ESPN has a chance to get it right with new ‘Monday Night Football’ team

The network will have a new “Monday Night Football” broadcast team in 2020.

ESPN insider Louis Riddick on the field before an NFL football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers, Monday, Dec. 23, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)
Louis Riddick. –AP Photo/Craig Lassig

COMMENTARY

The temptation to chase star power is real and understandable, and it’s certainly much easier for sports television networks to hire established names than to develop their own.

This is how we end up with Peyton Manning rejecting eight-figure contract offers to join one NFL rights-holder or another as a rite of recent offseasons. It’s how we get Jason Witten, who must have revealed in a screen test that he has all the charisma of a fir tree, walking off the field and into the “Monday Night Football” booth. This is the thinking that anoints Ray Lewis as an ESPN studio analyst despite the spasm-dancing ex-Raven being a nonsensical rambler with a still-missing white suit.

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Sure, sometimes it works. As a Cowboys quarterback, Tony Romo was a superstar in profile if not accomplishment, and CBS Sports boss Sean McManus’s decision to assign him to its No. 1 broadcast team was the savviest broadcasting decision since the same network paired ex-Raiders coach John Madden with Pat Summerall in 1981.

Hall of Famer Troy Aikman has had a stellar second career in Fox’s No. 1 broadcast booth. Phil Simms and Dan Fouts were excellent once, though those days are hazy to Patriots fans who have hooted on them in recent years.

But it’s this star chasing that leads to big expectations for big names who have not proven to be skilled broadcasters. ESPN pursued Philip Rivers for its “Monday Night Football” booth before he signed with the Colts. Drew Brees has a deal in place to join NBC’s “Sunday Night Football’’ after his playing days. They might be good, or they might be the next Joe Montana, who during his one season with NBC in 1995 had the kind of camera presence usually found only on C-SPAN.

I’m dredging up this brief and incomplete recent history of superstars in the broadcast booth — something Howard Cosell labeled the “jockocracy” decades ago — because one network has a chance to get it right at the moment.

And that means hiring the best candidates, not the ones with the highest Q ratings and longest Wikipedia pages.

As first reported by The Athletic last weekend, ESPN will have a new “Monday Night Football” broadcast team in 2020. Play-by-play voice Joe Tessitore and analyst Booger McFarland will be replaced after two years (Witten was with them for the first season before returning the NFL).

It’s the right decision, and Tessitore and McFarland will likely return to calling college football at the network, a role in which they both thrived before replacing Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden for the 2018 season. Tessitore and McFarland tried, but the fit wasn’t right.

ESPN has a chance to get it right now, and it can do so internally, without chasing some random All-Pro from 2013 to join the club. Sources at ESPN have confirmed that Louis Riddick and Dan Orlovsky are among the candidates to be analysts in the “MNF” booth, with longtime “SportsCenter” anchor Steve Levy among the candidates to be the play-by-play voice. ESPN is not expected to pursue external candidates.

This is terrific news for NFL fans. Neither Riddick nor Orlovsky was an NFL star. Riddick was a heady safety for four teams in seven seasons in the ‘90s. He was a ninth-round pick who fought to stick in the league and had his greatest success with Bill Belichick’s Browns in 1993-95. If he were born a little later and had played into the 2000s, you could see him as one of those savvy, unheralded veterans who made the 2001 Patriots what they were.

Riddick, who worked as a scout and a director of pro personnel for both the Redskins and Eagles after retiring, made his name after his playing career was done. He joined ESPN in 2013, and it quickly became evident that he did his homework on every aspect of the NFL. He was the first to predict superstardom for Patrick Mahomes before the 2017 draft, and if you think that’s a no-brainer, remember that Mahomes went eight picks after Mitchell Trubisky.

Orlovsky was a standout quarterback at Connecticut who entered the league as a fifth-round pick of the Lions in 2005. He spent the next 10 years battling to remain in the league, playing 27 games for four teams through 2015. He’s best known for a Football Follies-level mistake, scrambling out of the end zone for a safety while playing for the 0-16 Lions in 2008 (he was 0-7 as a starter).

Orlovsky was not someone television executives were clamoring to add to their high-profile broadcasts when he retired, but it became apparent when he joined ESPN in 2018 that he would not be at the bottom of the analyst depth chart for long. His knack for breaking down the complexities of quarterback play without overwhelming the viewer with jargon is a rare skill.

My only qualm about ESPN possibly going with a Levy/Riddick/Orlovsky booth is that it would greatly reduce the time the analysts could contribute to the network’s studio programs. They’d both be missed. But ESPN has other excellent ex-player analysts, including Tedy Bruschi and Ryan Clark, who can help fill that void.

Riddick and Orlovsky weren’t stars as players, but they are on their way as broadcasters. They deserve the increased prominence that “Monday Night Football” would provide (even if it isn’t as big a deal as it used to be).

Better still, viewers deserve them, for the insight and genuine passion they would provide.

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