Heading into a highly anticipated Week 11 match-up between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams, the one thing embattled Monday Night Football analyst Jason Witten knows is that he needs to keep improving.
Like his former Dallas Cowboys teammate Tony Romo, Witten went straight from the NFL into a prominent broadcast role — in Witten's case, ESPN's most highly watched show — with no previous television experience. But unlike Romo, Witten has been mocked and ridiculed by viewers over the first 10 weeks of the season due to a series of flubs and awkward statements that have gained traction on social media.
"I understood when I took this job that it was going to be hard, it was going to be a transition," Witten said during a conference call ahead of Monday's Chiefs-Rams match-up. "Certainly with Tony and the success that he had, I really try not to live in that world and fully embrace it and continue to get better and evaluate it, but I think with the flubs I certainly do not deny it, I don't try to hide it."
That much is true. Witten has made a series of cringe-worthy statements during his brief tenure in the booth, 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.
While calling the Oct. 15 match-up between the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers, Witten was widely mocked on social media for saying quarterback Aaron Rodgers pulled "another rabbit out of his head" during a late fourth quarter drive. But instead of ignoring the criticism, Witten took the flub in stride and made fun of himself a bit on Twitter.
"Yeah, there's been some flubs. I mean I made mistakes," Witten said, revealing that even his wife texted him about flubbing that line. "You try to own it, you embrace it. Hell, I'm not perfect, I've certainly had my fair share of mistakes on live television."
Prior to the start of the season, Romo said he spoke with Witten several times over the summer, and encouraged his former teammate to avoid Twitter altogether and just focus on improving every week.
"I think back to when I first started, 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. "Like I told him, 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."
Witten isn't the only new member of the crew. After former analyst Jon Gruden returned to the NFL as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, ESPN gave Monday Night Football a complete overhaul. The network moved play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough back to college football and replaced him with longtime college football announcer Joe Tessitore. They also added former NFL defensive tackle Booger McFarland as an on-the-field analyst, where he offers insight from an elevated cart dubbed the "Booger Mobile."
"It's a unique setup that we have, and I feel like every game we've gotten better at different aspects of what we're doing. Are we a finished product? By no stretch of the imagination," McFarland said. "However, I think the improvement we see from Oakland Week 1 is miles away from where we started at. I still think we have a long way to go."
ESPN has been willing to respond to some criticism this season. After weeks of complaints about the large television attached to the rear of McFarland's cart blocking fans' views of the game, ESPN replaced it with a sheet of clear plexiglass. But don't expect ESPN to get rid of the "Booger Mobile" anytime soon.
"We like where it's playing out," said Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman. "I think Booger as a defensive player gives us a unique perspective, 10 feet high at the line of scrimmage… You worry about guys stepping on each other, given the dynamic we have, but it's very rare in a game. You can count it on one hand or less that these guys have really interrupted each other."
Due to poor field conditions, the Chiefs-Rams game originally scheduled to take place in Mexico City has been moved to Los Angeles, where it will be the city's first Monday Night Football broadcast in 33 years. According to Yahoo, the field at Estadio Azteca was ruined by a Shakira concert held at the stadium a month ago.