Monday, December 26, 2005

"I won't get paid if I say the F-word, and I want to get paid," Miller says. "But here's a little code breaker for you. When you hear me say, 'Golly,' I really mean [bleep]."

Tonight marks the end of Monday Night Football's 26-year run on ABC. For 555 shows, NFL fans have alternately been thrilled (Dec. 22, 2003 -- Brett Favre's stunning performance the day after the death of his father), horrified (Nov. 18, 1985 -- Joe Thiesmann breaks a leg for the audience) or confused (pick any game with Eric Dickerson working the sidelines).

ABC always had an eye for the bizarre in choosing its announcers, from the sublime Howard Cosell to the ridiculous Lisa Guerrero. But no television casting in history has ever caused more consternation than the selection of comedian Dennis Miller to join Al Michaels and Dan Fouts in the booth for the 2000-2001 season.

Miller turned out to be the aural equivalent of anchovies -- 10% of us swore by him, while the remaining 90% found him so unpalatable they nearly retched. The experiment lasted only two seasons, and some fans still haven't forgiven ABC for it.

But why? Why was ABC pilloried for taking a chance on someone who actually had a grasp of the English language and real wit, someone who attended college to actually read books instead of knock heads?

It wasn't as if Miller had no concept of the game. He was (and is) a knowledgable sports fan, and his commentary often proved to be at least as insightful as that of the improbably upbeat Fouts. This was a good booth, even with three mouths gasping for airtime.

Yes, Miller had a tendency to overreach, stretching for a simile the same way Dwight Clark stretched for "The Catch." When he missed, there was a painful silence in the booth and in the living room, but damn it, at least the man was making the effort!

I had no problem having to grab a dictionary or do the occasional Google search to get one of Miller's references. It certainly beats having John Madden explain at length how a player crossing the goalline with the ball means a touchdown, or how moving one's legs more quickly means running faster.

I know Miller's tenure, at least in terms of the ratings, was a spectacular failure. I also know the "average" football fan was turned off by the polysyllabic words and mention of topics that didn't involve the 3-4 defense, frozen tundra or a cheerleader's breasts.

But there were some terrific Miller moments, including:

* "Shanahan's tendencies are harder to read than Angelina Jolie's." -- discussing Denver head coach Mike Shanahan's odd playcalling.

* "I want to thank Jesse Ventura for making me look like Ray Scott." -- on Jesse Ventura's less-than-stellar broadcast work with the XFL.

* "That's the party boat, the S.S. Max McGee." -- after a shot of a party boat headed up Green Bay's Fox River.

* "That hit was later than Godot." -- on a particularly tardy personal foul.

So although I'm sure no one but me will say it, here it is -- thanks, ABC. Thanks for giving me two years of laughter and thought to go alongside Al Michaels' play-by-play and Dan Fout's upbeat chatter, and thanks for not thinking all football fans are morons.

To read a few of Dennis Miller's greatest moments, visit the MNF Archive.

No comments: