Jason Witten Ready to Tackle His Next Challenge: ‘Monday Night Football’

The longtime Dallas tight end never even thought about broadcasting as a future after football, until his former quarterback set the example and the Cowboys' owner gave him the encouragement he needed.
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Jason Witten used to shred the Redskins. In the 15 seasons he spent as the Cowboys’ shatterproof tight end, he racked up nearly 1,500 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in games against Washington. On Aug. 16, though, the Redskins fans who were lucky—unlucky?—enough to find themselves in the owner's club at FedEx Field before the Jets-Redskins preseason Week 2 tilt were met with an unfamiliar sight: a nervous Jason Witten.

Sitting alone in a club chair, Witten reviewed his game notes with the assiduousness of a pre-med student before an organic chemistry final. This was not the usual soft landing for a retired NFL star: Although the calendar read Thursday (it was the preseason, after all), Witten was less than an hour away from making his debut as the lead analyst on ESPN's Monday Night Football production.

Witten’s partner, the suave play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore, did his prep in the announcers’ booth, rocking on his feet to a pump-up mix (audible from well outside the booth) that included a selection each from Hamilton and the Dropkick Murphys. Joe Tess, as he’s known to viewers and the MNF crew, has worked for ESPN since 2002, and boxing and college-football fans consider his work on those broadcasts a near-rapturous experience. But he’s new to MNF, as is field analyst Booger McFarland, the longtime NFL defensive lineman, who shuffled over from the SEC Network. Of last year’s on-camera crew—play-by-play analyst Sean McDonough, color commentator Jon Gruden and sideline reporter Lisa Salters—only Salters remains.

Turnover is nothing new at MNF, and Gruden’s return to the Oakland sideline as the team’s head coach did force management’s hand. But in selecting Witten, Tessitore and McFarland, ESPN has signaled its belief that MNF’s return to glory, 49 seasons in, will come by way of a joyous, throwback broadcast. Out with grumbling about the refs and discussion of player protests, in with callin’ ball

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Jason Witten played for 15 seasons in the NFL, all with the Dallas Cowboys.

Jason Witten played for 15 seasons in the NFL, all with the Dallas Cowboys.

If Witten’s charge is to compose a love letter to the game each Monday, few men are better equipped to do so. “Almost every good thing in my life has come from the game of football,” Witten says. “Getting out, overcoming challenges in my life—that was through football.”

He brings this up unprompted to explain his struggle over whether to take the MNF job. ESPN had reached out to him after he had half-auditioned with Fox for Thursday Night Football as a favor to an executive there and word leaked out.

The formal offer came in mid-April, a week before the draft, and they gave him about 10 days to decide. There wasn’t much left for him to achieve as a player—just a Super Bowl, the one the Cowboys have been chasing for 23 years—but he knew he would miss leading the locker room, the games themselves. He even would miss the meetings in training camp.

As he thought through everything, he leaned on his family and on his agents, but most of all he looked to one hardly disinterested party: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. He had received Jones’s blessing to audition, and when he sought Jones’s counsel about actually taking the job, Jones told him not to be emotional. “Jason—think about the chair you’re getting to sit in. This is Monday Night Football.” He wasn’t fearful he’d fail or worried about viewers’ skepticism; he just wasn’t sure he was ready to give the game up. Bill Parcells, drawing on an old saying of his about the impermanence of the NFL career, left Witten a voicemail telling him to take the job: “It’s time to get off the train.”

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The man seeks major life advice from Jerry Jones? As Gruden, his MNF predecessor, might have put it: This guy, Jason Witten, he loves pro football, man. Jay Rothman, the program’s executive producer since 2005, thinks of Witten as “Captain America.” “He’s so well-respected; he represents us and the NFL so well; he checks all the boxes.”

Rothman watched a dozen contenders—Louis Riddick, Brett Favre, Greg Olsen and Rex Ryan among them—audition by calling a practice game with Tessitore. The game was last year’s zany AFC wild-card game, Titans at Chiefs, during which then-announcer Sean McDonough’s voice unforgettably cracked on a late would-be touchdown.

