When it comes to TV analysts, there is NBC’s Cris Collinsworth. And then, there is everybody else.
And he was at his best Sunday night in the Baltimore Ravens’ prime-time matchup with the San Diego Chargers, explaining the games within the games like nobody else on TV can. In fact, no one even comes close.
Start with his energy and presence. Because of Collinsworth’s laid-back manner and casual form of speech, you think of him as easy-going at first glance.
But in the first half Sunday night, there was hardly a play that went by that Collinworth didn’t follow with some piece of analysis. There are CBS games when analyst Dan Dierdorf is so missing in action for such long stretches of time, that you wonder if he left the booth and went home.
Not Collinsworth. He’s there after virtually every play, and it is not blah, blah, blah, Mr. Gas Bag filling time.
In the first quarter, he explained how one of Chargers’ coach Norv Turner’s strengths was using man in motion to allow quarterback Philip Rivers to determine when the Ravens were in man-to-man coverage. The idea being that in man-to-man, certain members of the defensive team would shift with the men in motion.
When such shifts took place, Rivers knew the Ravens were in man-to-man, which gave him the green light to go after rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith.
And the producers were right there from the first series, using superimposed arrows as graphics to show the motion, the shift, and then the replays of Rivers completing passes over Smith.
“They said he was a little jumpy and looked a little over-confident for a rookie, and they were going to take advantage of it, and they have,” Collinsworth said, recounting what Turner had told him prior to the game about Smith. “Turner said this guy [Smith] hasn’t experienced enough of the bad things that can happen to you in the NFL.”
The man-in-motion to detect man-to-man and the exploitation of Smith was a major story line of the first half, and listening to Collinsworth, you got to the point where you not only understood what San Diego was doing to the Ravens, but could anticipate it. That is how a TV analyst enriches the viewing experience for an average fan.
But that was only one thread of continual analysis from Collinsworth. He also followed former Ravens Jared Gaither at left tackle for the Chargers, and showed him burying Ray Lewis on a blitz up the middle late in the first half.
The play featured a long completion, and the natural way to watch the play was by focusing on Rivers and the wide receiver who made a nice double move to get behind the Ravens defenders.
But the play was barely blown dead when Collinsworth said, “If you’re going to do the double move on the outside, you have to be able to pick up the blitz on the inside.”
And as the words were still coming out his mouth, NBC’s producers had the replay up showing viewers a ground level view from where Rivers was standing when he released the ball. And what you saw was Lewis tearing up the middle toward Rivers, and then, getting pancaked to the ground by Gaither.
The former Raven might have been holding Lewis on the play, but whether he was or not, he kept Lewis on the ground and off Rivers.
You want more?
Another Collinsworth thread of analysis was self-titled by the analyst as “Year of the Tight End.” He introduced that a few minutes before Ed Dickson’s TD catch.
As Collinsworth put it: “These big tight ends this year – you just throw it high, and let them go up and make a play.”
The Ravens’ poor play might have seemed inexplicable without Collinsworth’s analysis.
With 5:30 left in the 3rd quarter, he returned to the theme of Smith getting picked apart by Rivers and linked it to Lardarius Webb being out – and the effective use of tight end Randy McMichael to stay in and “chip” block Terrell Suggs all night to slow down his pass rush.
On the minus side, Collinsworth came into the game singing the praises of Suggs, and said McMichael looked “nervous” and was “flinching” as he was getting “beat up” by Suggs. Collinsworth has a smart aleck, snarky, even kind of nasty side at times -- and will mock a player who looks weak.
(I know, I know, he also admires Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger way too much for some Ravens fans to stomach. Spare me the emails. Vent your rage about the 34-14 loss some other way.)
But to Collinsworth’s credit, when he saw he was dead wrong about McMichael and Suggs, he changed the narrative, and praised the Chargers tight end for his performance -- as he talked about some of the Ravens defensive "superstars" not showing up Sunday night.
(I can't wait to see how many local reporters, columnists and analysts will be calling some of the Ravens out for not showing up on national TV Sunday. The world knows some new Ravens names like Jimmy Smith's -- but not for the right reasons.)
As for the rest of the pre-game and game telecast, it wasn’t the NBC team’s greatest game of the year. But it was still better than any other prime-time football coverage.
There were way too many commercials – and promos for NBC prime-time series that are even worse than the ones CBS plugs endlessly. It looked as if at least one play was even clipped for promos and commercials.
But you can never be certain whether that is the fault of the network or the local station (WBAL) packing in some of its promos for the huge audience on hand. And in fairness, it was the weekend before Christmas, so the ad inventory was surely through the roof. And no one in the media these days turns their backs on a buck when you can make one.
And there was still a lot to enjoy despite the way the Ravens foundered.
I love the pre-game openings with Bob Costas in the stadium talking to Michaels and Collinsworth about the big plays and developments of the day in the NFL. Sunday’s opening chat was another winner.
And while Tony Dungy’s interview Sunday with Ravens coach John Harbaugh was nothing special, it was engaging and pleasant enough.
I thought “Football Night in America” analyst Rodney Harrison was barking mad when he picked the Chargers over the Ravens at the end of the pre-game telecast.
Barking mad – and sadly correct.
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