"Monday Night Football" lead producer Jay Rothman is counting on Buffalo Bills fans in the game against New England as much or more than the players to make the team’s first home game in 10 years on ESPN’s franchise program entertaining to watch.
“Like Green Bay, Buffalo probably presents itself as a college-like, sort of atmosphere, (with) the tailgating and the people and the color and what the Bills mean to people despite not having the most successful season,” Rothman said in a telephone interview. “Nevertheless, there is a ton of flavor. We’ll look to capture that. And hopefully the Bills will stay in the game and the weather is not too crummy and the fans will stick around for four quarters and cheer their Bills on. That’s what we expect and that’s what we hope, and we’re excited for that.”
It's been a decade since that college-like atmosphere has been on display on MNF, when Mike Tirico was on play-by-play and Lackawanna native Ron Jaworski and Tony Kornheiser were the analysts.
Rothman remembers the Bills’ heartbreaking MNF 25-24 home loss to the Cowboys in 2007 in which Dallas won at the buzzer on a field goal after quarterback Tony Romo was intercepted five times more than he remembers the heartbreaking loss to Cleveland in 2008 on a late 56-yard field goal in the last MNF game here.
“The Dallas game was so dramatic,” he said. “It was an unbelievable night and an unbelievable finish.”
ESPN would be fortunate if things are that dramatic Monday. But if it isn't, there are plans to spice up the telecast. It won’t carry the retirement of Thurman Thomas' jersey at halftime, featuring Chris Berman as the master of ceremonies, but will show clips of it to start the second half.
“Fans will see Thurman and hopefully some of the great Bills will be in attendance,” Rothman said. “It is a great opportunity to celebrate the Bills. There were some moments in Bills history on Monday Night Football that we will be sure to showcase.”
He mentioned a 1973 game in which O.J. Simpson starred, a 1994 game in which Thomas starred and a 1999 game when Doug Flutie won a game against Miami and quarterback Dan Marino. Of course, all those games were carried when ABC carried the Monday package and there was no Sunday Night Football on NBC.
NBC’s broadcast package gets more marquee games now and has a larger viewership than ESPN’s cable package in Buffalo and nationally.
In Buffalo, “Sunday Night Football” is averaging a 14.2 rating this season through seven weeks on WGRZ-TV (Channel 2). ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” is averaging a 9.9 rating. Both packages, which typically win their respective nights in prime time, are down by one-tenth of a point here from 2017. The Fox Thursday night package is averaging an 8.3 rating on WUTV.
The Sunday and Monday night ratings are impressive in today’s TV world, where very few prime time entertainment programs average a double-digit rating.
Despite the rating disparity between the two prime time packages, Rothman feels the words "Monday Night Football" carry great weight and haven’t been diminished. The package moved in 2006 from a broadcast network, ABC, to a cable network, ESPN, owned by the same company.
“I think the history, the legacy is so deep and so rich,” Rothman said. “I know just from traveling, when we got the package in 2006, what it means not only to fans, I know what it means to players and coaches to showcase their talents on the Monday Night stage where everybody is watching.”
“Next year will be the 50th year of MNF,” Rothman added. “It is the longest-running sports series on television, so I don’t think it has been diminished.”
Rothman, who has been involved in ESPN’s prime time package since 2001, previously saw Western New York and its fans through the eyes of former Bills punter Paul Maguire and Jaworski when they were analysts on ESPN’s Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football packages, respectively.
“I was spoiled by a couple of Buffalo guys who really showed us a good time and were very proud of coming to Buffalo,” Rothman said.
The three new Monday Night Football announcers calling a Bills game for the first time have been given colorful nicknames by Rothman.
He calls former Dallas Cowboy star Jason Witten “Captain America,” Booger McFarland “the Charles Barkley of NFL” and Joe Tessitore, the play-by-play man who tries to bring out the best in the analysts, a cross between Frank Sinatra and Brent Musburger.
“That is just how I feel,” said Rothman. “Joe has great command. … His cadence and his tone and his conversational manner and his ability to make big moments big. He’s been terrific. … When Booger auditioned, if you close your eyes, you thought it was Charles Barkley doing football. A refined Charles Barkley. And I love Charles. Jason, he just has such great stature in the league. … Represents himself, represents the league, represents us so well.”
With the exception of Tessitore, the new team hasn’t gotten rave reviews. But Rothman sees a work in progress.
“They’ve only done seven real games together,” he said. “So these guys continue to improve. The great thing is they enjoy the hell being around each other and they enjoy the hell out of working together. And they are finding their way, too, Jason played football for 25 years. He’s been a broadcaster for two months, since September. Booger has been mainly in the studio. Joe is a veteran broadcaster. I think it is a fresh sound. We have an offensive player, a defensive player, a good maestro up there. These guys are coming along.”
McFarland, a defensive tackle who was a 1999 first-round draft choice and earned two Super Bowl rings, received some attention last Monday when he literally went where no analyst has gone before. He noted that unlike diva wide receivers, like the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham, who go to the locker room when nature calls, linemen take care of their business on the sideline.
“I was like, ohmygod, did he just say that?” said Rothman. “Here is something about Booger. He shoots straight. He is a tell-it-like-it-is guy. He doesn’t pull punches. He is real in terms of how he speaks and he puts himself out there. Hopefully, he didn’t offend anybody.”
The comment by McFarland, who speaks from a cart that moves along the line of scrimmage in a Monday Night Football innovation, certainly sparked online conversation.
The conversation around Western New York has involved whether the Bills eventually will need a new stadium. Rothman prefers New Era Field to newer stadiums along the league.
“The stadium, while it is one of the oldest stadiums in the league, presents itself very well on TV. Looks great on TV. The camera angles, the crowd, the atmosphere. I have recollections of the place rockin’. Just a really loud, boisterous, really good for TV crowd.”
“It is a great scene. It is not one of these ultra-fancy stadiums that is a wine-and-cheese crowd. You can go to one of the newer stadiums and there are a lot of empty seats and a lot of fans are more interested going into the restaurants and the nightclubs that each of these stadiums has. And it is not as electric. The beauty in Buffalo is it is a bowl filled with rabid fans. And the electricity is right there and it just feels like football. We love that.”
While most Bills fans don’t have great expectations, Rothman noted that nobody expected San Francisco to give Green Bay a game on a recent Monday behind quarterback C.J. Beathard.
“And it took (Green Bay quarterback) Aaron Rodgers to drive them down the field for a field goal at the buzzer to beat the 49ers at home,” said Rothman. “I’ve learned to expect the unexpected, just like we did with Buffalo and Dallas that one night."
Bills fans might think that a win over New England would be more unbelievable than Dallas’ 2007 win or winning Powerball. But Rothman gave them hope by noting the Patriots have lost their lost three road games played on Monday Night Football.
“It’s a funny game,” he said. “On paper, you would think it is a no contest, but you never know.”