The first time that Michaels and Monday Night analyst Dan Dierdorf—who had teamed with Gifford for 11 years to give the show its steadiest team—heard the Williams theme on ESPN, they were in the Broncos' offices in Denver, preparing for the next night's game. Dierdorf and Michaels felt their stomachs drop. Some Broncos players walked in, glanced at the exploding graphics on the screen and asked, "What night is it?"
"To this day, what kills me is when I hear our music on ESPN," Michaels says. "Wait a minute.... That's Monday Night Football! I don't want to hear that anyplace else. That music means Monday night, those graphics mean Monday night, Hank Williams means Monday Night Football. What the hell is this all about?"
"It was all about benefiting ESPN, even at the expense of Monday Night Football" Dierdorf says. "We felt it was our fields that were being burned and our villages that were being plundered."
That was only the beginning. To appease East Coast viewers, ABC began its '98 broadcasts an hour earlier, at 8 p.m. Eastern time, but rather than have an immediate kickoff, the show started each week with a rambling pregame segment hosted by ESPN's Chris Berman from an ESPN Sports Zone in Baltimore. There, in a strange Plexiglas enclosure, sat Gifford—the NFL legend, the man who'd logged more hours on prime time than anyone in history and who'd imbued Monday Night with class and continuity—reduced to introducing a short pregame feature from a sports bar. (Gifford declined to be interviewed for this article.) So it went through the season, with morale plummeting, Gifford looking more and more pathetic and Dierdorf dangling because he was in the final year of his contract and no one would say whether he'd be back. By the time the game kicked off each Monday, at about 8:20 p.m. (though ABC never got that nailed down either), Michaels was miserable.
"That was the worst," he says, "because for all those years we'd come on and there was a certain energy. We were in the stadium, and we'd do a tease, and Hank Williams would come on, and the crowd would go wild. You would get goose bumps. Then all of a sudden the show was opening up like some bad MTV rendition, where the camera is wheeled through a bunch of half-drunk people in a bar in Baltimore. I went from being so charged up to where I was almost embarrassed. I felt as if I were part of a very cheap carnival act."
The chemistry in the booth didn't help. From the start Esiason tried to instill locker room shtick into the game coverage, phony quarterback-lineman banter with Dierdorf that gave the false impression that the two men didn't get along. In reality it was Esiason and Michaels who had little use for one another. This was a match destined for failure. Michaels is often described as brilliant and has a fine sense of humor, but he is tightly wound, vocal about his likes and dislikes and exacting about his craft. When Dierdorf, who considers Michaels a close friend, joined the broadcast in 1987, Michaels warned him, "Say anything you want, but make sure you get your facts right." Esiason is looser, less savvy, far less talented than Michaels on-air, and he often rubbed Michaels the wrong way.
Esiason feels that Michaels not only stifled him as a broadcaster but also had a hand in his removal. Citing Michaels's and Ohlmeyer's frequent golf dates (they both belong to the Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles), Esiason says, "I imagine Howard [ Katz] and Don Ohlmeyer spoke about me, and Ohlmeyer said, 'I couldn't work with him' or 'He's no good'—and I'm sure Al had something to do with that." Since Esiason's firing, some of Michaels's former broadcast partners, such as Tim McCarver, have come forward to defend his on-air generosity. "Boomer thought Al wasn't a team player," says a source close to the broadcast. "Al is a team player. But it's Al's team."
Michaels dismisses Esiason's complaints, saying that at the NFL owners' meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., in March, "two of Boomer's former coaches, in one 10-minute span, came up to me and said, 'Typical Boomer. It's always everybody's fault but his.' " The joke, Michaels says, is that "the best thing that could've happened for me, personally, was for Boomer to have been terrific, because a two-man booth is easier and less unwieldy than a three-man, and the two of us could've gone marching into my retirement. That was my dream scenario. I wanted this to work."
By early in their first season together, however, it was obvious that only a miracle would save this team. While on-camera Michaels and Esiason seemed amiable enough, off-camera they couldn't have been frostier. Michaels, who thought Esiason's frequent references to his own career did little for the broadcast, infuriated Esiason last December by telling the St. Petersburg Times that "once he decides for sure that his QB days are past, we'll truly see how effective Boomer can be on TV." By the Pro Bowl, things had gotten so bad in the booth that, off the air, the two men were barely speaking.
The Saturday morning before a playoff game in January '99, Gifford did two feature pieces—one on Doug Flutie, one on Jake Plummer. He recorded the voice-overs and the tease. He did not know they would be his last pieces for ABC. No one said it was the end of an era. Just before he walked out of the control room, Gifford said, "Are we good? Is there anything else you need from me?" No, Frank, he was told, you're good.