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ESPN Faces ‘Monday Night Football’ Shakeup as Jason Witten Returns to Cowboys

ESPN unveiled a new “Monday Night Football” team last fall, part of a series of maneuvers aimed at forging better ties with the National Football League. Come autumn, the sports network may have to do it again.

Jason Witten, the rookie analyst who joined “MNF” last season, is returning to the field.

The Dallas Cowboys said Thursday that Witten, who abruptly retired from the team last May, will come back this fall. ““The fire inside of me to compete and play this game is just burning too strong,” Witten said in a prepared statement. “This team has a great group of rising young stars, and I want to help them make a run at a championship. This was completely my decision, and I am very comfortable with it. I’m looking forward to getting back in the dirt.”

ESPN may not have to look too far for a new analyst. Former NFL defensive tackle Booger McFarland was also named part of the “MNF” team last year. But he played a different role, riding the sidelines in an elevated “Boogermobile” for a time that gave him a direct line of sight on the field of play. ESPN sent the mobile into the garage, as it were, as the football season progressed. McFarland is part of a team that also includes Joe Tessitore and Lisa Salters.

“We thank Jason for his many contributions to Monday Night Football and to ESPN over the past year and wish him continued success. We have seen many former coaches and players go into broadcasting before eventually returning to the game they love, so we understand Jason’s desire to return to the Dallas Cowboys,” ESPN said in a statement. “In the coming weeks we will determine our MNF plans for the 2019 season.”

Getting the game is right is critical for ESPN. “Monday Night Football” remains one of the most expensive TV programs for advertisers, according to Variety’s annual survey of media buyers. And there’s more. Having that broadcast on ESPN gives owner Walt Disney leverage to command some of the highest monthly subscriber fees in the industry from cable and satellite distributors.

The game-day analyst role was once typically filled by a veteran player, one whose on-field career was largely in the rear-view mirror. In recent years, however, TV networks have placed new emphasis on catching younger athletes. CBS has enjoyed great fanfare for its recruitment of Tony Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback. Several sports outlets have privately expressed interest in trying to lure Peyton Manning, the former Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos quarterback, to the broadcast booth.

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