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ESPN is gambling on Jason Witten. The rest of his ‘Monday Night Football’ crew makes it a solid bet

ESPN surrounded Witten with talent, including two college football standouts. Can he handle his new task?

NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC vs AFC Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The lineup for ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast booth for 2018 is set, and it’s a perfectly capable group of announcers. But if Jason Witten can transition from playing to commentary like his former quarterback, it could be great.

The network’s four-person lineup will include two college football veteran game-callers in Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland. They’ll be flanked by longtime broadcast journalist Lisa Salters, who will be on the sideline for another season. And then there’s the newcomer Witten, who will make his first foray from the field to the booth as the most recognizable face of ESPN’s MNF coverage. While the latter three are rock solid, the success of this year’s group may hinge on the former Cowboys standout, who will be tasked with replacing Jon Gruden’s blend of analysis and homespun stories from the press box.

When Monday Night Football‘s 49th season kicks off this fall, ESPN will unveil a dynamic, new NFL commentator team featuring play-by-play voice Joe Tessitore, analysts Jason Witten and Booger McFarland, and reporter Lisa Salters. Tessitore and Witten will be in the booth, while McFarland will bring a new perspective to the games each week as the first field-level analyst for sports television’s signature series.

ESPN made a safe play with a diverse MNF lineup

Let’s start with Tessitore, whose play-by-play work at ESPN has made him a divining rod for exciting college football games. The 16-year veteran has been the common thread behind insane games from the amateur level, ranging from the Mountain West to the SEC. His ability to keep his cool and unpack complex plays and storylines has drawn comparisons to broadcasting royalty — namely legend Verne Lundquist. His uncanny ability to find himself assigned to wild contests led to the theory of the “Tess Effect,” which suggests his mere presence makes games better.

That will be put to the test in Week 2 when the rebuilding Seahawks and Bears face off in primetime. Tessitore replaces Sean McDonough, another strong play-by-play analyst.

His steady hand will be counted on to guide Witten, who aced his pre-hiring tryout hard enough to lure him from the Cowboys’ locker room. The former tight end has always been composed in interviews, but his ability to transition to a broadcasting role is still very much in question. He’ll have big shoes to fill, and in more ways than one.

He’ll be a direct replacement for Gruden, the once and current Raiders coach whose personality drove a handful of MNF segments with varying levels of mileage. Gruden’s color commentary wasn’t for everyone, to put it diplomatically, but it was successful enough to keep him on the broadcast for nine years.

The coach’s success was the result of an overwhelming personality and insider’s insight. His effusive praise of young players and ability to create connections between what was happening on the field to what was happening behind the scenes in the playbook made him a valuable addition. Gruden had his niche. Now Witten has to carve out his own in the well-worn rut he left behind to take $100 million of Mark Davis’ not-especially-hard-earned cash this offseason.

But there’s a blueprint for that, and Witten can get all the pointers he needs from a familiar face. CBS hit a home run when it signed Tony Romo to its team after he ended his playing career last summer. Romo didn’t just provide tales from the huddle; he actively predicted plays and created the kind of “here’s why they did that” insight few, if any, announcers had ever brought to a national level.

Romo also jumped on those Gruden quirks to further establish his personality. He got his own cartoon, made some strangely adorable noises, and more or less endeared himself to football fans by being a dialed-up version of himself. That’s what ESPN is banking on from Witten, a player who may be best known off the field as, sigh, the NFL’s second-biggest pyramid scheme guru.

If Witten struggles, McFarland and Salters give ESPN fallback options

The 40-year-old McFarland has been a rising star in the broadcasting world since retiring from the NFL with two Super Bowl rings in 2007. The former first-round defensive tackle has been a staple of ESPN’s college football coverage since 2014, focusing mainly on his home turf through various roles with the SEC Network. Now, the network has finally untethered him from sentient boat shoe Greg McElroy and placed him on the field to provide insight from the sidelines.

It’s a big step up for McFarland, but one he’s equipped to handle. The biggest question is how his approach will change from covering college football from a studio to analysis on the pro game from the field. For a former player at both levels who has spent the past seven years in media, it should be a reasonable sea to navigate.

Experience is also the backbone of Salters’ career. She’s covered everything from Rae Carruth’s murder trial to soccer’s World Cup since joining ESPN in 2000. This will mark her seventh year as a sideline reporter on MNF, where she’s been a reliable presence. Like Tessitore and McFarland, she made the jump from college football coverage to the NFL with little difficulty. She’s rock solid — and more than capable of creating the cut-away analysis and reporting that can distract from any gaffes from a first-year team in the booth.

Even if Witten struggles, Monday Night Football will be fine

Monday Night Football is the NFL’s lasting cultural touchstone, and no announcing team is more heavily scrutinized than the squad assigned with each week’s final game. ESPN made a splashy, moderately risky hire by pulling Witten off the field and into the booth, but the network is surrounding him with two college football aces and one of the network’s most reliable sideline reporters to ease his transition.

That’s not a slam-dunk lineup, but the potential is there. If Witten can fulfill his promise as a hybrid Gruden-Romo type, it should meet the standard of the league’s premier weekly broadcast. If he doesn’t, it will put a lot of pressure on Tessitore and McFarland to bring their college football chops up to the pro level. That’s a gamble, but it’s an understandable one for ESPN to make.