ESPN is finally turning a corner with ‘Monday Night Football’ booth

ESPN had a guy on a contraption zooming up and down the sidelines. It prepared a $140 million offer for Tony Romo. It went after seemingly every quarterback outside of Bubby Brister to be a “Monday Night Football” analyst.

But, finally — Hallelujah! — it figured out something that is so simple:

It is about the game.

That’s the star.

Always has been. Always will be.

“Monday Night Football” has been downgraded a bit by the NFL schedule-makers, causing ESPN to overcompensate. The Booger Mobile felt like a mid-life crisis type of decision, trying to gain attention as you bald.

The idea of bringing in Romo, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Al Michaels all had validity. But, for various reasons, all failed.

So ESPN ended up with a “Fine, you take it” MNF booth of Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick.

Two games down, Levy, Griese and Riddick are an upgrade over Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland. As compliments go, this is not the greatest one. But it is something.

The new trio is not perfect. They are not Romo sprinting out of the gate on his way to $180 million. In football terms, they can block and tackle. They have not been distracting. That’s a win.

They are doing it within the limitations of a pandemic. There was no preseason practice. There are no fans. Spotters and statisticians are all six-feet apart or farther.

On Monday, the 50th anniversary of MNF, ESPN, trying to impress the NFL with the next television negotiations on the horizon, simulcasted the game on ABC, while Kirk Herbstreit headlined an alternative sports celebrity-filled broadcast on ESPN2.

As proof of it being a good night for Disney, even Manning — the network’s white whale, who annually turns down MNF — made it onto the alternative broadcast, yukking it up with Charles Barkley, Herbstreit and Rece Davis. Omaha! Omaha!

While Levy, Griese and Riddick may not have been ESPN’s first or 10th choice, they have the job. They are sort of like undrafted free agents, each with a little dent on his TV scouting report, but hoping to make the team and stick.

Levy comes across as if he won a “Dream Job” contest during the MNF broadcast. It sounds genuine and is endearing that he is so thrilled to be in the Monday Night booth, almost like he can’t believe it.

Levy is not a classic play-by-player. He is a better studio guy that could be ESPN’s right choice for the NFL Draft with Trey Wingo’s departure.

In recent years, Levy and Griese formed ESPN’s No. 3 college team. It is evident they are comfortable with each other.

With his contract up, Griese wanted to return to the NFL, but his overtures to CBS and Fox were turned down. The MNF gig then fell to him.

His content is pretty good, as he can express the intricacies of the game. His voice quality is a bit thin and he could be more emphatic when he has an incisive point.

In Week 1, he was on top of Denver’s Vic Fangio failing to use his timeouts. If he were a little more incredulous, it would have stood out more.

ESPN NFL Monday Night Football Louis Riddick, Brian Griese and Steve Levy
Louis Riddick, Brian Griese and Steve LevyScott Clarke / ESPN Images

Griese has a unique background as, besides having a good NFL playing career, he grew up in a booth watching his dad, the Hall of Famer Bob Griese, and Keith Jackson. He knows a T-formation and a telestrator. He’s the glue of the group.

While three people is generally one too many, ESPN executives should have made it easier for the trio.

With Tessitore and McFarland on the hot seat and Romo no sure thing, ESPN executives should have put Riddick with Levy and Griese for a full college season last year. Riddick is hurt most by the lack of foresight.

Now, ESPN should improve Riddick’s chance of success by having him do less. Riddick may have grinded his way to the top of ESPN after arriving in 2013, but the thing that has held him back is he wasn’t a star as a player.

This is where the Romo Rules should apply to Riddick. If Romo had ended up at ESPN, he would not have done “Get Up!” “First Take” or ESPN Toledo.

To elevate Riddick even more, he shouldn’t be on every show, giving take after take. Let him shine on Mondays. Less can be more.

Riddick has the knowledge, but is inexperienced on games. He needs to be more conversational. Not everyone is going to know what a “7-route” is and he doesn’t have to mention the “National Football League” so often.

Riddick, though, shows real glimpses. A former defensive back and league executive, he has mentioned not-pictured receivers, who were wide open, but missed by quarterbacks on a couple of occasions the first two weeks. These are game-changing observations that Riddick has seemingly identified.

Match that with some quick “All 22” replays and ESPN might have a little magic.

All this said, with its new producer Phil Dean, the group is not trying to breathlessly save MNF. They seem a bit more comfortable in their own skin. Maybe, at 50, you accept having a little less hair and you don’t need a silly luxury car.

Next week, ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” has the Chiefs and the Ravens. Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson.

It is the type of game executives love to call extra Zoom meetings to ask how they can hype it more.

Here’s some friendly advice: Just get out of the way. ESPN’s new MNF crew has successfully done that the last two weeks — it is a start.


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