Jason Witten is leaving ESPN and Monday Night Football after one season and will return to the NFL to play for the Dallas Cowboys.
"The fire inside of me to compete and play this game is just burning too strong,” Witten, who will be 37 when the next NFL season begins, said in a statement distributed by the Cowboys. "This team has a great group of rising young stars, and I want to help them make a run at a championship. This was completely my decision, and I am very comfortable with it. I’m looking forward to getting back in the dirt.”
It will be Witten’s 16th season as a tight end for the Cowboys. The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reports that Witten will receive roughly $5 million to come out of retirement, slightly above the $4 to $4.5 million a year he was reportedly making at ESPN.
Over the first 15 years of his career, Witten had 1,152 receptions for 12,448 yards and 68 touchdowns. Last season, Eagles star Zach Ertz broke Witten’s single-season catch record of 110, ultimately ending the year with 116 catches.
Witten’s performance for ESPN was mocked by critics and football fans throughout last season, his first in a new Monday Night Football booth that also included Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland. Witten made a series of cringe-worthy statements over the course of the season, from claiming the NFL had become too “left wing” when it comes to protecting quarterbacks to inadvertently comparing New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley to O.J. Simpson. He also struggled to pronounce the name of Los Angeles Rams linebacker Samson Ebukam during a high-profile game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
To his credit, Witten owned up to his mistakes and admitted he needed to improve, and seemed to take the criticism in stride. He even made fun of himself in response to some of his more humorous missteps, such as when he said Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers “pulled a rabbit out of his head.”
“We have seen many former coaches and players to into broadcasting before eventually returning to the game they love, so we understand Jason’s desire to return to the Dallas Cowboys,” ESPN said in a statement. “In the coming weeks we will determine our MNF plans for the 2019 season.”
ESPN could decide not to replace Witten and simply move forward with Tessitore and McFarland as a two-man booth. But ESPN has also made an offer to Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, according to the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand. Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner was also reportedly high on the network’s list when it hired Witten.
Witten was reportedly under a multi-year contract with the network, and the move appears to have caught many at ESPN by surprise. Witten himself told the Athletic back in December he was in the booth for the “long haul."