The Dallas Cowboys are leaders in one category: They have cornered the market with ex-players becoming lead analysts for the various No. 1 network broadcast teams for the NFL.
"I think [Cowboys owner Jerry Jones] is really enjoying this, having his guys on this stage," said Jason Witten.
The former tight end is stepping into the television spotlight this year, joining Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland for ESPN's coverage of Monday Night Football. Witten is following the lead of Troy Aikman at Fox and Tony Romo at CBS as former Cowboys who moved on to top roles in NFL TV booths.
Is it any coincidence that the networks seem to like players who wore the star on their helmets?
"[The Cowboys are] 'America's Team,'" Witten said. "Playing there, it's the bright lights. It's Broadway. As a player, you're aware every day you get off the practice field, you're going to be in front of the media. ... I also think Don Meredith [the Cowboys quarterback in the '60s] had a lot of success [as an analyst]. Troy has had a lot of success. It's given us a great opportunity."
Indeed, Meredith set the bar extremely high during his legendary run on Monday Night Football in the '70s and early '80s. Witten, though, likely will be compared to another Cowboys quarterback.
Last year, Romo earned rave reviews in working with Jim Nantz in his first year in the booth as the No. 1 analyst for CBS. Witten, who retired after the 2017 season, is trying to make a similar jump with ESPN.
For his part, Witten insists he isn't going to get caught up in any comparisons to the guy who used to throw him passes.
"Tony did a great job last year," Witten said. "We're different personalities. I know I will be compared to him in everything I do. But even when I played, I never compared myself to Rob Gronkowski or any other tight end. I've been competing my whole life. Nobody's expectations are higher than my own. By having that approach, it hasn't allowed the outside noise to affect what I want to do and my mindset to improve."
Witten's arrival is part of a complete makeover of the Monday Night booth following previous analyst Jon Gruden's return as coach of the Oakland Raiders. Tessitore is the new play-by-play voice, and McFarland is patrolling the sidelines as an on-field analyst. The lone holdover is veteran sideline reporter Lisa Salters.
Tessitore insists he could see the new team's chemistry from their first audition. He says it is a daily process to take it to the next level, as he is in constant communication with Witten, McFarland and Salters.
"We don't turn it off," Tessitore said. "We're always working."
McFarland will have a unique view of the game, working on an elevated platform about 10 feet off the ground at the line of scrimmage. The moving "BoogMobile," as it has been dubbed, has monitors and a computer.
McFarland admitted to being a bit leery at first since he doesn't like heights and cold weather, an element that will come into play later in the season. However, the set-up gives him an up-close perspective of the action occurring literally right in front of him. McFarland and Witten will interact throughout the telecasts to create what McFarland calls "a conversation" about the game.
"We've both played football," McFarland said. "We both had roles had to fill. By doing that, it allows us to do what we're doing now. We're still on same team, but we have different roles. We work individually to help our team collectively put the best product on the air." The new team did test runs by working two preseason games for ESPN. They will make their regular-season debut with the Los Angeles Rams-Oakland Raiders game on Sept. 10.
Witten admitted to feeling the nerves prior to his first ESPN telecast, the New York Jets-Washington game on Aug. 16.
"I was surprised how nervous I was," Witten said. "Man, I have the jitters. It's almost like I'm playing. I think it is about the expectations from ESPN, the NFL, and what Monday Night Football is all about."
Indeed, you will be hard-pressed to find another broadcast booth in sports that has more history and confronts more scrutiny than the one for Monday Night Football. The 15-year NFL veteran now is a broadcast rookie facing a considerable challenge.
"I understand the expectations for me," Witten said. "I played 15 years for the Cowboys. I understand it gets hot in the kitchen. I try to stay with a singular approach. Here's what I want to become. Here's how I want to get there. Here's how I use the resources to get there. In any high-level endeavor, there's going to be expectations and standards you want to reach. I don't know if you ever feel like you accomplish it, but I am proud of the progress I've made, and I think we'll continue to [progress] as this unfolds."