There’s been plenty of criticism of ESPN’s decision to axe the Coaches’ Film Room from the College Football Playoff National Championship Megacast and replace the coaches with the much-maligned Monday Night Football trio of Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten and Booger McFarland, and that’s not surprising given the general popularity of the coaches’ broadcast and the general non–popularity of Witten and McFarland. But it’s interesting to hear the ESPN executive behind that decision talk about why it was made, and even more notably, how it ties into the network’s plans to show Witten and McFarland even more ahead of April’s NFL Draft.
The executive in question is Lee Fitting, the vice-president of production who assumed oversight of MNF earlier this year (in addition to the college broadcasts he’s long been in charge of) and picked up oversight for all ESPN football broadcasts in December. Fitting has previously been pretty publicly supportive of the Tessitore/Witten/McFarland trio, telling Lindsay Jones of The Athletic in December “Patience is a big part of this for me.” In that piece, he added “I could always be overruled because I have a lot of bosses, but I don’t want to live in the knee-jerk world of ‘Hey social media doesn’t like him, they don’t like this or that,’ and make a change,” and those comments helped add to the case that ESPN’s going to stick with this group for at least another year (albeit perhaps with some tweaks, such as perhaps the BoogerMobileless broadcasts they’re currently trying).
But Fitting was even more positive about Witten and McFarland Thursday in comments to Jacob Feldman of Sports Illustrated, talking about how he had the idea of picking them for this Film Room a month ago after a segment of them breaking down film in a production meeting aired on MNF. As per Feldman, “Fitting thought the setting highlighted a new side of the duo in a personality-heavy segment full of X’s and O’s discussion.” Fitting also told Feldman Witten and McFarland will be heavily featured in pre-draft coverage:
“I think it’s going to be entertaining,” Fitting said. “Who knows? It may not be. That’s the beauty of MegaCast. It’s always been a laboratory for new possibilities.”
…The decision wasn’t about getting Witten more live reps, Fitting said, nor about flipping the narrative around a booth that struggled early on. Instead, they’ll have the chance to start that process Saturday, as McFarland moves to the booth for the Colts vs. Texans wild card game.
Expect to see plenty of the MNF crew during draft season. As a longtime defensive tackle in the NFL, McFarland in particular should be valuable breaking down a draft that will likely be dominated by defensive players. “We have all intention of including Witt and Boog in our draft buildup because of their knowledge and insight,” Fitting said. “You’ll see them all over.”
“You’ll see them all over” may bring some cringes to the numerous people who don’t like these analysts, but there’s perhaps some merit to that idea for ESPN, especially when it comes to Witten. One major issue with Witten in particular this season has been his inexperience on camera, which has created times where he’s not making his points well or expressing thoughts concisely enough for TV. (This isn’t as much of an issue with McFarland, who has more experience as a studio analyst; the complaints around him have centered more on the three-man booth in general and on the decision to not actually have him in the booth.) And Fitting told Jones in December that he wished he’d given Witten more studio experience ahead of his MNF debut:
Lee Fitting, ESPN’s vice president of production, said the only change he wishes ESPN had made in hindsight was to increase Witten’s on-camera time from the moment he was hired last spring. If some of the criticisms about Witten’s performance on Monday Night Football stem from his on-camera style and delivery (like last Monday, when he repeatedly mispronounced the word “establish,”) having practiced with live SportsCenter hits or regular radio spots might have helped.
“We could have done that, we’re on 24 hours a day. We have NFL talk and NFL shows everywhere, it wouldn’t have been that difficult. We were so focused on the game coverage and prepping for the game and how to broadcast a game,” Fitting said. “In retrospect, and this is a great lesson to learn when we hire the next new person in any sport, is just put him on TV. Let him get comfortable talking to America. Let him get comfortable talking to the camera, and talking to others. That’s something that I personally whiffed on and hold myself accountable for and wish we did more of that.”
Jones’ piece also mentioned that Witten and McFarland would be used on ESPN properties more this offseason, so this development isn’t entirely new. But it’s interesting to have Fitting on the record about how much Witten and McFarland will be used for pre-draft coverage, and to have him making even more supportive comments about that duo. And maybe that extensive practice will help Witten seem more natural in the booth next fall. It certainly seems like he’ll be back there for another season, and it seems like McFarland will return to MNF as well (although perhaps in the booth rather than on the BoogerMobile). And viewers watching ESPN’s studio coverage also appear set to get a lot more of these guys in the days ahead.