ESPN’s Jason Witten has taken some flack for his uneven first season in the booth of Monday Night Football, but one thing the former Cowboys tight end hasn’t been bashful about is criticizing players.
Near the end Monday’s lackluster match-up between the Oakland Raiders and the Denver Broncos, both Witten and Booger McFarland (in the booth due to weather conditions) called out Bradley Roby after it appeared the Broncos cornerback quit on a play late in the fourth quarter.
"It’s a running play. Watch this effort. The ball hits inside, he just stops … the play is still going. It cannot happen,” Witten said of Roby’s performance on a 12-yard gain by Raiders running back Doug Martin. “Vance Joseph, I would pull the guy out. I would pull him out because you never quit in the NFL.''
"That's embarrassing,'' McFarland added. "He's a young guy who's had issues.''
Roby, who played the game with stitches in his mouth, shot back at Witten during a conversation with reporters after Wednesday’s practice, calling the future Hall of Famer’s comments “disrespectful.”
“For him to characterize me as a quitter or quitting on my team, I feel like that’s the most disrespectful thing you can say in a team sport,” Roby said. “I thought the play was over. I was wrong. But for him to say that, it just made me mad.”
Roby also speculated that Witten’s criticism stemmed from the Broncos' 42-17 win over the Cowboys last season, in which the cornerback admitted to a bit of trash talking during the game.
“Maybe he remembers me from that. I don’t know,” Roby said. “I really wasn’t going to say anything about it, but I just know that people listen, people believe stuff like that… He has to have more evidence before you characterize someone like that.”
Broncos head coach Vance Joseph also didn’t take kindly to the criticism coming from Witten and McFarland, defending Roby during a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
“I love our ex-players. I love when they’re involved in the game, but they all forget that they were players before,” Joseph said. “We can find plenty of tape (of) the ex-players in the media that they’ve had issues. It’s funny as you get away from the game, how much better you were as a player.”
This isn’t the first time this season an NFL analyst has been under fire. Back in September, Fox Sports analyst Troy Aikman was called an “armchair quarterback” by Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones over Aikman’s in-game analysis of the Cowboys' season-opening loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Jones eventually walked his comments back, telling reporters he simply picked the wrong words and admitted that the Cowboys' offense needed to improve.
Witten has drawn a fair amount of criticism during his first year in the booth due to untimely flubs and verbal hiccups. But the former tight end has improved over the course of the season, and hasn’t been afraid to speak his mind, from criticizing Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell’s decision to sit out or calling out the Washington Redskins leadership for signing Reuben Foster just three days after Foster was arrested on domestic violence charges.
“I’m going to be objective, and if I fail at that, then I’m failing the viewer, and I’m failing ESPN,” Witten told me prior to the start of the season.
With no Monday Night Football game on New Year’s Eve, Witten, McFarland ,and play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore will call two more games for ESPN this season — a yet-to-be-determined wild-card game during the first week of the playoffs and the international broadcast of the Super Bowl.
If the Eagles manage to sneak into the playoffs as the sixth wild card, there’s a chance the team will draw Witten, McFarland, and Tessitore on ESPN for the second time this season. Back in Week 13, Witten drew the ire of Eagles fans by waiting just eight minutes to invoke every broadcaster’s favorite negative trope involving fans in Philadelphia — throwing snowballs at Santa Claus.
The NFL will make its final decision on broadcasts for the wild-card match-ups Sunday night.