ESPN has no plans to kick Jason Witten out of the broadcast booth and only asks for patience from viewers who routinely spike him on the ‘net after another Monday Night NFL telecast.
“It’s been 12 games,” ESPN Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman said in an interview last week. “We knew this would not be an overnight sensation, and I do believe he is getting better and better. We just ask for a little patience.”
Witten’s jump into the broadcast booth has gone about as well as most of us feared - flawed and flubbed.
Whereas Tony Romo was verbally well equipped for a TV analyst gig, most of us familiar with Witten saw this one coming. Those who know Witten from his time as Dallas Cowboy also know this: A good on-air analyst is in there, but he has to find his voice.
The voice that can insightfully talk football without trying to sound like a much-parodied version of one.
The only way Jason Witten the analyst will be as good as Jason Witten the tight end is if he stops trying to sound like a “TV football guy,” slows down, and starts talking like he would/did in a locker room.
Witten has not found his on-air voice, and until he does this evaluation as a TV talent will be more about his struggles than his strengths.
“What I tell him is, ‘Be yourself. Be the football guy who gets up to the bar and talks ball,’” Rothman said. “And, ‘Slow yourself down.’”
Romo vs. Witten
One of the obstacles ESPN faced when it offered Witten the chance to replace Jon Gruden as its lead analyst for the MNF telecasts would be the immediate comparisons made to Romo.
After Romo retired to become the top analyst next to Jim Nantz in the CBS booth in ’17, people had to resort to different languages to describe their affection for Romo’s ability as a broadcaster.
The only concern for Romo was whether people would “get” his dry sense of humor, and if he could be critical of the players and coaches with whom he shared a field for so long. Neither are an issue.
Romo has essentially joined the other ex-Cowboys who have turned into exceptional broadcasters: Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Daryl Johnston and Darren Woodson. All four have their own style, and voice.
Witten is not there. Other than Romo, Witten also had no practice on a lower level before walking into a network’s most visible spot.
Another thing working against Witten: he replaced Chucky. The old, and now new, Raiders coach was a lightning rod, but the man has a natural flair for TV sports BS.
Transition to the Booth
When ESPN had to replace Gruden for its top NFL analyst slot, it considered other candidates who had longer resumes with established TV credentials. Other than being accountable and reliable to the media for forever, Witten had no on-air background.
“We looked at the upside of Jason and knew this would be a long play,” Rothman said.
Then ESPN added a twist: It placed veteran former NFL player Anthony “Booger” McFarland in a cart on the field to complement Witten and play-by-play man Joe Tessitore.
Two NFL broadcasters said to me this was as a result of Witten’s agent ensuring that the booth would be a two-man setup, so his client would not be upstaged by a third member.
“I have no idea where you would get that but that is not true to my knowledge,” Rothman said.
Another thing Rothman said that is not true is that ESPN did not work with Witten enough to prepare for this, his first season as an analyst.
“Tonage,” Rothman said. “I mean, just tonage. We did so much preparation with him, and he could not have worked any harder. If I write three pages of production notes, he writes nine. Looking back, I don’t think I would have done anything differently.”
ESPN did about five dry run games with Witten to complement multiple day-long preparation production meetings in New York. As anyone who has ever done TV work can tell you, however, the world is a lot different once the camera’s hot light is on, and someone is talking in your ear as you are trying to smoothly deliver sentences against the pressures of a clock.
The smartest thing Witten can do during, and after, a telecast is turn off the “mentions” feature on his Twitter account. As anyone of note who has dared either offered an opinion, or screwed up publicly can attest, reaction on social media to his latest work ranges anywhere from horrendous to absolutely horrendous.
Witten is learning that judgement on social media is two things: An over-the-top love fest, or a town square style firing squad.
The exception was when he did the Cowboys’ Monday Night game against the Titans in early November. Witten was exceptional in delivering insight, and nuanced criticism, of his old team during the telecast. He knew the subject, and he was confident.
That’s what he needs to do with every other team.
Mostly, however, Witten has been crushed by viewers, who take delight in anonymously hammering their latest victim.
For a man who has heard only praise from the public for nearly 20 consecutive years, being kicked around on social media cannot be fun.
“I think he’s above it but at the same time he’s a human being who has feelings,” Rothman said. “It’s such a cruel world we live in now. It’s all just beat people down. It bums me out when a guy like this who is figuring it out, fighting so hard and has so much to give, it’s a flub here and they just beat this guy down. That’s upsetting for me.”
When Jason Witten came to the Cowboys as a rookie in 2003, he was not a refined tight end and an immediate Pro Bowler.
He had to go through Bill Parcells’ version of “fun” to become all of the above. Witten was good, but he was not so good he didn’t have to work at it.
Jason Witten is going to have to work at this one, and, ESPN asks, just try to show a little patience.