If there is anything more depressing than watching the Buffalo Bills play on Sundays, it is listening to the WGR-AM sports talk shows drilling Drew Bledsoe and the boys over and over for the rest of the week.
But for at least three hours on a Sunday there is refuge from the nattering nabobs of negativism, a chance to hear a much more optimistic spin from Bills radio play-by-play man John Murphy and analyst Alex Van Pelt, who will get their largest audience of the season on 97 Rock on Sunday for the blacked-out game with the Arizona Cardinals.
Near the end of Sunday's 20-6 debacle in Baltimore that assured the blackout, Murphy asked Van Pelt a simple question that tested his credibility.
"What do you make of Bledsoe's day?" Murphy said. "Not a real effective performance."
Murphy was being kind. Bledsoe is even getting hammered nationally these days. Jim Rome, pronouncing from his California seat 3,000 miles away, says Bledsoe is "done," and CBS' Shannon Sharpe is cracking that Bledsoe gets sacked more than groceries. Even Bledsoe's diminishing legion of defenders realized that his five-turnover performance was his worst game of the season.
"Not a good day any time you have four interceptions," Van Pelt said. Then Bledsoe's former backup backed away, using the defense the quarterback came up with later in the week. "It's tough to say. Three of them being tipped."
It may have been tough for Van Pelt to say. It was tougher to hear how hard it was for the former quarterback to say that Bledsoe threw a few ill-advised passes.
While many Bills fans were abandoning the game on Channel 4 -- the game had the lowest rating in recent history -- the radio announcers were still clinging to hope very late in the game.
"The Bills are trying to stay in this one," Murphy said. The score was 20-6, and there was less than two minutes left.
Before the season, Murphy was expected to convince Van Pelt to throw away his cheerleading outfit and be candid. But at times Murphy seems to have become more like Van Pelt. Two Sundays ago, when the Bills finally won a game against Miami, Murphy occasionally sounded like a cheerleader. "How's that for a defensive stop!" he exclaimed after one big play.
Murphy is as solid as expected on play-by-play and has had only six weeks to get down the right mix of enthusiasm and objectivity. He isn't there yet. Now that he has become the voice of the Bills and hosts coach Mike Mularkey's television and radio shows, Channel 7's sports director has to guard against losing some of his independence. Fans may wonder if he can be a hard-hitting, nonbiased reporter as Channel 7 sports director during the week while doing his work with the Bills the rest of the time. Murphy has said he's aware of the potential conflict and intends to be careful.
He isn't alone. Paul Peck, the Bills' sideline reporter, also doubles as a Channel 4 sports reporter. The Bills say the announcers are paid by the station, with the Bills having input into their hiring.
These conflicts of interest aren't unique to Buffalo. You can hear worse examples of cheerleading from team play-by-play announcers on HBO's "Inside the NFL" or elsewhere.
However, Bills fans have been spoiled over the years. If Van Miller still did one thing well at the end of his legendary play-by-play career, it was being objective and not denying things that were easily visible to fans. Murphy doesn't have to go to WGR territory and make a bad play sound like a capital offense, but he would be wise to be more candid.
Murphy often looked for the positive against the Ravens, noting, "I think (Chris) Kelsay is coming on," and that the Bills seemed to be finding their rhythm before a Bledsoe interception.
Van Pelt has moments of candor, noting that having a penalty for 12 men on the field is unacceptable, conceding that Bledsoe forced a pass on one interception and missed an open Eric Moulds at the goal line. In earlier games, Van Pelt criticized cornerback Terrence McGee for giving too much room to receivers and receiver Josh Reed for not going back to the ball. Van Pelt's candor gives more credibility to positive comments, like his reference to Don Beebe's touchdown-saving Super Bowl play after Moulds chased down a Ravens interceptor to deny a TD.
Moulds' refusal to quit was one of the few positive things to take out of the Bills' latest loss. Analysts often exaggerate the significance of one game. After the Miami victory, many of the same pundits bashing Bledsoe this week were wondering if they had been too hard on him because he only had three interceptions in the first five games, one on a Hail Mary pass.
A victory Sunday could derail the Bash Bledsoe Express. But if things don't improve, even Murphy and Van Pelt may have a tough time finding something positive to say.