The most notable thing about Jason Witten’s “Monday Night Football” debut might be that it wasn’t notable at all.
You knew last season when Tony Romo was calling a game; his voice and excitement jumped out of the screen. Cris Collinsworth has an obvious impact on NBC broadcasts. Jon Gruden, the man Witten is replacing on ESPN, was always front and center on Monday nights.
Witten just kind of blended in during the New York Jets-Washington Redskins broadcast on Thursday night. For a debut it wasn’t bad. But for the most part, if you tuned in late, you might not have remembered that Witten was calling his first game.
Jason Witten’s “MNF” debut was unremarkable
Witten was a surprise hire. He was a future Hall-of-Fame tight end with the Dallas Cowboys and great with the media. Everyone knew why ESPN hired him to replace Gruden, after a pursuit of Peyton Manning didn’t work, but it was still a gamble considering Witten had no experience.
Witten’s debut was mostly met with negativity on social media, but what in 2018 isn’t ripped to shreds on Twitter? Witten deserves to be graded on a curve, considering this was his first time calling a game. If he was nervous, that’s understandable. Witten is entering a very difficult spot. The color analyst on “Monday Night Football” is probably one of the top 10 most visible announcer roles in American sports.
There were silent gaps in the broadcast at times, especially right after plays, though that improved as the game went on. Perhaps the gaps were due figuring out whose turn it was in the unique three-man setup, with Booger McFarland serving as the on-field analyst outside of the booth (McFarland was good, offering timely and strong opinions, and he overshadowed Witten at times).
It’s the preseason for everyone, and the ESPN crew has time to figure out its dance before the games count.
Witten did provide strong, smart analysis
The biggest positive about Witten’s first game is not a small thing: His analysis was smart, educational and on point.
Witten’s best moment in his first game came after Jets quarterback Sam Darnold’s fourth-down interception. Witten pointed out how Redskins safety Deshazor Everett was in man coverage against the running back, but Everett dropped off as a lurk defender when the back stayed in to block. Darnold didn’t see Everett, the extra man in coverage underneath, and Everett tipped up a pass that was picked off.
“Really good awareness by Everett,” Witten said as he wrapped up his breakdown of what happened.
If Witten gets more comfortable and provides more analysis like that, he’ll do just fine.
Witten got mixed reviews
While Witten had his critics on social media — again, Twitter in 2018 isn’t the place to find anything positive — some liked what he brought to the broadcast.
Witten’s gonna be great at this TV thing. You can hear him settle into it quarter by quarter.
— Rob Phillips (@robphillips3) August 17, 2018
Witten is going to be really good in the booth. Solid now, will be even better once he finds his voice/style and really understands the mechanics of a broadcast.
— Brandon Tierney (@BrandonTierney) August 17, 2018
Witten probably won’t be the splashy color man that his old teammate Romo is, or Gruden was for many years. Though, we don’t know what Witten’s style will be after just one preseason game.
“I hope I can share knowledge,” Witten said on “SportsCenter” after the game. “Look, I understand my job isn’t to be the best friend or a cheerleader, it’s to analyze a game. I’m invigorated by this challenge and opportunity.”
Will Witten be a positive for ESPN?
The “Monday Night Football” booth gets more attention than perhaps any other in sports. That legacy goes way back, to when “MNF” was a cultural event, and Howard Cosell became one of the most famous men in America. ESPN shook things up in the offseason after Gruden left to coach the Oakland Raiders. Joe Tessitore was brought in as the play-by-play man, and on Thursday night he was his usual solid, professional self. McFarland was a much bigger part of the broadcast than any sideline presence we’ve heard before, and it will be interesting to see how that meshes with Tessitore and Witten. Lisa Salters is one of the best sideline reporters in the business, and she’ll continue to be a positive asset for ESPN.
But all eyes and ears will be on Witten. He was a surprise hire, selected over many others already with ESPN, presumably because the network wanted Witten to have the same instant impact that Romo had on CBS. Through one preseason game it seems as if Witten won’t be another Romo, but he still needs to grow into his role before we know what kind of analyst he’ll be.
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