2018 brings us our third MNF booth iteration in four years and a rare total rebuild. Before diving in here, let’s consider that ESPN opted to go in a direction that includes:

– A play-by-play announcer who had never called a regular NFL game before this season.

– A recent NFL retiree with no sports media experience.

– A sideline analyst who is new to that role and has predominantly covered SEC football up until now.

So yeah. There were going to be some growing pains. Let’s dig into it shall we?

Joe Tessitore Grade: B  (Note: this grade signifies a grade when compared to all the other network “A” team announcers)

I’m more of a college football guy so I’ve taken in more than my fair share of Tessitore as well as the man he replaced, Sean McDonough. We more or less got what we expected here. Tessitore brings significantly more energy to the booth, especially in his calls. It irked some, and yes announcing is subjective, but if there is one positive takeaway here it’s that Tessitore seemed just fine calling a NFL game which was more or less what you’d expect.

The two years of McDonough were a bit flat in terms of energy. Some of that can be attributed to just low quality games as well as Gruden fatigue as some viewers grew weary of his shtick over time. That said, McDonough didn’t seem to be up to task in terms of consistently keeping the broadcasts at a certain level of intrigue, energy, and engagement needed to retain sleepy viewers who may or may not be that vested in watching the rest of a marginal game.

Tessitore’s style and voice along is a better fit here and his calls were good to great all game. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea on that front, but I think MNF is in good hands going forward on the play-by-play front.

However, Tessitore will need some more seasoning on a few fronts. First of all, it’s still quite a mess in terms of directing traffic between him, MacFarland, and Witten. Tessitore did direct questions to both individually at times but there were a lot of times where there would be stretches of silence after plays where it seemed like everyone in the broadcast was deferring. Moreso, Tessitore didn’t seem to get into any light hearted back and forths with his colleagues. Everything was 10 to 20 seconds at a time and then usually a pause and then someone else going for 10 to 20 seconds. There just didn’t seem to be enough chemistry, familiarity, and personality at this point to have more livelier conversations.


The other thing that stood out was that as the game became less competitive, Tessitore didn’t really pivot the booth much into talking about the NFL as a whole. That’s where I think MNF misses Mike Tirico as well as Jon Gruden the most as you’d be on the verge of turning the game off or switching to another channel but Tirico would flex his studio skills and massive amount of knowledge and could fill up the rest of the broadcast with topics of interest. Basically, Tirico could wind down being a play-by-play guy and keep you engaged by becoming a general NFL studio host with Gruden to bounce topics off of. With last night’s crew, there was none of that.

All that said, I’d put Tessitore ahead of Joe Buck and Jim Nantz because I value the calls themselves more than the banter after the plays but there is still a lot of work to be done here.

Jason Witten Grade: D

There was a STRONG consensus here that Witten did not have a great debut. The good thing is that he didn’t have any major miscues and I don’t think he really rubbed anyone the wrong way.

The problem is Witten just didn’t really talk much at all. In fact, I went back and found a nearly four minute stretch late in the game where he didn’t say a word. By design, Witten is supposed to be MNF’s number two personality behind Tessitore, but I’m quite confident MacFarland spoke more than him. Way more. I mean, perhaps even twice as much.

There is no set rule on how much Witten was supposed to speak but given he’s in the booth with Tessitore and MacFarland is down in a perch much closer to the action, you’d think Witten would have the livelier banter with Tessitore. It’s just very weird that you have Tessitore going back and forth so much less often with the guy physically next to him.

I feel like a lot of the pauses in the broadcast were places were Tessitore and the production truck were looking for Witten to jump in, but it just didn’t happen with the regularity you’d expect. When Witten did speak, it was mostly nothing revelatory and at times you could sense he was a bit nervous and sometimes even tongue tied. He just didn’t seem to be loose and confident and that was something that seemed to universally resonate on social media.

He’ll obviously get better but my two areas of concern for him going forward would be:

1) Witten (and MacFarland) rarely, if ever, really commented on things to look for ahead of the snap. I know Tony Romo has set the bar high, but almost all of the other “A” broadcast booths on big downs will look at the formations and know tedencies enough to at least elude to something to watch for. Sometimes it’s something specific like a certain play or player and other times it can be something as vague “Look for a blitz here” or “They’re going to work the middle of the field here.” We really got none of that which takes a lot of air out of the broadcast. Being told to watch something and then seeing that prediction materialize is a subtle thing viewers look forward to.

2) Witten was a bit dry on his analysis when he did get it out there. I’m a little bit worried that there might not be enough personality in the booth itself. I’m not sure we’ll ever get a persona as big as a Madden or a Gruden but I do worry if Witten is a potent enough personality to lead a network’s “A” team. To be fair, you could probably say that about Troy Aikman, Cris Collinsworth, and formally Phil Simms as well, but Witten is going to take some time to get as polished as those guys and I’m not sure he has the personality to keep viewers patient with his growing pains.

Booger MacFarland Grade: B-

Social media reaction seemed to be pretty positive for MacFarland. I was a bit more lukewarm on him as I think many were grading him on a bit of a curve given Witten just was not interested in jumping in unless he had something he was confident in or was strongly nudged to offer up analysis.

It seemed like many viewers were unaware MacFarland wasn’t even in the booth given how involved he was. That was positive to see as he didn’t feel the need to be introduced like a sideline reporter. He more or less hopped in and out and that was all seamless so the idea of a two and a half man booth seems to work although you can say that Witten became more of the half personality and MacFarland’s presence saw him become the more featured personality.

It’s somewhat hard to judge MacFarland here as there isn’t really that much to benchmark against here beyond Tony Siragusa as the elevated sideline analyst just isn’t a common thing. Could other ESPN personalities do better here? Could MacFarland do better in the booth itself?

Either way, MacFarland was a safety net for Tessitore and Witten and he was used often to fill the time. I didn’t find MacFarland to be overly insightful. A lot of his commentary was either straightforward or a bit off sometimes (couple of times he seemed to miss when discussing penalties or defensive back technique). He’s not the most eloquent announcer, but he was confident throughout and added enough commentary, energy, and personality to move the broadcast along.

I think the question here going forward is can you really get a better performance from MacFarland if you’re trying to get Witten to do more? That’s going to be the challenge going forward but overall, MacFarland seems like a guy you can plug into a lot of roles in sports media and he’s going to figure it out.

Other thoughts

– Beth Mowins continues to get better although if you look on social media, she continues to be an acquired taste for many.

– Pairing Mowins with Brian Griese was a bit of a headscratcher. There is probably a half dozen to a dozen folks viewers would have preferred there. Perhaps a Michigan centric audience played a role in him getting this assignment?

– ESPN promoted the hell out of the fact the halftime show was going to be commercial free. Many people interpreted this as “there will be no commercials during halftime.” So that would mean more content and fewer commercials.

Unfortunately, the new halftime show basically just crams the entire halftime show, which now includes a music act, to the first six to eight minutes of haltime and then crams about four or five minutes of commercials after. So instead of two or three commercial breaks splitting up the halftime show, you’re getting the halftime show and then the commercials all at once.

Is that better or worse? I don’t really know but I was pretty hype about this no commercial situation and well…I guess it kind of makes sense but it just underdelivered compared to the expectations some viewers had.

ESPN debuted a new scorebug for MNF. I don’t hate it which probably means it’s equal or better to the last one? Will take some time to adjust to it.

 

About Ben Koo

Copying and pasting my Twitter bio. I'm also refusing (for now) to write this in the third person. This is me - EIC and CEO at @comeback_sports and @AwfulAnnouncing, world's greatest chinese jew, proud Buckeye, funny dude, and sports and digital media zealot.