Jason Witten's decision to come out of retirement and return to the Cowboys should serve as a cautionary tale for broadcast networks looking to replicate Tony Romo's magic.
When we look back on Jason Witten’s 2018 stint as Monday Night Football analyst, the most surprising element of all might be the fact that his departure from ESPN came as a shock. In announcing his unexpected return to the Cowboys on Thursday, the tight end said the move was “completely my decision.” An ESPN report soon thereafter cited sources saying the decision was the result of “feeling he had more to give as a player rather than any unhappiness with television.” Even if that’s the case, network executives should be celebrating the opportunity for a MNF do-over—and consider Witten’s case as an all-too-familiar cautionary tale.
Witten’s hiring last year after a lengthy audition process was seen by many as an attempt by ESPN to capture the same magic Tony Romo produced for CBS in his first season a year earlier. The move could also have been read as a way for the network to get back in the NFL’s good graces—a stated mission under president Jimmy Pitaro—by handing its biggest property to a player respected throughout the league and beloved by one of its most powerful owners. Either way, the decision failed to deliver positive results.
Witten drew mixed-at-best reviews for his Week 1 broadcasting debut and won over few fans thereafter. His calling card became a series of gaffes, from “pulled a rabbit out of his head” to “kick themselves in the foot.” He handled those moments with humility, but viewers were still left wanting more. Witten responded to the criticism in December by saying, “it’s a long-term plan … I’m committed to the long-game approach,” according to The Athletic’s Lindsay Jones.
Executives, meanwhile, said the first-timer was improving and pointed to development after Booger McFarland joined Witten and Joe Tessitore in the booth. But now, they get the chance to create a new narrative rather than trying to rescue a heavily criticized booth. While that means a third refresh in four offseasons, it still beats the alternative.
For now, all the company shared regarding the future was this: “In the coming weeks we will determine our MNF plans for the 2019 season.” ESPN could roll out a McFarland/Tessitore exclusive broadcast next season, enlist one of their other NFL analysts to join the show, or hire an entirely new voice.
Witten’s return to the field stands as a warning to his once-again peers eyeing their own second careers in broadcasting. It’s not as easy as it seems.