If you spent the 2018 season complaining about Jason Witten in the “Monday Night Football” booth, you’re getting the reset you wanted.
The stunning news Thursday that Witten will come back to the Dallas Cowboys this season has a wide-ranging effect. One of the most recognizable jobs in sports broadcasting is open again.
Witten was a punching bag for many fans on the ESPN broadcast, and there was plenty of rejoicing from non-Cowboys fans over Thursday’s news. He had some good moments, but he also admitted to rookie mistakes. That should have been expected. The pressure on Witten likely increased since his former teammate, Tony Romo, was an instant superstar on CBS. Witten was mostly underwhelming.
While it’s surprising that Witten would turn down a great broadcasting job for another year of NFL punishment at age 37 (the reported $5 million he’s getting from the Cowboys helps there), now we have a new puzzle to solve: Who will be the next color analyst on MNF?
Booger McFarland had a great year on ‘MNF’
The top candidate should be Booger McFarland. The three-man booth last season, with McFarland riding around on his weird contraption near the field while Joe Tessitore and Witten were in the booth, was always a little uncomfortable. But McFarland was excellent. He’s engaging, honest, knows the game and brought energy to the broadcasts. He was the real star of “Monday Night Football” last season, a big surprise given how much attention was paid to the Witten hire. It would be easy and smart for ESPN to simply make it a two-man booth again with McFarland giving up the “Booger mobile” for a spot next to Tessitore in the booth.
Could Greg Olsen be coaxed into retirement?
On Thursday, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was asked about tight end Greg Olsen, who had reportedly been in talks with networks this offseason about possibly broadcasting. Rivera said he anticipated Olsen would return to play with the Panthers in 2019.
“I feel very confident that he’ll be back,” Rivera said, via Joseph Person of The Athletic. “Until he tells me otherwise, I’m anticipating him being back.”
That was before the news that Witten was going to play again. It would be weird to replace one tight end who retired just for ESPN with another making the same decision, but it could be a possibility.
Peyton Manning is the white whale of the sports broadcasting world
The biggest possible catch for the networks is still Manning. He has turned down opportunities before, and it’s safe to assume those networks offered Manning some jaw-dropping money. So it’s likely his decision will be the same if ESPN comes to him with a big bag of cash this time around. And ESPN would be crazy to not at least ask.
Perhaps Manning’s work for ESPN+ breaking down quarterback play for “Detail” may have opened the door for more broadcasting work. Romo brought a ton of positive attention to CBS, and Manning’s debut in the booth would be even bigger. Whether or not Manning could be as good as Romo is a huge question, but Manning going to the booth would be the biggest story in sports broadcasting.
Matt Hasselbeck, Louis Riddick could be among in-house candidates
Hasselbeck seemed to be a favorite to get the “MNF” job when Jon Gruden left to coach the Raiders, but the network decided on first-timer Witten instead. ESPN probably regrets that, given how Witten didn’t sparkle on the big stage like Romo, and it would make sense for them to look at Hasselbeck again.
Riddick is an excellent analyst at ESPN and should be considered again. He’d be an excellent choice; few can break down the X’s and O’s of the game better than Riddick. Other personalities with the company, like Randy Moss and Rex Ryan, will probably get a look as well.
Perhaps ESPN will surprise us again
Nobody expected Witten to get the job a year ago. A totally random hire can’t be ruled out.
Already, former NFL punter Pat McAfee lobbied for the job.
I’m pretty wide open next fall. Something to think about.
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) February 28, 2019
Ben Watson, a highly respected Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year finalist who recently retired from the Saints, had been in talks with ESPN for an unspecified role according to Sporting News. The most random candidates can’t be totally ruled out, considering how surprising the Witten news was last year.
Whoever does land the job will end up in one of the most important seats in sports media.
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