC was making a conscious decision to shift away from straightforward football into sports entertainment although there was a sense of desperation to the move, like they wanted to reinvent the franchise and didn’t know exactly how to pull it off. Everyone forgets this now, but back in the summer of 2000, Sports Illustrated slapped Miller’s mug on the cover with the headline “Can Dennis Miller Save Monday Night Football?” Clearly, the “Monday Night” franchise was struggling more than anyone wanted to believe.
During the last few years, the ship was righted (somewhat) with the Michaels-Madden-Tafoya team, although Michaels and Madden had been working separately for too long and were too settled in their respective shticks to click on a substantial level — they always reminded me of one of those powerhouse duets from the ’80s (when celebrity duets were all the rage), like when Frank Sinatra teamed with Bono on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” During the final minutes on Monday night, it seemed like Madden wanted to feel emotional, only he wasn’t invested like during his final Fox game with Summerall (when both guys choked up). Michaels seemed considerably more distraught, but for what reason? Everything shifts over to ESPN next season. He still has a job. He had more partners over the years than a barista at Starbucks; he couldn’t possibly have felt verklempt about any of them. So why get bent out of shape?
Without sounding like too much of a party pooper, I liked “Monday Night Football,” appreciated it, enjoyed it but only four things stood out about that 36-year ABC run other than the Cosell-Meredith-Gifford team:
1. The theme song
Unparalleled. The fact that they eventually augmented it with the Hank Williams Jr. song proved what’s wrong with television — here you had the perfect theme song, something everyone loved, and the higher-ups still felt the need to tinker with it. Seriously, do you know one person who watched the beginning of “Monday Night Football” and thought to themselves, “You know what? This music is great, but I can’t shake this nagging feeling that it could be better “
2. The concept of football on Monday nights
Again, not a huge problem here — it’s coming back next year on ESPN. Seemingly everyone has the Worldwide Leader. In fact, I know only one person who doesn’t have cable: My stepmother’s sister Becky. That’s out of all the people I know. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of people. And you know what those people will do next September? Instead of watching “Monday Night Football” on ABC, they will pick up their remote control and flick over to ESPN. The whole thought process will take about 0.0003 seconds.
3. The power of Cosell
There has never been anyone like him before, or since. Greatest boxing announcer ever. Most divisive football announcer ever. Best agitator ever. One of the most entertaining interviewers ever. By all accounts, one of the biggest behind-the-scenes jerks ever. And his halftime highlights I just remember watching those games in the late ’70s, waiting for the first half to end and hoping that he would spend even 20 seconds on a Pats game. This is one of those “You had to be there” things — kinda like how you had to be there to understand the sheer magnitude of a detective show that featured Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd. But you had to be there for Cosell. You just did.
(Most underrated Cosell moment: In 1974, when Sinatra came back to Madison Square Garden for a concert called “The Main Event,” they billed it like a boxing event, with Sinatra singing in a makeshift boxing ring and everything. And when it was time for Sinatra to come out, Cosell belted out a three-minute introduction for him that’s just incredible, an absolute masterpiece. Live, from New York, the city whose landmarks are famous all over the world, a world center for shipping, transportation, communications, finance, fashions and above all, entertainment. A city that pulsates always because of the millions of people who live here, work here, visit here You have to hear it — it’s that good. There was nobody like Cosell.)
4. The never-ending comedy
Now this is what we should have been celebrating. The Gifford-Cosell-Meredith team lasted through 1983 (augmented during the last few years by Fran Tarkenton, then O.J. Simpson), followed by an almost unprecedented two-decade run of decision making that rivaled anything Isiah Thomas ever inflicted on Knicks fans. Keep in mind, this was the premier announcing gig in any sport.
Here were the teams ABC came up with:
1984: Gifford, Meredith and Simpson. With the way they ignored O.J. during Monday night’s retrospective, during the few times we did hear his voice (like during that 1985 Bears-Dolphins highlight), I’m surprised they didn’t figure out a way to digitally erase all recorded evidence that he worked for ABC. But he did — it happened. O.J. was almost as bad at announcing as he was at being an ex-husband. And given that Meredith was openly mailing it in at this point, and Gifford was starting to screw up names and stuff, this should have gone down as the worst football announcing team of all time
1985: Gifford, Simpson and Joe Namath. Let there be no doubt this was the worst broadcasting team of all time. Much like with Cosell and Jaclyn Smith, you really had to be there — the comedy was off the charts. Repeat: off the charts. When I’m running ESPN8 some day, we will show all the games from this season on an endless loop. You can’t even imagine. It was a “Saturday Night Live” skit for 16 straight weeks — every play sounded like this:
Gifford: “Hostetler back to pass, excuse me, that’s Simms, he takes the sack!”
Simpson: “Whoaaaaaaaa! Whoaaaaaaaa! Wow!”
Namath: “He didn’t see the blitz the blitz was on gotta watch out for the blitz blitz very bad blitz bad “
(Even weirder, all three of these guys ended up in bizarre tabloid headlines. Gifford had that stewardess thing and the “You have wonderful breasts, I’m extremely aroused right now” quote; Namath had the “I wanna kiss you” moment with Suzy Kolber; and O.J. trumped both of them. And then some. I’d say more, but he’s still on the loose. I don’t want to provoke him. Back to the column.)
1986: Michaels and Gifford. So they quickly dumped Namath and O.J., brought in Michaels to right the ship, and moved Gifford to color analyst. And we all liked Giff. Great guy. Even when he married Kathie Lee, we didn’t hold it against him. With that said, he wasn’t breaking down plays or anything, and he lacked Cosell’s charisma to carry a telecast. So 1986 became an entire season of Giff saying things like, “Walter Payton for so many years such an inspiration what a runner the complete package ” and then Michaels would wait for a long enough pause so he could jump in and announce the next play.
