Top network NFL broadcast teams, ranked objectively, precisely, and beyond dispute:
1: Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, Sunday Night Football, NBC.
2: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, Fox.
3: Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts, CBS.
3,327: Greg Gumbel and Trent Green, CBS.
So those are as subjective as it gets, and while I happen to believe the order is precise and accurate, I suspect this doesn’t prevent dispute, but invite it. Further suspicion: It is the runner-up ranking of the Buck/Aikman tandem that will draw the most you-actually-like-those-guys? ire.
I do. They’re not quite the equal to the Michaels/Collinsworth standard-bearer on NBC, which is interesting since Collinsworth used to share the Fox booth with Buck and Aikman. But they are superior to CBS’s overfamiliar No. 1 team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms and still ahead of the unsung Eagle/Fouts pairing, which was elevated this year to the network’s No. 2 spot, held recently by Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf.
I never thought I’d miss Dierdorf, whose habit of using 37 words where one would suffice quickly canceled out his jovial approach. But Green, the former quarterback and newcomer to the booth who has joined Gumbel to call two Patriots games already this season, makes Dierdorf seem downright spare with words by comparison.
The willingness to pull back from the microphone and let the cameras tell the story in the aftermath of a crucial play is why I appreciate Buck and Aikman, the former in particular. I was reminded of this a couple of times during Fox’s “America’s Game of the Week” broadcast between the 49ers and Eagles Sunday, most notably during and after 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s 55-yard touchdown pass to Frank Gore in the second quarter.
“Kaepernick rolls to his left, throws across the field,’’ said Buck. “Gore left all alone . . . Frank Gore . . . still going . . . for the touchdown. No flags.”
Then, as the cameras hopped to various scenes showing the Niners’ celebrations and the Eagles’ frustrations, you know what Buck and Aikman said? Nothing. They were silent for 15 seconds.
I appreciated that they let the moment breathe, though it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. Sometimes we neglect to recognize the strengths of this particular broadcast team.
The Patriots will play on Fox three times this season, but the only one that lines up now to be a Buck/Aikman call is Nov. 23 against the Lions. (The others are Oct. 12 at the Bills and Oct. 26 vs. the Bears at Gillette Stadium.)
Buck, who has called four Super Bowls and 16 World Series (including the last 14), is as high-profile as it gets, yet he has a history of checking his ego at the door in the biggest moments.
Remember his call of the final out of the 2004 World Series, a chopper to closer Keith Foulke by Cardinals shortstop Edgar Renteria? Of course you do; it was pitch-perfect and instantly timeless: “Back to Foulke. Red Sox fans have longed to hear it: The Boston Red Sox are World Champions.”
Buck tends to get a disproportionate ration of grief. Much of it is unjust. He has deep roots with the St. Louis Cardinals, where his father, the beloved Jack Buck, is an icon.
But it has never come through in a broadcast I’ve heard.
Buck can project as smug, and his sensibilities can seem delicate, such as when then-Vikings receiver Randy Moss feigned mooning Packers fans during a 2005 game, a juvenile but funny act Buck deemed disgusting.
He was also complicit, along with his longtime baseball broadcast partner Tim McCarver, in turning so many Yankees-Red Sox games through the years into Derek Jeter fawn-fests. Thank goodness Fox didn’t have the call of his career finale yesterday. It would have been saccharine, sappy and insufferable.
But that doesn’t diminish what Buck does well. He sets up Aikman with a conversational deftness that makes the former Cowboys quarterback come across as casually candid, such as when he noted after Gore scored Sunday, “They’ve been trying to put him out to pasture here for years.”
The standard for understated game-calling was set by Pat Summerall a generation ago. His call of Adam Vinatieri’s winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI is almost comical in its sparseness. “And it’s right down the pipe . . . Adam Vinatieri, no time on the clock . . . and the Patriots have won Super Bowl 36. Unbelievable.”
Buck isn’t quite that understated. But on a network that is known for being anything but, and in an era when being the loudest can be lucrative, the unpretentious approach is worth appreciating.