Jason Witten will be back on the sidelines this year as a player, having gone through a pretty rough rookie season as ESPN’s lead Monday Night Football analyst. It couldn’t have been a fun year for Witten, who was handed one of the highest-profile jobs in broadcasting without any real broadcasting experience, and then saddled with a three-person booth in which one person was on a custom sideline crane.
Witten talked about the experience on Ryen Russillo’s Dual Threat podcast, and offered a few insights into ESPN’s production, what Witten attempted to do to get better, and more.
A few interesting excerpts include Witten talking about how he handled the overwhelmingly negative response to his performances:
“I wasn’t immune to it. It sucked going through it, at times. Once the narrative formed, I knew it was going to be a long-game approach. I thought as the season unfolded, when Boog moved up to the booth, I thought we had two or three really good games and we were starting to kind of hit our stride. I didn’t make this decision [to return to the Cowboys] off of the noise and the criticism…it was really just, ‘I want to play.’ The scoreboard matters, and I want to be a part of that.”
It is true that a narrative formed throughout the year, but it wasn’t just about the various flubs Witten offered the audience, like criticizing rules as being “left-wing” or getting names and idioms wrong in entertaining ways. Witten even mentioned one of them:
“I’d check my texts and I’d found out I was sick, or somebody died in my family. ‘Hey, praying for you’, ‘Keep your head up!’ I’m like my gosh, it wasn’t that bad! I said ‘pull a rabbit out of his head’ instead of ‘rabbit out of his hat’! You guys knew what I meant, right? I screwed up, but it wasn’t the end of the world in my opinion. I wasn’t immune to it, it sucked going through it at times.”
The booth did indeed have more problems than just Witten, of course, but it’s also a bit of a stretch to say that Witten himself was a victim of the proverbial crowd of haters, or that the reasons viewers didn’t enjoy the broadcast came down to a few inconsequential things. The setup clearly wasn’t working, as evidenced by ESPN scrapping the “roving analyst” position for Booger and attempting to revamp things partway through the year.
As for Witten, he’ll likely be back in the booth at some point after he’s finally done playing, and hopefully in an environment with lower stakes. He clearly knows football, and probably can be an entertaining and informative, but not everyone can walk into the job and successfully translate their knowledge into analysis. We’re still waiting to see what ESPN does with the MNF booth next year, but it’s entirely possible we get another first-time analyst in the role, which means we could see something similar play out again.