The NFL has been a hallmark of ESPN for decades. The network’s rise in cultural significance and their growing monopoly over the sports world can be directly tied to their relationship with the NFL. From first gaining rights to live games in the 1980s to the importance of NFL Primetime to the Monday Night Football era, the NFL is at the heart of ESPN.
Because of that relationship with the NFL, and the amount of airtime that ESPN gives in covering the league, Bristol has always been well-stocked with what amounts to a small battalion of NFL analysts and reporters.
Over the years, many of those reporters and analysts became familiar household names as they covered the league week in and week out.
But in just the last couple of years, ESPN has seen a remarkable and unprecedented amount of turnover in their NFL department. It’s almost been a perfect storm that has seen the network’s NFL coverage change completely. Some personalities have left for other opportunities elsewhere, some have called time on a lengthy career, while others were forced departures in the midst of layoffs.
Take a moment and consider the incredible amount of change for ESPN when it comes to the coverage of their most important sport. Here is a list of personalities that covered the NFL who have left in just the past two years.
Monday Night Football
Mike Tirico – play by play
* Left ESPN after 25 years at the network in 2016 to join NBC Sports where he will host Olympic coverage beginning this year among other duties.
Jon Gruden – analyst
* In the midst of (likely) leaving ESPN to become the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders of Oakland once again.
Replacements: Sean McDonough and TBD.
Sunday NFL Countdown
Chris Berman – Host
Tom Jackson – Analyst
* Berman’s longtime partner, the former Broncos linebacker had been with ESPN since 1987 until he retired before the 2016 season.
Mike Ditka – Analyst
* The former Bears and Saints coach left Countdown after the 2016 season, citing a desire to have a reduced schedule. Ditka then signed a two-year contract extension to be a SportsCenter contributor, but it’s been some time since he’s been seen on ESPN airwaves. In the meantime, he’s been outspoken about ESPN’s supposed “liberal culture.” Ditka joined ESPN in 2004.
Keyshawn Johnson – Analyst
* Johnson became a part of ESPN’s NFL coverage in 2007 but left Sunday NFL Countdown in 2016. However, he then signed a new contract with ESPN later that year that placed him as their very own “Los Angeles based NFL analyst” where he also hosts a local radio show.
Cris Carter – Analyst
* Carter was a fixture on ESPN for Sunday NFL Countdown and Mike & Mike since 2008. He left ESPN in 2016 and joined rival network FS1 where he now anchors their new early morning debate show with Nick Wright.
Ray Lewis – Analyst
* The future Hall of Famer was heavily hyped as a future television star when he joined ESPN in 2013. However, he was a bust as a television analyst and only lasted three years in Bristol. Like Carter, he now works for FS1.
Trent Dilfer – Analyst
* Dilfer looked primed to be the next big thing at ESPN as the network promoted him to Sunday Countdown, put him in the broadcast booth alongside Chris Berman for the season opening MNF doubleheader, and gave him lots of SportsCenter airtime. Nevertheless, Dilfer was caught in the wave of ESPN layoffs in 2017 when he had just signed a multi-year extension the previous year.
Replacements: Samantha Ponder (host), Charles Woodson, Randy Moss, Matt Hasselbeck, Rex Ryan (analysts)
Other Analysts and Reporters
Ed Werder and John Clayton
* The two longtime insiders were both let go by ESPN in the wake of the mass layoffs in the spring of 2017. Werder worked as a sideline reporter for Westwood One this season while Clayton worked as a reporter on broadcasts for the Seattle Seahawks.
* Like Werder and Clayton, Hoge had been a mainstay on ESPN NFL programming, appearing on a variety of platforms including being one of the main analysts on the popular NFL Matchup. Hoge had worked with ESPN since 1996 and is now involved in a startup football league.
* Jaworski was with ESPN for almost 30 years. He spent several of those years as one of ESPN’s lead analysts in the Monday Night Football booth and in the studio. Nevertheless, he spent much of 2017 in limbo thanks to layoffs. Incredibly, ESPN wanted to bring him back after laying him off, but the move was blocked by Disney.
* The former offensive lineman was one of a few former ESPNers who jumped ship to Fox Sports within the last year. He worked as a game analyst for Fox and a studio analyst for FS1 this season after being in the ESPN studio as an NFL analyst and radio host since the early 2000s.
* You’d be forgiven if you even remembered Bettis worked at ESPN as he didn’t have the presence of some other analysts. Yet he was also laid off in 2017 after spending a few years as an ESPN employee.
Donovan McNabb and Eric Davis
* The pair were suspended last month by ESPN as allegations of sexual harassment became public from their time at NFL Network. There is no timetable for a potential return while ESPN investigates the matter, if it indeed happens at all.
* McHenry’s most notable contribution during her three-year ESPN tenure was an infamous viral video where she rudely berated a parking lot attendant in 2015. Since being laid off in 2017, McHenry has transitioned to becoming a right-wing political commentator while becoming embroiled in a number of social media feuds.
When you place all of these names together, it’s a stunning amount of turnover considering the importance of the NFL to ESPN both in terms of airtime and dollars. Perhaps it’s symbolic of the changes that are hitting the wider sports media and all of the media industry, though.
ESPN has had to deal with generational changes in replacing the old with the new as seen with Sam Ponder taking over for Chris Berman. At the same time, they’ve had to face the harsh realities that every other media company is facing by laying off longtime employees like Werder, Clayton, Hoge, and Jaworski. Even the political divide in our country and ESPN becoming swept into the culture wars is represented with McHenry and Ditka sounding off since their departures.
At this point ESPN might feel like the prototypical NFL front office caught in a massive rebuilding project. Gruden’s departure and eventual replacement seems like it should be the last domino to fall given how much ESPN has invested in newer faces. But if we’ve learned anything over the past couple years, it’s that anything can change in an instant.