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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

ESPN's 'Monday Night Football' booth is all Gruden, Tirico

ESPN broadcaster Jon Gruden is shown before an

ESPN broadcaster Jon Gruden is shown before an NFL football game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills in Foxborough, Mass on Sept. 14, 2009. Photo Credit: AP

The most popular show on American television returns Wednesday night for another five-month, multinetwork run that presumably will again smash all challengers in the ratings race.

Given that success, it is not surprising there are no new faces for 2012 among the No. 1 announcing teams that cover the NFL nationally.

But the offseason was not without one major piece of personnel news: ESPN continued its pattern of tinkering with the "Monday Night Football" booth by removing one of the network's most popular voices, Ron Jaworski. Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden remain.

The motivation appears in part to have been clearing the inevitable verbal clutter that comes with a three-man booth (fair enough) and better to showcase Gruden, whom the network views as a rising star (we shall see).

Producer Jay Rothman explained ESPN's thinking this way on a conference call with journalists:

"The only thing I would say about that is Jon is a unique talent and has a lot to offer. I think it's very difficult, and you'll see there's really no three-man booth out there in terms of football coverage, really in NFL or college football.

"It's very difficult in a game with a play clock and the short window in which you dissect the game and analyze the game. It's cluttered. That's why you don't really see it.

"I think this allows for more space and it allows for us to be more precise and on point. It allows us to showcase Jon and Mike's talents, and we think it's the right move."

So there you have it. But there are risks. Gruden surely has a dynamic personality -- one that at times dominated at Jaworski's expense -- but he is prone to using too much jargon, and too much gushing praise.

And there always is the chance he will return to coaching, forcing yet another booth upheaval. Gruden and his play-by-play partner, Tirico, downplayed that as a concern.

"When I got fired from coaching [in 2009], obviously I had a tremendous loss; I didn't know what to do," Gruden said, adding he was grateful to Tirico, Jaworski and ESPN for helping him learn on the job.

"I know that I have to get better. But when you work at ESPN, they call it 'The Worldwide Leader' for a reason; if you can see the tape they send me to watch, that's what has really quenched my thirst for coaching. I get plenty of video to evaluate.

"I get to go to different teams and spend days there and watch them practice, see their facilities, meet their players and coaches. So it's really been a tremendous growing opportunity for me professionally, trying something new, and also staying on top of what's going on in football."'

Said Tirico: "I think that after all the stories I read that Jon was not going to be back after Year 1, here is what I have learned over time: The more energy you spend predicting the future is wasted energy. You have no idea what's going to transpire and what's going to go on.

"We love having him every day. Whether it's for the next 20 years or the next 20 months, every day that I get to work with Jon has made me a better broadcaster and I look forward to it and I hope the run doesn't end."

Like Tony Kornheiser before him, Jaworski is leaving the MNF booth but staying at ESPN. He received a new five-year contract and will appear on various shows and platforms.

Still, Jaworski, who had been on MNF since 2007, said during a break at Jets training camp last month: "It was bittersweet. I obviously loved the spontaneity of doing games. I loved working with Gruden and Tirico and the entire crew . . . I would love to have stayed with 'Monday Night Football,' but I'm not a historian, I'm a pioneer. I'm looking forward to making things happen in other platforms."

New York Sports