Dennis Miller made his widely anticipated debut Monday night on "Monday Night Football." Hired last month to act as a lightning rod for what had become a tranquil telecast, Miller had a presence that created barely enough electricity to power a flashlight, let alone jump-start ABC's marquee pro football attraction.
Miller's main milieu has been late-night cable television, where his rants, occasionally on the raunchy side, have a cult following on HBO. But the mass football audience watching "MNF" since its inception in 1970 got precious little insight on the game within the game from a man network officials had billed as a super fan with vast knowledge of the sport.
In fairness, it also must be said this is the first live broadcast of the season with ABC's revamped and much ballyhooed announcing lineup. They've been rehearsing in the studio for most of the last month, and they're probably going to get better. In fact, they'd better get better.
As long as Al Michaels continues as the main voice of authority in the booth and the games are reasonably competitive, MNF will be worth watching. But my initial reaction is to continue to wonder why Boomer Esiason couldn't keep his night job.
The broadcast began with an elderly man lying in a hospital bed with his heart monitor flat-lining. A guy in a scrub suit pulls out a tape recorder, puts the headsets on the old fellow and the familiar MNF theme music is heard, immediately followed by the "beep, beep, beep" of the monitor registering a now clearly audible heartbeat. It was about as funny as a heart attack.
Michaels first brought in sideline reporter Eric Dickerson, who did his own rant on why he hated training camp, the main reason for all those contract holdouts. Then he introduced new football analyst Dan Fouts, followed by sideline reporter Melissa Stark.
"I've been part of 'Monday Night Football' for 14 years," Michaels finally said, before Miller was shown on camera. "I've come to expect the unexpected, but this is off the charts."
Said Miller, "If there's anyone in the stadium more pumped up than me, they wouldn't pass the league's drug test."
Seconds later, he said: "I know a lot of people think I won't take this seriously, but after all, it is still a game. ... It's not the Vatican, but then again the pope doesn't have to go across the middle against Ronnie Lott either."
It didn't take Miller long to throw out the word "genitalia" when he talked about the Patriots' J.R. Redmon having minor groin surgery in the offseason. Miller said he had a hard time believing the "minor" because "anyone who has a sharp instrument around my genitalia" ought to be taken very seriously.
Many of Miller's comments clearly seemed scripted, especially early on. He described Canton, Ohio, as the "Tigris and Euphrates" of football, then remarked how odd it seemed for the game to be played on artificial turf in the cradle of the game.
Later came an unnecessary comment about San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia, who "played in Canada and has a Mexican name," with Michaels diving into the mud by chiming in that if Garcia didn't play well, he'd be sent back across the border.
Executive producer Don Ohlmeyer, brought on board last winter to revitalize the production, has insisted from Day One the grand old days of Howard Cosell and Don Meredith never could be duplicated. Whoo boy, at least he got that right.
Miller's hiring clearly was an attempt to create the same sort of buzz around a telecast that once made Cosell, in particular, a love-him-or-hate-him household name in all the land and made "MNF" must-see TV during his 14 years on the job.
I knew Cosell, and believe me, Miller is no Cosell. Neither is an X's and O's man by any stretch, but what distinguished Cosell was his ability to ferret out intriguing information pertaining to that night's game or other happenings around the league. He knew a good story when he saw one, and once he sank his considerable fangs into it, he never let go until the final credits rolled.
He was an insider's insider. Miller is clearly an outsider's outsider, with only a fan's knowledge of the game.
Mostly, he offered unfunny, seemingly forced lines; snide, borderline-crude comments; little insight; and more than the occasional cliche. He also demonstrated he could spout stats with the best of them, and ABC seemed to have more graphics per minute than any football telecast in recent memory.
As for the rest of the crew, Fouts was a rather pleasant surprise. After a somewhat slow start, he had no qualms taking shots at players for poor throws, dropped balls and missed tackles.
Dickerson looked like a terrified ex-jock trying to learn his craft on the job. He added nothing to the broadcast. Stark knows how to phrase a question but also seemed something of a lightweight and hardly a reason to ditch the extremely competent Lesley Visser. There's a 20-year difference in their ages. Guess who's younger?
They'll have two more shots to get it right in the preseason before the regular season opener. But if Ohlmeyer thought Miller's presence would jump-start this broadcast, he'd have been far better off signing up the Energizer bunny, which, by the way, doesn't talk.
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