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Much-criticized ESPN 'Monday Night Football' crew of Tessitore, Witten and McFarland acknowledge the bumps and say they're improving

Jason Witten and Joe Tessitore during the Sept.

Jason Witten and Joe Tessitore during the Sept. 17, 2018, Monday Night Football game at Soldier Field on ESPN. Photo Credit: Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images/Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images

“Monday Night Football” has endured some mediocre schedules this decade, but in Week 11 it has what appears to be the regular-season game of the year, even if it is not in the originally scheduled country. (More about that later.)

Chiefs at Rams, two 9-1 teams in a potential Super Bowl LIII preview! What could go wrong?

Plenty, if you listen to the new ESPN team’s many critics, both professional and amateur.

Play-by-play man Joe Tessitore and analysts Jason Witten and Booger McFarland are well aware reviews have been mixed, but they insisted on a conference call with reporters on Wednesday that the arrow is pointed up.

“We’re not close to where we want to be, but we know we’re headed in that direction little by little,” Tessitore said.

No one has taken more social media guff than Witten, the former Cowboys tight end who was thrown into the deep end as a television rookie, much as CBS did with his former teammate, Tony Romo, a year earlier. Romo fared better.

Witten has appeared uncomfortable at times and had verbal missteps, notably saying in October that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers “pulls another rabbit out of his head,” an observation he then jokingly reiterated on Twitter.

“There have been some flubs,” Witten said. “I mean, I’ve made some mistakes. You try to own it, you embrace it. Hell, I’m not perfect. I’ve certainly had my fair share of mistakes on live television. More than anything else, you try to embrace it. You laugh at it, you smile at it . . . You don’t try to deny it.”

Witten said his wife, Michelle, laughed about the Rodgers comment when he returned home from the game.

“It’s a transition,” he said. “I try not to take it too seriously. I try to embrace it and focus on improving. I understood when I took this job it was going to be hard, it was going to be a transition, certainly with Tony and the success that he had. I really try not to live in that world and fully embrace it and continue to get better and evaluate it . .  Really all you can do is self-deprecate and move forward. Over time I hope to improve and get better at it.”

Sideline reporter Lisa Salters is the only returning member of the on-air Monday night crew, so the first half of the season figured to be a learning process. It continued through the Giants' victory over the 49ers on Monday night. The stakes will be higher for Chiefs-Rams.

“I think just like as a player we always evaluate ourselves Game 1, Game 2, you want to be better in Game 3 than Game 1,” McFarland said. “And I think from my perspective, and I think Witt feels the same way, that’s kind of how we approach this. It’s a unique setup that we have, and I feel like every game we’ve gotten better at different aspects of what we’re doing. Are we a finished product? By no stretch of the imagination.

“However, I think the improvement we see from Oakland Week 1 is miles away from where we started at. I still think we have a long way to go. But I do think that the progress has been made, and I’m looking forward to continuing getting these reps and getting better at it.”

Said Witten, “I’m 10 games into it. Of course, you’re never going to feel like you’re where you want to be. It’s a unique challenge. I’m invigorated by this process of going through it. It’s a unique team.

“So there’s a lot to learn from, and I think every opportunity is a chance to get better at it, so over time I hope that it will be a good listen from an analyst standpoint of what we’re offering.”

Said Tessitore, “These are guys that spent their careers on the field . . . They’re constantly self-scouting, reflecting, ‘How can I get better’ and being coachable and having a thick skin to be able to do that and really look at yourself and assess your work and then go out there and improve. They did that as players to the level of Super Bowl rings [for McFarland] and soon to be Hall of Fame jackets [for Witten] and they’re doing it now as TV guys.

“As I look back, especially in the course of about the last three to four weeks, I think when football is happening fast in front of us and you just have to react and have all that knowledge and experience come through, I think that’s where the three of us are at our best. I think we’ve had those moments, especially with some fourth quarters this year and some critical moments."

“We are not close to being a finished product. We are not close to being where we know we want to be because our standards are very high. You’re talking about a group that takes a hard-drive jump stick the second we get back to the production truck and we’re all popping it into cell phones and watching the game back and by the time get back on Tuesday afternoon here come the texts, here come the phone calls, we’re discussing segments. How do we execute? How do we get better? And we take that very seriously.”

One of the most scrutinized aspects of the telecast has been the decision to have McFarland not in the booth but rather on an elevated, mobile contraption at field level.

When the plan initially was announced, many compared it to what Fox used to do with analyst Tony Siragusa, who watched from field level and chimed in at times. ESPN considers McFarland an equal partner.

“What I have noticed is with Boog’s position hovering above the line of scrimmage we are often getting different analysis and opinions from what the booth will say, and obviously you want that, but really a different perspective compared to the way we’re seeing things in the booth, and I think that makes for a very healthy broadcast," Tessitore said. "When we started doing this everybody was speculating what it was going to sound like. We were getting a lot of these Tony Siragusa comparisons. I think that’s gone away very quickly, because you realize it’s a three-man crew and it’s not somebody standing on the field, it’s somebody that has a perspective unlike anything we’ve heard before.”

Some have suggested moving McFarland into the booth with Tessitore and Witten. Producer Jay Rothman shot down that idea.

“We like where it’s playing out,” he said. “I think Booger as a defensive player gives us a unique perspective, 10 feet high at the line of scrimmage. And I think sometimes it’s weaved into his commentary from his point of view, but sometimes it’s just his commentary alone gives him a vantage point that’s different from what Jason has. I think the flow, if you listen to the games, I’m really proud. You worry about guys stepping on each other with the dynamic we have. But it’s very rare in a game. You can count it on one hand or less that these guys have interrupted each other.”

Said McFarland, “There were obviously some questions going into this because this is something new, something I’ve never done, but I couldn’t be happier with how things are going as far as working with this team and working with Jason . . . I couldn’t have more respect for Jason not only as a man but as a teammate as a former captain of the Cowboys. You see why he is revered and respected the way he is.”

The Chiefs-Rams game will be the first for “Monday Night Football” in Los Angeles since 1985. The game was supposed to be played in Mexico City before poor field conditions led the NFL to move it north of the border.

“I would say we’re disappointed that we’re not going to be in Mexico City,” Rothman said. “We were really excited about the game when the schedule came out. We had it two years ago. We wanted it last year with New England, didn’t get it, and this year we got it back. It’s a stadium that has great history, sold-out crowd, boisterous crowd, sights and sounds very different than what we’re used to.

“But we understand the circumstances and just had to adjust. As difficult as the logistics were for both teams, the Rams and Chiefs, certainly the Rams being in Colorado Springs [to practice], the same holds true for our group. We had 150 people that were mobilizing, a ton of logistics, travel, security, transportation, equipment, setting up of the stadium at Estadio Azteca. We had a catering truck already in Mexico.

 “So as you can imagine with a game like that, a lot of detail, a lot of logistics, a lot of planning, a lot of thought and all of that. But you have to adjust. Our fleet of trucks left Santa Clara [after the Giants-49ers game] toward Arizona, heading for the border and were to be at the Mexican border this morning. So with the news yesterday it turned into scramble mode for a number of hours for much of our team. We divided, we worked hard and now under these unique circumstances ‘Monday Night Football’ returns to L.A. for the first time since 1985, and we’re excited about that. It’s a great matchup for us.”

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