Barry Jackson

This is what ESPN has in mind for its new Monday Night Football booth

Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, top, is brought down by the Dolphins’ Kiko Alonso after a reception in a preseason game in Arlington, Tx. Witten retired this spring and is joining ESPN as the lead analyst on Monday Night Football, replacing new Raiders coach Jon Gruden.
Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, top, is brought down by the Dolphins’ Kiko Alonso after a reception in a preseason game in Arlington, Tx. Witten retired this spring and is joining ESPN as the lead analyst on Monday Night Football, replacing new Raiders coach Jon Gruden. rmallison@star-telegram.com

There’s no greater media mystery this season than what exactly to make of ESPN’s new Monday Night Football announcing booth of Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten and Booger McFarland.

It’s one thing for a high-profile announcing team to have one new addition. But three?

That’s highly unusual and somewhat risky, even more so when the third member of that team — McFarland — is assigned not to the booth, but to an unusual “field analyst” role where he will be unable to have eye contact or nonverbal cues with Tessitore and Witten to know exactly when to speak.

ESPN’s new trio — joined by sideline reporter Lisa Salters — makes its regular season debut Sept. 10 with Raiders-Rams, the second half of ESPN’s traditional doubleheader on the first Monday of the regular season, with Beth Mowins and Brian Griese announcing the Lions-Jets opener that night.

ESPN auditioned several former players to replace Raiders coach Jon Gruden Matt Hasselbeck, Louis Riddick and Joe Thomas, among others — before opting for Witten, who retired from the Cowboys after 15 illustrious seasons.

The network also decided early on to have Sean McDonough and Tessitore essentially switch jobs, with McDonough returning to the No. 2 college football team (behind Chris Fowler) and the deep-voiced Tessitore promoted to the NFL.

“We did multiple auditions, a million conversations,” ESPN senior vice president Stephanie Druley said. “We looked at a lot of tape. I think many of us could call the Titans-Chiefs playoff game from memory pretty easily.

“But we were looking for the best balance of passion for the game, depth of knowledge, and the ability to take that knowledge and form educated opinions. We also put a priority on chemistry because we wanted to put the best team on TV every week.”

Witten said he reached out to Gruden about the job, and Gruden emphasized the amount of work it takes, which Witten embraces.

“In January, February, March and most of April this year, I was planning on playing football, but when you’re 36 and when this opportunity arose to be a part of an institution like Monday Night Football, it was too enticing to pass up,” he said.

Witten naturally will be compared with Tony Romo, his close friend and former Cowboys teammate who was a smashing success in his first year as CBS’ lead analyst last season.

Witten — who spoke briefly to Romo about his new gig — likely won’t be as boisterous and animated as Romo but envisions ways where they might be similar.

“I thought Tony did a really nice job in his first season,” Witten said. “There was a freshness in his approach. His energy level was really high. I think a lot of people really enjoyed hearing him call the games the way he did. Tony 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.”

And this is encouraging: Witten said he won’t hesitate to criticize players or coaches.

“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,” Witten said. “As a player, I never allowed my feelings to get hurt in that situation. I never felt like somebody was personally attacking me. They have a job to do. The ones I respected the most as a player are the ones that called it like they see it. … That’s going to be my approach.”

Sergio Dipp, a 29-year-old reporter for ESPN, made his sideline debut on Monday Night Football for the Broncos-Chargers game. It didn't go as planned, turning him into an internet sensation overnight.

Meanwhile, McFarland — who spent eight years in the NFL as a defensive tackle (1999-2006, mostly for Tampa Bay) — assumes a “sideline analyst” role that’s still largely untraditional. Former Fox analyst Tony Siragusa has the most experience in that role.

Why not put McFarland in the booth instead?

“We like the [sideline] perspective,” Druley said. “I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to, oh, this is this 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.”

ESPN hired Jeff Triplette as an officiating expert, replacing Gerry Austin, and he will be available as needed during game telecasts.

Riddick, the former NFL executive, would have been a solid choice for the booth but instead was given an expanded studio role that will include pregame, halftime and postgame analysis from the Monday night game site.

Here’s a look at CBS, Fox, NBC and NFL Network coverage this season:

CBS

What’s on: Primarily Sunday road games of AFC teams, plus Chicago-Detroit on Thanksgiving. CBS has this year’s Super Bowl.

What’s new: Bruce Arians joins the No. 3 team as a game analyst and Steve Tasker moves from a game analyst to reporting role. Gene Steratore was hired as an officiating expert, a position that had been unfilled at CBS for two years since Mike Carey’s regrettable tenure.

Announcing teams, in order: Jim Nantz-Tony Romo, Ian Eagle-Dan Fouts, Greg Gumbel-Trent Green-Arians, Kevin Harlan-Rich Gannon, Andrew Catalon-James Lofton, Spero Dedes-Adam Archuleta, Tom McCarthy-Steve Beuerlein and Beth Mowins-Jay Feely.

FOX

What’s on: Primarily Sunday road games of NFC teams, plus nine Thursday night games and Washington-Dallas on Thanksgiving.

What’s new: Fox is paying $550 million per year through 2022 to take over the Thursday night package in conjunction with NFL Network. CBS, NBC and NFL Network shared the Thursday games over the previous two seasons.

Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will call the 11 games, which will fall between Weeks 4 and 15, excluding Thanksgiving night. The games will be simulcast on NFL Network and distributed in Spanish on Fox Deportes.

Announcing teams, in order: Buck-Aikman, Kevin Burkhardt-Charles Davis, Kenny Albert-Ronde Barber, Thom Brennaman-Chris Spielman, Chris Myers-Daryl Johnston, Dick Stockton-Mark Schlereth. Also, Cris Carter, Brady Quinn, Greg Jennings and Jeff Fisher will get select game assignments on weeks that Fox has seven or eight games.

NBC

What’s on: Sunday night games plus the Atlanta-Philadelphia regular-season opener on Thursday, Sept. 6 and Atlanta-New Orleans on Thanksgiving.

What’s new: Mike Tirico moves from the game site studio to the New York studio to replace Dan Patrick as host of Football Night in America. Patrick chose not to return. Liam McHugh replaces Tirico as host at the game site. Terry McAulay joins NBC as its officiating expert.

Announcing team: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth.

NFL Network

What’s on: Every Thursday game – 11 simulcast with Fox and two Thursday games only on NFL Net (Baltimore-Cincinnati Sept. 13, Jets-Cleveland Sept. 20) plus four Saturday games – Cleveland-Denver and Houston-Jets on Saturday, Dec. 15 and two games to be determined on Saturday, Dec. 22.

What’s new: The fact Fox – not CBS or NBC – is now producing those NFL Network games

Announcing team: Buck-Aikman on Thursday games. Announcers TBD for the Saturday games.

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