Tue. Apr 23rd, 2019

Shaky Start For ESPN’s New Monday Night Football Crew

It’s only week one, but if you were less than impressed by ESPN’s new Monday Night Football broadcast crew, you’re not alone. Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, and Anthony “Booger” McFarland made their regular season debut during Monday night’s Oakland Raiders-Los Angeles Rams game, and the results were less than spectacular. Granted, it’s a long season, and developing a rhythm and chemistry between three new teammates takes time. However, when you’re on a national broadcast as big as this one, patience is thin.

What surprised me the most was the trio’s lack of flow, fun, and passion. I read an article on Yahoo on Monday afternoon where Tessitore was quoted saying “people want access, they want unfiltered, they want non-corporate, they want raw” and I was encouraged. I agree with his assessment. But if you watched the game, where was the unfiltered? The non-corporate? Better yet, where was the fun and the raw powerful connection to what was transpiring on the field?

From a technical standpoint, Tessitore was fine. It wasn’t like he didn’t see or understand the game. But his calls of big game moments lacked punch, and the inconsistent flow between the broadcast’s three key voices often gets placed on the conductor’s shoulders. Joe certainly has a great voice, and has done excellent play by play work for a long time. I root for people who work their way up the ladder from Schenectady, NY to the NFL’s main stage. But whether I want them to do well or not, I still have to call it like I see it.

Prior to his NFL arrival, Joe was a college football voice who you could count on to consistently deliver a quality broadcast. He didn’t earn the MNF opportunity by accident. But those college broadcasts don’t receive the same scrutiny that a Monday Night Football broadcast does. If you’re going to serve as the play by play announcer for ESPN’s flagship NFL property, then you have to be exceptional. Unfortunately on Monday Night, Joe was solid, not spectacular.

For example, when Marshawn Lynch powered past the Rams defense from the four yard line to the end zone, backed by an incredible effort from the Raiders O-Line, Tessitore said “Lynch, testing the middle, and getting a push, right thru. Effort play. Raiders score it.” If you watched that play as a fan you were likely much more moved by what you saw than what you heard. The play by play description didn’t match the passion felt by the viewer.

I heard the same thing when Cooper Kupp scored in the 3rd quarter to give the Rams the lead. But perhaps the most glaring omission was in the 4th quarter with the game winding down when Marcus Peters intercepted Derek Carr, and proceeded to grab his crotch while jumping into the end zone to mimic Marshawn Lynch as he scored. Tessitore failed to call that out, and point out the connection to Lynch. Instead the call was “Picked off. Marcus Peters. Strutting his stuff, and back splashing in. Pick six, Rams.”

Can you imagine Al Michaels, Jim Nantz or Joe Buck skimming past that? I can’t. The Rams twitter account was even on top of it. Before you counter with “but that’s unfair to compare him to those guys” let me remind you that this is Monday Night Football. This is ESPN’s most important NFL relationship. The announce team themselves acknowledged how different this night is from the others. If you’re going to call the elite game on the elite sports network, then you’ve got to deliver an elite performance.

Although I think Tessitore has to provide more flavor, take more control, and capture better what the audience is seeing and feeling, he wasn’t bad. In fact, I enjoyed him more than I had Sean McDonough who just didn’t mesh with Jon Gruden. I think Joe is going to be just fine. I’m not sure I can say the same for Jason Witten who simply wasn’t ready for this stage last night.

There were times during Monday Night’s game when Witten was vacant from conversation for minutes at a time. His analysis for the most part was generic, his humor was absent, and as a viewer you were confused whether he was the #2 or #3. Fans grew frustrated on social media as the game continued and Booger McFarland’s activity increased, but ask yourself this “if Booger didn’t jump in, what exactly were you going to get out of Witten?” He was a deer in headlights far too often.

Where I was most disappointed with Witten is that he seemed to lack personality and passion. Maybe he was holding back. Maybe Tessitore didn’t set him up right. Maybe Booger’s involvement threw him off. Or maybe he just froze.

Even when Witten took a chance to say something strong (EX: Jon Gruden hasn’t had a franchise QB with the Raiders – except Witten ignored that Rich Gannon went to the Pro-Bowl during each of Gruden’s final 3 seasons in Oakland, threw for 11,000+ yards and 75 TD’s 34 INT’s during that 3-year stretch and won the MVP award after Gruden departed for Tampa), he missed the mark.

Nobody can force Jason to be someone he’s not, but he has to let the nation know who he is. Whether you’re known for being colorful, critical, the smart guy, the loud guy, the jokester or something else, personality is a vital part of an NFL broadcast. For all of the criticisms directed at Jon Gruden as an analyst for loving every player, we knew that trait about him. Grudenisms were understood because his personality allowed us to get a feel for who he was. There was none of that with Witten.

It’s no secret that the Dallas Cowboys have a stellar track record of former players ascending to broadcast roles. Many felt Witten would make a smooth transition because of Tony Romo’s instant success as an NFL analyst on CBS. Couple that with Witten and Romo’s friendship, and the two men reportedly having superior knowledge and exceptional work habits, and you can see why so many were high on him becoming a great analyst.

But what isn’t known is how someone will perform when the lights are brightest. Witten may still turn out to be great, but his Game 1 performance left many questions. It’s up to ESPN now to find those answers.

For Booger McFarland, I thought his energy and passion were stronger than Witten’s. His perspective on the sidelines was solid, and he wasn’t afraid to offer an opinion especially on the Khalil Mack trade which was a storyline surrounding the first Raiders game. He became too involved at times, but was that due to the crew sensing Witten wasn’t adding much? The viewing audience seemed to come away with the opinion that they heard too much from Booger and not enough from Witten. I don’t disagree.

I think Booger can do a better job of shortening his commentaries, because at times they went long. There were times where he also came across too serious. Some on social media even described him as angry. I’ve heard Booger’s personality before on radio, and seen it on TV, so as the season plays out I think he’ll find more ways to lighten up. The man doesn’t lack personality.

One part of the broadcast which stood out in positive fashion, and further highlighted the difference in skill was the halftime performance. When Louis Riddick and Steve Young talk football, it’s so damn good. Young previously declined pursuing the MNF analyst job, but Riddick openly acknowledged having interest in it. If he was bypassed because of concerns of being hired in the future as an NFL GM, I get it. If it’s for any other reason, I’d love to hear it. Few at ESPN ooze the passion, insight, and knowledge for the game of football that he does. As I listened to him on the pre, post, and halftime shows, I kept asking myself “how is this guy not in the booth?”

When it comes to the NFL we all tend to overreact. It’s common to put a team in the Super Bowl and another at the top of the draft after Week 1, so in a way I feel like I’m doing that with a new broadcast team which is trying to find itself. If the worst thing we have to say at the end of the season about this crew is that their 1st week performance was subpar, that would indicate they made progress. That’s what I’m hoping for. But the way they settle into their roles, connect to the audience, and respond to a rough start will determine how supportive ESPN remains in the future.