20 Greatest Broadcasters in NFL History

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IDecember 23, 2011

20 Greatest Broadcasters in NFL History

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    As ridiculously popular as the NFL is right now and has been for several years, the majority of fans don't actually go to the games. Most watch or listen from home, at a bar or at work. 

    And while football is a great enough game to watch and understand without audio, radio needs voices and even TV benefits tremendously from narration or expert analysis. 

    We rely on the announcers for that.

    And while a huge portion of a broadcaster's popularity (or lack thereof) is a result of preference, many broadcasters transcend taste, especially when it comes to longevity. 

No. 20: Gus Johnson

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    I'll start the list off with a broadcaster likely to be very polarizing.

    Maybe Johnson isn't a "great" broadcaster in the traditional sense of the word. If he was, he'd probably be doing more prime-time and marquee games....although he does have that Buffalo Wild Wings commercial. 

    But it's impossible to deny that Johnson brings a real excitement and energy to the games he broadcasts. And in the end, that's what you want from the play-by-play voice. 

No. 19: Bob Lamey

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    The Voice of the Indianapolis Colts practically as long as there has been an Indianapolis Colts franchise, Lamey adds a distinct flavor to games.

    Sure he falls into the undesirable category of a "Homer," but local play-by-play guys are usually allowed some leeway on that front.

    It's true that the Colts' recent decade of dominance helped put Lamey on the map, but he took advantage of the opportunity and his voice has become a huge part of the modern NFL.

    Announcing over 400 touchdowns (regular and postseason) by Peyton Manning certainly helps. 

No. 18: Marv Albert

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    Obviously, Albert is more closely linked to the NBA (and that scandal of the late 1990s for that matter) but the NFL is still a major part of his legacy.

    He was a play-by-play voice on television for NBC and now with CBS. But radio is where he's been most successful when it comes to professional football.

    Albert did Westwood One's Monday Night games for several years, and the enthusiasm that he made a his trademark for the NBA came with him. 

No. 17: Jim Nantz

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    Like Albert, Nantz's greatest legacy as a broadcaster is probably not the NFL: golf is where he's forged a name for himself. 

    But CBS entrusts him with the network's top game each week, so they have tons of faith in him.

    And even if his broadcasts seem a bit more conversational and friendly ("Hi there, friends"), he brings tremendous insight and perspective to the game, especially in terms of NFL history.

    You have to love that Bob Griese/Super Bowl VI reference he made at the end of Sunday's Patriots-Broncos game. 

No. 16: Gil Santos

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    In a way similar to Bob Lamey of the Colts, I look at Santos as a broadcaster who became far more mainstream and well-known (despite many years on the job prior) during the last decade while his team became a dynasty.

    Santos was doing Pats games before Tom Brady was even born, but more often than not, during the fall, you heard a clip of Santos narrating a Brady a touchdown pass on Monday morning's SportsCenter.

    And his voice (unlike a Van Miller, Bob Lamey, Merrill Reece or Myron Cope) was always very authoritative and regal. He brought a kind of expertise to the play-by-play position that was usually reserved for color analysts. 

No. 15: Cris Collinsworth

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    Here's another extremely polarizing figure. 

    I sympathize with the people who can't stand Collinsworth. He is as prone to hyperbole as anyone in the history of the world...like that hyperbole there?

    And I think he occasionally gets too swept up in the banter with Al Michaels. 

    But of all the broadcasters in today's NFL, he brings the most technical insight into the game without overloading on details, the way Mike Mayock does at NFL Network or Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden tend to do.

    And he almost always finds the right balance between being too critical of players and too lovey-dovey. That's a unique and tremendously important skill in today's broadcasting. 

No. 14: Don Criqui

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    As stated in the introduction slide, longevity earns some serious credibility in this debate.

    And even though Criqui has never been regarded as a network's premier, so-called No. 1 play-by-play voice, he's been broadcasting NFL for over 40 years. 

    According to Wikipedia, he's narrated such iconic moments as Tom Dempsey's field goal, Red Right 88, and the Miracle at the Meadowlands. 

    On a side-note, he too has that type of melodious voice that draws listeners in no matter what is happening on-screen. That's why he's been so versatile as an announcer.