“It was the first game I had called in my life,” Witten says. “I know I had to be bad at it… but I liked the challenge of communicating my passion for the game.” 

Midway through the fourth quarter in that game, on a third-and-long with the Titans’ comeback in progress, Marcus Mariota took off on a scramble that would result in a first down. It was an important play, if not a defining one, and Witten noticed a minor feature of it. “Eric Decker gets chucked by the defensive end; he’s on the ground. He gets up and he slows down this defensive end that’s chasing Mariota. So when I’m analyzing the play on the replay, I point this play out by Eric Decker, I say, ‘look at this effort, that’s what’s going to allow them to win.’”

“Think of the Tennessee Titans at that point. They shouldn’t have been in that game; they backdoor their way into the playoffs; they’re playing horrible; Kansas City was the better team. But somehow they’re in this damn thing, and Decker, who had two drops in the game earlier, is throwing his body on a guy who’s 100 pounds heavier than him. At the end of it, Joe goes, ‘I’ve called this game 15 times, and I’ve never heard anybody make that point about Decker.’ That was, to me, what I hope to provide.”

Rothman says that Witten wasn’t the readiest of the bunch, but he was awed by his potential. And he was especially thrilled when, at Witten’s retirement party in Dallas, Jason Garrett told Rothman that he couldn’t possibly coach his new announcer hard enough. “He just wants it so badly,” Garrett said. “Make him great.”

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The last few years have not been good ones for the NFL—injuries to star players; a drumbeat of revelations about head trauma and domestic violence; players protesting social justice which, through a series of missteps by the league, became the president’s cudgel—nor have they been good ones for ESPN. The network has laid off a number of beloved employees in response to changing economics in the media industry and bungled its own political dramas.

At the nexus of those disappointments has sat Monday Night Football. ESPN, because of its football-centric studio programming, pays more than any other media entity to air the NFL—$1.9 billion annually through 2021. Yet there’s reportedly been tension between the league and the network, in part because of the investigative reporting of ESPN’s journalists that has brought so much scrutiny to the NFL’s missteps. Relatedly or otherwise, the NFL has recently stuck MNF with more than its fair share of second-rate contests. So said McDonough in March during a radio interview where he also said that he didn’t have “a tremendous amount of fun” calling the games. He and Gruden never seemed to click. It wasn’t that they appeared to dislike one another—Howard Cosell hated Frank Gifford, and those were the glory days—but rather that each seemed to get nothing out of the other’s presence. (Their disconnect might have mattered less had the game slate been better, but I digress.)

With the new team, chemistry shouldn’t be a problem. Tessitore, Witten and McFarland have spent many late nights together over the past several months, eating steaks and drinking cocktails, singing karaoke. (Witten belted “Free Fallin’” and “Don’t Stop Believin’”, demonstratin’ the same preference for dropped Gs in singin’ that he does in talkin’.) After one such night, Rothman made them all attend a 6 a.m. hot yoga session. (McFarland, Rothman says, did the best out of the three.) And they should be able to coexist happily on the broadcast. Tessitore and McFarland both keep their remarks succinct, and Tessitore in particular seems not to start a sentence unless he knows where he’s going with it.

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Witten, however, had never given any thought to the craft of announcing before the last year. Heck, until his old quarterback, Tony Romo—slotted sensationally into CBS’s booth last fall—Witten had figured coaching would likely be his post-playing pursuit. The months since his first audition, though, have been devoted to remedial education, and now Witten can sing the specific praises of color men throughout the business. Kirk Herbstreit? “He takes a critical point and makes it easy to digest.” Troy Aikman? “He’s really clean.” Romo? “There’s a joy when he speaks.” Cris Collinsworth? “His sense of detail.” Jeff Van Gundy? “Man, does he know ball. But he’s so self-deprecating.”

Witten’s favorite announcer to listen to was John Madden. “Yeah, he was a coach, he knew football. But he was authentic, too, a real guy.” Witten appreciated Madden’s attention during his pro career. “When I had that play I’m probably known for, when I caught the pass and my helmet came off, he was calling that game. I felt like I went to another level in his mind.” 

