ESPN’s new Monday night crew prepares for opener
BERKELEY, Calif. — Jason Witten sat in a room with his new teammates going over video of his latest performance.
It wasn’t much different than what he did for 15 seasons as a tight end with the Dallas Cowboys. But instead of being one of the faces of perhaps the NFL’s most high-profile franchise, Witten holds one of the most prominent television jobs in the sport: lead analyst for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”
Witten is approaching his new role in similar fashion as he did his old one, when his comprehensive film work made him the second-most productive tight end in NFL history.
“That’s where you really learn and grow, the ability to go back and see it,” Witten said. “Sometimes it’s good and you’re like we need to build on that. Sometimes it’s not so good and you’re like, man, I’m so disappointed that was a bad rep.
“No different than a route that you run and that’s not what you’re looking for. What gives me confidence is diving into that process and doing it with guys who I enjoy being around and they have the same mindset.”
Witten is part of a brand new announcing team for ESPN after Jon Gruden left the analyst chair for a second stint as Oakland Raiders head coach. Witten joins play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore, who switched jobs with Sean McDonough, who went back to college games; on-field analyst Booger McFarland; and the only returning member of the team in sideline reporter Lisa Salters. The group makes the regular-season debut Sept. 10 when Gruden’s Raiders host the Los Angeles Rams.
This team was put together following an exhaustive search that featured auditions with about 13 analysts. The tests were thorough, featuring dinners at Tessitore’s house to see what kind of off-screen rapport could be built, as well as practice games in a studio.
Tessitore and producer Jay Rothman were in agreement that the team of Tessitore, Witten and McFarland was the best. Then began the process of making that belief come true.
The offseason has been spent doing rehearsal games in studios and at stadiums; holding film sessions; having countless discussions and text message exchanges; sharing dinners and drinks; and broadcasting two preseason games.
All in an effort to build the chemistry that will make for a smooth telecast each week.
Tessitore said he’s already spent more time with this team before the start of this season than he did in an entire season with his college crews.
“In all my years of broadcasting, I only know one way to be on a crew, and that’s you’re now my brothers and my family. That’s the only way I know it to be,” Tessitore said.
“That means that you’re at my house for dinner, we’re hanging out together and we’re working out together, drinking wine together, traveling together, texting each other, communicating and we know each other’s families inside and out, and we’re serving each other. That just gets extended to the broadcast when the red light turns on. That’s critically important to me.”
This new group of announcers is being thrust onto one of the biggest stages in broadcasting. “Monday Night Football” has featured some of the industry’s titans over the years: announcers Howard Cosell, Al Michaels and John Madden; Super Bowl-winning coaches and quarterbacks Gruden and Joe Theismann; and Hall of Famers Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf and Dan Fouts.
This crew starts with far fewer accomplishments. Tessitore has had several roles at ESPN for 16 years, doing boxing, horse racing and college football and basketball. This is by far his highest-profile job.
McFarland started at the SEC Network in 2014 and has done only a handful of games in his career. Witten is a television rookie following in the footsteps of his former Cowboys teammate Tony Romo, who went from the field to the broadcast booth to great acclaim last year as CBS’ lead analyst.
“He did an incredible job,” Witten said. “As a friend, I’m proud of him. It’s not easy for him to have that success. Although I recognize I’ll always be compared to that and that’s what’s going to happen, I really don’t try to compete from that standpoint.”
The new crew will also have a bit of a new approach with McFarland, a former NFL defensive tackle, serving as an on-field analyst from a mobile crane that will be positioned about 10 feet off the ground at the line of scrimmage.
McFarland will have a desk with monitors showing replays, stats and a live look into the broadcast booth, where Tessitore and Witten will have a camera on McFarland to make it a seamless team.
“I kept using the words extension of the booth,” Rothman said. “How can we give Booger the resources that Jason has up top to truly be an extension of the booth, and how can we make that work and not worry about the orchestration and stepping on each other?”
Rothman came up with the idea while shaving in May and immediately presented it to his technical staff. Four months later, McFarland did his first game from the “Booger Mobile.”
He said this setup allows him to contribute as a full-fledged third man in the booth rather than a sideline analyst needing permission to get on the broadcast, and gives him a better appreciation of what’s happening on the field.
“It’s an entirely different feel,” he said. “You can see the play, but there’s a difference between seeing it and feeling it. Feeling a guy’s speed and power is just a different deal. It’s actually been pretty cool. Once you understand the mechanics of it, it’s worked pretty well.”
With so many new parts, the crew understands this will be a work in progress, but the members are excited to see how it all develops.
“There’s still a learning process for all of us,” Rothman said. “We’ll be a lot different in Week 8, a lot different in Week 15 and a lot different in Year 2. All for the good. But it’s been fun.”