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The Pursuit of Peyton Manning and Five Thoughts on the Future of ‘Monday Night Football’

ESPN is reportedly interested in bringing the legendary QB to the booth to replace Jason Witten. Is that the answer for the NFL’s most historic show?

Peyton Manning throwing a football Getty Images/Ringer illustration

ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro went to Denver this month to try to convince Peyton Manning to replace Jason Witten on Monday Night Football, according to The Hollywood Reporter’s Marisa Guthrie. That’s big news. If Manning were to say yes, it’d mean that ESPN is attempting a second reboot of Monday Night one year after the first. Here are five thoughts on the present and future of Monday Night:

1. Manning, who told ESPN no last year, was the obvious guy for the network to call. Since Sunday Night Football became the premier NFL night game 13 years ago, ESPN has been working like mad to make Monday Night seem like an “A” broadcast. Manning would also help with ESPN’s continued thawing of relations with the NFL.

Hiring Manning makes sense for other reasons too. One is Jimmy Pitaro’s star system, which has led ESPN to import big names like Manning and Kobe Bryant (despite controversy) and Kevin Durant for quasi-journalistic projects. This is slightly different than the years-old practice of TV networks’ polishing their brands by hiring ex-players. What Pitaro’s doing would be more like bringing Manning, et al. in for extended ESPYs cameos, with the added benefit that their work would live on ESPN’s new streaming service.

The other reason Manning is valuable to ESPN is one of the more interesting stories in TV right now. ESPN is exhuming ABC Sports. Older broadcasters still shudder at the way the ESPN brand swallowed the House That Roone Built back in 2006, because it was the ultimate sign of cable’s triumph over the existing network order.

But ABC Sports (with ESPN branding) is slowly coming back. The network showed two hours of the NFL combine. Former SportsCenter anchor Robin Roberts, who reportedly makes nearly $18 million to host Good Morning America, will anchor one night of ABC’s draft coverage. There’s chatter that Disney wants to put NFL games on ABC when the rights come up for bidding—a package that Manning could be a part of.

If you’re going to rebuild a network sports division, you need stars—“faces” of the networks. Manning is a star.

2. Manning might say no to ESPN. He might want to run an NFL team. Unlike Tony Romo, Manning doesn’t need a second, redemptive career, because Manning’s first career went just fine.

One thing I don’t think will be a huge factor is the so-called “shadow of Romo.” His shadow is a real thing, in the sense that announcers on competing networks have to constantly read about how good he is. But the idea that Manning fears Romo is preposterous to me.

Peyton Manning is a competitive guy! And even when John Madden ruled the earth, the other networks still put on football shows every week. Saying Romo would discourage people from becoming announcers is like saying Seinfeld discouraged people from making sitcoms. It could just as easily work the opposite way. Romo showed that announcers could take chances, make predictions. Romo might encourage ex-players to come to TV because he helped turn announcing into something that feels cool. Ask Matt Millen, Cris Collinsworth, and others who studied Madden back in the ’80s and ’90s—a “shadow” can be an invitation to walk toward the light.

3. If Manning says no, James Andrew Miller and others have suggested ESPN will likely turn to Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland, the holdovers from last year’s booth. It may seem like a rehash, but it’s not. Last year, we didn’t see Tessitore and McFarland at the height of their powers.

Tessitore and McFarland, two pals who’d worked together at the SEC Network, both liked Witten. But the Monday Night booth had the feel of an NBA team where a highly touted rookie isn’t playing well. The other team members had to set up the rookie, whether or not he was making his shots. In ways that we TV watchers couldn’t see, I suspect they had to compensate for him too. At some point, the team was so committed to the rookie’s success that it was effectively playing for next season.

If McFarland gets the job, he will be one of the few African American announcers to ever be in a no. 1 football booth—a list that includes O.J. Simpson’s two-plus-year stint on Monday Night. Neither McFarland nor Tessitore carries himself like someone who was handed the keys to the network kingdom—because they never have been. If they get the gig, they will be driven to succeed. They will also be free to be themselves. It could be a very interesting booth.

4. Every NFL night game that’s not Sunday Night Football should have the same animating idea: This may not be the best game. But it’s the fun game. And it’s less self-important than you ever thought an NFL game could be.

Last year Joe Buck and Troy Aikman treated Thursday Night Football like a midweek night at the bar. It was a nice changeup. When Tessitore called college football at ESPN, he was the ultimate “bonus football” guy.

If Monday Night gets a great Chiefs-Rams matchup, like it did last year, the producers and announcers can snap into big-game mode. Otherwise, the idea of “bonus football” should be embraced. Above all else, Monday Night ought to be fun.

5. Finally, the Monday Night team is grappling with a problem that’s bigger than Tessitore, McFarland, or Manning. Monday Night is in the midst of a 40-year-long identity crisis, a public quest to figure out its place in the modern media age.

The crisis predates social media, second screens, and Dennis Miller. It was obvious in the ’80s, when I was a kid. Back then, Al Michaels was the slickest play-by-play guy on earth. Dan Dierdorf was a big-opinion guy (“hot taker” wasn’t yet in wide circulation) of the type that thrived during that time. Frank Gifford was a bridge to Monday Night’s glorious past who’d been eased out of play-by-play and into the role of village elder. Sometimes, Gifford would call Thurman Thomas “Emmitt Thomas” for three and a half hours. The show was often really good. But it seemed like an uneasy hybrid, a broadcast that was trying to honor the past and win the future at the same time.

Last year you could feel the same disparate forces tugging on Monday Night. The game’s production and direction felt like a weekly visit to the shrine of Roone Arledge. (Thou must never defile Monday Night.) Tessitore brought the more direct, nakedly emotional feel of ESPN’s college football coverage. McFarland was an “opinionist”—a Dierdorf updated for the 21st century. Witten was a tongue-tied ambassador from Middle America. The no-name bands performing at halftime felt like someone in Bristol had walked over to a white board and written: “Millennials—how do we get these guys?!”

When you try to execute five different ideas, everyone can do their jobs well and still wonder whether the broadcast succeeded. The show can seem smaller rather than bigger. With or without Peyton Manning, the question ESPN has to answer this year is the simplest: In 2019, what does it mean to be Monday Night Football?