For the first time in his professional career, Jason Witten changed teams this summer. The longtime Dallas Cowboys tight end retired in April to join the Monday Night Football booth as an analyst, essentially taking over after Jon Gruden returned to coaching with the Oakland Raiders.
Switching teams isn’t always easy for a football player, but switching jobs entirely is another thing altogether. Tony Romo was an instant hit in CBS’s lead broadcast pairing along with Jim Nantz, and while he’s gotten some advice on this very site from his former teammate and starting quarterback about what to do in the booth, the job is all his own.
Critics were tough on him in his first week, but the 15-year NFL veteran says the process is all about learning in his first few live games. Witten spoke to Uproxx about his first foray into the booth, what perspective he hopes to bring viewers and how excited he is to approach football from a different angle.
Uproxx: When you play for so long the decision to retire is difficult, and a lot of players struggle with it. How much did it impact your decision to retire that you potentially had a gig after football lined up with ESPN?
Jason Witten: Yeah, I’m very fortunate. I pinch myself every day in a lot of ways. Look, I love playing football, and anybody who was around me knows I attacked it every day. I was very driven. I said it when I retired: The journey is the reward. And for me, every day — whether it was March or August in training camp, or a couple game losing streak, or going on a run and winning a division— I tried to attack it that way.
So thinking that would end, and someday it ends for all of us as far as football is concerned. Father time waits on no one. I was well-aware of that but it was still really, really hard. It was unbelievable to play for 15 years, it flew by, and to have a chance to try to win a championship, and I played a strong role in all of that.
But I just think the opportunity to be on this stage, Monday Night Football, and the tradition and history of what it entails. And to share my knowledge and have fun and stay around the game that I love and bring a different perspective. So it’s been a new challenge and I’m attacking it the same way. I’m not perfect and I’m not where I want to be and I continue to improve, but you take that same approach: Go back and watch the tape and ‘Ah, I like that one,” you know? Or ‘I wish I had that opportunity back.’
Doing something new is always tough and you didn’t have any broadcast experience before this. How has it been in the booth so far?
It’s live television. It’s happening fast. But I think, more than anything else, I think that we got off to a good start. You know, Monday night is different, a lot of people have watched games the entire weekend so you want to be able to enjoy it. I think it’s very digest-able and a good listen and we’ll continue to improve. For me, I wanna bring that insight and share with you and a lot of the things the fans are thinking on the couch, I want to say it on television. So I think we’re off to a good start, and from my perspective, being able to share that insight and what I see and how I see the game playing out, I’m really enjoying it and having a lot of fun with it.
I talked to Tony Romo about broadcasting before the season started and the adjustment period the comes with being on air. He said he didn’t give you much advice because you have to find your own way up there. What’s that process been like for you?
Yeah, to unpack it all, first off it’s football. We don’t need to overcomplicate it because it’s not rocket science. But it’s different, it’s different from a player’s perspective. What I mean by that is each week when you’re playing, you kind of have tunnel vision in thinking about your opponent, your battles, your fundamentals, and what it’s going to take to be successful for you to help your team win.
I’ve watched games, I’ve been a fan for a long time, since I was a kid. Even when I was playing, I was a huge fan of the rest of the league and tried to keep up with it as best as I could. But I never really paid attention to the broadcast team, you know, “Hey, how’d they deliver that? They’re going to a commercial break, how’d that all transpire?” And so, there was a lot to learn and there’s still a lot to learn.
Tony and Jim, I think they had a lot of success and it was like he was sitting on your couch, and so he shared a lot of that with me. But I think what he was referencing and to the point you made, I think for all of us when you’re playing football and I think about catching a pass, there’s so many techniques to it. And when you mess up, you go to it and say “OK, here’s why I didn’t catch that, here’s what was going through my head.” Certainly coaches are giving you pointers, too.
With broadcasting what I’ve found, and similar to what Tony was saying, it’s really kind of hard to define, but we know it when we hear it. We know what a good listen is and so being true to yourself and finding your personality with it is a big part of that, not trying to be somebody else. Certainly you can watch some tape and improve and take pointers and things that you like from other broadcasters, but you have to find your niche and what you’re comfortable with and I think I’m well on my way but I certainly have plenty of areas to clean up.
What’s it like being on the other side of the pre-game meetings with broadcasters? Do you think you can get better insight from players because you’ve been on the other side of the conversation?
It’s been a great experience. I love football, I revere the game, and it’s interesting, I’m learning a lot. Getting the chance to spend time with these coaches and general managers and how they put rosters together and what their challenges are in the game and just how their minds work.
