BRISTOL, CONN. — Jason Witten could not wait to watch his announcing debut. To dissect it. To learn from it. So he sat in his hotel room until the wee hours Friday morning, studying the fresh broadcast, still surprised that after 239 games in the NFL over 15 seasons, the 11-time Pro Bowler that he saw on the screen had once again felt—yes—the jitters.
But of course he did. Witten had retired early so that he could take a job at ESPN, get constantly compared to Tony Romo, be expected to help the network bounce back from its least watched season in series history, and—hopefully—so that he could improve. “I know I’m a rookie, that’s how I’m trying to approach it,” Witten said. “I’m not anywhere close to where I want to be.”
Near 3 a.m., he texted a producer some thoughts, talking just like a player reviewing film. He viewed telestrations like a QB: He felt he was 2-for-3, with an Alex Smith read-option diagram coming out well and a Teddy Bridgewater completion looking less so. He hopes to be better in game two, when the team calls Colts vs. Ravens on Monday night. By 6 a.m. Friday, Witten was breaking down the previous night’s performance with play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore in the airport, saying he’d eliminate the awkward pauses that he’d noticed between plays and replays. The rookie also constantly checks in with his co-analyst, Booger McFarland, striking a balance between partner and pupil.
While Witten draws the spotlight, McFarland’s addition is the bigger change for MNF. ESPN executive Stephanie Druley said the company liked having field-level commentators during college productions, so now it’s bringing that vantage point to the pros, though with a slight tweak. McFarland, a former defensive tackle and college commentator who MNF producer Jay Rothman called “football’s Charles Barkley,” will work from a 10-foot-high movable platform nicknamed the ‘BoogMobile.’ Though separated by half a stadium, McFarland constantly has a live feed of the booth in front of him, and he’s already worked out Witten’s nonverbal cues. “I can tell when he’s amped up on something,” McFarland said, standing up straight for a Witten impression. “He’s a hands guy, he gets to moving, I can tell.”
We’ll see if the duo can manage the long-distance relationship, seamlessly conversing like they’ll need to for the broadcasts to soar to BoogMobile heights. Fortunately, they have a wealth of similarities to build on. McFarland is only four years older than Witten, both came of age in SEC trenches, and McFarland compares the art of broadcasting to the demands on the field, just like Witten. Discussing their respective roles during a broadcast, McFarland rejected the idea of separate domains. “There’s no boundaries or whatever,” he said. “It’s just like in football. Make plays. When there’s an opportunity as the play unfolds, both of us are seeing it, and one of us will say something.
“Here’s the thing about it: We’ve got three hours,” McFarland continued. “So we don’t need to compete for 10 seconds. That takes a healthy respect for each other’s knowledge and also an understanding that we’re part of a team.”
As for the differences? McFarland believes the veterans, Tyrod Taylor and Josh McCown, should start Week 1. Witten is more ready to start the new guys, though both agree it’s a case-by-case decision. Asked about discussing brash Jaguars corner Jalen Ramsey on air, Witten said, “He’s had success. Let’s see what he’s doing in four years. He took the shot at Eli, and Eli’s a two-time Super Bowl champion. I’ve got all the respect for him; come see me in four years.” Then McFarland chimes in: “I like a guy with a little edge. I mean I played with Warren Sapp.”
Ultimately, they both want to do a fun, positive program—as does Tessitore and their bosses. The network announced Friday it doesn’t plan to show the national anthem before games. Tessitore made a point that MNF gets higher ratings than a news hour for a reason. “We are looking forward to … having a good time and enjoying ourselves as we talk about football,” McFarland said. “We’re not changing the world.” Soon we’ll see just how big of a primetime revolution they can muster.