As a talker, Witten himself can be a little quiet and folksy: In the hours I spent with him, he used “pretty neat” to describe his fondness for his new job. But he has a handful of traits any producer would covet: he’s humble, knowledgeable and genial. Though he was raised in D.C. and Tennessee, not Texas, his cadence calls to mind the voice of George W. Bush, whose broad appeal stemmed supposedly from being the candidate voters most wanted to have a beer with. Witten says he wants MNF viewers to feel like he is having a beer with them, right there, on the couch, as they watch the game together.

But he says he won’t have trouble criticizing players who deserve it: “I’m not trying to bury anybody, but I’ve got to call it like it is.” Even former teammates? “I did it when I played with them! There’ll be lots of guys I played with who will say, He would not get off my ass.” 

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Jason Witten and ESPN play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore (right) have a lighthearted moment before their broadcast.

Jason Witten and ESPN play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore (right) have a lighthearted moment before their broadcast.

So how’d the new guys do? I spent the second quarter of the game in the booth about 10 feet behind Tessitore, Witten, ex-referee Jeff Triplette—ESPN’s “rules expert”—and three spotters and technicians; and spent the other three quarters in MNF’s “A” production truck. In that truck is where the director, producers, and graphics teams work, and a wall of 24 televisions in the truck showed all 37 camera angles ESPN has at its disposal, including a continuous feed of the booth. It was a rare chance to watch every last plié in the MNF ballet while the show was still in previews.

The announcers hardly look at one another unless the director has cut to them on live TV, communicating through their headsets and the occasional shoulder slap. Before them, beneath the aperture through which they view the field, is a wall of six monitors and a set of papers with notes about every player. For quick research or communications, Tessitore has his laptop open, while Witten has his phone out.

Tessitore is an intense, physical broadcaster, and after a great sequence ends with a commercial break, he’ll uppercut the air. When he laughs—McFarland got him twice—he laughs with his whole body. Witten has half a foot on Tessitore, but his body language is less confident; he rocks his weight from side to side. When he doesn’t get out of a point with the crispness he used to bring to his Y-option routes, he wears a furrowed brow and looks as though he wants to punch himself.

Content-wise, Witten holds back his insider knowledge, for worse and for better. During a fourth-quarter breakdown of both teams’ divisional competition—no disrespect meant toward Kevin Hogan’s attempt at a two-minute drill—a comment from Tessitore about Dallas’s “lack of pass-catching weapons” prompts only a half-head-shake and half-smile from one of Dallas’s foremost former pass-catching weapons. During a commercial break, he rehearses a telestration of the last touchdown, mentioning the “seven route” run by Jets receiver Charone Peake. (The route is better known as the corner route.) When it comes time to break the play down for real, though, he drops the jargon.

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Broadcasting overlaps with playing in funny ways. Players have internal clocks for each play (How many more seconds do I have to stay with this receiver?) and the analyst too is bound by time constraints: If he doesn’t finish his point with time to spare before the next snap, he’ll have stepped on the play-by-play man’s call. In the truck, producers have to pick a play as replay-worthy while it’s still in progress; if they want the analyst to telestrate it, a “Draw it up, Witt!” comes from Rothman’s microphone into Witten’s headset. 

All of which is to say there’s no trick to superior telestration—it’s simply a matter of execution under pressure. And Witten, because of some difficulty with a replay monitor in the booth, had some trouble on opening night; his timing was thrown off. (He also had another flub in the subsequent game.) But Rothman isn’t concerned. The day after the game, he said he would bet his house that Witten will be a very different broadcaster come Monday night Week 1 in Oakland.

Week 1 is upon us now. But how different is it, really, from all the Weeks 1 that have come before it? Football, more than any other sport, venerates the work. Other games may talk of virtuosos, of singularly talent-blessed individuals—but in football even the strongest and speediest are called upon to prove themselves in the weight room and in drills. Transcendence through pain and repetition, that’s football’s gospel, the one Jason Witten has long lived by.

He may be retired from playing, but his charge hasn’t changed. Anytime he has some downtime, he says, he pulls up a game or a highlight online and mock-announces it into his phone. He stops and plays it back for himself and does it over again. Announcing, too, is all about the reps.