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Watching Witten: Inside his transition to TV and return to Dallas

BUFFALO -- It’s Sunday inside the Charles Room at the downtown Buffalo Westin hotel, the day before the New England Patriots play the Buffalo Bills. Fourteen people are in the room, including Jason Witten’s broadcast partners for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland. They are sitting in the front row with Jay Rothman and Chip Dean, the longtime producer and director.

Witten is in his element. He is talking football.

Witten’s laptop is connected to a television in the front of the room with the All-22 film showing the Patriots offense against the Miami Dolphins. As a Dolphins defensive back tracks James White in motion, Witten points to the slot receiver on the other side of the field. Phillip Dorsett’s eyes were on the defender the entire time, and at the snap he runs right at the defender and stops, turning toward Tom Brady.

The defender has to “run the hump,” as Witten called it, opening space for White to get a pass from Brady for a first down.

“There’s so many picks, it looks like an NBA game,” Witten said. “But it’s not a penalty if they don’t call it.”

For nearly 45 minutes, Witten breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of the Bills and Patriots offenses. The creative folks come up with packages to show what makes the New England offense so strong.

“It helps us in a number of ways, through how we see the game, how we cover the game, how we isolate the game, how we replay the game," Rothman said, "how we X-O the game, statistically, graphically maybe something will pop based on what he says that we should be tracking or charting.”

This is Witten’s new life.

For 15 years, Witten’s life was the Dallas Cowboys.

Nobody in the history of the franchise played in as many games (239), started more games (229) or started more consecutive games (179). Witten also holds franchise records for catches (1,152), receiving yards (12,448) and Pro Bowls (11).

On Monday, Witten’s former life and new life intersect when the Cowboys play the Tennessee Titans at AT&T Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

“Michelle, my wife, already said, ‘Don’t cry,’” Witten said. “It may be one of those deals. You know, it’s going to be emotional.”

Missing it

On May 4, Witten said goodbye to the game as one of the best tight ends of all time. His retirement speech was stirring. To his right, coach Jason Garrett teared up. To his left, so did owner Jerry Jones. In July, he held a retirement party at the Vaquero Club with former teammates, coaches and friends.

When he did not have the emotions of missing the offseason program, organized team activities and minicamp, he thought he had moved on. But as Witten sat in a Bay Area hotel, prepping for coach Jon Gruden’s return to the Oakland Raiders against the Los Angeles Rams, he saw the Cowboys playing the Carolina Panthers and the pangs returned.

“It was a lonely feeling, to be honest with you,” Witten said. “You were part of something for so long and now you’ve left and I probably didn’t give myself enough time to emotionally kind of process my playing career.

"It was like I retired, had the emotion of the day and that moment and I was overwhelmed by the text messages and phone calls and the letters that I got, but whenever that moment passed it was strictly, ‘I’m going to attack this new job and learning this business.’”

As a player, Witten never took the time to contemplate his accomplishments. He was focused on winning a Super Bowl and improving as he got older.

“Hey, look, I knew the team would be fine to move on,” he said. “I experienced that over the course of my career. If you’re in the NFL for more than five minutes you see that you can be here today and gone tomorrow. That’s why I played the way I did. I think that’s why I worked hard to not miss a game, fight through injuries and all that stuff because when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

It was a call from Bill Parcells that helped him make his decision to retire.

“Bill had a great line to me,” Witten remembered. “He said, ‘You know, you’re going to be 47 years old and it’s going to be third-and-7 and there’s not one doubt in my mind, in Jerry’s mind, in Jason Garrett’s mind, that the one guy that can get open is you.’”

"When you call a game, it's almost like you're doing a three-hour movie and the production of it all, living in the moment in real time, the replays, all the intricacies that go into putting a game in a broadcast. It's not just 100 percent football." Jason Witten

Witten caught 63 passes last season for 560 yards and five touchdowns. He played in his 11th Pro Bowl. He has no doubt he still could have played.

"I just assumed I was going to die on the vine," Witten said. "That was the way I played the game. But what’s great in a lot of ways is you leave the game, four kids and a wife and you’re pretty healthy and you feel good.”

Learning television

ESPN hired Witten on May 3. Days later, the process of getting him ready for prime time started in New York. Rothman called it, “TV 101.”

“For three days it was understanding how we cover the game, understanding how we communicate, understanding camera angles and understanding timing and rhythm and cadence,” Rothman said.

The next phase was visiting with Rothman in Connecticut and watching NBC’s coverage of the Super Bowl, Fox’s coverage of the NFC Championship Game and CBS’s coverage of the AFC Championship Game. They also watched the bowl game Tessitore called.

“Soup to nuts studying,” Rothman said. “Studying Cris Collinsworth, Tony Romo, Troy Aikman, Gruden, Todd Blackledge, who Tess worked with. Just kind of hear the type of commentary. We studied the production then ripped it apart.”

Witten, Tessitore and McFarland did a rehearsal game at ESPN. They called another in a Dallas studio. They did a couple of games live that did not air, as well as two preseason games that did.