No. 13: Van Miller

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    It's tough for a broadcaster to be forever linked to one single-play, especially a sad one like Scott Norwood's Wide Right. After all, that was just one of hundreds of thousands of plays in a long career. 

    But that is probably how most fans outside of Buffalo recall Miller's voice.

    That is sad considering he was so positive and fun to listen to, repeatedly using the "Do you believe it?" phase.

    And while the "Kick heard 'round the world" is his most famous legacy, I choose to remember his calls from the Bills epic comeback against Houston in January 1993. Never was his catchphrase "Fandemonium" more appropriate than that day in Orchard Park, N.Y.

No. 12: Frank Gifford

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    While longevity is certainly a criteria for a list like this, it isn't enough to earn a broadcaster a top 3 or even top 10 spot. And that's why I've put Gifford, one of the most famous voices in American sports history, comparatively low.

    He was a staple of Monday Night Football for over a quarter-century, but despite his great playing career and obvious knowledge of the game, I'm not sure how often he was truly insightful or overly compelling from within the booth.

    Nevertheless, his versatility and appeal is unmatched: he is probably the only person ever to serve as both a color analyst and play-by-play voice at the most prestigious job in sports broadcasting, Monday Night Football. 

No. 11: Myron Cope

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    Yoi! Mmmm-ha! You might be saying if you're a Steelers fan: "Cope should be much higher!"

    True, Cope does deserve a ton of credit for giving more life and kitsch to the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s. After all, he did invent the Terrible Towel, one of the most cherished and easily recognized sports-rallying devices ever created. 

    And Cope had moments of real thoughtful analysis of what was taking place on the field. 

    But he became almost too much of a cartoon-figure, caricature of himself during the later years that he lost some credibility in terms of being a "real broadcaster."

    Nevertheless, he's became as much a part of Steelers history as the Rooney family, Super Bowl success, and big-chinned head coaches. 

No. 10: Lon Simmons

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    I suppose it's a stretch to say that Simmons was the West Coast's version of Myron Cope, but there's something to it.

    Simmons, the 49ers voice for 26 years, was filled with energy and love for the team to the point that he was probably too tied up in whether the team won. Take his borderline traumatic broadcast of Steve Young's famous touchdown against Minnesota in 1988.

    But, again, when it comes to the hometown voice (not the national broadcast), we tend to absolve the allegedly non-partisan professionals of homer-ing a broadcast. 

No. 9: Merrill Reece

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    I don't know what it is about Reese's voice, but he is just so compelling to listen to. 

    A lot of the names on this list, especially the recent and local broadcasters, made a name for themselves by repeatedly announcing Super Bowl triumphs: Brad Sham in Dallas, Myron Cope in Pittsburgh, Gil Santos in New England. Obviously that's not the case for Reese, an Eagles announcer. 

    But Reese just has such a natural love and enthusiasm for the Eagles that he's fun to listen to with that high-pitched, almost nasal-sounding voice.

    Whether it's the Miracle at the Meadowlands (I or II) or his trademark call of a successful field goal, or Randall Cunningham's epic 95-yard touchdown pass to Fred Barnett in 1990, he brings a unique, almost inexplicable appeal. 

No. 8: Dick Stockton

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    Stockton is often forgotten at Fox because he and his team take a back seat to the allegedly elite Joe Buck squad, but I'd much rather hear Stockton and Co.

    He brings plenty of excitement to the broadcast but never lets himself get too caught up in the moment or sounds like he's fawning over players, coaches or a play. 

    And he, too, has a very distinctive voice that carries tremendous authority, as if he knows more than you, but without actually saying it. 

No. 7: Brad Sham

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    Maybe it's because he does games for America's Team, but Sham is inextricably linked to the modern-day NFL.

    He's been the voice of two separate Cowboys dynasties and narrated plays of truly iconic players Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. 

    In the same way that Gil Santos lends a real authority to his broadcast of Pats games, Sham brings a knowledge and perspective that literally takes decades to develop.

No. 6: Pat Summerall

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    Here's where we start to get in some really tricky situations: the classic and iconic broadcasters, of which there really are only a few.

