CBS set the bar for quality NFL coverage for 38 years. Fox raised it to a new level four years ago and now CBS is trying to match it.
The network that practically invented the NFL on television returned to the game Sunday after a four-year hiatus in a more competitive - and more expensive - environment."It has been 1,687 days. I've been counting, believe me," said "NFL Today" host Jim Nantz, one of the few CBS announcers who stayed after the network lost football in 1994. "I was part of the NFL on CBS and it just feels right to have it back."
CBS' first day of meaningful games since January 1994 proved that getting back to the top is not as easy as writing a $4 billion check for eight years of AFC football. But the opening weekend was as solid as could be expected for a network that had been away for four years.
The game coverage was clearly CBS' strength, with the exception of a few technical glitches. The use of the continuous time-score box in the Cincinnati-Tennessee game was spotty and some of the out-of-town scores updates were wrong.
But the top announcing teams of Greg Gumbel-Phil Simms and Verne Lundquist-Randy Cross - all veterans - meshed well and proved that CBS' game coverage is deep and talented.
Gumbel and Simms, calling San Francisco's dramatic overtime victory over the New York Jets, proved that they will quickly grow into one of the top teams in all of television.
But the face of network NFL coverage comes more from the pregame show. Fans watch games based on the teams that are playing. They watch pregame shows based on the personalities at the network.
Predictably, that is where CBS needs the most work. The decision to go with three rookie analysts - Brent Jones, George Seifert and Marcus Allen - instead of a veteran like Cris Collinsworth, who moved from NBC to Fox this off-season, means it will take CBS a bit longer to reach the level of its competition.
"It would have been a whole lot easier to go with three analysts who had been in the studio before and we could have done a very safe show," CBS Sports president Sean McManus said. "But in the end, we will be a much better show than if we had gone with people who had done it last year."
But there will be growing pains until the newcomers become acquainted with network television. The first show was unspectacular - there were no major gaffes or shining moments - but there were signs of potential.
"They are not there yet, nor should anyone expect them to be," said Nantz, who has plenty of studio experience. "They are still afraid of missing even one syllable. It takes time to be able to talk conversationally on camera."
Jones was the star of the analysts, being quick with a quip or a dig at his colleagues, like telling Allen that Kansas City will miss Greg Hill in the backfield and saying players of Seifert's era were out of shape.