"I knew it was going to be a work in progress," Witten said. "I would never walk into something like that and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be on this level from minute one. I guess I kind of went into it knowing that it was a long-game approach."

When he played, Witten took part in the production meetings the networks held each week. He watched the games on television and while he heard the analyst, he wasn’t really listening intently. He knew what was happening and did not need instruction.

“When you call a game, it’s almost like you’re doing a three-hour movie and the production of it all, living in the moment in real time, the replays, all the intricacies that go into putting a game in a broadcast. It’s not just 100 percent football,” Witten said. “I probably never appreciated the ebbs and flows of a broadcast and the things that a lot of people are working hard toward. I had to get my mind to switch because I was looking at it strictly from a football standpoint, the X's and O's.

The transition has not been completely smooth. There have been critics. There have been some misstatements, such as saying Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers was pulling a “rabbit out of his head,” however he owned the moment with a tweet poking fun of himself.

"I really feel like, even though you hear the noise ... I don’t allow it to affect me because I feel like I’m going to be my own worst critic in those situations," Witten said. "So when I say ‘pull a rabbit out of his head,’ instead of rabbit out of his hat, well obviously, I wasn’t trying to say head. But all you can do is self-deprecate and move forward. I’m not going to be perfect but I think, over time, if you listen, you win them over by saying, ‘Man, the guy is sharing a lot of football with us that we didn’t necessarily know.’

"I believe in myself. I believe I’ll be good at it. You just try to eliminate the mistakes and until you do there’s always going to be a criticism."

Mutual respect

The night before the Patriots-Bills game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick came into the production meeting even though he spoke with Witten and McFarland over the phone the previous day.

“You know what Belichick is all about and how he operates with ‘the media,’ but he was enamored [with Witten],” Tessitore said. “He’s turning his head and having these deep conversations and you can tell how much he enjoyed the fact that Jason Witten is the analyst and they can go through plays and go through memories of the last 20, 25 years. It was fascinating. And it’s Bill Belichick who is excited. That’s not happening with everybody you bring into a production meeting, that level of respect and energy.”

It's been similar for many in the game. In Green Bay, San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York sought out Witten. General managers and coaches want to talk to him. Players are almost deferential when they speak with him.

“People have looked at his decade and a half in the league like this is how we want every player to acquit themselves, represent themselves, the league, how they go about their work,” Tessitore said. “Everybody in Dallas has known it, but you realize it’s across the league. He’s respected on every plane of the league.”

When he played, Witten did not have a global view of the game, instead focusing on the Cowboys’ next opponent and the defenses he would face. Now he is seeing the league in a different way. Before the first game of the season, the Raiders traded Khalil Mack to Chicago. The next week, Mack was on "Monday Night Football."

“I found myself going back and looking at my notes from Week 1 and then thinking, ‘What would have I done? How would I have gone through that?’” Witten said. “As a player, if I lost a great player, what if I gained a great player? As a coach, what would I have done in that situation? As a GM, getting two first-rounders and, well, Chicago got back a second-rounder. Would that have been the kicker for me to do it? That’s something I think I’ve learned each week being around these players, these teams.”

Romo factor

Witten and Romo were teammates for 14 years. Their bond goes back to their first day as Cowboys when they rode a shuttle bus to a hotel for rookie minicamp in 2003. They became inseparable on and off the field.

Romo was immediately hailed as a savant in his first year as CBS’s lead analyst with his ability to predict plays or have fun with inane moments, such as when a cat ran on the field.

“There was such great enthusiasm for Tony, for his enthusiasm of the game and his predictability and all that sort of stuff, whether it was overhyped or not that’s for someone else to judge, but Jason knew, I knew, we knew inevitably there would be comparisons to Tony Romo,” Rothman said. “Whatever. The guy played football for 25 years. He’s been a broadcaster really for eight games. We knew all along that it was more a longer-term play, that you know that it’s going to take some time given that we’re throwing him into this but that quickly he would get it and that would go away. He’s so smart. He’s got so much to offer.”

Witten swears it has not been difficult to follow Romo.

“Look, you can’t be Tony Romo. I would never try to be him,” Witten said. “I’ve been around him so often and watching how he does it. I mean, he’s masterful at it, how he communicates, how he goes about it. I don’t feel anxiety or nervousness toward being compared to him. I realize we’re going to be compared but I have so much respect for him and what we were able to accomplish together. He’s a dear friend and he’s brilliant.”

The new team

Witten met Tessitore before he auditioned. He knew of McFarland because they played against each other but did not know him well. He knew Lisa Salters from production meetings over the years. The same held for Rothman and Dean.

On the second floor of the Buffalo Chop House, Witten, Tessitore, McFarland, Salters and Dean are seated at a corner table. Customers notice. For about two hours the group talked friends, family and football as if they had known each other for years, not months.

McFarland went over the Patriot Way. Witten spoke about Belichick’s smaller-than-normal coaching staff. They spoke about how the Bills mismanaged the quarterback position.

On a couple of occasions, Dean said he wanted to hear this on the broadcast. That Sunday, it showed up.