    Summerall's detractors would say that he sounded disinterested at times, dull, even lifeless during his later years on Fox. Maybe like you were listening to a cranky, old grandpa. 

    But he had the most regal voice and brought tons of insight as a former player to games, something that a play-by-play voice rarely gets to do.

    Although the outlandish, excitable voices of a Gus Johnson or Merrill Reese lend an extra enthusiasm to the broadcast, at times, the complete opposite is needed: the play on the field should speak for itself.

    Summerall's style helped redirect the attention back onto the field, rather than in the booth. And most importantly, he never came off as a fan, something that can detract from a broadcast. 

No. 5: Dick Enberg

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    Enberg may have only broadcast two Super Bowls, but because both were such classic games (Steelers-Cowboys in 1996, 49ers-Bengals in 1989) he holds a special place in the Championship game's history.

    He meets all the criteria for being a legendary broadcaster: He has a catch-phrase ("Oh, My!"), he's worked with several different personalities and crews, and manages to find the right mixture of enthusiasm tempered by professionalism. 

    Besides, we all know that if you're friends with Merlin Olsen (they were broadcasting partners at NBC), it means you're kind of a big deal. 

No. 4: Curt Gowdy

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    Surprisingly, very few of the names on this list are/were NFL-first broadcasters: Dick Enberg might be better associated with tennis than football. For Jim Nantz, it's the Masters. And Marv Albert made his name beside the hardwood. 

    The same is true for Curt Gowdy, who was the Boston Red Sox voice for years and is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame's wing for broadcasters. 

    But Gowdy was one of the first truly great voices of professional football as well. He did the first Super Bowl, was the voice of Joe Namath's historic upset two years later, and broadcast the infamous "Heidi Game."

    He also narrated several of the greatest playoff games of the 1970s, including the Immaculate Reception, the Sea of Hands, and easily the greatest Super Bowl of its era, the Steelers-Cowboys classic in January 1979. 

No. 3: Lynn Swann

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    I've purposely left off studio voices like Chris Berman, James Brown and Terry Bradshaw, because they're not "broadcasters" in the truest definition. They are not there covering the games. The real broadcasting action is almost always inside the booth.

    But there is one subset of broadcasters that deserve their due: the sideline reporters. And while there have been some great ones along the years (both the visually appealing kind like Tony Siragusa and the intelligent former players like Melissa Stark....or do I have that backwards?) the godfather of sideline reporting is Swanny.  

    He basically invented the job and was always insightful, entertaining and engaged. If you were to select a dream broadcast team, he'd have to be your sideline reporter.

No. 2: John Madden

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    If Lynn Swann invented sideline reporting, John Madden essentially invented the color analyst position.

    Sure many former players and coaches preceded him as the expert opinion in the booth: Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, Hank Stram and others. 

    But Madden brought a type of enthusiasm and detail to the job that no one had before and probably since. Just think about how influential the telestrator is: Madden made that a staple.

    And for better or worse, the voices of Madden and Pat Summerall bantering back and forth defined autumn Sundays for literally millions of Americans. 

    That alone should be enough to overshadow his exaggerated love for specific players like Brett Favre

No. 1: Al Michaels

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    It's not just about all the Super Bowls he's broadcast (seven) or the decades he spent as the voice of the most prestigious job in all of professional sports broadcasting, Monday Night Football, or the fact that he's sat alongside some of the best color analysts ever.

    Instead, I tab Michaels as the greatest of all time because he so perfectly knows how to talk to his audience.

    Sometimes we as viewers/fans want the loud, excitable broadcaster. Sometimes we don't.

    Sometimes we as viewers/fans want the insightful, historical context. Sometimes we don't.

    Sometimes we as viewers/fans want the banter with the broadcasting partner. Sometimes we don't.

    Michaels somehow (not always, but the majority of the time) picks the right places to drop in a joke with Cris Collinsworth or John Madden or Frank Gifford.

    Drop in a reference to Bart Starr or Earl Campbell. Drop in a "HE DID WHAT!" following Antonio Freeman's wacky grab that rainy night in Green Bay.

    People always play the hypothetical "2 minutes to go, down by 4-points game, who do you want under center? Who do you want as your head coach? Who do you want on defense?"

    If nothing else, I want Michaels at the mic.