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ESPN’s ‘Monday Night Football’ needs reboot — how does Kevin Harlan-Tony Romo sound?

If ESPN/ABC wants to join the Super Bowl rotation in the next NFL TV rights package, it can’t put Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland in front of 100 million U.S. viewers.

Tony Romo reportedly is making $3 million-$4 million per year, and there’s speculation he could command at least $10 million. He’s in the last year of his contract with CBS.
Tony Romo reportedly is making $3 million-$4 million per year, and there’s speculation he could command at least $10 million. He’s in the last year of his contract with CBS.
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If you watched the Bills-Texans and Titans-Patriots playoff games Saturday, the contrast in broadcasts couldn’t have been lost on you. It was almost unfair of the schedule-makers to have ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” crew of Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland precede CBS’ Jim Nantz and Tony Romo.

It might have been the knockout blow for an “MNF” crew that could undergo another makeover this offseason. It wouldn’t be a moment too soon because if the ESPN/ABC pairing wants to join the Super Bowl rotation in the next TV rights package, it can’t put Tessitore and McFarland in front of 100 million U.S. viewers.

I was on board with them at the beginning of the season. They deserved the chance to make the broadcast their own. But as McFarland said over and over and over in the Bills-Texans game, big-time players must step up in big-time situations, and neither has. Tessitore’s calls tend to be over the top, and McFarland’s analysis is lacking.

McFarland had a particularly rough game Saturday. After the Texans took a 17-16 lead with 4:37 left in the fourth quarter, he said, “You gotta go for two because going for two would make it 19-16, a three-point game.” His most memorable remark was embarrassing. On third-and-10 from the Texans’ 29 with 15 seconds left in the fourth, he suggested the Bills run a draw, then spike it. Clearly, that was a mistake.

But this isn’t all McFarland’s doing. Romo has been such a revelation that he basically has ruined every other NFL analyst, particularly those hired after him. Everyone is looking for the next Romo, and he might not exist. ESPN hoped it was Jason Witten last season, and he wasn’t close. McFarland showed enough promise that the network made him the lone analyst, but he isn’t it, either.

Romo eschews broadcasting norms, sounding almost childlike next to the buttoned-up Nantz. (He pronounces “especially” as “ECKspecially.”) And in just his third season, he has become the best NFL game analyst, not just with his predictive powers but his insight into strategy. A network hasn’t had a broadcaster with his drawing power since John Madden, and Romo will be paid like it soon.

The question is, where? For all the talk during the Titans-Patriots broadcast of Tom Brady’s impending free agency, Nantz could have spun the subject toward Romo, whose contract also is up after the season. Madden made a record $8 million per year. Romo reportedly is making $3 million-$4 million per year, and there’s speculation he could command at least $10 million.

ESPN is expected to try to reboot its highest-profile package by pursuing Romo. Viewership isn’t the problem. That was up 8 percent from last season, according to the network. People are watching, but they’re not happy with what they’re hearing. The network already has thrown one “Hail Mary” for Peyton Manning but couldn’t connect.

Whom could ESPN pair with Romo? Who wouldn’t love to see Kevin Harlan get that gig? He’s the lead radio announcer for “MNF” on Westwood One, in addition to calling NFL and college basketball games for CBS and NBA games for TNT. If he doesn’t get the nod to replace Marv Albert as TNT’s lead announcer, perhaps Harlan would consider being the TV voice of “MNF.” Maybe he would regardless.

A Harlan-Romo booth would be appointment viewing. Like Tessitore, Harlan is known for being excitable, but he’s able to pull it off without sounding grating. His “I’m calling both games!” performance in Week 17, updating viewers on Dolphins-Patriots while working Chargers-Chiefs, was celebrated. He has been calling NFL games on radio and/or TV since 1985, and he’s due to lead a top TV crew.

Of course, this all depends on Romo. If CBS is willing to pay him, I’d bet he stays out of loyalty and his relationship with Nantz. CBS gave him his first chance, and he and Nantz are close.

Whatever happens, Romo’s free agency might be followed more than that of any player — even Brady.