McCarren among the best in NFL radio booths

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Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, October 6, 2013

GREEN BAY—Tens of thousands of fans, across Wisconsin and the world, listen to Green Bay Packers games on the radio. Some mute their televisions to do so.

For years, I’ve been told the main attraction was analyst Larry McCarren.

Listeners raved about McCarren’s almost instantaneous explanations of why plays unfolded as they did, how he broke down line play on the fly and his pithy, easy to understand style.

The problem was, whenever McCarren was calling a game, I was seated in another area of the press box preparing to write about it. Some beat reporters wear headphones and listen to the radio or TV announcers, but I’ve always preferred to form my own thoughts and watch in silence.

Driving for several hours last Sunday, there was time to hear extensive portions of Chicago-Detroit on WBBM and Seattle-Houston on Westwood One.

It was impetus for me during the week to go back and listen to the entire Green Bay-Cincinnati broadcast as well as approximately 10-minute snippets of 10 other NFL games from Sept. 29.

This was my first time hearing the Packers Radio Network in more than 30 years, and of course the first time hearing McCarren, whose final season as the Packers center in 1984 corresponded to my first season covering the team on a full-time basis.

The conclusion?

Now I know why fans swear by McCarren. He’s unique in the radio industry, and scary good at what he does.

There are six pages of notes in front of me containing much of what McCarren said during the three-hour broadcast of the Packers’ 34-30 defeat. Play after play, he delivered two or three sharp, declarative sentences that, when strung together, provide a reservoir of hardcore football analysis listeners cannot find anywhere else.

Having played 12 seasons for the Packers (he ranks fourth in consecutive games played with 162), McCarren knows his audience well.

“There are a lot of markets that could give a hoot what the left guard did on a running play that gained 4˝ yards, OK?” McCarren said last week. “It’s tell me how my fantasy guy is doing and who scored the touchdowns, and I’ll move on.

“In Green Bay and Wisconsin, they want to know more than the obvious. That’s been very fortunate for me.”So you hear this after a 2-yard rush by Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard: “They had a pulling guard who should come around and get Brad Jones. But Jones does a nice job of filling and slicing right off the defensive lineman in front of him. The guard never found him.”This after James Starks picks up 3: “(Josh) Sitton pulling on the play. Getting a hat on somebody. (Carlos) Dunlap was able to olé (Andrew) Quarless and come around from outside and make the play.”This after Mohamed Sanu loses a yard on an end-around: “Bengals told the blocker you’ve got to hook this guy. Johnny Jolly said, ‘I will not be hooked.’ That’s how the play got turned inside.”This after a 2-yard gain by Starks: “Evan Dietrich-Smith trying to get to (Domata) Peko but he was picked off by a defensive end on a ram charge. Wallace Gilberry.”And this after Johnathan Franklin rushes for 12: “The essence of every Packer run is combo blocking. Secure the line of scrimmage with two, one bounces off to the linebacker. Well-done.”In some ways, the gruff McCarren works as hard at his radio job as he did becoming a two-time Pro Bowl center after being drafted in the 12th round out of Illinois in 1973.

He’s as earnest trying to explain a first-down run for 3 as a 75-yard touchdown pass.

On other broadcasts, I heard analysts chime in with thoughts on an entirely different subject or offer nothing at all after basic plays. Sometimes, the play-by-play man just keeps talking knowing his color man has nothing to say.

Wayne Larrivee, in his 15th year as the Packers’ play-by-play man, should be commended for pausing to give McCarren the chance to comment, whether the play appears insignificant or not. About 95 percent of the time McCarren does offer analysis.

The pace of the broadcast has a regimented feel. There is almost no levity or chummy give-and-take between McCarren and Larrivee. It’s a no-nonsense approach focused entirely on the game.

Still, it’s a pleasing, winning formula, one that takes advantage of each man’s strengths.

“Wayne delivers the most thorough and accurate play-by-play in the business,” said McCarren. “Wayne’s job is to say what happened and my job is to say why it happened.

“Pick out something and keep it simple and clear. It’s not the time for me to try and impress somebody with, ‘They were in quarters (coverage) there,’ and lose somebody.

“You’ve got to get in and out quick. With the commercials involved today there’s not a lot of b.s. time. The pace of the game certainly affects the pace of your analysis, and the quantity of it.”On a third-and-7 play in the first quarter, the Bengals ran a stunt and defensive end Michael Johnson powered inside as Dietrich-Smith fell backwards in front of him. It was a 5-yard sack.

At first, I had little idea what happened. Craning my neck upward to check the replay, my guess was EDS simply had been run over by Johnson.

