WILL A ROOKIE ANALYST'S INSIGHTS AND LOVE FOR THE GAME BE ENOUGH TO REVIVE MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL?
JASON WITTEN used to shred the Redskins. Over 15 seasons, the Cowboys' shatterproof tight end racked up nine touchdowns and more than 1,400 receiving yards against them. Last week, though, the Washington fans who were lucky—unlucky?—enough to find themselves in the owner's club at FedEx Field before the Jets-Redskins preseason tilt were met with an unfamiliar sight: a nervous Jason Witten.
Sitting in a club chair alone, the 11-time Pro Bowler reviewed his game notes with the assiduousness of a premed student before an organic chemistry final. This was not the usual soft landing for a retired NFL star: Although the calendar read Thursday, Witten was less than an hour away from making his debut as the lead analyst on ESPN's Monday Night Football.
The last few years have not been good ones for the NFL or ESPN, and Monday Night Football sits at the nexus of these disappointments. Because of its extensive football-centric studio programming, ESPN pays more than any other media entity to air the NFL: $1.9 billion annually through 2021. Yet there's reportedly been tension between the league and the network, in part because of investigative reporting by ESPN's journalists and MNF's recent slates of second-rate contests.
Enter Witten into a revamped MNF booth. He'll work alongside Joe Tessitore, the suave play-by-play caller who has been with ESPN since 2002, and field analyst Booger McFarland, the longtime NFL defensive lineman who shuffled over from ESPN's SEC Network. Of last year's on-camera crew, only sideline reporter Lisa Salters remains.
Jay Rothman, the executive producer of MNF since 2006, watched a dozen contenders—Louis Riddick, Brett Favre, Greg Olsen and Rex Ryan among them—audition for the lead analyst job by calling a practice game with Tessitore. Witten wasn't the readiest of the bunch, Rothman says, but he was awed by his potential and his standing in the game. "He's so well-respected," says Rothman, who has nicknamed Witten Captain America. "He represents us and the NFL so well. He checks all the boxes."
Turnover is nothing new at MNF, and Jon Gruden's return to the sideline in Oakland forced management's hand. But in choosing Witten as its big-ticket hire, ESPN has signaled its belief that MNF's return to glory, 49 seasons in, will come by way of an old-fashioned love letter to the game. "Almost every good thing in my life has come from football," Witten says.
With the new team, chemistry shouldn't be an issue. Tessitore, Witten, and McFarland have spent many late nights together over the past several months, eating steaks, drinking cocktails and singing karaoke. After one such night Rothman made them all attend a 6 a.m. hot yoga session. And they should be able to coexist happily on the broadcast, too. McFarland keeps his remarks succinct, and Tessitore seems not to start a sentence unless he knows where he's going with it.
As a talker, Witten can be a little quiet and folksy, using "pretty neat" as an enthusiastic reaction. But he possesses a handful of traits that any producer would covet: He's humble, he's genial, and few are more knowledgeable about the game or what players go through. Though he was raised in D.C. and Tennessee, not Texas, his cadence and dropped G's call to mind the voice of George W. Bush, whose broad appeal stemmed from being the candidate voters most wanted to have a beer with. Witten says he wants MNF viewers to feel like they're having a beer with him, right there, on the couch, as they watch the game together.
He wasn't so at ease on Thursday night, but he's already learning from the game film. He spent the entire offseason watching others, making notes of what makes "a good listen." And he's constantly practicing, pulling up a game or a highlight and mock-calling it into his phone. He'll play it back for himself, make mental notes, and repeat the process over and over again. Even announcing is all about the reps.
A LIFE REMEMBERED
FACES IN THE CROWD
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
FORMER NFL TIGHT END JOSEPH FAURIA ADMITTED HE WAS LYING IN 2014 WHEN HE BLAMED AN ANKLE INJURY ON HIS PUPPY URINATING INSIDE HIS HOUSE.
THEY SAID IT
"BEING IN THE OUTFIELD DURING A BRAWL IS EQUIVALENT TO A LITTLE KID SHOWING UP TO A BIRTHDAY PARTY LATE."
GIANTS RIGHTFIELDER ANDREW MCCUTCHEN, describing his passive role during San Francisco's bench-clearing fracas with the Dodgers on Aug. 14.