If Jon Gruden returns to the NFL with the Raiders, which is all but certain according to some NFL insiders, who takes Gruden’s chair at ESPN’s “Monday Night Football?” That’s the big question.
The color gig alongside play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough is one of the primo jobs in sports TV, which is partly why the 54-year old Gruden is ESPN’s highest-paid employee at $6.5 million a year.
MORE: Jon Gruden on Raiders job: ‘I think I am being considered’
Yes, I know ESPN gets the fourth-worst TV schedule among NFL partner networks. Yes, I know NBC “Sunday Night Football” is the premier prime time package. But ESPN showed this season that “MNF” can still deliver the goods if the league gives the network some decent matchups. The “MNF” analyst is still the heir to some of the industry’s all-time greats: Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith.
Still to be determined at ESPN is whether it sticks with a two-person booth or goes back to one play-by-play announcer and two game analysts. The last time it tried it — with Tony Kornheiser, Ron Jaworski and Mike Tirico — it flopped. ESPN dropped Kornheiser and went back to a two-person booth of Jaws and Tirico.
Still, I implore you, think big ESPN. Don’t go conservative here.
MORE: Five reasons rehiring Gruden would be perfect for Raiders
The normally conservative CBS Sports gambled this season by bumping longtime NFL analyst Phil Simms in favor of TV rookie Tony Romo. And the risky move paid off big-time. Romo has quickly become one of the most original and popular analysts on sports TV. Unless Jim Nantz suddenly retires, CBS is set with him and Romo on Sunday afternoons for the next decade.
ESPN could be, too, with the right hire, so here’s my Top 10.
No, former Jets coach Rex Ryan is not on the list. He’s been disappointing on ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown.” And no, the surly Jay Cutler is not on my list either. After eagerly pursuing the No. 2 analyst job at Fox Sports behind Troy Aikman last offseason, Cutler jilted Fox for the Dolphins. Good for him. But ESPN’s attitude will probably be: Fool me twice, shame on me. So scratch Cutler.
As for Randy Moss, Matt Hasselbeck, Charles Woodson, Steve Young and the rest of the “Sunday NFL Countdown” and “Monday Night Countdown” casts, they still need to prove they can replace Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, Keyshawn Johnson, Mike Ditka and the old gang. So far, they have not.
So without further ado:
1) Peyton Manning (Retired) / Eli Manning (Giants): Peyton is everybody’s consensus No. 1 choice. All we have heard for years is that he’s a football savant. He’d be great on TV. But Peyton has more money now than he knows what to do with. He’s more interested in team ownership, ala Derek Jeter, than announcing.
That leaves little brother Eli. He was humiliated after being benched temporarily by the Giants this season. With two Super Bowl victories under his belt, against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, Eli might figure he has nothing left for which to play. At 36, he’s a year younger than Romo. If ESPN is looking for the next Romo, Eli Manning could be it.
2) Jesse Palmer (ESPN/ABC): The answer to ESPN’s problem could be right under its noses. Palmer has called both college football and the NFL from the broadcast booth for ESPN and Fox. He’s young, smart, telegenic. He cut his teeth in the booth next to broadcasting legend Brent Musburger at the SEC Network. He knows the key college football talent coming into the NFL. The former Gators quarterback signed a contract extension with ESPN in 2017. He’s well-liked at ESPN’s parent company Disney, which cast him on ABC’s “The Bachelor” and “Good Morning America.”
3) Boomer Esiason (Westwood One/WFAN): Outspoken and entertaining. Did you know the co-host of CBS’ “The NFL Today” has been calling “MNF” for the last decade on Westwood One? He hosts the No. 1 morning radio show in New York, the biggest media market in the country. Oh, and did I mention Boomer spent two seasons as an “MNF” analyst at ABC Sports. (Esiason blamed Al Michaels for his ouster.)
4) Josina Anderson (ESPN): Smart, fearless, plugged-in. Nobody did a better job chronicling the raging dumpster fire that was the Giants this season. Classy, confident presence on TV. Why does an analyst job have to go to an ex-player/coach anyway? Why not an NFL Insider who can bring a new and different perspective? Anderson could be the one.
5) Dan Fouts (CBS Sports): Before Romo’s arrival, many thought CBS’ No. 2 announce team of Fouts and Ian Eagle were actually better than the former No. 1 team of Phil Simms and Jim Nantz.
6) Louis Riddick (ESPN): Rising star at ESPN. Besides being an ex-NFL player, Riddick would bring the perspective of a former NFL scout and director of player personnel.
7) Jim Harbaugh (Michigan): One mediocre season away from being called a flop in Ann Arbor. Should he get out of town ahead of the posse for safer climes of TV?
8) Phil Simms (CBS Sports): Good soldier went from the No. 1 CBS announce team to “NFL Today” studio without complaint. But there’s nothing like a lead analyst gig. If ESPN came knocking, would Simms say no?
9) Tim Tebow (ESPN): The popular Tebow would go over well with conservative-leaning TV viewers who charge ESPN has become too liberal. Well-liked by ESPN brass, but still green.
10) Bruce Arians (Cardinals): Funny and engaging during limited TV appearances. Retiring Cardinals coach has a little bit of John Madden in him. Enough said.