To circle what's going on in NFL, chuck TV telestrators and tune in Buck, Stram

Phil Jackman

January 04, 1993|By Phil Jackman

The time was the early '70s, when the NFL, with unflinching cooperation from ABC, attempted to revamp the television-viewing habits of America in prime time.

Nobody really expected "Monday Night Football" to soar through the ratings, laying to waste any programming the competing networks thrust in its path, much less be running strong two decades later.

At the same time and with both football and television convinced they had tapped in on the second Comstock Lode, the folks over at CBS sensed an opening.

Recall, while Howard Cosell was making a name for himself and creating an impact not likely to be neutralized for a hundred years, he was also upsetting a few people with his manner. The whole world was Howard's foil, the man never realizing we knew what he was up to all the time.

A bar in Denver went so far as to run a contest each week, the winner of which was accorded the opportunity to fire a brick through a TV screen as Cosell pontificated.

Remember how Howard would come on with that staccato voice and make like a huge combine hacking its way through a Kansas wheat field.

CBS Radio did, deciding to gather up all those put-upon and enraged listeners with its word picture of the usually attractive Monday night game. It is estimated that less than a dozen people ever tuned in to the broadcast at the appointed 9 p.m. hour, but that literally millions were aboard as soon as sufficiently enraged by Cosell, estimated at about 9:05.

Two guys did the broadcast -- Jack Buck reporting the down, yardage, formation, score and time remaining, and Hank Stram, a longtime coach who had a knack for knowing what play was going to be run even before it was relayed down to the sideline from the coach's booth upstairs.

They were great, weren't they? "Well, Hank, what's it look like here?" Buck would ask, and Stram would reply, "Look for something to the right, maybe a screen or a quick flip to the tight end."

More often then not, bingo!

For the past several years, or since Cosell decided to move on to greater purpose, it seems there has been no need to incorporate the descriptions of radio with the pictures of TV, although Dan Dierdorf can test the patience from time to time. And that's unfortunate, because still at the old stand doing a fine job are those old buckaroos Buck and Stram.

Each of the past two afternoons, first at the Chargers-Chiefs game, then from the Saints-Eagles fracas at the Superdome yesterday, they delivered the goods, stuff you rarely get from the namby-pamby guys in the TV booth.

For instance, while John Madden was going on and on about a Philadelphia guard named Baldinger, Stram was letting you know how and why the Saints were transforming a 20-10 lead after three quarters into an embarrassing 36-20 loss.

"It's the nature of New Orleans to get ahead, then play conservatively. They [Saints] have been doing it all season," he said. "You'd think they'd learn. Over the years, they've lost a lot of important ballgames that way.

"Today, they got off the bus, came in here with quick hits, throw, throw, run, throw, went right down the field and scored. They had it going. Second-half starts and they weren't on the attack. They got away totally from what had been working for them."

At this point, Buck wryly added that the home team was about to absorb its fourth beating in playoff competition, "the exact number of games they've played in the postseason."

While the TV types were commenting on what a "fine" season it had been for the Saints as disappointed fans screamed their disapproval and fled, Stram reported: "Look at this place. It's like a fire drill's going on. Someone rang a bell and 75,000 people scattered."

While Madden was telling a viewing audience Saints coach Jim Mora "knew he had things under control until they went for a pass on third down [and one]," Stram was telling listeners, "Oh-oh, [quarterback Bobby] Hebert's changing the play to a pass even though he's got his big running back [Ironhead Heyward] in there."

Right on the money. The pass play failed badly, the Saints punted, the Eagles drove down and scored to move ahead 24-20, and the rout was on, all the while Stram saying, "I don't understand it."

This is Hank's way of assessing the strategy of a team or a coach, much in the same way fans in the stands or at home and on the road watching or listening are doing.

Rare is it when you find someone who cares one whit about what Podunk's record is when halfback Jones runs for 100 yards in a ballgame, the stuff supposedly great TV graphics are made of. But everyone's into strategy. If you doubt it, look around at a baseball game sometime and notice if anyone has an opinion when a question arises about replacing the pitcher.

Stram must have muttered the word "terrible" a half-dozen times during the Chargers-Chiefs game Saturday before Buck sprang him loose: "What's terrible, Hank?"

"I mean, Jack, come on. San Diego's running the ball great, pushing the Chiefs down the field, everything's working. Then boom, the guy goes back in the pocket and gets sacked twice. What's going on? They're heading for what looks like a sure touchdown and now they're not even going to get a field goal. Am I missing something here?"

Unfortunately, Buck and Stram could not be at the Buffalo-Houston game yesterday. Hank no doubt would have had a few incisive things to say about the Oilers blowing a third-period, 35-3 lead to the Bills.

Chances are, the thought of Stram's analyzing their moves up in the radio booth doesn't appeal much to coaches. But it's an important and interesting guide for the fans, and you'll never get a coach to come out too strongly against Hank and his work. Remember, he did it all as a coach, including a Super Bowl win and four of his products plus one of his team owners made it into the Hall of Fame.

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