Growing up a Browns fan on the East Coast in the late-1980s presented one thriving dilemma: I barely witnessed them play.
In the ancient days of pre-Sunday Ticket America, following an out-of-town team took on the weight of a tricky, long-distance relationship. Mornings were spent sifting through USA TODAY for the smallest nugget of intelligence out of Cleveland. Real-time access meant praying for an occasional clash with the locally televised Giants/Jets or -- be still, my heart -- the rare Monday night appearance, which loomed as nothing short of a life-altering event to this sheltered middle schooler.
I religiously recorded the Browns' once-in-a-while appearances on our state-of-the-art VCR, piling up a collection of ornately labeled tapes that grew from filling a shoebox to a large trunk. I'd rewind and analyze these precious battles time and again, with certain perfectly delivered lines from the announcers becoming as storied to me as anything uttered by Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.
Their voices became etched within. Mired in pre-algebra class on a doomed Monday, I could hear the easy cadence of Pat Summerall; Jack Buck's grand narration from faraway lands; and John Madden happily falling in love with football all over again with each new play.
My hardworking editors would prefer I rank these guys, but I have no way to do that. How does one order a flock of equally beloved uncles?
Don Criqui and Bob Trumpy
That stack of VCR tapes I mentioned above? These two dominate the collection as storytellers of AFC drama during the mid-to-late '80s. Criqui operated as the ultimate professional, a play-by-play rock who called NFL fare on network TV for 47 consecutive years from 1967 to 2013. He was more than just another run-of-the-mill ANNOUNCER VOICE, though, sprinkling broadcasts with dry-humor A-bombs while swimming in a pool of on-air chemistry with Trumpy. Teaming from 1984 to '88 on NBC, they understood the personalities, feuds and quirks of the AFC and brought that detailed flair to Sundays. Criqui's steady temperament was an ideal counter to Trumpy's edgy riffs and bouts of annoyance with on-field events. They were excellent teachers, too, with Criqui turning research nuggets into lines of pre-snap poetry and Trumpy confidently doubling down on his real-time observations. Lesser broadcasters stuff pre-planned points of discussion into the show. Criqui and Trumpy comfortably let games come to them -- many of them classics.
Al Michaels, Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf
There was a time when Monday Night Football reigned as king. Existing today in a fog of prime-time fare and online distraction, the vehicle has lost juice in the same way Saturday Night Live -- previously appointment viewing -- no longer feels set apart.
In a post-Howard Cosell universe, Michaels and Gifford worked together swimmingly, with the former securing his spot as the gold standard of play-by-play men while the latter brought a sense of class and regality to the role. I often found myself piqued by Dierdorf's rather basic brand of humor, but the trio remains prized to me as my first taste of Monday night madness. They saw it all: Bo Jackson barreling over Brian Bosworth in the Kingdome, Eric Metcalf juking a pair of Bengals into oblivion, and Joe Montana's searing final showdown with John Elway. The three-man booth is no simple task, but this crew pulled it off by knowing how to separate immense moments from run-of-the-mill fare. I cannot tolerate one-speed, booming play-by-play dudes who equate a fair catch to the sinking of the Titanic. No worry of that with Michaels and Gifford at the wheel.
Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden
"Two people are going to be talking, having a conversation while watching the game. For three-and-a-half hours," Tirico once told me. "You better be able to connect." He did that well with Gruden, the coach-turned-broadcaster-turned-coach who ultimately succeeded on Monday Night Football after a somewhat-rocky start in a crowded booth that also included Ron Jaworski. Jaws is an excellent football mind, but Gruden found his way paired with Tirico from 2011 to '15.
Seemingly once a year, Tirico was forced to quiz Gruden about hot-and-heavy rumors surrounding a potential return to coaching, but the two also made each other better. I dug Gruden's larger-than-life persona, quirky enthusiasms and on-field mantras -- and I'd happily listen to Tirico broadcast a team of red ants raiding a carton of spoiled cottage cheese. I've heard technocrats complain about Chucky's analysis, but I'm more intrigued by chemistry, content and a sense of the moment. Monday Night Football hasn't been the same since.
Kevin Harlan and Anyone
Pondering Harlan's feats on the AM dial, I weigh his handwork against a story NFL Network's Matt "Money" Smith once told me about cutting his teeth as a radio play-by-play man:
"We were doing a basketball game, and I'll never forget it, because Barry Tompkins, you know, a longtime play-by-play voice ... came over, and we were chatting and stuff, and he's like, 'Hey, listen, man, it's your first time, you're going to do great. You're a sharp guy, you'll be fine. You just follow the action, you talk about the action, what's so hard about that?' And he wasn't being a smart-ass. He took like four steps down the stairs from where we were broadcasting from and he turns around and he goes, 'Wait a minute, are you doing ... radio?' And I'm like, 'Yeah.' And he goes, 'Oh my God! You're f---ed!' "
If Harlan ever felt that sense of dread, there's zero hint of it today. A word-spinner of the highest order, he appears equally comfortable painting the Sunday miracles of Lamar Jackson as he is describing the adventures of a Meadowlands-birthed black cat. While less-creative talkers shy away from the bizarre, Harlan turned the wayward voyage of a drunken fan into radio gold, telling us: "Somebody has run out on the field. Some goofball in a hat. And a red shirt. Now he takes off the shirt! He's running down the middle by the 50! He's at the 30! He's bare-chested and banging his chest. Now, he runs the opposite way. He runs to the 50! He runs to the 40! The guy is drunk!"
Joe Buck and Troy Aikman
FOX's Joe Buck doubles as a tractor beam for nitpickers. Baseball fans believe he despises their team. Plenty of football followers, too. As the son of legendary broadcaster Jack Buck, he's regularly accused of nepotism. Some believe Joe is guilty of much more:
I can think of larger villains than Joe Buck.
