In 2016, a year before top CBS Sports executives would replace Phil Simms as their No. 1 analyst with Tony Romo, they met with Fox’s Troy Aikman.
While Aikman has always loved working with Joe Buck on Fox’s No. 1 team, he was publicly disgruntled that FS1 had hired professional contrarian Skip Bayless.
Aikman had long held Bayless in contempt over a Cowboys book Bayless wrote two decades earlier that disparaged Aikman.
Meanwhile, CBS had initial thoughts of moving on from Simms, so its top executives had interest in two legendary quarterbacks, NFL TV’s white whale Peyton Manning and Aikman.
CBS didn’t end up with Aikman or Manning.
CBS stayed with Simms for one more year, but then audibled and made what is shaping up as one of the all-time calls in TV sports history, hiring Romo to join Jim Nantz on its No. 1 team.
With the sudden departure of Jason Witten from “Monday Night Football” last week, the NFL TV-analyst game is in flux once again.
As usual, it centers on some of the most recognizable quarterbacks in the game’s history: Aikman, Romo and Manning.
To grasp what could be next, The Post canvassed executives, broadcasters and agents to better figure out what ESPN may do and what could happen as Romo moves into the final season of his CBS contract.
While Romo is due to make around $3 million this year, he will look to top John Madden’s TV-analyst record of $8 million per season.
CBS is privately confident it will retain Romo, and it is the favorite. ESPN and, perhaps more significantly, Fox could be in play at this time next year.
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NBC can’t be completely ruled out, though most downplayed that possibility.
In the near term, ESPN likes the post-Witten base it has with play-by-player Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland, but it will still make the requisite inquiry into Manning, though the expectation is Manning will stay on the sidelines.
A year ago, ESPN was willing to top Jon Gruden’s $6.5 million for Manning. It would do that again and has developed an expanding relationship with the legendary quarterback through his ESPN+ show, “Detail.”
Barring a Manning Hail Mary, the immediate expectation is ESPN will keep Tessitore and McFarland and may just switch to a traditional two-man booth.
If “MNF” goes down the third-wheel path, ESPN is expected to lean on its extensive tryouts from a year ago, which ended up with Witten.
Kurt Warner, Jesse Palmer, Louis Riddick and Matt Hasselbeck were all in the final mix. The Panthers’ Greg Olsen is unlikely to be considered because ESPN is hesitant to repeat the mistake of having an inexperienced analyst on such a big stage.
While ESPN prefers not to have a revolving booth, the fact that Romo could possibly hit the market a year from now can’t be discounted. Fox, though, might be the bigger stalking horse.
Fox’s goal in acquiring “Thursday Night Football” was to make it into a spectacle. Last year, Fox made a huge run at Manning but came up short.
After Manning declined, it turned to its old, reliable crew of Buck and Aikman to create more of a shine for Thursdays.
Though paid handsomely for the extra load, Aikman joined Thursday night hesitantly. He is meticulous and likes to prepare for games in a certain way. While those close to him said it went well, there is doubt within the industry he would want to do the double duty again after this upcoming season.
Aikman and Fox have mutual Thursday night opt-out clauses each can trigger following the year. This means Aikman can choose not to do Thursdays after this season, or Fox can decide to have him focus on Sundays.
Fox, like all the networks, thinks highly of Romo. It could look to him to keep the Cowboys shine on Thursdays with Romo, if Aikman wants to lighten his load.
Beyond that, Fox also may want to prepare if Aikman, who has spoken publicly about running a team, truly wants to leave the game booth. Aikman could choose to lighten his travel, as well.
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If Fox hired Romo, Aikman also could eventually land in the Fox NFL Sunday studio. Fox’s Terry Bradshaw and/or Jimmy Johnson have been on the show for decades, while Aikman already owns a home within driving distance of the Fox studios. For Simms, the studio has rejuvenated his career at CBS.
Fox could be proactive, like NBC was when it hired Mike Tirico to eventually replace Bob Costas on the Olympics and Al Michaels in the “Sunday Night Football” booth.
As for that meeting in 2016 between Aikman and CBS, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus downplayed it when asked by The Post during Super Bowl week in Atlanta. McManus said CBS had “no intention of hiring Aikman” and said it was just a meet and greet.
Maybe so. Ultimately, CBS did not steal Aikman from Fox. Nor did it land Manning. With no other options it liked, it stuck with Simms for one more year. A year later, it hired Romo.