The 2021 NFL season ended with the Los Angeles Rams taking home the Lombardi Trophy, defeating the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI. It was a great year of football, and an even better one in the football broadcasting world. The quality of broadcasting has never been higher around the NFL and every network boasts a marquee pairing with a deep bench of talented secondary teams.
Before we look forward to the big changes on the horizon in the sports media realm (Al Michaels to Amazon?), let's look back upon the 2021 season and rank the seven best broadcasting booths from the NFL season.
7. Gus Johnson and Aqib Talib (FOX)
Johnson and Talib debuted in 2021 as an announcer pairing and they were an absolute blast. Johnson’s mere presence invites chaos onto the field and listening to him call each snap is a roller coaster of emotion regardless of how important it is. Aqib Talib, winner of The Big Lead’s 2021 Sports Media Newcomer award, brought a new voice to the broadcasting game that we rarely hear and FOX benefited greatly. Pairing him with Johnson proved to be a brilliant move; each game with these two on the call was filled with creative angles and the occasional laugh-out-loud, absurd moment.
The Johnson-Talib booth is not necessarily for everyone. The emotional peaks and valleys traversed by Johnson over 60 minutes combined with Talib’s sometimes off-kilter commentary makes for a different viewing experience, one that is singularly unique in the broadcasting industry. We believe that sets them ahead of most of their counterparts. The only shame is we didn’t get to hear them more; Johnson and Talib only called a handful of games for FOX in 2021. Hopefully that changes in 2022.
6. Steve Levy, Louis Riddick, and Brian Griese
In the second year of their partnership, the trio of Levy, Riddick, and Griese coalesced into a complete and quality broadcast booth for the four-letter network. As Levy described to The Big Lead during the season, the chemistry built in 2020 helped everything sound far smoother and more natural in 2021, a must for a booth featuring three voices. It ended up being more important than anybody expected as this year’s slate of Monday Night Football games ended up taking crazy twists and turns at every opportunity. This booth was up to the task.
There’s still room for improvement. Riddick and Griese can still occasionally step on each other’s toes, and the broadcast as a whole has a tendency to try and shoehorn in complicated information between plays (satisfying for the football diehard, confusing for everybody else). But even with all the talk about the ManningCast, the vast majority of viewers watched Levy, Riddick, and Griese every Monday night. ESPN has found a good formula for their marquee broadcast.
5. Kevin Harlan and Trent Green (CBS)
Kevin Harlan is one of the best play-by-play men in the business, and his pairing with Trent Green got even better in its second season. What is ostensibly CBS's third team is far better than that ranking. The pairing has already become a fan favorite thanks to their burgeoning chemistry.
Green is now a veteran broadcaster after starting as a color analyst in 2009 and his development over the years especially showed this season. With Harlan's always phenomenal play-by-play work and Green's analysis is an excellent pairing that continues to improve.
4. Jim Nantz and Tony Romo (CBS)
Nantz and Romo were the standard for all NFL broadcast teams to look up to just two seasons ago, but the duo fell off a bit this season. The fault didn't lie with Nantz, whose play-by-play work was as smooth as always. No, it was Romo, who seemed less prepared this season and for much of games he appeared to be winging it, relying on his deep knowledge of the game -- rather than preparation -- to carry him.
There's no doubt Romo has talent, but the novelty of him predicting plays on the field has worn off. One of Romo's most notable characteristics is how excitable he is in the booth. While that can be endearing, it can also wear on a broadcast in big moments. He also got lit up on social media during the AFC Championship Game for his "let them score" gaffe. All-in-all it wasn't Romo's best year, which held back this duo.
3. Ian Eagle and Charles Davis (CBS)
Nantz and Romo may be the faces of CBS NFL coverage, but this year, Eagle and Davis were the better pairing as the No. 2 team. As mentioned above, when Romo and Nantz are on their game, no other booth in the broadcasting realm can compete. But when they’re off– and they were off quite regularly this year– the quality of the call goes downhill quickly. Eagle and Davis may not be able to reach the highs of their coworkers in that regard, but they aren’t capable of hitting the same lows, which is why they’re above the No. 1 booth at their own network in these rankings.
Eagle and Davis are consistent. They hit their marks. They deliver information exactly when relevant, accurately and concisely. They have enough camaraderie to have some fun when the game is slow and enough chemistry to make it feel natural. Eagle consistently rises to the occasion in key moments and Davis does the same to create great calls. If Nantz and Romo are the boom-or-bust pairing, Eagle and Davis are the stable couple, cruising steady at a high performance level. Consistency counts for a lot in this industry, and in 2021, Eagle and Davis should be praised for it.
2. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman (FOX)
As we noted in our 2021 Sports Media Awards, Joe Buck is the gold standard for play-by-play work. He gets huge assignments but is still massively underrated. Some viewers can't stand him, but we're not sure why. He's as good as they come. His dry sense of humor permeates every broadcast and, perhaps most importantly, he doesn't take himself too seriously. Troy Aikman is a steady analyst who plays off of Buck well. The long-paired duo is excellent together and this season shined yet again.
What made this duo particularly fun this year is that Aikman, for whatever reason, took the gloves off near the end of the season. He half-jokingly complained about having to call the Bucs-Eagles blowout instead of Cowboys-Niners on Wild Card Weekend. He had arguably the best call of the playoffs when he said "I’m afraid that it’s going to have to be Jimmy Garoppolo that gets it done," at the end of the NFCCG. As the year went on, Aikman's criticism suddenly became far more pointed and, above all, accurate. We don't know why, but we're glad for it. It took the Buck-Aikman booth to another level in 2021.
1. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth (NBC)
In what is very likely their final year together, Michaels and Collinsworth reigned supreme. While Super Bowl LVI was not their finest performance in the booth, the full season of work gave us the best of the two and reminded us all why they've been considered the best in the business for so long. Michaels showed he hadn't lost a step despite nearing 80 years-old, while Collinsworth leaned into the tropes that made him a great color commentator and a target to poke fun at on social media. Like Eagle and Davis, this is an extremely consistent booth that brings great commentary to the table every single week-- but Michaels and Collinsworth, with all their experience in the industry and sitting next to each other, are simply better.
There's something to be said for consistency and familiarity. Michaels and Collinsworth have been together for a decade and it shows. They each know the other so well and it's noticeable on broadcasts. They rarely step on each other and play like an experienced pair. Because they are. Michaels and Collinsworth are the standard for a broadcasting booth in terms of steadiness and stability, the platonic ideal for a long-term partnership that all networks wish they had.