In Defense of Jon Gruden

Michael David Smith at describes comments that Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers made via Twitter during the NBA Finals. One of those comments took Magic Johnson to task for his almost entirely positive commentary on individual players and, as he did it, Rogers also took a back handed swipe at Monday Night Football commentator Jon Gruden:

Magic is quickly becoming the John Gruden of ESPN NBA coverage. Everybody is the greatest everything. #bedtime

Aaron Rodgers (@AaronRodgers12) June 21, 2013

Smith seems to agree:

I don’t watch enough of ESPN’s NBA coverage to know if Rodgers’ criticism of Johnson is valid, but I do agree with Rodgers that Gruden can be so relentlessly positive about every player that his analysis becomes pointless: When you call every player great it can serve to diminish the players who are truly great. Perhaps that’s why it took a truly great player to call Gruden out.

This is a surprisingly shallow comment from the usually thoughtful Smith. It reflects comments that I frequently hear after writing up my “Game Comments” after Bears games during the season. I usually devote at least one line to how I thought the television commentators did if I watched the game at home. This single entry draws more comments from people than almost anything else I typically address in the post. Like Johnson and Gruden, most people think I’m “relentlessly positive” in my comments.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, the Bears play a lot of night games and when they aren’t in prime time, they often get an afternoon slot where much of the country sees them. What that means is that the Bears naturally have been getting the best football commentators available for their games. If you were to look back into the history of this blog into some of those darker years where the Bears weren’t very good, you’d see many more critical comments as they drew the fourth or fifth announcing teams.

However, its the other reason that’s relevant here. I think many fans have a warped idea of just what constitutes a good color commentator for a football game, indeed for any sport. These men really aren’t there just to hammer on players for bad play. In fact, in my opinion, its the least of their duties. As a research scientist one thing became clear to me very early on in my career: any moron can criticize. You can always tell when comments on your work came from a young investigator in training because they pick on things that everyone knows are a problem but which few people think are a real obstacles to supporting a particular conclusion. The trick is to recognize when its appropriate to both listen to and offer a critical comment (i.e. when the criticism is important) and when its not. In the case of football players, everyone – even the best of them – makes mistakes. We all know that. For that reason whatever criticism a good commentator offers on individual players is usually in terms of individual technique. Beyond that, frankly, if Gruden isn’t too free with his critical comments, he’ll hear few complaints from me. I don’t care if he says if a player is great or isn’t great. I can usually see that with my own eyes.

What really makes for a top notch commentator – what really makes the difference between a Cris Collinsworth and some schlub off of a local television station somewhere – is the ability of the person involved to teach the viewer about the game. This is where Gruden excels. He’s always going to be the guy to notice some little point about how the defense is playing, where the mismatches are or where the offense is attacking in a particularly notable way. Almost all fans are limited by the fact that they aren’t good enough to actually get on the field and do the things that NFL football players do. We can’t go to mini-camp and learn about the ins and out of the cover two defense. Its these comments from the likes of Gruden and Collinsworth that are so valuable because they increase understanding of a game we all love and would like to know better but where opportunities to do so are limited.

This is far more important than criticizing the play of individuals because those types of comments die after the game is over or after the player involved is no longer on the field. In contrast, the lessons taught about how the game is played last a lifetime and whatever criticism we, ourselves, offer should be targeted with that in mind.

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