The first sporting event I attempted to describe was a gymnastics meet in 1990 for my high school's closed-circuit television station. Having never observed a second of gymnastics, I went into the assignment with fair concern about my ability to add value to the "broadcast." My concerns were valid. Eighteen seconds in, I was reduced to a squeaky-voiced naïf uttering lines such as: "Nice move by that girl right there. She jumped over that plastic thing and did not stumble."
I'm suspicious when snark-dripping hobby horses destroy play-by-play guys on Twitter. The majority of these online wit-crackers couldn't accurately describe Dak Prescott lobbing a pass into the flats, but roundly crush Buck, who became the youngest person in history to call a full slate of NFL games at 25. At that age, my superpower was *watching* a full slate of NFL games at Sally's Sports Tavern while making a teenager's wages off a string of dead-end temp jobs.
Aikman catches heat, too, as a Cowboys homer. I simply disagree with the premise. That said, I was hooked from the start as a staunch supporter of Aikman during his playing days. Queue up Hollywood agent Marvin Schwarzs from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood:
"Oh, that's an old trick pulled by the networks."
It certainly is. Shove an iconic quarterback from Dallas in the booth and watch ratings fly. I'm predisposed to favor Aikman on football Sundays, but I also see a measured analyst who has grown over time and isn't afraid to unleash a biting take when peeved. Some of those fireballs have come at the expense of Jerry Jones and the Cowboys, too.
I don't get where all the vitriol spills from.
Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth
On paper, the strongest pairing around. Michaels still rolls as a play-by-play legend; Collinsworth hovers in the atmosphere just below Tony Romo. They aren't my favorite duo on this list, but that boils down to me being a weirdo about these things. I find Collinsworth a tad folksy, but also appreciate his unusual ability to scout teams, unpack tendencies and communicate tipping-point moments inside the season's biggest showdowns.
I've spent the past seven years watching Sunday Night Football with friends and colleagues Dan Hanzus, Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling from the Around the NFL Podcast. Due to our taping schedule, we regularly miss the first half (or more) of these weekly nightcaps. Zero gripe, but that dynamic has impacted my fervor for this duo. It doesn't seem to bother the fellas, but I feel like I'm walking into a darkened, packed movie theater 65 minutes into Lost Highway. Still, it's easy for any sentient human to see that Michaels and Collinsworth are as solid a duo as they come.
Jack Buck and Hank Stram
My memories of Jack Buck chart back to the earliest days.
The gravelly voice. Pregnant pauses. Painting pictures of distant playing fields with extreme clarity. When I hear that voice within, Buck brings me back to childhood Sundays. Driving around town with my dad. The game crackling over AM radio. The Giants down by six in Green Bay. Phil Simms under center at his own 47-yard line. Buck describing the whipping wind. Hank Stram whistling about the raw power of Bart Oates. Turning a regular-season game in December into a NEW WORLD.
Buck seemed to understand exactly how I felt as a fan. What I needed to see through his lens. Precisely what type of information I required. Clear description. Matter-of-fact progressions. Little arrows of humor. He made football on the radio into something romantic. Immense. Even his ad reads felt iconic as Buck brought his audience back from break and into the early-winter fray.
Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen
As a young fan, I couldn't piece together how Olsen could announce football on NBC while also playing kindhearted farmer Jonathan Garvey on Little House on the Prairie. He was a trained eye, though, who paired wonderfully with Enberg.
Beyond his catchphrase -- OH MY! -- Enberg was a master at creating mood. He draped Super Bowls with requisite high-stakes vibes and made Wimbledon a comfortable sanctuary on Sunday mornings in July.
Enberg and Olsen earn my vote as the most warmhearted announcing duo in American history.
Jim Nantz and Tony Romo
Romo hit the broadcasting world with the subtlety of an asteroid smacking Manhattan. Lauded almost immediately as the greatest color commentator of our time, the bigger question is how Romo will manage to top himself as the career unfolds. He appears up to the task, seeing plays before the snap and dropping macro/micro observations that leave lesser player-turned-analyst types wholly exposed. His enthusiasm for the game is genuine, immense and magnetic. DO I LIKE FOOTBALL ENOUGH? is a question I ask myself with an ounce of guilt while watching Romo melt into a puddle over a draw play in the second quarter of a Week 3 game between the Titans and Colts.
His rapid rise begs another question: Why can't others equally shine? Romo's 10,000 hours spent playing football allow him to teach CBS viewers what they'll never see on their own. The next guy goes from field to booth and offers little more than cliché bombs, unable to communicate what he's learned as a player. It helps to have the consistently smooth Nantz by his side as an expert-level table-setter, but who knows? Romo might thrive in the play-by-play seat, too.
Pat Summerall and John Madden
Just say the words ... Madden and Summerall ... and I'm flooded with mental snapshots of lounging in our family room watching ancient wars of the NFC East. I can smell the takeout pizza my father picked up at halftime. The fireplace crackling. Summerall with his "Southern-honeyed bass" describing a Joe Morris carry off tackle; Madden piping in with effusive praise for Mark Bavaro's soul-shuddering block of Dexter Manley.
What's lost on the younger person who knows Madden more intimately as a must-have for Xbox: He was the finest brand of teacher. The legendary ex-Raiders coach -- like Romo above -- was able to communicate the wisdom he accrued. Those lessons were handed down with a zeal for the Xs and Os and detectable adoration for the players and coaches whose stories he told during 30 years of broadcasting. Madden worked with a host of luminaries including Vin Scully and Al Michaels, but Summerall always felt like home.