The Pittsburgh Steelers held on to defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 30-27, in what started out as a blowout, but ended up being a suspenseful Monday Night Football game. But all anyone seems to be talking about is Jason Witten and his odd comment about a roughing-the-passer penalty.
During the fourth quarter, referees called the fourth roughing-the-passer penalty of the night, an extension of what has become a hot topic for the NFL after the league adjusted its rules to be more favorable to the quarterback.
Witten, the former Dallas Cowboys tight end who replaced Jon Gruden in the booth as ESPN's lead analyst, was on the call when the penalty was called, and made the odd claim that the NFL has become too "left wing" when it comes to protecting quarterbacks.
"I knew they were going to make it about the health and safety and protecting these quarterbacks. It just seems like we went a little bit to the left wing on that with our approach on trying to protect it," Witten said. "Not only are the players frustrated, but the coaches. They don't know how to coach this. That's when you have a challenge with this rule."
The comment quickly spread across social media Monday night, fueled by comments new ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro made ahead of the NFL season that it's not the network's role to cover politics, and that it wouldn't air the national anthem during its broadcasts.
"It had nothing to do with politics," ESPN said of Witten's comment.
The "left wing" remark wasn't the only time Witten fumbled Monday night. During the second quarter, Witten blamed Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans for what appeared to be a badly overthrown pass by Ryan Fitzpatrick. Despite the obvious miscommunication on the play, the only player anywhere near the football was Steelers rookie safety Terrell Edmunds, who intercepted the pass and returned it 35 yards.
"Mike Evans pulls up," Witten said on the call. "Fitzpatrick dropping… He wants to throw it right in over his head. Keep running!"
Witten was also critical of Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell over his ongoing holdout, which The Athletic's Richard Deitsch called out as a "pro-owner take." Witten also claimed that Ben Roethlisberger had issues with Bell's patience as a receiver, and odd comment considering Bell pulled down a career-high 85 receptions last season.
It's obvious that Witten is still trying to get comfortable in a high-profile role on the network's most popular program, which also added play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland as an on-field analyst. Unfairly or not, Witten has been compared to his former teammate, Tony Romo, who impressed fans and pundits alike during his first season in the booth calling games for CBS.
"I thought it was just going to be like if you knew football, you could do it. Then when I did some practice games, I was like, 'Nope, that's not enough. I still stink. I'm not good at this. I'm bored with myself,' " Romo said prior to the start of the season. "Like I told [Witten], it's a long season so just put your head down and keep getting better and better, and you'll wake up and the season will be right towards the end."