The true test of a team or an athlete is how they perform in a crisis, when the game goes off script and the improv begins.

Unfortunately, CBS Sports doesn’t recruit from the Groundlings or Second City. Because when it came time to ad lib, its announcers stumbled badly on the biggest stage of all, the Super Bowl, won last night by Baltimore over San Francisco, 34-31.

No one expected the lights to go out in the New Orleans Superdome, needless to say. The 34-minute delay was embarrassing for the league and the arena’s operations staff, but it was CBS who came off worst. It was bad luck that game announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, the two men seemingly best equipped to handle some vamping, were on the side of the stadium that lost power. So a confused nation was greeted after an ad break by sideline reporter Steve Tasker, who gamely tried to explain what was happening. Unfortunately, he wasn’t up to the task of gathering news and relaying information on the fly, which is supposed to be his raison d’etre. His stuttering report (in which he called the Superdome “New Orleans Stadium”) didn’t help viewers get closer to understanding the scope of the blackout delay. Fellow sideliners Solomon Wilcots and Tracy Wolfson were equally unhelpful.

Then the NFL Today crew took over. James Brown, Bill Cowher, Dan Marino, and Shannon Sharpe appeared shortly after they finished their regular halftime duties. It was apparent the group had mentally checked out until the game was over, or were still bedazzled by Beyonce’s performance, because without preparation and rehearsal, the quartet showed themselves to be the propped-up mannequins we all suspected they were.

Brown, the Harvard-trained veteran who should have functioned as the traffic cop in this situation (think news anchor during a special report), looked glazed, unable to do more than tell us that play would resume in about “15 minutes,” which he held to even as the delay ran toward half an hour. Marino wisely recognized his limitations without a script and mostly held his tongue—unlike the others on set, he already had his surprise for the week. Cowher, who has been miscast in the studio setting since being hired after his long coaching career, went furthest off the reservation, suggesting the 49ers “think about [inserting backup quarterback] Alex Smith,” an inane idea that was proven idiotic as soon as play resumed and starter Colin Kaepernick immediately led San Francisco back into the game.

Then there was Sharpe. Most of us who have been forced to watch pre- and post-game shows over the years realized that the mush-mouthed, Hall-of-Fame tight end was a ridiculous hire. His incoherent rambling during the blackout should force CBS execs to rethink his future use. He began with “there was a surge in the building, and it was the Baltimore Ravens” (who led 28-6 at the time of the outage), and used that line at least two more times. The rest of the time Sharpe babbled platitudes and “say-what?” moments. As a former Ravens player, he clearly loved what was happening on the field, and let his enthusiasm slip into his analysis, such as it was.

The lone CBS pre-game voice capable of handling himself during this crisis, Boomer Esiason, was unfortunately on the national radio broadcast as well, and was unavailable for TV duty. Esiason hosts a daily radio morning show in New York, and the telecast desperately needed his nimbleness at the mic, and his edgy takes (seen before the game when alone among the crew he deflated the Ray Lewis love-in CBS helped foster).

Would other networks have done better, given the unlikelihood of the blackout? I’m certain that NBC, with Bob Costas and Dan Patrick, or ESPN with its panoply of reporters and experts to call on, would have been far better options. Fox’s frat-house crew, which yuks it up at every half-witticism, would have likely fared even worse.

All losses are teaching moments, as the coaches like to say. In this case, CBS (which otherwise provided a solid production, except for Simms, who talked far too much without any real insight) should think about what its audience truly wants from its on-air talent, in particular its studio crew. Is it just big-name former stars who were great when things broke down on the field but not so much when it happens on the set? Or does it want to be able to come through with a smart broadcast when things don’t go precisely as planned? In the cold light of morning, they need to make some changes.

 

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta.