Having dealt with ESPN's Monday Night Football executives over a number of years, I was always struck by the level of support Jon Gruden enjoyed from Jay Rothman, the show's senior coordinating producer. Each of the network's top producers speaks effusively of their NFL talent, but Rothman seemed thunderstruck by the former Bucs coach. He was amped just talking about him, compliments flying out faster than Usain Bolt.
Thus, it was not a great surprise to see ESPN's announcement today that Monday Night Football will have a new two-person commentator team featuring Gruden and play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico. The team will make its regular season MNF debut on Sept. 10. But it's a bold move for ESPN's most valuable property: Monday Night Football has been the most-watched series on cable television for six straight years, though it slipped nearly 10 percent in viewers last season with a slew of noncompetitive games. (The telecast averaged 13.3 million viewers, down from 14.7 million in 2010.)
For viewers, the change will be greeted largely on what you think of Gruden. A two-person NFL booth is preferred in this space, and the pairing marks the sixth time in MNF's 42-year history it will feature a two-person commentator team, and the first time in 15 years that ESPN has used a two-person lead team on its NFL game coverage. The last two-person NFL booth at ESPN was Mike Patrick and the oxygen-sucking Joe Theismann, who called Sunday Night Football games together from 1988 to 1997.
Ron Jaworksi, who replaced Theismann as an analyst on the show in 2007, has been reassigned for new duties, including appearances on Sunday NFL Countdown, Monday Night Countdown and NFL Matchup, among other shows. Jaworski joined ESPN in 1990 and recently signed a five-year extension, so he will be with the network through 2017.
"It's bittersweet, but I'm excited and thrilled with some of the projects I'll be working on moving forward," Jaworski told SI.com on Wednesday. "I have an opportunity to do some things that can be creative, so in that regard I am excited about the future. The disappointment is I have worked with some incredible people, from Jay Rothman to [MNF director] Chip Dean to Mike Tirico to Jon Gruden and the entire crew that works on MNF. They are absolutely five star... Maybe it is a little bit of my makeup, but I have never been a guy to look back. I always thought it was a great thing for a quarterback to have amnesia. Forget the past and look to the future. It was an unbelievable experience to do five years of Monday Night Football.
Jaworski said he was told of the decision Monday in a phone call from ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson. He said the move did not come as a surprise. "Nothing comes as a surprise to you when you are in this business," Jaworski said.
"We looked at it collectively and said what is the best use of Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworksi and Jon Gruden," said Williamson. "It came to us that we think we can unleash Jaws and put him in a lot of different places to make us better in a lot of different places. He brings something a lot of other analysts don't bring, which is his film work, insight and credibility with fans. We saw Tirico and Gruden do some college games together for us and it all sort of came together."
Williamson said over time Gruden has "proven to be as good as we thought he would be" and expects him to stay at ESPN through the length of his current multi-year deal (Gruden signed a five-year deal in 2011.) Should viewers view this as Jaworski being removed from ESPN's signature property? "Williamson said no. "Jaws' deal was up and we just signed him to a new-five year deal with expansive duties," Williamson said. "We just think looking at the totality of our NFL coverage on ESPN, this is the right thing to do and it's the right role to put people in."
Tirico and Gruden have called a number of college football bowl games together, including the 2011 and 2012 Outback Bowl games, and the 2011 BCS National Championship (with Todd Blackledge) on ESPN Radio. While Gruden's passion is fantastic and his ability to diagnose plays strong, the chief complaint about former Bucs coach has been his over-the-top praise of players.
Asked by SI.com at the start of this season how he responds to criticism that he falls in love with players too easily, Gruden said, "I've had people tell me you don't want to be too positive all the time, you want to be more critical. I've had people tell me that I am trying to set up my next job. That's not true. I am enthusiastic about the game. It's like golf: Every shot makes someone happy. I just want to do a better job listening and telling the story as I see it. I don't have time to worry about all the critiques. I feel like I am preparing as hard as I can. If you listen to the broadcast, I would not agree that I fall in love with everybody. But I do want to be enthusiastic and I am fired up to be up there on Monday Night Football. It's an electric atmosphere."
"They will be fantastic," Jaworski said of the new MNF team. "I've done it for five years, and a three-man booth is difficult. It takes special people to make it work. I go back to [former analyst] Tony [Kornheiser]. I had no problem with Tony. He was great to work with. But it is hard. There is a lot of traffic and everyone has a lot to say. I think Jon will be phenomenal on the two-man booth and Mike is the best in the business. Mike is still my mentor and I believe they will do a terrific job.
Jaworski said his MNF colleagues have called him over the last two days. Asked to characterize those conversations, Jaworski said, "I know how they feel. It was personal and if they want to go on the record, let them do it."
In what has the potential to be terrific television, Jaworski said he is planning to create some specials with NFL quarterbacks that mimic what Gruden has done with his popular "QB Camp," where NFL draft prospects sit with Gruden and break down game tape and situations. "I'm a football guy and I want to do more of that stuff," Jaworksi said.