On March 8, ABC's Monday Night Football told color commentator Boomer Esiason to, in effect, "turn out the lights, the party's over" after two years on the show. Esiason's firing from TV's second-longest-running (30 seasons) prime-time program was closely related to MNF's Nielsen ratings. In 1998, Esiason's rookie season, MNF did an alltime-low 13.9 rating. Last year it sunk further, to 13.7.
Whether Esiason, who first teamed with Dan Dierdorf and Al Michaels and last season worked only with Michaels, should have been the scapegoat for MNF's decline was last week's news. This week's topic is, What must ABC do to restore the telecast to its Cosellian heights? A few suggestions:
1) Get Over the 1970s. Disco is dead. So are Howard Cosell, major network hegemony and marquee rivalries such as Cowboys-Redskins and Raiders-Steelers. Cable television not only provides viewers more choices but also has dulled the specialness of a televised weeknight pro sports event. ABC was thinking retro last week when it named Don Ohlmeyer, who produced MNF in the '70s, to do so again next season. He'll be hard-pressed to duplicate the buzz MNF had then.
2) Drop Hank Williams Jr. and all his rowdy friends. Like the theme for SportsCenter, the old MNF instrumental anthem was a goose-bump-evoking classic. Bring it back.
3) Don't set the schedule in stone. "When you go back and take a look at it," says ESPN Sunday Night Football color man Paul Maguire, assessing 1999's Monday night slate, "they had some awful games. You can only do so much with two bad teams." The NFL would only help itself by giving MNF flexibility in selecting its games, a possibility that the league is pondering.
4) In the booth, three's company. "When you're doing a major game, it is imperative that you have three guys to play off of one another," says Maguire, who for the past two seasons has worked with play-by-play man Mike Patrick and co-analyst Joe Theismann. O.K., but who? What MNF must do is...
5) Court candor. In the days following Esiason's dismissal, John Elway, Dan Marino, Bill Parcells and Steve Young (who was still deciding whether he'll play in 2000) were prominently mentioned as being among Boomer's possible replacements. No, no, no and no. All are future Hall of Famers, but none has anything provocative to say. Our short list would include Jimmy Johnson, who is not afraid to be critical and is naturally entertaining. Tom Jackson and Sterling Sharpe, former jocks now working as studio hosts for ESPN, also deserve a serious look. Sharpe, who's more outspoken and has, well, more sex appeal than Jackson, might play better to the MNF audience.
Finally, there's the affable Maguire. Entering his 30th season of NFL broadcasting, Maguire is largely responsible for the terrific chemistry in the ESPN Sunday night booth. Has anyone recommended him? "Not that I know of," he says. "I might've recommended me, but nobody else has."