By all appearances, Jason Witten just ghosted ESPN in favor of a return to the Dallas Cowboys.
There's no coordinated ESPN official statement on Witten out tied with the Cowboys announcement. It will be out later, I'm told. Would indicate that ESPN has not known about this for long.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) February 28, 2019
(That brief statement was eventually released)
Witten’s new deal with the Cowboys is reportedly a one-year deal worth $3.5 million. His former deal with ESPN was a reported $4.5 million a year and had multiple years left on it. Unless you’re arithmetically challenged, it’s clear Witten gave up money and security to return to a physically demanding sport where the risk of serious injury is significant, opposed to returning to one of the highest paying and most prominent positions in all of sports media.
While a passion for football most certainly played a central role here, the reality is that it’s not hard to imagine Witten foregoing a return to the Cowboys if:
a) The Cowboys didn’t have their second-half surge and his return didn’t now include the glimmer of a Super Bowl run.
b) He wasn’t relentlessly criticized for his work in the booth in his first season.
Having covered Witten’s rocky first year in the booth (his regular season debut here, a midseason analysis here), one thing that really took me by surprise was just how much attention and sharp criticism the new MNF crew drew, with Witten being at the core of that backlash. Both articles were followed by a large spike of radio appearances on the topic. While this site’s staff lives in a bit of a sport media-centric social media bubble, it was abundantly clear that Witten’s struggles had become one of the rare sports media stories that most mainstream fans were talking about. And they were talking about it a LOT.
Every game brought about new opportunities to nitpick clunky or strange moments for Witten. To be fair, it’s likely that if he’d debuted by calling middle-of-the-road Fox regional games or CBS college games, you’d barely realize his struggles. But given the big stage of Monday Night Football, the awkward setup with the two-and-a-half man booth, and the high bar for nationally televised NFL games, Witten’s struggles were picked down to the bone by social media vultures as he struggled to find his footing as a broadcaster.
Found the clip. Here’s Witten calling the roughing the passer rule change “left wing” pic.twitter.com/htLzeRcm79
— Conor Orr 🇦🇶 (@ConorOrr) September 25, 2018
ESPN was unwavering in their support of Witten and the rest of the booth for a second season. Sure, it would have been interesting to see a full season of Booger McFarland in the booth as opposed to his perch in the universally panned crane he was stuck in. That said, as much as ESPN believed in Witten and this setup, I’m confident in saying it would have not been enough.
The reality is that Witten was simply not smooth, natural, or good enough to be calling games on such a large stage and it’s unlikely anything was going to change that. NFL fans weren’t going to warm up to him and it would have been another year of the same criticism for him and the company.
ESPN most certainly would have stayed in their defensive trench, saying, “He’s getting better! Give it some time! This is working!” But there was no way around it…it wasn’t. Witten most certainly would have hated a second year being the focal point of such criticism and disappointment, so he did the best thing for himself and everyone else by walking away.
Witten leaving unexpectedly is the most excited I’ve been about someone ghosting since Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.
Aaron Rodgers pulled a rabbit out of his head (?), according to Jason Witten 🤦🏻♂️ pic.twitter.com/R5OviR3l6G
— Andrew Joseph (@AndyJ0seph) October 16, 2018
It’s not just that his return would have been painful for all parties, it’s also the extent of that pain.
Monday Night Football is ESPN’s most-watched and most-prized asset outside of the three-game college football playoff, which only fills around 11 hours of programming each year. Witten would have been ESPN’s most prominent, discussed, and dissected personality and it would have gone on for 17 weeks (not counting the preseason). His broadcasting shortcomings weren’t a tattoo ESPN got on a whim that could be covered with long sleeves or pants, but was rather a face tattoo that, for some reason, the network thought would be a good idea. They thought people would warm up to it eventually.
My colleague Andrew Bucholtz extensively looked at various options ESPN could look at to replace Witten. There are a lot of questions to think about here, including:
What does ESPN do with Booger? Many seem to think this means he’ll be elevated back into the booth. Would that mean the end of the Booger Mobile? I am of the thought that his most natural fit would be replacing Lee Corso on College Gameday and perhaps calling weeknight college games. Putting aside my personal preferences, it’s hard to ignore fans were MUCH warmer to Booger than Witten.
That question begets more questions. Do you want a three-man booth or a two-man booth? Can Booger succeed in a two-man booth? Traditionally, nationally televised NFL games have had at least one analyst with an offensive-minded background. Commentary on play-calling and quarterback play just comes more natural to former offensive player and coaches. McFarland was a defensive player and obviously understands the other side of the ball well. Would ESPN be comfortable having those key areas of commentary potentially underserved?
Would ESPN rather go with someone who has experience calling NFL games so they know what they are getting? Some have wondered if Kirk Herbstreit could get nudged to move over from doing college games, which seems unlikely. ESPN is reportedly warm on Carolina’s Greg Olsen, who would be another wildcard not unlike Witten. Louis Riddick is another name that fans have been actively campaigning for.
Would ESPN opt to go with someone who has experience calling NFL games but has been passed over before? Kurt Warner is the name that pops up here the most, but there are certainly some other options that ESPN could kick the tires on.
My top choice remains Peyton Manning. The network is already working with Manning on his ESPN+ show, but many remain skeptical he has any interest in pursuing a bigger media career. His long term ambitions are reportedly focused on team ownership and doing dumb commercials your parents think are funny.
The reality of the situation is that ESPN flatly screwed this up last year and, like a bad fart in a sauna, it didn’t go unnoticed. The stink didn’t go away.
Compounding the situation, things on the NFL side have been rocky for ESPN for some time. The NFL Network has siphoned off many fans thirsty for more football content. On the studio side, there has been a lot of criticism regarding employee churn, with the high-profile departures of Tom Jackson, Charles Woodson, Trent Dilfer, and Chris Berman (who is back, back, back…..kind of…in a more limited role). Meanwhile, ESPN already had to make a change on the play-by-play side when Sean McDonough didn’t work out as a replacement for Mike Tirico. Similar to the studio problems, that was a pretty mild and less-discussed transgression, but one where ESPN just hasn’t found much stability or internal consensus on.
Witten’s much-discussed rocky year in the booth, as well as his unexpected departure, will only add further unwanted attention to whatever shakes out for next season’s broadcast. As ESPN has made it known, they want better NFL games, more games in general, and even a Super Bowl (all of which are likely contingent on ABC also broadcasting games). Another high-profile misstep would certainly dig a deeper PR hole for a network that is still looking to combat lingering negative publicity tied to presumed political leanings, the network’s future in a less cable-dependent ecosystem, and accusations of strong preferences in coverage favoring certain sports and conferences.
Frankly, ESPN can’t afford to spend another year where their most-prized programming asset is mocked over another ill-advised hiring decision. As respected as many of the ESPN executives are, it would be hard for the network to stand idly by, enduring another fall when they, to quote Witten, “keeps kicking themselves in the foot like that.”
A mistake here probably isn’t big enough to drag down Disney’s stock, but it would be big enough to drag down the network’s image during a period that has already been an exhausting uphill slog for the company. When it comes to the most important and popular media entity in American sports, ESPN just doesn’t have enough credibility to fall back on in order to overcome a tsunami of criticism over another botched decision.
If I had to guess, I think you’ll see ESPN err towards a conservative hire and known entity rather than trying to catch Tony Romo-esque magic in a bottle. Or we may see them try to swing for the fences once more, hoping they make contact this time.