Columnist Dan Mason: ESPN Monday Night Football must refocus – The game and field should be first!

Tessitore, Witten and McFarland shouldn't stray off topic, especially when the score is close. Let the game and field shine!


Full disclosure. I’m not even close to a millennial.  In fact, I just turned 50.  Fear not, this will not be a “Back in my day” column.  It’s from the heart.  It’s about a friend, ESPN, losing its way. So, in the spirt of the old days, I offer self-improvement advice for my dear old all-sports companion.

ESPN is the keeper of the flame. Monday Night Football is not an experiment.  For many football fans, MNF culminates a weekend of TV football. It is easily the second or third most valuable NFL time-slot on television.  NBC Sunday Night Football is in a league of its own. I’ll let the number crunchers rank the second highest slot, the 4:25 Eastern game on Sundays or ESPN’s MNF.  It doesn’t  matter.

For reasons I can’t fathom, there are three newborns in the ESPN booth who stray from the game instead of calling it. I’ll use the most recent MNF game, the one between the Bills and Patriots, as an immediate example. Frankly, ESPN should consider blowing up this incarnation, including its entire production team.

MNF analyst Jason Witten certainly had more success as an NFL tight end than he has had to date in his rookie year in the ESPN booth. On the other hand, Dallas QB Tony Romo, whose retirement was triggered by a seriously bad back, was an immediate hit in the CBS booth last year. Tony is as self-assured in the booth as he was on the field. He knows football, is passionate, has the credentials and presides with natural confidence over the national mic.  It’s clear that ESPN was trying to capture the same magic with Witten that CBS did when it paired Romo with lead play-by-player Jim Nantz.

Witten doesn’t have the “it” factor. He also has no chemistry with MNF’s first year play-by-play voice Joe Tessitore; previously a solid game caller of ESPN’s college football. Joe fails to set up Wiitten and isn’t sure what to do with roving sideline analyst Booger McFarland.

Think about this and let it sink in. Tessitore had the easiest set up opportunity for partner Witten this past Monday.

Bills fans were hungry and had hoped that perhaps this was their night to beat the big and bad Patriots on national TV.  They were down by only three in the third quarter. All Joe needed to say was, “Jason, this is a struggling 2-5 Bills team playing inspired defense tonight. What are the Bills doing that’s giving the Patriots fits?”  Did he say anything like it?  Not even close.  Here’s what we got in between plays in a 9-6 game.

Joe: “Guys, big news out of Cleveland today.  Coach Hue Jackson and Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley were relieved of their duties.  Your thoughts?”  Why are we talking about a 2-5-1 team in the third quarter of a three point game, one that was obviously still very much in doubt?

McFarland riding his moving van along the sideline

From his wandering vantage inside ESPN’s moving sideline vehicle, Booger McFarland got into an exchange about the extraneous. Of all things, the broadcasters talked about the Browns coaching changes.  Meanwhile, Witten, the booth commentator, is sharing his two cents too about the Browns while play is taking place right in front of them in Buffalo. I guess a three point margin wasn’t sufficient to merit some analysis of what was developing on the field.  Roger Lewin and Jay Rothman, producers of MNF need to do a way better job of saying, hey guys there’s a bloody game going on.  It’s inexcusable.  That being said when you lose a professional with the resume of Sean McDonough and bring in a bunch of first timers, what we’re getting is sports-talk.  Witten has to be more succinct with his game analysis and share his thoughts before the next play.  Again, that’s both on Jason and Tessitore. Joe has to lead him a bit better.

The graphics were a bit much. The one of past Buffalo QBs going over Niagara Falls lacked luster as did the Halloween graphic. Twice, the producer had to run the cartoon of Tom Brady jumping off an RV onto tables of Buffalo tailgaters because, according to Tessitore, “That’s what they do here in Buffalo; yuck yuck.”  Again, MNF needs to be presented with a focus on the game and the stories that surround it. That, in and of itself was a complete miss and has been void all season.

The one thing that was a complete and easy storyline was the halftime retirement of former Bills great, Thurman Thomas’ jersey.  While Tessitore mentioned it and ESPN even cut to shots of Thomas on the sideline, ESPN could have done so much better with the presentation of it.  Heck, ESPN had its own NFL institution, Chris Berman, who got camera attention while on the sidelines and who was getting ready to emcee the halftime ceremony.  You’re telling me we couldn’t get a live interview from sideline reporter Lisa Salters with Berman at some point to discuss the impact that Thomas had on those great Buffalo teams?  Crickets.

ESPN’s Tessitore should tone it down; McFarland is getting better and Witten could improve in time

Here’s my broader take on the other rookie analyst, McFarland, who’s never called NFL action.  Situating him on a golf cart that booms up and down the sideline is over the top.  One, he speaks too often as though he’s the lead analyst. It comes off like he’s being paid by the letter.  Two, he doesn’t always enunciate well and three, he’s longwinded.  Enough said!  Either make it a formal three man booth or lose viewers.

Worse than McFarland, ESPN hired former NFL referee Jeff Triplette as a first time rules analyst. By my recollection, he had only one airing this past Monday; opining on a judgment of catch/no catch by Rob Gronkowski. It was about as uninspiring a rules interpretation that I’ve ever heard.  Energy please, Jeff.

The broadcast has an uplifting asset in veteran Suzy Kolber whose responsibilities include anchoring halftime. I was frustrated though by the fact that she seemed to be given little runway to have a major presence. Shouldn’t production see to it that key Sunday highlights are shown at halftime or that there’s a quick feature on important NFL news such as the impending trade deadline?  Neither happened and again it’s a production issue, not Suzy’s.  She knows her stuff and has demonstrated so through her long ESPN career.

The whole ESPN/MNF package from beginning to end was a D- in my view.

ESPN feels it needs to reinvent the world; a world where fans allegedly want in your face instant analysis, play by play professionals who are as opinionated as the analyst and a barrage of sideline reporters who yearn to be in the booth. That’s what the institution of MNF has become.  My advice.  ESPN should revive its once strength. Give us the game, give us facts.  Let us watch.  ESPN is so darn busy trying to throw a kitchen sink at viewers that it’s impossible to concentrate on the event.  Tone it down. This isn’t a talk show or a tutorial on how to present cool graphics on TV. It’s a football game.  Let the game and field shine!

Dan Mason

Dan Mason has been in sports broadcasting since the 1980s, doing play by play, color and covering the ACC. He previously hosted programming for ESPN Radio in Raleigh. He can be reached at twitter: @mason87dan

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