It’s official: After a long search, ESPN has selected Jason Witten as the new lead analyst on “Monday Night Football.”
The longtime Dallas Cowboys tight end is retiring from the game to accept the job formerly held by Jon Gruden, who left ESPN in January when the Oakland Raiders lured him back to coaching.
A teary-eyed Witten made the announcement Thursday afternoon at the Cowboys team facility.
“There’s an old saying in pro football: The circus doesn’t stay in town forever,” he said. “And when you’re young, I think it takes on a meaning that, when your opportunity comes, grab it. And as you get older, I think you realize there’s a deeper meaning. No man knows when his time has come to walk away. And I’m no different. It’s been said, whether right or wrong, it’s better three hours too soon, than a minute too late. The man who insists on seeing the perfect clearness before he decides, he never decides. Accept life, and you cannot accept regret.
“After much self-reflection, prayer and faith, today I’ve decided that the time has come for me to pass the torch to the next generation of Dallas Cowboys and retire from the National Football League.”
ESPN’s search for Gruden’s replacement was initially focused on Peyton Manning, but in March the former NFL star turned down an offer reportedly worth as much as $10 million per season.
After that, the network looked at a long list of candidates that reportedly included Witten and another current NFL tight end, Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers; former players Kurt Warner, Matt Hasselbeck, Brett Favre, Randy Moss, Anthony “Booger” McFarland and Joe Thomas; former coach Rex Ryan; and former personnel director Louis Riddick.
It settled on Witten, no doubt hoping he’ll duplicate the successful transition that his former quarterback, Tony Romo, had as a rookie analyst last year with CBS alongside play-by-play man Jim Nantz.
Witten, who turns 36 on Sunday, was offered the job last week and wrestled with the decision, according to multiple reports.
He was still under contract with the Cowboys and had expressed a desire to keep playing football at the end of last season.
“I’m as motivated now as I’ve ever been to play this position at a high level and help my team in all situations as a leader, as a veteran, but most importantly as a tight end and what that position consists of in this offense,” Witten told the Dallas Morning News in December.
The opportunity to move into a high-profile part-time job that will pay him between $4 million and $4.5 million, according to the Dallas Morning News, was apparently enough to persuade him to reconsider.
His departure leaves the Cowboys thin at tight end. The roster includes veterans Rico Gathers, Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin — who combined to catch two passes last season — along with rookies Dalton Schultz, who was drafted in the fourth round out of Stanford, and David Wells, an undrafted free agent from San Diego State.
It also leaves a void in other areas. Witten was a leader in the locker room and in the community; in fact, a college football award for leadership on and off the field bears his name.
Jason Witten was unquestionably the Cowboys' No. 1 leader. He'll be missed on the field certainly, but also in locker room. He was only Cowboys' player who was always there to answer questions win or lose, no matter the subject. Always reliable, he's today's version of Mr. Cowboy
— Brandon George (@DMN_George) May 3, 2018
He will be the latest in a long line of Cowboys to go into the broadcast booth, including Romo; Don Meredith, who entertained viewers of “Monday Night Football” from 1970 to 1984; Troy Aikman, the current lead analyst at Fox; Daryl Johnson, a color analyst for Fox; Michael Irvin, an analyst at NFL Network; and Deion Sanders, an analyst at CBS and the NFL Network.
Witten will go down as one of Dallas’ all-time greats. He made the Pro Bowl 11 times in his 15-year career and is the team’s all-time leader in receptions (1,152) and receiving yards (12,448).
He also seems like a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, ranking fourth in NFL history in receptions, behind only Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez and Larry Fitzgerald.
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