Discover more from The Sports Column
UNABLE TO CALL A POSTSEASON MIRACLE, AL MICHAELS SHOULD RETIRE NOW
Whether he is sour about an NBC demotion or knew he was losing a wager, the iconic sportscaster was lifeless during Jacksonville’s historic comeback, a symptom of his professional demise at age 78
The Internet is bigger than all of us human peons, even Elon Musk, who spent $44 billion in a futile effort to control it. Enabled by creeps and trolls who press TWEET to brighten their miserable lives, if only for an instant, the Web will slaughter you when it so desires. Al Michaels should have realized this fact of 21st-century life two years ago and retired atop the broadcasting racket at 75, long past the expiration date of most in his profession.
That’s when it became apparent NBC no longer wanted him to lord over “Sunday Night Football,” the most-watched weekly show in what is left of linear TV. The network preferred the breezy, low-maintenance, no-opinion tones of Mike Tirico, who self-identifies as “mixed race” and checks woke boxes. Clear that Michaels was being moved aside for a successor more than 20 years younger, the online vultures smelled new prey. Once he started to sound “old,” as he ultimately would, social media were poised to slam him.
AND CANCEL HIM!!!!
His time came last Saturday night, at 78 years and two months, when he sounded like he wanted to be anywhere but inside a Jacksonville booth on an always eventful NFL wild-card weekend. This was a moment seemingly made for the man who built his career describing a sports miracle, in Lake Placid, where a team of American hockey lads beat the vaunted Soviet Red Army amid the polar vortex of the Cold War. Maybe the Jaguars lacked historical gravitas, but having erased a 27-0 deficit against the wheezing Los Angeles Chargers, they deserved a better call than what Michaels provided when Riley Patterson slipped the game-winning field goal inside the right upright.
He could have at least lifted a decibel or two while coach Doug Pederson raised his arms in disbelief, Trevor Lawrence raced aimlessly in redemption after four first-half interceptions, and the Jaguars celebrated a rare interlude of joy in a mostly tragicomic existence. If this wasn’t the biggest comeback in NFL postseason history, it was the third-biggest, and Michaels certainly could have had fun with a miracle reference. Instead …
“Got it, but there’s a flag down. There’s a flag down, as everybody is running out onto the field,” he said impassively, not grasping what already was obvious — the penalty was on the Chargers, and the game was over. Yet he continued down the same rabbit hole for some reason, saying again, “But there’s a penalty marker.” Finally, seconds later, he said, “And they call it on the defense.”
As a career sportscaster who has seen it all, including an earthquake that rocked Candlestick Park during the 1989 World Series, Michaels would argue he was being careful and awaiting official word. Sad to say, his energy level was similarly lifeless throughout the comeback. He wasn’t helped by his 67-year-old booth mate, Tony Dungy, who also lacked sufficient fizz. Oddly, the play-by-play man and analyst didn’t rise to the high-drama standards of a memorable game. Know how many football voices would have done better? All of them. NBC could have summoned Boban (“He’s bouncing it”) Marjanovic for line-of-scrimmage references — “He’s standing there, he’s yelling, he’s putting his hands up a man’s butt” — and his commentary would have been an upgrade.
Worse, Michaels is known for his wink-wink references to gambling, which have become more frequent as the NFL and networks exploit the legal sports wagering craze. Is it possible — and it’s a fair question, given the attention he draws to a long-taboo subject — that Michaels had money on the game? When Patterson converted his kick for the 31-30 victory, the narrative flip represented one of the worst Bad Beats ever, if you happen to speak in the low-life parlance of bettors such as ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. One of two things happened here, neither good for Michaels’ future.
He was tired and bored and up past his bedtime.
Or he was increasingly gloomy during the collapse, and bummed out in the end, because he was losing his bet.
Either way, it’s almost understandable why the creeps and trolls suddenly found something to do with themselves on a Saturday night. They hammered Michaels, to the point he was compelled to respond publicly, never wise. He referred to the backlash as “internet compost,” telling the New York Post that he had no interest in shouting unnecessarily to create “over the top YouTube hits.”
If this is how Michaels feels — that he’s too big to stoop to such a moment and actually raise his voice in excitement — well, it’s time to go. He can golf and hang in the Riviera Country Club lounge, near his home in Los Angeles, and no fans will bother him anymore. Much as anybody with a working brain and healthy conscience grows disgusted over America’s blind allegiance to a life-and-death sport, as we’ve experienced collectively during Damar Hamlin’s cardiac ordeal, Michaels is paid handsomely to show up a few times a year and at least seem to care. His work is done for the season, and if he retires now, the lifetime tributes still will be kind. But if he continues to work and mope, the backlash will be uglier.
The problem with Michaels is that he allowed himself to be swallowed by his show-business, hey-babe, Hollywood-lunch persona. He’s all about Being Al Michaels, close friend of celebrities, industry moguls and too many sports owners to count. I first recognized this when I poked fun at the only “Monday Night Football” telecast he ever did in the Illinois college town of Champaign — the Bears were playing home games there while Soldier Field was being renovated — and wrote that the usual limo driver would have to pick him up on a John Deere tractor. I was informed he didn’t like the crack, and years later, while passing through a network party at a Super Bowl, I heard him shout my name in vain. I ignored him and continued talking to folks less full of themselves.
He was such a hot commodity that Disney Company, which employed him at ESPN, agreed to trade him as long as NBC relinquished rights to a cartoon character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. At his peak, which extended far beyond that of any peer, it wasn’t a stretch to describe Al Michaels as the greatest play-by-play broadcaster of his day. The late Vin Scully has retired the honor, but Michaels was prominent from that day at the Winter Olympics until, well, a Saturday night in Jacksonville.
If it’s true he soured on NBC when he was forced to take a lesser role on Amazon, a streaming newbie on Thursday nights that attracted less than half the audience of “Sunday Night Football,” then he shouldn’t have been in the booth this postseason. These games mean the world to tens of millions, many of whom have money invested in outcomes. I don’t know if Michaels had money on the game. But the fact I have to wonder is a lead-in to an inevitable conclusion.
Forty-three years have passed since he shouted — with authority — one of the most exhilarating cries in American history. “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” he roared. What happened to that fire, that exuberance, that high?
The thrill is gone, it seems. He should step aside and give the seat to someone who still cares. True, the Internet is filled with compost. But he gave the fertilizer crowd an opportunity to be read and heard, which is all they need to win and, ultimately, diminish a media icon.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.