Sports

The Case of the Tongue-Tied Tight End

In his first year in the broadcast booth, Jason Witten is struggling to find the right words. Will he ever be a competent announcer?

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 30:  Jason Witten #82 of the Dallas Cowboys smiles during warm-ups before the football game against the Washington Redskins at AT&T Stadium on November 30, 2017 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Witten brings a certain, um, charm to the booth.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Jason Witten wants you to know that he is trying. After enduring months of criticism, the Dallas Cowboys tight end turned Monday Night Football color analyst has allowed himself to dabble in mild self-deprecation. During this week’s game between the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans, Witten likened his fumbling around in the booth to the learning process for young quarterbacks. “You gotta practice it, you know?” he said. “Much like me as a rookie broadcaster, you know? I’m sitting in front of my hotel room, in the mirror, and just sayin’ it over and over again.”

For Witten, the “just sayin’ it” bit hasn’t come all that naturally. Two weeks ago, when the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs played one of the most exciting and high-scoring games in NFL history, Witten barely attempted to explain what made the team’s offenses so astoundingly effective. When the Rams took a fourth-quarter lead, Witten stumbled through a few buzzwords (“championship mindset,” “leverage,” “adversity”) on his way to explaining that the tight end caught the ball.

Football is a complicated sport. The rules, techniques, and lingo are in constant flux, and a color analyst is tasked with parsing this information in real time and translating it for a viewing audience that’s largely unaware of the game’s endless nuances. It’s a tough job for veterans who’ve been calling games for decades. Witten is learning on the job, in public, in front of millions of people each week. So far, as evidenced by the clip above, that learning process has been slow.

ESPN made haste in bringing Witten into the fold—the news had already been reported by the time he announced his retirement from football during a teary-eyed press conference in May. Players rarely walk directly from the field to the booth, and rarer still are examples in which that transition goes smoothly. Unfortunately for Witten, his former teammate Tony Romo, who slid straight into CBS’s main broadcast team last year, is a notable exception to that rule.

From the first minute Romo partnered up with Jim Nantz, he came off as at once unpracticed and comfortable. At a time when the NFL was beset by bad vibes of its own making, the ex-quarterback sounded like he genuinely enjoyed watching football. That giddiness, plus his parlor trick of predicting plays before they happen, made Romo an instant fan favorite.

Just listen to Romo explain the “eight things that were awesome” about Emmanuel Sanders’ touchdown this weekend for the Denver Broncos against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Romo spots Sanders’ chip on a Steelers defender, as well as the unconventional way he grabs his own teammate to pull himself into space. It’s a pretty cool play once you know what’s going on, and Romo makes us privy to a whole bunch of secrets we wouldn’t otherwise see.

Witten’s style, to the extent he has one, is something akin to a labored Romo impersonation, and he utters every statement with forced, hernia-inducing excitement. Given that he’s just months removed from an NFL locker room, one could reasonably expect Witten to provide revealing analysis of the modern game, but he rarely goes beyond simple narration of what we’re seeing on the screen. Despite his job title, Witten doesn’t do color commentary. He does play-by-play on a delay.

Witten is part of a totally revamped Monday Night Football crew that is trying to find its collective footing. Joining him in the booth is Joe Tessitore, an excitable former college announcer who sounds like a Harry Shearer character. Retired NFL defensive lineman Booger McFarland also provides analysis from his vantage on a roving, field-level cart dubbed, appropriately enough, “the Booger mobile.” McFarland has more television experience and polish than Witten, and it shows. That McFarland often chimes in to clarify or rebut his colleague’s muddled insights only heightens the sense that Witten is still finding his way.

Unsurprisingly, the internet is mean to Witten. Search Twitter for his name on Monday nights and you’ll find a joyous pile-on in the wake of every slip and malapropism. An October game between the Packers and 49ers was particularly rough for Witten, who both marveled at Aaron Rodgers’ ability to pull “a rabbit out of his head” and chided San Francisco for “kicking themselves in the foot.” Witten has moments like this every week, and players have even chided him for mispronouncing their names.

To his credit, Witten hasn’t shied away from criticism. “There’s been some flubs,” he said in a November conference call. “You try to own it, you embrace it. Hell, I’m not perfect, I’ve certainly had my fair share of mistakes on live television and more than anything else you try to embrace it, you laugh at it, you smile at it.” This is a notably different approach than Witten outlined in an article he wrote for ESPN this summer, when he called social media “locker room poison” and lamented seeing “a really talented player corrupt his mind and confidence by reading all the critiques from anonymous football experts around the world.” (Witten also quotes Friedrich Nietzsche in that piece, a stylistic choice he’s yet to deploy on Monday Night Football.)

While most of Witten’s mistakes have been harmlessly embarrassing, he did run afoul of ESPN’s new Golden Rule—stay out of politics—when he said during a September broadcast that the NFL had gone “a little bit to the left wing” when it comes to protecting quarterbacks. An ESPN spokesperson said his comment “had nothing to do with politics,” and Witten did an interview with the Washington Post to clear things up. “It was a mix-up in words,” he said. “I was saying the pendulum was moving to the left and I guess the nerves of being a rookie—I mean trust me I would never get into rushing the passer and politics.”

No matter how rocky his start has been, it is precisely this attitude—both the panicked avoidance of politics and the aw, shucks, I practice in front of the mirror approach—that will ensure Witten’s place in the Monday Night Football booth for years to come. As far as television executives are concerned, there are worse things than being a pleasant, inoffensive galoot. By embracing the more marble-mouthed aspects of his persona, Witten will ensure that his mispronunciations and mixed metaphors become a charming element of his brand. Hell, John Madden tripped over his words for nearly three decades, and there’s never been a more beloved NFL commentator than he.

The bar for color commentators is pretty low. Witten will never be Tony Romo, but he could be Dan Dierdorf. There have been a few signs that his commentary is getting more passable, like on Monday when he quickly and correctly criticized the Titans’ play call on a crucial fourth down: “Give it to your tight end? Your tailback is 247 pounds! You gotta feed him!” It’s not exactly Keats, but it doesn’t have to be.

When critics savaged Conan O’Brien early in his NBC career, Lorne Michaels told the Late Night host, “The longer you’re on, the longer you’re on.” In an interview years later, Michaels happily assessed this approach: “After a while, he just became part of the landscape.” Witten is on TV now. All that’s left is for us to get used to him. The producers of Monday Night Football are counting on it, even if it means we have to watch him kick himself in the foot for another few seasons.