After calling the Week 15 matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers for ESPN, the “Monday Night Football” crew will have three more telecasts this season, including in Week 16, a playoff game and the Pro Bowl. But Jason Witten, Booger McFarland and Joe Tessitore will be back for the 2019 season, which could come to the chagrin of those who have criticized the trio during its first season together calling games.
That would make for a very sizable group, considering that seemingly all comments offered about the MNF team’s work have been negative, particularly in the case of Witten, a former Dallas Cowboys tight end who this year jumped directly to one of the most high-profile gigs in sports broadcasting.
According to a report by The Athletic published Monday, before Carolina hosted New Orleans, ESPN has made a “commitment . . . to this three-man booth, not just for the rest of 2018, but into the future.” The website’s Lindsay Jones added, “Like it or not NFL fans, you should expect to see and hear this trio next season.”
Suffice it to say that Witten’s first season as a TV analyst has not been received as favorably as that of his former teammate, Tony Romo, who went from Cowboys quarterback to CBS’s top announcing team last year. While Romo gained immediate notice for an uncanny ability to predict plays that teams were about to run, Witten has caught flak for misdiagnosing replays, as well as for being too bland in his commentary and failing to explain football jargon.
Redskins cornerback Josh Norman took a shot at the crew before this week’s Saints-Panthers game, writing that he wished ESPN could mute McFarland and Witten. Former Redskins running back Clinton Portis also took a shot at Witten, writing that the only time he talks “IS ABOUT HIMSELF!”
Witten, an 11-time Pro Bowler, also has been criticized for malapropisms or odd turns of phrase, such as saying in September of the NFL’s change to roughing-the-passer penalties, “It seems like we went a little bit to the left wing.” In November, Witten was mocked for exclaiming that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers “pulled a rabbit out of his head.”
During Monday’s game, Witten caused some online head-shaking when he said of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, “One of the best things he does is run after catch.”
Tessitore, a veteran college football play-by-play announcer, has rubbed some viewers the wrong way with what they’ve seen as his lack of understanding of when to dial it back. For his part, McFarland has seemed to generate less criticism, but his positioning out of the booth and on a sideline riser has struck some as unnecessarily awkward, and his on-air chemistry with co-analyst Witten has been very much a work in progress.
“What makes a three-man booth challenging is everybody’s got to give up a little something. Right?” McFarland said to The Athletic’s Jones. “Because normally you’d have one guy being the analyst and he’s got the ability to go at his own pace and do everything and break down everything, but when you’ve got two people somebody’s got to give up a little something.”
Witten told Jones that he was pleased with a disagreement he had with McFarland during last week’s Vikings-Seahawks game about whether Minnesota did the right thing in going for it on a late fourth-and-goal play rather than trying a field goal. “That was really the first game when Booger and I had differences of opinion that were that strong. I thought that allowed for good television and it happened organically that way,” he said.
ESPN’s vice president of production, Lee Fitting, told Jones that his main regret was not putting Witten, once the ex-player committed to his career change, in front of cameras as often as possible before his MNF debut.
"We have NFL talk and NFL shows everywhere, it wouldn’t have been that difficult. We were so focused on the game coverage and prepping for the game and how to broadcast a game,” Fitting said. He added of Witten. “Let him get comfortable talking to America. Let him get comfortable talking to the camera, and talking to others. That’s something that I personally whiffed on and hold myself accountable for and wish we did more of that.”
In a better-late-than-never move, per Jones, ESPN plans on giving Witten plenty of reps during the NFL’s offseason, in the form of TV and radio hits. In numerous interviews this season, Witten has made it clear that he’s well aware of the criticism hurled his way — “I’ve made mistakes. You try to own it. You embrace it,” he said last month — but he told The Athletic that he won’t “allow noise to get in the way” of his goals.
McFarland said that not only was the MNF crew, including sideline reporter Lisa Salters, coming back in 2019, but that everyone was slated for the same roles, including his as an outside-the-booth voice. “Might we tweak something as far as technology? I don’t know,” he said. “That’s something we’ll take a look at when the season’s over.
“But they signed us with a vision of this not just being a one- or two-year thing. Their vision is to be long term.”
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