Inside ESPN’s Jason Witten vetting: Avoiding Gruden issue

ESPN has gone to great lengths to try to ensure that Jason Witten is the right fit for its “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth. For weeks now, new play-by-player Joe Tessitore has not only been auditioning prospective candidates on the Bristol campus, but he has been spending the day with each one, eating meals and even having them come over to his house. It has been an expansive and intense process for Tessitore and ESPN’s decision makers.

Sources said that ESPN has been going to these lengths in part because it wants an improved chemistry that it thought the previous MNF team, Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden, lacked. McDonough, a respected play-by-player, was taken off the game but given a soft landing spot, assuming Tessitore’s former role as the No. 2 college football game caller behind Chris Fowler. Gruden left for a $100 million contract to coach the Raiders.

ESPN had wanted “the next Tony Romo” to be Peyton Manning, but struck out. The network considered Brett Favre, but decided he was not the right fit.

ESPN auditioned a whole crew of prospective analysts, including Kurt Warner, current Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, ESPN analysts Louis Riddick, Booger McFarland, Randy Moss and Rex Ryan, among others. It is still possible they could add a third man to be in the booth, though nearly all play-by-players prefer a two-man team.

ESPN is taking a huge gamble with Witten, who, according to the Dallas Morning News, will be paid between $4-4.5 million. Neither he nor Tessitore has ever called an NFL game, and “Monday Night Football” is a heck of a place to start.

Witten is an unknown as an analyst, but he is a Cowboy. That last fact seems to be very important. Of the four lead NFL game analysts, three played in Dallas, as Witten joins Troy Aikman (Fox) and Romo (CBS). Only Cris Collinsworth (NBC) has no Cowboys connections.

Still, here is the thing for Witten, just like with Romo a year ago: No one knows how good he will be. CBS receives full marks for Romo, but there was some luck involved.

Will ESPN be as fortunate?

On his return show, Mike Francesa only mentioned one specific offer as an alternative to returning to WFAN. It was the VSiN gambling network, which was started by Brian Musburger and his uncle, Brent. Sources said that VSiN (Vegas Sports and Information Network) wanted Francesa to work its Triple Crown shows on SiriusXM and its video platforms. There may have been more components to the offer, but it is unlikely that they would be able to come close to matching the more than $1 million that Francesa is receiving from WFAN. Francesa has a long history with the Musburgers, as Francesa started his career as an intern for Brent and then went on to be his chief researcher. At the beginning of Brian’s career, he interned with Francesa.

ESPN says its ratings for the 6 p.m. SportsCenter without Jemele Hill and Michael Smith are up 9 percent from April last year to this year.

ESPN has not settled on permanent hosts for the 6 p.m. program, as of yet. It will have Stephen A. Smith host the show during the NBA Finals. One day, ESPN will be 24 hours of Stephen A., A-Rod and NFL mock drafts.

ESPN cited sources in first reporting it was hiring Witten to be its MNF analyst. The reporters who broke the stories on Witten were NFL insider Chris Mortensen and ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer. They very well could have had football sources, but ESPN still looks a little ridiculous, citing sources, about a person joining its organization and then having its PR team decline comment.

There are no perfect answers about how ESPN should handle the situation. The problem is, where do the business and journalism lines cross? The Post first reported that Witten auditioned for Monday Night, but, if ESPN is reporting on itself, shouldn’t it have broken that story, too? Witten, after all, was considering hanging up his shoulders pads at that point.

CBS will have Bruce Arians on its third NFL team, joining Greg Gumbel and Trent Green. Good for CBS investing in a group that won’t ever see a playoff game, but that could be improved.

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