There are a lot of things Jason Witten has to learn about being a broadcaster, but preparing to deal with angry Eagles fans isn’t one of them.
“Look, those boos have been happening for a long time. They’re not going to stop now,” Witten said.
Witten, whose 15 seasons playing tight end for the Dallas Cowboys will likely earn him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, abruptly retired earlier this month to become ESPN’s new Monday Night Football analyst, following in the footsteps of former teammate and current CBS analyst Tony Romo. Witten will be joined in the booth by longtime college football play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore, with Lisa Salters continuing her role as the broadcast’s sideline reporter.
College football analyst and former NFL defensive tackle Booger McFarland will join the team as an on-field analyst, a new role for Monday Night Football. ESPN senior vice president Stephanie Druley said the network has had success with the role during its college football coverage, and pushed back at the idea that it was simply a rehash of what Fox Sports used to do with former NFL defensive tackle Tony Siragusa.
“I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to ‘Oh, this is the old Siragusa role.’ To us, it’s not. To us, Booger is a seamless part of the booth who has a unique perspective of being at field level, seeing what’s going on in the trenches, seeing what’s happening on the sidelines,” Druley said. “I think the perspective will be different and will be really interesting. But at the same time, the goal for Joe, and for Jason, and for Booger, is to have it feel seamless.”
Witten, who will go through a broadcasting boot camp over the summer with Tessitore and Monday Night Football executive producer Jay Rothman, said there are a number of things he needs to work on to prepare himself before the NFL season. But he’s already ready to deal with fans upset at criticism of their team.
“I’ve had thick skin for a while. That’s happened my whole life, going on the road and getting booed, or [fans] saying things to me. I’ve been called almost everything,” Witten said. “I’m going to be objective, and if I fail at that, then I’m failing the viewer, and I’m failing ESPN.”
Witten will be in the spotlight Dec. 3, when he comes to Philadelphia for the first time as an announcer to call the Week 13 NFC East matchup between the Eagles and Washington Redskins at Lincoln Financial Field. The former tight end is well-aware of the criticism NBC’s Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth got from Eagles fans (and at least one player) after the Super Bowl, and understands that being attacked for his opinions comes with the territory of being an NFL analyst.
“I can’t stand when I’m listening to a game and you get a sense of the homer type of guy or a guy talking in ‘we.’ That’s not what Cris does. That’s not what these real good guys do,” Witten said. “I think you have to have the confidence to share thoughts that are going to be critical or potentially could be critical of a player or coach or a decision that’s made in a game. That’s a challenge and a role that I accepted, and I understand it.”
The obvious comparison for Witten is Romo, whose first year in the booth was greeted with near-universal praise from fans and pundits. Witten said he visited with Romo briefly when multiple networks came to him about joining their broadcasts, and expects his longtime friend will give him plenty of advice over the next few months.
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“At the end of the day, I think people really liked his insight. He had a unique perspective, and I felt like he was teaching oftentimes,” Witten said. “Tony did a really, really good job and made people feel comfortable, like he was sitting at the house on the couch, and he communicated that very well, and I hope to do the same.”
In addition to an Eagles home game, Witten will return to Dallas to call the Cowboys’ Week 9 game against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 5. He said it would probably be a overwhelming experience to walk into AT&T Stadium for the first time as a former player.
“I’m sure it’ll be a little bit emotional when I come back to The Star and see some teammates and friends of mine. But I think that’s just part of the process,” Witten said. “Now I’m able to transition into this and attack it the same way that I did for 15 years as a pro player. So it’ll be great to see those guys, but we both got a job to do and I think there’s a healthy respect for that.”
Tessitore was less interested in Witten’s objectivity for calling the Cowboys game, and more about where the crew should eat when they visit Dallas.
“We’ll get a little Nick and Sam’s,” Witten responded. “Show you what a real steakhouse looks like.”
Here’s ESPN’s complete Monday Night Football schedule, a notable improvement over the poor slate of games it received last season:
Sept. 10, 7:10 p.m., New York Jets at Detroit Lions
Sept. 10, 10:15 p.m., Los Angeles Rams at Oakland Raiders
Sept. 17, 8:15 p.m., Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears
Sept. 24, 8:15 p.m., Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Oct. 1, 8:15 p.m., Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos
Oct. 8, 8:15 p.m., Washington Redskins at New Orleans Saints
Oct. 15, 8:15 p.m., San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
Oct. 22, 8:15 p.m., New York Giants at Atlanta Falcons
Oct. 29, 8:15 p.m., New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
Nov. 5, 8:15 p.m., Tennessee Titans at Dallas Cowboys
Nov. 12, 8:15 p.m., New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers
Nov. 19, 8:15 p.m., Kansas City Chiefs vs. Los Angeles Rams (Mexico City)
Nov. 26, 8:15 p.m., Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans
Dec. 3, 8:15 p.m., Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles
Dec. 10, 8:15 p.m., Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks
Dec. 17, 8:15 p.m., New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers
Dec. 24, 8:15 p.m., Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders