The Bears will appear on “Monday Night Football” in Week 2, and there was a time when that was a big deal.
There’s still something to be said for appearing on one of the NFL’s three weekly prime-time broadcasts, but it doesn’t have the same cachet.
What separated ‘‘MNF’’ wasn’t just that it was the only prime-time game of the week; it was the broadcast. It didn’t have the bells and whistles of today, but it had personalities that carried it. Announcers such as Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, Keith Jackson and Don Meredith need no introduction.
Those days are long gone. But ESPN is still trying to distinguish ‘‘MNF,’’ and it might have hit on something.
Though much of the hubbub in the offseason was about the hiring of former Cowboys tight end Jason Witten as an analyst alongside new play-by-play man Joe Tessitore, fellow analyst Anthony “Booger” McFarland might be the rising star of the crew. Literally.
If you couldn’t stay awake for their call of the Rams-Raiders game late Monday, you missed McFarland in his innovative role. He’s serving as the broadcast’s first field analyst and sits in a mobile contraption equipped with monitors, a stand for his notes and a camera. It gives him an elevated view along the line of scrimmage for each play.
But having the best seat in the house doesn’t guarantee that fans will receive the best information. McFarland must communicate that, and he was very good in the crew’s regular-season debut. In fact, McFarland had a much better game than Witten.
That’s not to say Witten was bad, but McFarland was more insightful and wasn’t afraid to express his opinion. For instance, when Tessitore asked for their thoughts on the Raiders’ trade of Khalil Mack to the Bears, Witten waffled.
“Knowing that it’s a teardown, I think [Raiders coach Jon Gruden] thought, ‘I’ve gotta move forward, and I’ve gotta send a message to my football team,’ ” Witten said. “You know what, though? [Mack] is so dynamic.”
McFarland didn’t hold back:
“Jon Gruden can talk about money and not having any left. But Khalil Mack was first-team All-Pro at two spots. I’m gonna make every effort I can to keep this guy on my team. I thought this was one of the worst trades in NFL history.”
Witten and McFarland also had differing views on the action. That’s fine if they disagree on strategy, but sometimes it sounded as though Witten was just wrong.
In the second quarter, Raiders cornerback Rashaan Melvin was called for pass interference. McFarland criticized him for not turning around to look for the ball. On the Rams’ next possession, Raiders cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was flagged for the same thing, but Witten questioned the call.
“But Witt,” McFarland said, “if they would just turn around and look back. You see that [Rams wide receiver Brandin] Cooks is looking back. If you can’t turn around, you’re giving the official the freedom to say, you don’t know where the ball is, I can call that play.”
McFarland also was predictive. Early in the game, he said the Raiders believed they had an advantage running inside and would see if the Rams could handle the pounding. Two plays later, running back Marshawn Lynch ran up the middle and carried the pile into the end zone.
McFarland had a head start on Witten as a broadcaster.
After playing almost his entire career with the Buccaneers from 1999 to 2006 (he was traded to the Colts in ’06 and faced the Bears in the Super Bowl), he was one of the SEC Network’s first commentators when it launched in 2014. Last season, he was a college-football studio analyst for the ESPN on ABC team.
Many have wondered if Witten could be the next Tony Romo, another former Cowboy who went right from the field to the CBS booth. It’s only one game, but McFarland sounds closer to Romo than Witten does.