(Needless to say, I loved this season as well. I loved the Frank Gifford Era. So many years, so many memories.)
1987-1997: Michaels, Gifford and Dan Dierdorf. Jeez, were these guys really together for 11 years? Apparently so. I always felt bad for Dierdorf, a quality color guy who was destined for what he’s doing now (straightforward nuts-and-bolts guy on CBS) instead of his ABC role (nuts-and-bolts guy with a personality). Well, Dan Dierdorf isn’t an entertainer, and he’s not a comedian. He’s a nice guy. And since Gifford was already filling that role, Dierdorf had to resort to a steady stream of “Ho ho hos!” and “I’m not so sure he isn’t the strongest human being on the planet!” and “You think these guys don’t care about this game!” and all that faux humor/sweeping hyperbole that drives us crazy. I thought it was interesting that he went to CBS and immediately became a normal person again.
(Two other crucial subplots from this era: First, Lynn Swann started as a sideline reporter, paving the way for the Eric Dickerson/Lisa Guerrero hirings that pretty much redefined the parameters of unintentional comedy as we knew it. And second, with the announcing team failing to set the world on fire, they started taking goofy chances with the halftime show, paving the way for Tim McGraw’s “I like it, I love it” highlight song that had hundreds of thousands of country-music haters inadvertently humming the chorus on the way to work this winter, realizing what they were doing, then debating whether to veer into oncoming traffic.)
1998: Michaels, Dierdorf and Boomer Esiason. I just remember this season being extremely awkward
1999: Michaels and Esiason. but not nearly as awkward as this one. Poor Boomer lost his confidence, started getting the Calvin Schiraldi Face going and you could almost imagine Michaels storming out of the booth, calling the president of ABC Sports after every game and screaming, “Look, you have got to do something! I am dying here! Throw me a bone!” After the season, Michaels sat brooding in his Lake Tahoe house while Boomer was shot in the back of the head during a fishing trip. Oh, wait, that’s how “The Godfather, Part II” ended. But some enjoyable Michaels-Boomer bad blood developed over Boomer’s departure that continues to this day — don’t count them out for “Celebrity Boxing 4.”
2000-01: Michaels, Dan Fouts and Dennis Miller. My favorite post-Cosell team. I loved when Miller called Michaels “Albeeno.” I loved those 4-5 Miller jokes per show that cracked Fouts up. I loved when Miller pretended he knew football with “serious” observations like “These guys can run the ball — they’ve averaged almost 4.2 yards per carry this season!” I loved when Michaels would crack jokes during blowouts because Miller was there — you could almost imagine Michaels sitting in his hotel room writing potential jokes just so he would be properly armed.
I loved how Fouts became so confused by the whole Miller monkey wrench that he stopped trying to analyze the games altogether, leading to the famous SNL skit when Will Ferrell played Fouts saying things like, “The key to this game will be who scores more points.” (Even stranger, Fouts eventually turned into an outstanding college football guy for ABC). And best of all, I loved how Miller had to restrain himself after every Eric Dickerson update, when he knew and we knew that E.D. was the kind of thing he might have skewered in the past. Like every other post-Cosell team to this point, these guys were perceived as somewhat of a mess but at least they were interesting.
Actually, I enjoyed them. There. I said it.
(Note: The Miller Experiment is unfairly remembered as an out-and-out disaster, much like Letterman’s hosting job for the 1994 Oscars is unfairly remembered as a disaster because of the Uma-Oprah thing even though Letterman was great that night, even though Miller did well enough that he was coming back for Year No. 3 before John Madden suddenly became a free agent. I always thought Miller lost confidence during his second season, mainly because nobody realized how hard it was to crack jokes during a prime-time football game when just about everyone involved was off-limits. You think it wasn’t killing him every time they showed Red McCombs and he couldn’t crack on McCombs’ hairpiece? Nobody ever gave poor Miller the benefit of the doubt. Eventually, he lost his confidence and that was that. I still say he’s the most underappreciated mainstream comic of the past 20 years, even if he still owes me $7 for “Bordello of Blood.” But that’s a whole ‘nother story.)
2002-05: Michaels and Madden. Finally, some normalcy in the booth. During close games, these guys were good. During blowouts, not as good. But they certainly weren’t a train wreck. And when you consider what transpired the previous 20 years, that’s as good a compliment as anything.
Still, isn’t it possible that an entire generation remembers this show for both the glorious Cosell Era and all the missteps and goofy moments that happened afterward? Why did the media ignore those misfires over these past few weeks? Why the kid gloves treatment?
And while we’re asking questions, why was Michaels so emotional on Monday night? Maybe he just loves ABC that much. Maybe he realized that he spent nearly 20 years trying to turn the telecast into Destination TV. Or maybe it was because he never had a real chance in the first place. Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, “Monday Night” meant more than it probably should have. Of course, so did Dee from “What’s Happening!!” But nobody was living up to that Cosell-Meredith-Gifford team, and nobody was matching the importance that “Monday Night Football” held during an era where nobody had cable, DirecTV, iPods, video games or the Internet. That was truly the perfect storm of football broadcasting, something we will never see again. At least until Cosell is cloned.
One final note: Near the end of that Jets-Pats game, Michaels made a big deal about the final score (31-21) being the same score of the first-ever “Monday Night Football” game in 1970. And sure, that was fitting. But you know what else was fitting? The game ended with 42-year-old Vinny Testaverde throwing the last touchdown in “Monday Night Football” history, followed by a failed onside kick and 44-year-old Doug Flutie kneeling to cement New England’s victory.
And just like that, “Monday Night Football” was done on ABC. You could almost choke on the symbolism.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.