While there’s been a ton of criticism for ESPN’s new Monday Night Football team of Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten (especially) and Booger McFarland (but not so much returning sideline reporter Lisa Salters, seen above with them) this year, it doesn’t look like there are high chances of major changes ahead of next season. The MNF telecast has been blasted by many critics and fans for everything from Witten’s mistakes and malapropisms to McFarland’s elevated sideline cart (which eventually had its back changed from TVs to plexiglass after fans complained) to the broadcast approach in general, and was rated as the worst telecast in the league by our readers. But everyone involved has been repeatedly saying that this is a process and one aimed at the long term (especially with Witten, who had no real TV background before jumping into the MNF analyst chair), and that’s definitely the theme of an Athletic article (subscription required) by Lindsay Jones that goes behind-the-scenes of last week’s Seahawks-Vikings MNF broadcast. The most notable quote here may be the one from ESPN vice president of production Lee Fitting on patience, which Jones tweeted out:
What’s the future of Monday Night Football? Expect Tessitore-Witten-McFarland back for 2019 as ESPN execs preach patience. That, and more, from my weekend behind the scenes with MNF: https://t.co/lykPI2ncVE pic.twitter.com/UeqabZs35N
— Lindsay Jones (@bylindsayhjones) December 17, 2018
The article also includes McFarland saying he believes the execs’ “vision is to be long-term” and Witten saying “I think it’s a long-term plan” and “I’m committed to the long-game approach of being (a broadcaster).” But it’s the Fitting quote that probably matters most; it’s not particularly shocking that Witten and McFarland want to stick with this (it would be more surprising if they didn’t), or even that McFarland says execs want this for the long term (plenty of talent have expressed a belief management believes in them, only to be proven wrong), but Fitting is someone who definitely carries a lot of weight at ESPN, and someone who would be a key part of any change if one was made. And while he’s not definitively saying “They’ll be back next year,” and wants to “see more of their best,” it certainly seems that he’s in the keep them camp for now.
On some levels, it’s somewhat interesting that there’s this much ESPN support for this crew considering the amount of criticism lobbed at them. And it’s not just the media critics complaining, but plenty of fans; this group received the most Fs we’ve ever received in a reader poll, 37.49 percent, beating out even Hawk Harrelson. Plus, there was a larger gap between them and the second-worst booth than from the second-worst group to the best one. Now, there is an argument that they’ve gotten better over time (one everyone in Jones’ piece makes), but even their recent telecasts are still drawing a lot of flak.
And while even the most-criticized MNF analysts over the years have usually received more than one season (Dennis Miller got two, Tony Kornheiser and O.J. Simpson both got three), there have been some changes made quickly on that broadcast. Joe Namath and Joe Theismann both lasted only a year on MNF, and Fred Williamson didn’t even make it out of the preseason in 1974. Moreover, the last few years in particular have seen ESPN quickly and significantly tinker with or even cancel outright anything that doesn’t seem to be working, so it’s not like they’re opposed to rapid change, or to eating salaries when moves don’t work out. They definitely could make a change if they wanted to; they just don’t appear to want to at this point.
Does this mean we’re guaranteed to have at least one more season of Tessitore, Witten and McFarland that’s pretty much the same as this year? Not necessarily. Fitting’s support here is hardly unqualified, and as he notes, he has plenty of bosses (and they haven’t yet weighed in publicly). It’s also worth keeping in mind that even if they were planning to make a change after the season, ESPN executives probably wouldn’t throw this team under the bus publicly with two weeks of MNF and a playoff game (one of the network’s biggest annual events) still to come.
There’s also a wild card of if the NFL will want changes. ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro has made it very clear how much he cares about being on the league’s good side, something shown in everything from hiring Jeff Triplette as the MNF rules analyst to airing the NFL draft on ABC. And while the NFL tends to not interfere too much with network broadcast teams (except when it does, as in the Mike Tirico case), if they expressed disapproval of Witten or the whole MNF crew, that might be enough to tip the scales towards a change.
Of course, the NFL probably doesn’t care. MNF ratings are up year-over-year (as noted in Jones’ piece), and even though that’s probably more a reflection of the general NFL ratings rebound this year than anything to do with the announcing (the vast majority of people do not choose to watch a game or not based on who’s announcing it), it does indicate that all the complaints aren’t really hurting the league or ESPN in the pocketbook. So there isn’t a big case for NFL lobbying here, but if that did happen, that could certainly swing things.
And it’s also possible that the group could stay the same, but that the telecast still changes. Maybe ESPN decides to move McFarland into the booth to improve the conversation flow, or maybe they have him walk the sidelines and chime in less frequently in the more traditional field analyst role. Maybe they keep the positioning the same, but more clearly define when McFarland and Witten are expected to talk, and what they’re expected to talk about. It’s quite possible to see the same personnel brought back without it being strictly status quo.
All in all, though, it seems like the most likely outcome at this point is another season of this booth, and one without dramatic changes. ESPN management appears to have a lot of faith in Tessitore, Witten and McFarland, and Fitting’s comments here are just the latest example of that. We’ll see if that faith is rewarded and if the fan and critic reaction to this telecast improves.