Last week I got to spend a lot of time with two of the brightest offensive minds in football right now in Sean McVay and Jon Gruden, and so I love that. I really enjoy being around these guys. So I’m learning a ton and kind of breaking all that down. “OK, how do I get the into the broadcast and how do I simplify that and communicate it and tell the story,” so to speak.
That’s a great challenge, and so you get the opportunity to be around some of the greats and learning, but then you kind of put it in your world and decide “OK, how do you want to communicate that?” It’s really enjoyable for me to do that and I think people understand my credibility and how I attacked football and that I’m not just going to throw things on a wall. I’m going to put a lot of pride in getting it right.
It’s not going to always be perfect but that’s what excites me about this team in Monday Night Football. It’s really a unique opportunity: To carry on that vision and that tradition and the folks at ESPN have been incredible to work for and kind of seeing that. I mean, look, I’m in Year 1. I’m four days off calling my first game, so it’s only going to improve but I feel comfortable. It’s been a great challenge.
It seems like with Jon and the way he broadcast the game, and maybe Tony and yourself, there’s a renewed interest in teaching the audience something new on the broadcast. Is that because there’s an interest from the audience or do you think there are just more people in the booth comfortable doing that these days?
I think there’s ebbs and flows where you find it interesting. You have to have fun. It can’t be Ph. D-level on Cover 2. You don’t have enough time to do that. But you do have moments in games where you have an opportunity to teach, and I think the reason why we’re seeing it across the board more so now than ever is that these offenses today are so different.
You think about what’s happened in Kansas City or … I have Chicago this week. Chicago and Seattle. These playmaking quarterbacks, a Russell Wilson, how does all this unfold? Matt Nagy in Chicago this week, there’s so many different things there. He lines up his first play in Chicago as a head coach and he’s in a two tight end set and what looks like the 1995 Wishbone in Nebraska. They run a toss sweep with two tailback and a fullback back there. I mean, when’s the last time we saw that in pro football? You’d have to go back to the 70s to see some of that stuff.
So you’re seeing all these different checks. With Jon Gruden, the battle before the play pre-snap of a check to another check to another check and audibles that are taking place. The communication there and the cameras being able to capture all that and having the analyst that can analyze all that and give us a perspective in five seconds? It’s pretty neat, you know? And I think the fans want to know that. They don’t want it to be breathing down their neck all the time, but it has its place.
You still have fun with it: There are times it’s just a run for three yards and you don’t have to break down the entire run. But I think that’s what we bring as new analysts coming right off the field. It’s a new perspective, and you’re going to have to grow in some areas, but there’s a lot that goes into it for the guys that are so good and have been so good for so long.
There’s a lot that we can learn from them, I certainly can, but there’s also a unique perspective of, you know, “I played against that guy last year, and here’s what makes Aaron Donald so good.” To be able to define the and share it with the viewer, it seems like they really enjoy that.
You’re studying film and attending meetings just like you did during your playing days, but what else have you been doing outside of broadcasting now that you’re retired?
Well I was a delivery man for a little bit there (laughs). No, I have a young family and so it’s been great to spend more time with them and being around for them at an important time in their lives. You pour so much into playing, and there’s still a lot of time and preparation that goes into broadcast, but I’ve enjoyed them.
My body feels a lot better. There’s certainly things that you’ll miss and I’ll always miss, it makes it hard watching games on Sunday of a team you played for last year. But yeah, I think just being around them.
My golf game has not gotten better. I was hoping a few strokes would be knocked off that but I haven’t seen that progress the way I would have wanted it to. But yeah, just my family and being around and coaching flag football, taking my daughter to gymnastics class, it’s been really neat for me to be able to spend a lot of quality time with them as well.
You’re working with Miller Lite this year on an ad campaign where you got to deliver some beer to Cowboys fans. What was that experience like for you to meet up with some fans in retirement?
It was incredible. It was a great experience. I appreciate Miller Lite, great people, great to be a part of their campaign. To kick off football season here in Dallas it was great to surprise some fans an see their faces when I showed up. They’re cooking out, they’re getting ready to watch some games and to be able to show up and spend a little bit of time with them was a great experience. I thought the video captured it really well.
You played in Dallas your whole career and you know the community there really well. What is it about football in Dallas that makes the Cowboys so special?
There’s high expectations there. I mean, it’s America’s Team. You look at the tradition there and the greats, not only for the Cowboys organization, but some of the greats to ever play in the NFL. And really good people, too, when you think of some of those guys. The fans have been incredible, extremely loyal, passionate, and it’s really a part of who they are in Texas. It was really great for me to be able to be a part of that with this Miller Lite campaign.
I think what made it so great on the Miller Lite side, just for me, was what they stand for in responsibility and doing it with moderation and to celebrate. It’s family. It’s smiles and bringing people together. I don’t know, it was just great for me to be a part of it.