Sports Waves

Theismann Left Wondering on Sidelines

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to
Tuesday, July 31, 2007; 10:56 AM

Joe Theismann had no idea how his life was about to change that March 23 day he showed up in Manhattan to meet with ESPN executives Norby Williamson and John Skipper. The former Redskins quarterback, a fixture on NFL telecasts on ESPN the previous 19 seasons, actually thought he'd been summoned there to talk about the first season of Monday Night Football on the cable sports network, and how to make it better.

Williamson and Skipper told Theismann exactly how they thought they could improve the telecast -- by firing him and promoting another former NFL quarterback, Ron Jaworski, a long-time studio analyst with precious little experience doing game analysis. To say the least, Theismann said he was "stunned" by the news and is still trying to make sense of the decision that will leave him on the NFL television sidelines for the first time in twenty years.

"It was a total and complete shock to me that they were going to make a change," Theismann said in a recent telephone interview.

After all, the first year of Monday Night Football with Theismann, Tony Kornheiser and play-by-play man Mike Tirico had an average season-long rating of 9.9, a 39 percent increase over the network's previous 2005 season of Sunday Night Football. MNF on ESPN was the most watched series in the history of cable television and provided nine of cable's top ten all-time largest audiences, including an Oct. 23 game between the Giants and Cowboys that did a 12.8 rating, the highest ever for any cable program. And it was the only NFL series to be nominated for an Emmy.

"They told me they wanted to make the show more issue-oriented," Theismann said. "I asked them 'was it the quality of my work?' They said no. They said they noticed that when they studied the tape, when it came back to me, I talked about football. I guess that was the problem, but you'll have to ask them.

"Hey, I'm a football guy. It's what I do. To say I'm not disappointed would not be correct. I'm very disappointed. I believe that 100 percent of the audience, whether it's Sunday night or Monday, wants to be entertained and educated about football. We have enough shows on ESPN about issues all over the place. To me, when you call it Monday Night Football, the expectation of the fan is to see football, and hear about football."

Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for studio and remote production, spent 15 minutes on the telephone earlier this week trying to sidestep if not totally avoid the central question of why exactly Theismann was fired.

"Any time you go through a season, afterward we sit down and say 'how do we push ourselves, how do we enhance the property,'" he said. "We don't stand pat. It came down to making a change and bringing in Jaws (Jaworski). Joe and Jaws are both great analysts. We just think that Ron, who has covered the NFL from many perspectives as a reporter, a host, a studio analyst, on long form radio, is tied into and totally immersed into the NFL."

Excuse me, Norby, but if you substitute Theismann for Jaworski in that last sentence, wouldn't the same statement be equally true? Come on, give it up. What's the true reason here? And enough with the company party line spin!

"There was no one thing," Williamson kept insisting about the decision to jettison Joe T. "As a course of business, we pride ourselves in looking from season to season and trying to see where we can strengthen the property."

(If that's truly the case at the worldwide leader, then how to explain why back-back-back Berman or boo-yah Scott keep their day jobs? But I digress.)

Of course, you had to be hiding in a cave not to know that it took awhile for ESPN's new Monday night team to get its act together last year in a season when the telecast took some direct hits from some sports television critics, present company included, as well as busy bloggers and their e-mailing followers who's comments were often hyper critical of the telecasts.

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