Tony Romo might be Jason Witten’s good friend, but in the broadcast booth, he was his enemy. The expectations set by Romo’s immediate success at CBS drowned Witten as a rookie ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst.
Now it is Romo who hangs over ESPN executives’ next decision on Monday nights. He is a free agent in one year — and ESPN will consider that as it decides what to do with Witten returning to being a Cowboys tight end.
In the near term, ESPN is expected to be hesitant, to borrow a line from Witten, “to pull another rabbit out of its head.”
Though Bristol graded Witten far better than most, there was some relief for ESPN, and not only financially. Witten failed as a rookie analyst, and he might have become a bigger punchline in Year 2.
Witten made a little less than what has been previously reported, but still was in the $3 million per year range, according to sources. He had three more seasons on his contract. He reportedly will make $3.5 million on a one-year deal with the Cowboys, which could reach $5 million with incentives.
With that overlay and with it thinking Witten still had potential, ESPN was prepared to keep Witten in the booth. Officials were reiterating Witten’s return all month in private conversations. They did not expect Witten to leave for the field and were not ready for Thursday’s announcement. Ultimately, the network caught a break.
In truth, Witten was too wooden on-air, but he wasn’t as bad as some made him out to be. If he were on CBS’ No. 3 team, he would’ve been fine, but ESPN put him on prime time and added to the spectacle by putting his co-analyst in a high chair on the sideline.
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If Witten hadn’t surprised ESPN with his decision to return to the Cowboys, he would have been in the booth with Joe Tessitore and probably Booger McFarland. The Booger Mobile, a terrible idea ESPN eventually ditched late in the season, was going … going … gone. Now it is almost impossible to see it return. The scrutiny will still be there. There is a glamour to the Monday night booth, stretching back to Howard Cosell, Al Michaels and John Madden.
That is why Romo’s suddenly immense broadcasting shadow will loom over any decision ESPN makes. Romo has one year left on his contract at CBS, which is going to try to lock him up before he can test the market.
Romo will make in the $3 million range this season, dipping a little bit as CBS no longer has a hand in “Thursday Night Football,” as it did Romo’s rookie year, or a Super Bowl, as it did last month.
ESPN used to pay Jon Gruden $6.5 million for Monday nights and, according to sources, likely would have gone to $7 million for Peyton Manning if Manning would have taken ESPN’s offer before Witten was hired. Madden once made $8.5 million.
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Romo — who wants to be a professional golfer, with $130 million in career playing earnings and with even the Twitterati mostly on his side — could try to start negotiations at $10 million.
So Romo will either be paid in full by CBS or he could listen to what ESPN has to say a year from now. It is unlikely, with all his leverage, Romo gives CBS any home-network discount, no matter how much he likes kibitzing with Jim Nantz about golf.
ESPN might not want a Band-Aid for the Witten void in hopes of Romo being out there in a year. It has three more seasons left on the Monday-night deal and could try to sign someone to join Tessitore and McFarland or start fresh.
It tried for Manning last year, but another attempt would be a waste of time. Kurt Warner received the silver medal last year, though he would have been a better choice than Witten.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is well-liked by ESPN and Fox, but would they take the chance of exchanging one Pro Bowl tight end for another as a rookie analyst? It would show conviction in their thought processes.
ESPN could go to any of its millions of analysts to see what it has and present it as its team now and forever. It also could just try Tessitore and McFarland, while waiting to try to sign Romo.
Romo now hangs over the Monday Night booth. Even with Witten gone, some things don’t change.