Monday, August 05, 2002

Madden teams with Michaels on ABC

Monday night games won't see Bengals

        PASADENA, Calif. — John Madden seems to know everything about the NFL, so maybe he can answer my question: Will the Bengals ever appear again on ABC's Monday Night Football in my lifetime?

        “Oh, I don't know, the Bengals are in a tough spot,” says Mr. Madden, who debuts with Al Michaels in ABC's booth today from Canton, Ohio, (8 p.m., Channels 9, 2) after 21 seasons of Sunday afternoons on CBS and Fox.

        The excitable ex-coach is uncharacteristically glum when he talks about the hapless Bengals, who haven't played on ABC prime-time in 10 years. It was Oct. 19, 1992, to be exact.

        “Cleveland, I think, has a shot. I think they'll (improve) before the Bengals,” he says after an ABC press conference with the Television Critics Association here.

        The Cleveland Browns aren't playing on Monday Night Football this season either. Neither are the Buffalo Bills, who recently obtained quarterback Drew Bledsoe; neither are the Dallas Cowboys, once the premier Monday night team.

        Being ignored by Monday Night Football actually can be a good omen. Five of the last six Super Bowl participants — St. Louis and Tennessee in 2000, Baltimore and the New York Giants in 2001, and the New England Patriots this year — have been surprise teams on the rebound not scheduled for Monday games by the NFL office.

        “People ask me, "Who do you think that's not there (in the playoffs) that will be there pretty soon?' And I think of Cleveland. I don't see Cincinnati,” Mr. Madden says.

        Mr. Michaels, the former Reds radio announcer (1971-73) on WLW-AM), yearns for a chance “to get back to Cincinnati,” but he doesn't plan to book a flight anytime soon. He says Cincinnati's Not Ready for Prime-Time players and owner puzzle him.

        “The way the league is set up, with the draft and free agency and all, you'd think they would have been better at least once during this period,” says Mr. Michaels, entering his 17th year on Monday Night Football.

        “All teams go through terrible periods. The Oakland Raiders over a seven-year period were terrible, but then they improved,” Mr. Michaels says. “So there is hope for the Bengals.”

        Odds are that the best NFL team this season will be Madden-Michaels. ABC should score big in the ratings by replacing comedian Dennis Miller and former quarterback Dan Fouts with Mr. Madden, who has 13 Emmys for outstanding sports analyst.

        “Somewhere in your broadcasting career, if you're going to be fulfilled, you want to be part of Monday Night Football,” says Mr. Madden, who calls the job the pinnacle of his career.

        He expects to click on the air instantly with Mr. Michaels, who has four Emmys for best sports personality and numerous “sportscaster of the year” awards.

        “I don't think it will take any time. He's a consummate professional, and I'm a consummate bumbler,” Mr. Madden says. “I'll bumble around, and he'll consummate the deal.”

        But Mr. Michaels knows that his new partner is the consummate NFL analyst.

        “This is a guy who knows a heck of a lot about a lot of things than just football,” says Mr. Michaels, who recalls talking to him about John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley when they first met in 1975.

        “He's the whole package. John can see football from the coach's perspective, the players' perspective, the administrator's perspective and the fans' perspective.”

        Mr. Michaels calls two years with comedian Dennis Miller a successful “noble experiment,” and “an adventure.” Not everyone agrees, he concedes.

        “There are a lot of people, obviously, who just don't want to have to think about anything but the game, and who were distracted by talk that didn't involve the game itself,” Mr. Michaels says.

        Mr. Miller and Mr. Fouts would have been back this year, had not Mr. Madden wanted to join ABC after the retirement of Pat Summerall as Fox's No. 1 play-by-play announcer.

        “We're going to have a lot of laughs this year,” Mr. Michaels says, “but we're also going to concentrate on the game.”

        Mr. Madden says he has talked to NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue about not picking the Monday night matchups for December until midway through the season, so more playoff bound teams would get national exposure.

        “Every year some team comes out of nowhere,” says Fred Gaudelli, Monday Night Football producer. “Who knows, the Bengals may be that team this year. They're due, wouldn't you say?”

        Don't bet on it.

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