The Dallas Cowboys announced Thursday that tight end Jason Witten is rejoining the team after spending a turbulent year in ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth.
“The fire inside of me to compete and play this game is just burning too strong,” Witten, who turns 37 in May, said in a statement. “This team has a great group of rising young stars, and I want to help them make a run at a championship. This was completely my decision, and I am very comfortable with it. I’m looking forward to getting back in the dirt.”
Witten will return on a one-year deal that will pay him $5 million, if he makes all incentives, according to the Dallas Morning News.
His one-season run at ESPN, which reportedly paid him north of $4 million, was marked by controversy. Working in the booth with play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore while Booger McFarland roamed the sideline in a cart, Witten often stumbled over his words and failed to have the immediate impact of Tony Romo, his former Cowboys teammate and now a much-beloved color commentator on CBS telecasts.
Witten was criticized for saying in September that “it seems like we went a little bit to the left wing” when talking about the NFL’s roughing-the-passer penalties. In November, he was mocked for exclaiming that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers “pulled a rabbit out of his head.” During a December game, Witten said of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, “One of the best things he does is run after catch.”
“There have been some flubs. I’ve made mistakes. You try to own it. You embrace it,” Witten said in a November conference call with reporters. “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.”
In a conversation with The Washington Post in October, Witten said he was dedicated to improving.
“Over time people will be like, ‘Jason’s insightful; he’s knowledgeable; he’s enjoyable,’” he said.
ESPN was expected to bring back the MNF crew in 2019, but according to a network source, Witten’s return to the field was a possibility after there were rumblings late last season that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had interest in recruiting him back to Dallas.
“We thank Jason for his many contributions to ‘Monday Night Football’ and to ESPN over the past year and wish him continued success,” ESPN said in a statement. “We have seen many former coaches and players go into broadcasting before eventually returning to the game they love, so we understand Jason’s desire to return to the Dallas Cowboys. In the coming weeks we will determine our MNF plans for the 2019 season.”
The network now will have to decide what to do with its MNF booth. The easiest replacement would be McFarland, who simply could move from the sideline to the booth as the color analyst. Another internal option is former NFL executive Louis Riddick. ESPN also likes the relevancy prompted by putting a recently retired star in the booth, which makes Greg Olsen, the Panthers tight end, another person to watch. Olsen is seen as a future broadcasting star and has battled injuries in recent years. The New York Post reported this week that both ESPN and Fox have made lucrative offers to secure his services, though the Panthers expect Olsen to play another season.
As for Witten, ESPN’s Adam Schefter intimated Thursday that he might not return to broadcasting for a while, writing that his return to the Cowboys could “serve as the bridge” to a coaching career.
Witten’s 1,152 career receptions rank fourth in NFL history and trail only Tony Gonzalez among tight ends. He spent 15 seasons in Dallas after the Cowboys selected him in the third round of the 2003 NFL draft, making 11 Pro Bowls and twice being named first-team all-pro. His 239 career games with the Cowboys are a franchise record.
Of his first retirement, Witten told The Post last year, “It was the hardest decision I ever had to make. An injury didn’t take me away. I guess Father Time a little bit is what catches up to us all.”
Now the 36-year-old tight end will be back in training camp this summer.
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