The NFL has a real problem when the marquee match-up for its most famous broadcast is best enjoyed on mute. This week, Lamar Jackson eviscerated the Rams on Monday Night Football in one of the most impressive individual performances in recent memory. The only problem: the experience of watching Jackson’s genius was made worse, not better, by ESPN’s announcing crew, Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland.
This is the broadcast of Madden and Gruden and Michaels and Cosell. It is the pinnacle of the profession. Such an event broadcast by a company that once styled itself the Worldwide Leader In Sports should not have you wondering every five minutes how this is the best they can offer. Here are just a few doozies from McFarland’s latest Monday night:
– “Tess, in order for Lamar Jackson to win MVP, he will have to convince people he is more valuable than Patrick Mahomes.”
– “If I’m the Rams, I’m gonna force Lamar to have the football. All you gotta do is tackle him!”
– “A false start penalty on second-and-five might actually help the Rams”
– The Rams, you know, have yellow uniforms”.
– “America, listen to me now: stop allowing tight ends to block premier pass-rushers one-on-one”
That final one is his magnum opus. McFarland addressed the country as if the electorate had voted for an idiotic football strategy and he was here to ignite a revolution. In truth, Monday Night Football has been a mess since Mike Tirico left for NBC in 2016. Jon Gruden’s Jon Gruden-ness papered over the cracks during a shaky two-year affair with Sean McDonough, but the broadcast has been in freefall ever since.
Last season ESPN tried to emulate CBS’s success with Tony Romo by hiring another retired Dallas Cowboy, Jason Witten. One issue: Romo is a once in a generation broadcast talent, smart and funny and natural and unique. Witten was not: to call him wooden would be an insult to pine. ESPN pulled the plug after just one year, and Witten returned to the playing field. Tessitore’s ropey debut was given a pass: Working with Witten would be tough for anyone, became the consensus.
Up stepped McFarland, who had spent much of the season patrolling the sidelines in the now-infamous “Booger Mobile”, one of the most bizarre and pointless inventions in the history of television. McFarland was a decent in-studio college football analyst, but he has been awful as a national NFL voice. He sounds like he’s started a sentence and has no idea where it’s going to end. On Monday, McFarland officially entered the Biden Zone. At this point, you don’t really care what he says, you’re just hoping he can stumble his way to a coherent conclusion. Tessitore is a real problem, too. That booming voice was perfect for the ever-ridiculous world of college football but falls flat in the pros. In the NFL, Tessitore sounds like a condescending try-hard.
And then there’s the graphics department, which was subject to a John Oliver scolding a little over a year ago. Things haven’t improved. The network had to update its graphics bar mid-game during its debut broadcast of the season because the new down-and-distance box was bright yellow, causing viewers to think a penalty was being called on every play. Think about that: meetings took place over that decision. People had coffee and sandwiches and showed PowerPoints and shook hands and high-fived.
It often feels like the show’s producers are more interested in their carefully choreographed packages and graphics than the actual game unfolding on the field. No other broadcast misses a play as consistently as Monday Night Football, continuing to prove that there is nothing in media or entertainment that cannot be ruined by more money and time. Spare us dancing 3D models and show us what Patrick Mahomes is doing at the line of scrimmage.
Moving on from one or both of Tessitore and McFarland is inevitable. McFarland’s selection was important because the NFL’s flagship broadcast hadn’t had an African American analyst in the booth in decades, but his performance has become indefensible. ESPN has a bunch of talented people in-house – Louis Riddick, Dan Orlovsky to name but two – or they could pinch someone away from a rival network.
ESPN’s owners, Disney, handed over $15.2bn to the NFL for the rights to broadcast one game per week and receive the worst of the league’s playoff match-ups. Executives justify that price by saying it allows ESPN to show highlights and game footage throughout the season across its range of channels and talking-head shows. Yet Monday Night Football remains the company’s prestige telecast, despite its flagging ratings. Disney is a market leader and conqueror, it is not in the business of being mocked. There is a real problem when the only enjoyable part of the show is the rules analyst, John Parry. Right now, Monday Night Football is fundamentally broken and remains dead stinking last among national broadcasts.