In the radio booth, McCarren had his live look and then a quick check of the personal monitor that he carries to each game. Because NFL games carry about a 5-second delay, he generally catches that second look before Larrivee completes his call.

Said McCarren: “Johnson coming inside on a stunt. Evan Dietrich-Smith picking him up but Dietrich-Smith got tripped over the bodies and garbage laying inside. That’s how Johnson got by him.”On Monday, what McCarren said just a few seconds after the sack became apparent after two or three more viewings. Cutting a blitzing linebacker, Starks did collapse into the back of EDS, toppling him.

Dietrich-Smith had been in great position. The sack wasn’t his fault at all; it was all on Starks.

Unassuming as a player, McCarren has been the same way in a broadcasting career that started from ground zero at WFRV-TV in Green Bay 25 years ago. He’s a purist who never lost his love for the techincal side of football.

“I’ve been around this stuff forever so you kind of know where to focus,” he said, referring to the sack. “You get a sixth sense where the issue was. It’s not some mystical thing.

“Say live, it looked like a mess. If I get another look at it I kind of know where to go.”McCarren could have coached. Instead, he found his way into broadcasting, and after a brutal first year or two became a respected, award-winning presence on the Green Bay airwaves.

In 1995, the Packers invited him to join Jim Irwin and Max McGee and form a three-man booth. When they retired after the ‘98 season, the Packers hired Larrivee from the Chicago Bears and paired him with McCarren.

McCarren doesn’t just attend and watch every Packers practice. His attentiveness borders on obsessive. Each week, he also studies coaching tape of the Packers’ next opponent.

Besides serving now as sports director of WGBA-TV in Green Bay, McCarren also hosts his “Packers Live” show on Monday nights and serves as co-host of “The Mike McCarthy Show.” His favorite job is the radio gig.

Of the 35 analysts on team radio broadcasts (three clubs have two), 33 played pro football. Seventeen made at least one Pro Bowl, including 16 with the team that they presently broadcast.

Ten of the 33 were quarterbacks. No other position spawned more than three analysts.

The only former center working as an analyst, McCarren’s call is far different from a quarterback’s.

“You can’t help where you come from,” he said. “For the rest of my life I will see the game from inside out, and a quarterback will probably see it from outside in.”McCarren’s explanation of Terence Newman’s interception of Aaron Rodgers’ slant to James Jones was off the mark. He credited Newman for good anticipation on the play, but as Jones pointed out Newman never would have intercepted if Jones hadn’t let him cross his face.

“On that one I plead guilty,” said McCarren. “From what I could see, it’s just the way I saw it. If I’ve only said half a dozen really stupid things then I’ve had a good day.”Neither McCarren nor Larrivee noticed that Clay Matthews wasn’t on the field for the final series of the second quarter because of a hamstring injury. It wasn’t until Carl Moll, WTMJ’s director of network operations and one of three support people in the booth each Sunday, pointed out Matthews’ absence six plays into the third quarter that McCarren informed listeners.

The Packers are one of only four teams that don’t have a radio sideline reporter. In Dallas, where Brad Sham and Babe Laufenberg provided the finest broadcast in my sampling, veteran Kristi Scales was extremely informed and all over injuries.

A few teams have ex-players on the sidelines providing not only injury updates but commentary as well. The Packers need more of McCarren, not less.

With the Packers utilizing more and more no-huddle offense, McCarren has fewer windows to offer his wealth of perspective. It was during a rare stoppage that he went back to discuss a 17-yard run by Bernard to the Green Bay 20 a few minutes earlier.

“That’s something Mike Holmgren used to do all the time in that area of the field,” said McCarren. “They put stacked receivers on each side so that took four Packers out of the middle of the field, then ran it up the middle.”Alas, there just isn’t time for more in a slickly presented, ad-packed presentation.

As the Packers drove late for what they hoped would be the winning touchdown, McCarren said, “If you’ve got a nervous stomach at home, join the club.”McCarren doesn’t look to be caustic like some analysts that I heard, but does point out poor performance by the Packers. He does so in angry fashion, he says, only when lack of effort is evident.

“People listen to home radio because they want things from the Packer point of view,” he said. “If there’s a little bias there, I don’t make any apologies for it.”None are required. He doesn’t let his affiliation interfere with his judgment.

The independent-minded McCarren noted that he has never listened to one of his game broadcasts. He also has never discussed the role of radio analyst with one of his peers.

As an NFL franchise, the Packers are one of a kind. As an NFL analyst, so is Larry McCarren.

Both function exceedingly well.

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