How Did ESPN's Monday Night Football Announcers Fare in 2018 Season Debut?

Given the scorelines of the Monday Night Football games, a lot of the conversation turned to the booth. Here are five takeways on The BoogerMobile, Beth Mowins, Jason Witten's performance and more.
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Storylines abounded heading into Monday Night Football’s Week 1 doubleheader: Matt Patricia’s debut in Detroit, Sam Darnold’s first game at QB, a first look at the win-now Rams, Jon Gruden’s return to Oakland, and so on. But neither game lived up to the hype, with 51 combined points separating winner and loser. Given those blowouts, a lot of conversation turned to the booth. And with a new Monday Night Football trio debuting after Beth Mowins’s second MNF appearance, there were plenty of storylines up there too. Here are my five biggest takeaways.

The BoogerMobile(™) works, but why?

ESPN’s biggest innovation this year is the introduction of a movable, 10-foot lofted chair that allows analyst Booger McFarland to call the game from—close to—field level. During the action, though, it’s easy to forget he’s down there. The contraption isn’t a distraction, which is good, but it’s also not totally evident why it’s needed at all.

McFarland’s purpose is clear: he provides solid, honest analysis and a friendly demeanor. He’s just as comfortable criticizing a penalty call against Aaron Donald as he is laughing at a high school photo of Marshawn Lynch (the highlight of the night for many). But you get the sense that maybe he’d be even better standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a couple of his colleagues.

Last night’s game was the perfect opportunity to focus on defensive line play, with game-wrecker Aaron Donald on one team and Khalil Mack notably not on the other. So I was bummed that MNF didn’t better use it’s new toy to revolutionize the way fans understand the battle in the trenches.

Beth Mowins continues to grow, and rankle

Defend Mowins too passionately and be accused of progressive grandstanding. Criticize her and get labeled as a sexist. So it goes in 2018. Given the debate surrounding the NFL’s only female play-by-play caller plus ESPN’s current wariness towards controversy, I’m glad to see higher-ups stuck with Mowins for a second year, assuming they believed she was their best option. And I’m curious to see how they use her going forward. As for her actual performance?

In a moment that will be replayed endlessly regardless of how Darnold’s career turns out, I was underwhelmed by Mowins’s call of his first pass being returned for a touchdown—too much focus on the intercepter, Quandre Diggs, and not enough on the man half of New York is hoping will become the next Joe Namath.

Of course, Darnold turned his first start around, and as the Jets cruised to a 48-17 win, I enjoyed Mowins’s casual confidence. It’s hard to establish rhythm with a new partner, Brian Griese, and difficult to maintain interest in the fourth-quarter of a blowout, but even after getting bumped to ESPN2 for the start of the Raiders game, the broadcast team kept things fresh with shots of jubilant Jets fans and context around Darnold and Patricia’s debuts.

Were a Kenny Albert or Tom McCarthy calling the game, the product would have been similar, except with a lot less needless rancor. That said, given the number of female fans, the NFL and its broadcasters ought to have more female voices, not fewer, and Mowins is more than worthy of the role (she will work for CBS later this year).

One last note: Mowins was part of the second-half of the MNF doubleheader last season, and Oakland fans are used to her as she calls their games in the preseason. Presumably, ESPN figured Rams-Raiders would be the bigger draw this time around and therefore sent their A-team there (or they wanted to give the new trio time to gel in the late time slot), but I wonder if the public reaction would have been different had the booths been swapped.

Jason Witten sounds like a rookie

Last month, Witten told SI he was working on analyzing plays as soon as they finished, rather than letting an awkward silence develop before jumping in when a replay started. He’s improved over the preseason, but still has a ways to go before his performances feel natural.

Another thing I’m sure he’s going to focus on: clear breakdowns. Discussing a critical Derek Carr interception in the fourth quarter, Witten was either too vague—“Because of the soft zone, it’s not going to allow him to do it”—or too reliant on jargon—“If you’re going to stay frontside, stay there. Don’t try to go back weak.” That’s the kind of talk that flies in a meeting room but not on national television.

Ben Koo also noted that Witten should have told fans where to focus while players lined up before a play more often, something Tony Romo excels at it. That’s a perfect example of the bar Witten has to reach quickly, and the work he needs to do to get there. Expect more improvement by next Monday, when the Seahawks and Bears play.

Lastly: It’s fun having a tight end in the booth. With the Raiders longsnapper hurt, the former Cowboys star addressed the silliness of assuming a tight end could easily fill that role. And throughout the game, he highlighted Oakland tight end Jared Cook, who posted a 180-yard night.

Joe Tessitore has a lot to juggle

Is it the experienced announcer’s job to create chemistry? Is it his fault if it’s not there yet?

Tess was Tess last night. He kept traffic clear, directing questions and comments to Boog or Witt, but the dialogue rarely reached the level of banter. The commentators want to produce a laid-back vibe, with Tessitore citing TNT’s “Inside the NBA” multiple times this offseason. But it seldom got there Monday, partly because the chemistry is still developing, and partly because Tessitore has a stylistic tightrope to walk. He builds drama with his voice. “And. Here comes. Jared Goff.” “And. There is. Eric. Dickerson.” “On. Monday Night. Football.” But maintaining those stakes and fomenting casual discussion at the same time is tricky, if not impossible. Can Monday Night Football be both serious and silly?

I’m going to miss Oakland Coliseum

The infield provides one of the more unique elements in the NFL. The rabid fans helped fill those silences during the broadcast (it wasn’t just Tessitore and McFarland providing a college atmosphere). The California sunset … is very nice.

We get two more primetime trips to the Black Hole this year—a Sunday Night Football game with the Steelers in December before another MNF on Christmas Eve, when the Broncos visit. But that could be it. What a shame.