SIRCUS: Inside sports networks

I know why you’re happy, Yale. Sure, the weather is unusually nice, but it’s not global warming that’s got you smiling wide. And yeah, shopping period can be a hoot and a half, but that’s not why you’re whistlin’ “Dixie” down Prospect Street. Here’s what it really comes down to — Yalies are running rampant with joy because the NFL playoffs are here! Yes, that magical time of the year when Tony Romo chokes (see week 17) and Drew Brees turns superhuman (see Detroit’s secondary) is upon us, and they have yet to disappoint.

Now, if you’re like me, shopping period gives you your Sundays back, which in turn, gives you the chance to sprawl out on your common room couch and spend the day watching coverage upon coverage upon coverage. And, just like watching the end of Brett Favre’s career, you can follow so many network teams in so little time. With countless former players, iconic TV personalities and Chris Berman crowding your cable box, it can be daunting to choose which pre-game crew will best suit your coverage needs. That’s where I come in. What follows is a profile of the four major network pre-game teams (NBC, ESPN, CBS and FOX) and the personalities with which they most closely align. Note that I’m leaving the actual announcing crews out of the mix (sorry, Chris Collinsworth).

NBC: Let’s start with the team that gets the fewest games per season, the NBC squad. Though they have the rights to the Olympics, high ratings for one month out of every four years cannot alone make up for the weakest network television station in sports. After losing the NBA on NBC in 2002, the National Broadcasting Company had to pull together a solid cadre to pull in viewers for “America’s Game of the Week” (also the channel’s only game of the week). Out of their efforts came what I like to refer to as the gentlemen’s club — a classy yet knowledgeable team of Super Bowl-winning former Colts head coach Tony Dungy, former Pro-Bowl safety for the Patriots Rodney Harrison, Dan Patrick and Bob Costas. This is the old boys’ club of NFL studio teams. Patrick, Dungy and Harrison are the most amicable and convivial group on television. Though Dungy and Harrison have every reason to loathe one another, even their disagreements are G-rated. This is the squad you would want to take home to your mother — a group of well-groomed, experienced and nice guys simply chatting about football with one another.

CBS: “The NFL Today” on CBS rounds out the “nice guy” troops. Led by James Brown, this team splits the load with FOX in covering the highest number of NFL games. Former players such as former Broncos and Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe, former Dolphins Quarterback Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason (sorry Chris Berman, he had the name first) bring the panache necessary to attract viewers, but the squad lacks the energy necessary to excite me for an entire day of football. Really, whenever I’m watching, I find myself unable to stare at anything other than Bill Cowher’s mustache.

FOX: “FOX NFL Sunday” is the bread and butter of the entire network. The program sacrifices bigger names for bigger personalities. A crew made up of Super Bowl-winning former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, former Raiders defensive end Howie Long and former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan almost never disappoints. You’d like to sit down with these guys, crack open a root beer, munch on some buffalo wings and argue for hours and hours about whether or not Tebow time stands a fighting chance against Brady and the Pats. Look to these guys if you want to follow sports with your heart rather than your brain.

ESPN: It’s hard not to love the ESPN “Sunday Countdown” squad. This is the motley crew of pre-game football — a team that may not seem to mesh on paper but establishes an air of jovialness once the camera goes hot. Led by Chris Berman (despite his girth, not a former NFL star), the countdown crew touts such larger-than-life personalities as Super Bowl-winning former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, former Panthers wide out Keyshawn Johnson and Super Bowl-winning former Giants coach Bill Parcells. This is the group that makes pre-game coverage fun. From gimmicky intros to absurd catchphrases, this is the channel to watch for the most complete pre-game experience.

There you have it. Whatever your pleasure, the networks have got you covered. Here’s to another action-packed week of playoff football.

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