‘Monday Night Football’ has a big problem: Jason Witten
Say this for Jason Witten: He has been candid in acknowledging his mistakes during his rookie season in ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth.
“Yeah, there have been some flubs,” he said on a conference call last week in advance of what would be an epic Rams-Chiefs matchup. “I’ve made mistakes. You try to own it. You embrace it. Hell, I’m not perfect. I’ve certainly had my fair share of mistakes on live television. More than anything else, you try to embrace it. You laugh at it. You smile at it.”
But the self-deprecation doesn’t soften the truth. Witten, a decorated tight end during 15 years with the Dallas Cowboys but a broadcasting novice in a high-profile gig, has been the weakest link in “MNF’s” remodeled booth, which also includes play-by-play voice Joe Tessitore and analyst Booger McFarland.
If the trio has made improvements during its 11 Monday night broadcasts so far, they’ve been subtle when significant is necessary. And one can’t help but wonder if or when the time will come when ESPN acknowledges it has made a mistake, too.
It’s not coming any time soon, that much is certain.
ESPN producer Jay Rothman said during last week’s call that ESPN likes how things are playing out.
“I think the flow, if you listen to the games, I’m really proud,’’ said Rothman. “You worry about guys stepping on each other, given the dynamic we have [McFarlane is situated in a riser vehicle on the sideline], but it’s very rare in a game; you can count it on one hand or less that these guys have really interrupted each other. We have cameras set up that they actually see each other in the heat of the battle.
“We spend a lot of time in conversation and preparation leading into the game understanding each other’s sweet spots and to some extent defining roles and things of that nature. I think it’s been really, really seamless and getting better and better and really proud of where these guys are 10 [now 11] games in.”
ESPN should remain publicly optimistic, since it not only put this booth together to replace Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden after last season, but was eager to hype it, referring to the trio as dynamic in an introductory news release and raving at other turns about Witten’s audition.
Rothman himself said in the preseason — with hyperbole that ought to be regrettable now even if he believes the fundamental sentiments — that Tessitore is a young Brent Musburger/Frank Sinatra combo, Witten is Captain America, and McFarland will be football’s Charles Barkley.
Now that would be a must-listen booth. But this is how it really is: Tessitore is an accomplished college football broadcaster who too often turns his excitement level up to 11 to amplify a game that either doesn’t deserve it or doesn’t require it. (I lost count of how many times he told us Chiefs-Rams was a classic while we just wanted to savor it in the moment.)
McFarlane isn’t Barkley and never will be, because there is only one Chuck. But he’s the best thing about the broadcasts so far. He’s sharp, gregarious, and opinionated — especially regarding line play — and he has to deal with the extra degree of difficulty by being in the “Booger Mobile” vehicle/vantage point on the sideline rather than in the booth with Tessitore and Witten.
I’d love to hear Witten’s supposed off-the-charts audition, because it simply has not translated to the actual broadcasts. (Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and Kurt Warner, who calls Monday night games on Westwood One radio in a terrific tandem with Kevin Harlan, also were candidates.)
Witten is prone to gaffes — most famously saying that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers “pulled a rabbit out of his head” — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Non-sequiturs and verbal missteps can be part of a broadcaster’s charm if he or she comes across as genuine and informed.
Witten does seem genuine; ESPN emphasizes how respected he was by teammates and management alike as a player. He has a harder time confirming that he is informed; a couple of times in the Rams-Chiefs game replay contradicted what he was saying. All he really confirms each week is that he could have used a season or two working on a lower-profile NFL or college broadcast and getting the reps he needs.
“I mean, I’m 10 games into it [now 11], of course, you’re never going to feel like you’re where you want to be and it’s a unique challenge, something that I’m invigorated by, this process of going through it,’’ said Witten last week.
“It’s a unique team, so there’s a lot to learn from and every opportunity is a chance to get better at it and so over time I hope that it will be a good listen from an analyst standpoint of what we’re offering.”
Overall, ESPN has to be happy with the season. The Rams-Chiefs broadcast drew an average of 16.7 million viewers, its most-watched telecast since a Lions-Cowboys game in December 2016. Overall, “MNF” is averaging a 9 percent increase in viewership over last year. There have been compelling games almost every week, with the Patriots-Bills matchup Oct. 29 being the rare clunker. And there are still some good ones ahead, including Eagles-Redskins on Dec. 3.
But the broadcast team that was supposed to be dynamic still hasn’t shown much of a spark, and it certainly doesn’t enhance the broadcast.
The supposed superstar squad of Sinatra/Musburger, Captain America, and Charles Barkley thus far sounds like a quality play-by-play voice who hadn’t called a regular-season NFL game until this year, a novice fresh off the field and still uncomfortable behind the mike, and a likable dude named Booger.
That’s what they are, and what they should have been expected to be. They’re not ready for prime time, certainly not in the Al Michaels-Cris Collinsworth big-event way, and it’s on one of them far more than the others.