Last spring, Tessitore spoke with Jones and Garrett about Witten and heard of his drive and passion.

“Once you start working with him day in, day out, once you go through and you overcome obstacles, challenges, you grow together,” Tessitore said. “You test each other. You push each other. And you have the experiences that they had with him for 15 years. You understand everything exactly that they said.”

Witten said he felt a connection with Tessitore from the first audition.

“We value the same things, how to treat people, how to go about it, team success. We all win,” Witten said. “I get excited just listening to him.”

With more television experience together, McFarland has helped Witten navigate this new life. They can dive deep into the X's and O's from their playing days.

“Sometimes in these situations there’s a natural thing to say, ‘They’re going to be competing,’ but it’s never been that atmosphere from within,” Witten said.

Salters is the lone holdover from the previous Monday Night crew.

“For all three of us being new, she’s kind of welcomed us,” Witten said. “She’s so natural, so good at keeping it loose. She’s allowed all of us to be a part of it.”

McFarland described Witten the same way the Cowboys once did.

“When you play against a guy who is a Hall of Famer, a captain, you just wonder why those words are synonymous with him and when you become a teammates of his you see why,” McFarland said. “He’s class personified. A great teammate. He understands teamwork. He understands how to lead. It’s been an honor to work with him so far.”

Game day

It’s nine hours before kickoff inside the Charles Room. The group has swelled to 30 people as Rothman goes over the game plan.

“It’s the halfway point,” he tells everybody. “Another opportunity to get better.”

The points Witten made in the Sunday meeting have been turned into detailed packages with players circled and highlighted. From the Countdown hits to the game openings, things are sketched out if not fully scripted.

“This is our one whack at the Patriots,” Rothman said.

He wants to bring a unique perspective to a Patriots team that plays on national television as much as the Cowboys. He has asked Witten and McFarland to do that by breaking down the X's and O's. In the middle of the meeting comes the news that Hue Jackson has been fired by the Cleveland Browns.

That will become a topic. So will midseason MVP candidates. Nearly two hours pass and the meeting ends.

“We flip the switch pretty hard,” Tessitore said. “This is as close as you can get to prepping to play and then going out and playing. You’re just not getting hit.”

After the meeting, Witten retreats to his suite to go over his notes. He orders room service. He talks to his wife. He goes over more notes.

At 4:45 p.m., he and McFarland, as well as former referee Jeff Triplette, ESPN’s rules expert, jump in an SUV for New Era Field. Buffalo is hosting its first Monday Night game since 2008. One of Witten’s most memorable games is the Cowboys’ Monday Nighter at Buffalo in 2007 when Romo was intercepted five times and fumbled once. Somehow, the Cowboys won with a last-second Nick Folk field goal.

As the SUV approaches the stadium, they can tell the Bills fans are ready for the game. For a few minutes, Witten sits inside the Monday Night Football bus, eating some peanut M&Ms, but he wants to go to the field and gather some thoughts.

The wind is swirling and it’s cold. He shivers even while wearing a winter coat. When it’s brought up that he did not wear long sleeves as a player, he jokes, “Man, I’ve gotten soft.” He talks briefly with Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and wishes a few players good luck before heading up to the broadcast booth.

Multiple screens are in front of him, featuring different camera angles or stats. He tests the touchscreen for his replays. Kickoff is a ways away, but he and Tessitore go over their pregame hit. He looks at his notes some more.

In the truck outside the stadium, where Rothman and Dean control the action, it’s “controlled chaos,” as Dean calls it. Four different people are speaking at the same time. Rothman speaks directly to the talent. Dean is speaking to the camera operators and the technical director. It’s like that for the entire game, with halftime offering only a brief respite.

In the booth, Witten sways back and forth, a sign of his excitement. When Rob Gronkowski makes a key block after a long catch, he hits a talkback button to the truck, “Wham play. Wham play.” He wants the replay to show Gronkowski moving back to block a big defensive tackle.

As a former tight end, Witten loves to see Gronkowski fight to block. New England pulls away late with a Devin McCourty interception return for a touchdown.

“It’s two-man and you’re supposed to play inside leverage,” Witten said, marveling at an adjusted technique. “The Patriots played outside leverage and had McCourty push to the strong side. You just don’t see that.”

When the game ends, he and Tessitore get into a golf cart and weave through the departing fans back to the bus. There’s a bounce in Witten's step. He feels good about his performance. He and Tessitore toast over a glass of red wine. When McFarland gets on the bus, they fist-bump.

About 45 minutes after kickoff, Witten is off for the airport, ready to board a private flight back to Dallas’ Love Field.

He couldn’t sleep after games as a player. He can’t sleep now. He’s replaying what he said the way he would replay a catch or a block.

“I hope over time people enjoy it, that they can connect with it,” Witten said. “I hope that they know this guy studies it, he’s prepared and that he shares it in an energetic, positive way. That you say, ‘Man, that was a good show.’”

The plane lands at 3 a.m. CT. In a few hours, Witten will take his kids to school. From there he will go to his office not far from his home and start studying the Cowboys and Titans.

He finally has a home game.