By the end of the season, ESPN had nixed the chair and Witten’s transition from player to broadcaster was so rocky that he un-retired and will be back with the Cowboys this fall.
And so Wednesday’s news that McFarland will move upstairs and join Tessitore for “Monday Night Football” next year was a somewhat quieter affair than last season’s announcement. Lisa Salters will also continue in her sideline reporter role.
If the move felt somewhat anticlimactic — ESPN said McFarland was not available for interviews Wednesday — it was also in part because of who won’t be in the booth. ESPN executives met with former quarterback Peyton Manning about the job in recent weeks, but were unable to coax him onto the broadcast.
“We are very confident in Joe and Booger as our team in the booth,” ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro wrote in a text message. “They have a strong relationship, they’re authentic and enthusiastic. They both progressed last season and now they have this weekly platform to develop and grow together."
Tessitore and McFarland will be tasked with bringing a certain polish back to “Monday Night Football.” Last season, Witten made headlines for a series of malapropisms — Aaron Rodgers “pulled a rabbit out of his head” — or gaffes, such as suggesting the NFL roughing the passer rules had become “too left wing.” Witten never achieved any level of comfort in the booth, and both the critical response and social media reviews were often brutal.
McFarland, a former defensive tackle, spent nine seasons in the NFL, mostly with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and won two Super Bowls. He began last season in his sideline chair, but the design had to be adjusted because it was blocking fans’ views; eventually, he was moved to the booth for ESPN’s wildcard playoff game. McFarland and Tessitore have been working together for five years, going back to their time on the SEC Network’s pregame show, and ESPN hopes that chemistry is evident on broadcasts.
Many broadcast analysts are quarterbacks or former offensive players, making McFarland an outlier among his peers. He will also be the only African American on any of the top broadcast teams at CBS, ESPN, FOX or NBC.
“I don’t know why it’s unique, but it is,” said Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s executive vice president, event & studio production. “It’s a little astounding, but it’s something we’re proud of.”
Of Manning’s courtship, Druley added, “'Monday Night Football’ can never be a consolation prize. It’s a highly coveted job and we did our due diligence there. That didn’t need to be explained to Booger. We were very open and honest with him through the process. ”
Several industry insiders suggested that ESPN would have options for the 2020 season, should the network seek a more high-profile booth. Tony Romo, currently with CBS, could become a free agent, and star quarterbacks Drew Brees and Philip Rivers would be highly-sought after broadcasters, if they were to retire.
“When you make these decisions, you hope they’re for the long-term,” Druley said, adding that the network did not audition anyone new this year after last season’s exhaustive search.
“Monday Night Football” kicks off its 50th season Sept. 9 when Tessitore, McFarland and Salters will be in New Orleans for a Saints-Houston Texans matchup, part of an opening-weekend doubleheader on ESPN.