Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. After his rookie year of broadcasting, Tony Romo decides he hasn’t fully scratched his football-playing itch. He decides to leave the booth and return to the Dallas Cowboys.
Imagine the chaos. Imagine the panic. Imagine the executives at CBS tearing out their hair.
Now try to imagine ESPN today, in the wake of Romo’s former teammate, Jason Witten, doing the same thing. It looks less worried, less apoplectic that the future of announcing is slipping through their grasp.
It’s difficult to imagine forces at the Worldwide Leader circling the wagons and rounding up a big effort to get him to stay. It’s even more difficult to imagine major cash considerations being brought into the mix.
The difference is that CBS found a diamond in the rough. ESPN found a rough-around-the-edges project. The stark contrast between both the acumen and public reception of Romo and Witten — who share a common past — highlights their diverging futures.
Football broadcasts, like the NFL, have turned into a copycat league. Charismatic players are the new hotness, and the preferred time to pounce is before the ink on their retirement papers dries. But not every organization can take a good idea and execute it. The work doesn’t end at the blueprint stage.
Sometime it is about the Jimmies and Joes, not X’s and O’s.
Romo’s incredible run through the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl has CBS suits sleeping like babies. They are set. They have their guy, as long as the big checks clear and he remains interested. This happy marriage could last decades.
ESPN, on the other hand, must once again re-tinker. Monday Night Football could come out of this better than it was before. In fact, I’d bet it does. That the next person to sit in Witten’s still-warm chair will be an improvement.
That’s the bright side.
The darker truth is that the network appears to have made the worst possible choice in selecting Witten after its crowded competition to fill the Jon Gruden role. Not only did his shaky performance merit a million thinkpieces and near-constant negative attention for the first-year booth, his decision to leave after one year means ESPN will once again have to make a dramatic overhaul.
In sports parlance, the MNF has, if nothing else, wasted a year in its rebuild. There’s little to show for 2018. Despite a furious pr push, the trio of Joe Tessitore, Booger McFarland, and Witten fell far short of lofty hopes. Perhaps that would have also happened with Joe Thomas or Louis Riddick or Kurt Warner in the booth. That isn’t much consolation right now.
This is not meant to pile on Witten or ESPN. Outside forces are the major reason MNF‘s spot as marquee football window is in serious jeopardy — if it hasn’t been lost already. Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden, the previous duo, weren’t working. A change was needed.
It’s easy to play armchair quarterback. Given some self-reflection, it’s fair to say that The Big Lead and similar sites paid way more attention to Witten than most casual football fans. Perhaps we amplified his mistakes and were too hard on him.
At the same time, it was difficult for those on the outside to see what made him such an attractive choice in the first place. Whatever magic he brought to his audition didn’t translate. It was clear, very early on, that there would be some growing pains. Those pains subsided a bit, but never went away.
His abrupt departure could be seen as an admission of failure. And while that’s rough, Witten would not be the first former player to have a cup of coffee in the broadcast booth, only to leave and do something else.
Rarely, though, is it such a public spectacle or high-profile job. Rarely does a person walk away from what is, arguably, the prime position in the field so early.
This is certainly not how ESPN wanted the Jason Witten experiment to go. They’ll get another chance to catch lightning in a bottle, to find their own Romo, this time around. Be assured, though, that the new person will subject to the same that came last year.
It’s odd that, a year after writing about all the time wasted in the pursuit of Peyton Manning, we can look back on the unproductive Witten year. The pressure for MNF to get it right this time around will be immense.
Here’s hoping we don’t meet back here in early 2020.