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Theismann Left Wondering on Sidelines

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
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.

In the beginning, it was clearly a work in progress, and as I wrote at the time, Theismann and my friend and Post colleague Kornheiser were not exactly matching Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke on the chemistry meter. It was more like Edith and Archie Bunker, with Theismann occasionally seeming to talk down to Mr. Tony and Kornheiser not sounding much like the Mr. Tony we've all come to know and love on the radio and Pardon The Interruption.

But Theismann insisted the other day that despite all the internet and media speculation to the contrary, he and Kornheiser got along famously. They played golf together. They ate dinner on the road on a regular basis. All three of them truly bonded, he said.

"I enjoyed working with Tony and Mike (Tirico)," Theismann said. "It was fun and challenging to start something new, from scratch. Anyone who says Tony and I didn't get along, that would be a complete fabrication, totally not true on any level. In the middle of the season, Tony wanted to quit. I encouraged him to stay with it. And if people didn't like what we were doing, why did the ratings go up like that? I'd tell you if there was an issue. There was never an issue between us, and whoever concocted that story is totally out of line."

As the season wore on, I also opined that the act was getting better all the time, that Theismann was talking less than usual and actually making an effort to get Kornheiser more involved. For that reason alone, quite frankly, his postseason dismissal hardly seems justified, or even necessary.

That being said, I'm also a huge Ron Jaworski admirer, though I'm wondering who can possibly replace him on all those NFL studio shows as the most skillful Xs and Os hard core football analyst on any network. A guy who spent the first three days of every week of the season poring over tape at NFL Films, Jaws has always been a true insider's insider who almost always made his extensive knowledge thoroughly palatable to the general public.

One thing we know for sure, it won't be Theismann handling that role. Though he signed a new five-year contract to do MNF last year, Theismann will not be on any of ESPN's studio football shows. The network offered him a chance to do college football with Brent Musburger, but Theismann politely declined. Other networks might be interested, but not at the price Theismann commanded from ESPN, so he'll take their money and let them worry about his bottom line.

"I have a passion for the NFL," he said. "The same passion wouldn't have been there for college football, and I think that would be unfair to ESPN, to myself and the people who would be watching the games."

For now, Theismann's ESPN chores will involve tapping out a weekly column, "Cup a Joe," that will appear on ESPN.com. He'll also have a regular gig talking NFL on ESPN radio, but mostly, for the first time since he began playing professional football 37 years ago, he's going to have a lot of time on his hands this fall.

At the moment, he's been busy preparing for his own mini-NFL season as the lead analyst on Washington Redskins preseason games, all three of them. He'll also be re-united with his long-time ESPN broadcasting partner, Mike Patrick, who will handle the preseason play-by-play as well, a lovely development for Washington football fans.

Why the long-time and very competent NFL team of Patrick, Theismann and Paul Maguire was broken up to begin with, only ESPN's suits know for sure, and for certain, judging from Williamson's duck and cover response to the Theismann question, they're never going to give you an honest answer, anyway.

"The Redskins keep me busy for now," Theismann said. "The preseason is no different than it's ever been. But in the fall, it's all going to change. From Friday to Monday, it won't be the same. There won't be forty hours a week of preparation. Now, I'm going to have all that time to myself, and in a way, I'm looking forward to it.

"It's been a lifetime since I've been able to be a normal person. You know, I've never been to a Toronto Argonaut game (since he played for that team in the Canadian Football League in the early 1970s). I haven't been to a Notre Dame football game. I've never been to a daytime Redskins game. Maybe I can go see South River High School play a game, too.

"It's going to be a very different season for me. I'm looking at it as an opportunity to learn about some other things, spend more time with the family, watch some football. Of course I'm going to miss it, and I would hope some people would miss what I do. My whole goal as a broadcaster was for people to enjoy themselves and maybe, at the end of a telecast, someone would say 'you know, I learned something about the game tonight that I didn't know before.'"

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com

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