ESPN's plans to save, bring back, and reinvent Monday Night Football were shattered to a degree that resembled the end of the Night King when Tony Romo reached a contract extension with CBS last week. The news that its year-long dream had ended immediately put the network into contingency plan mode, an unknown filled with risk and the looming threat of a third straight dismal year in the booth.
This starts with Peyton Manning. It's well-known around the industry ESPN's first choice is Manning. It plans to be aggressive in its approach, again. Manning has already rejected the offer twice in the past. There is a price for everyone for everything; however, Manning hasn't shown much interest in transitioning to broadcasting. It could take an astounding, unrealistic figure to get Manning to take a job he may not want. The safe bet remains Manning turns it down, again.
If it's not Manning, who?
ESPN is limited in options. The safest move is Kurt Warner. Warner is solid in the booth, would be an upgrade, and would bring the quality back to a respectable level. He comes with name recognition and eliminates the fear of another headline-making disaster. The former quarterback's in-depth analysis seemingly works with whomever is calling the game next to him. The counter is that Warner isn't going to be a superstar color commentator. He doesn't propel ESPN into the conversation next to the NFL duos of FOX, CBS, and NBC. But he checks off enough of the necessary boxes to be a legitimate candidate.
Kirk Herbstreit is a name to at least watch out for, according to sources. Particularly moving over with Chris Fowler. The obvious concern ESPN has is moving the acclaimed duo off college football, which creates more obstacles. This move comes with upside, but a transition from college football to NFL games isn't seamless. Most notably, Sean McDonough vividly struggled in his move to the NFL. Herbstreit's impact could diminish. He's known as one of the industry's foremost authorities on college football. This move has a high ceiling but it is not a slam dunk problem-solver.
ESPN is bullish on Dan Orlovsky and sees him as a key component to its future. Orlovsky is the network's best NFL analyst. He's knowledgable, energetic, and a film wizard. He'd give the NFL programming at ESPN synergy as he appears across their various studio shows as well. Orlovsky would be good in the booth, though high-profile color commenting roles are often reserved for well-known former star players. (There have been exceptions, including the incumbent Booger McFarland.) Sports media circles rave about Orlovsky. He's appealing in his current role on the studio shows. But a significant portion of the audience for NFL games doesn't consume auxiliary content — thus most are unaware of Orlovsky's talents as an analyst.
Philip Rivers could be a looming option. As pointed out today on TBL Scope, investing in Rivers is the definition of buyer beware. ESPN would take an enormous gamble that Rivers doesn't pull a Jay Cutler once a starting quarterback goes down or a team realizes they don't have one that's good enough. It's hard to even put into words the disaster that'd be for ESPN and the future of Monday Night Football.
All in all, this leaves ESPN in a precarious situation as it attempts to improve its product, underwhelming package, and get back into good graces with the country's No. 1 league.
The unexciting layer in this is that ESPN has not yet announced Booger McFarland is off Monday Night Football. While all indications are he won't return, he's not officially removed from the position.
It was always a long-shot Romo would leave CBS for ESPN, despite the reports. But the lack of viable choices shows why Disney was willing to reshape the market for the consensus top color commentator.