Two days before the team was to broadcast the Pro Bowl, Dierdorf was told he was finished at Monday Night Football. "I look at all the good things in my life and I say, Am I going to get upset because Steve Bornstein wanted to take me off the show after 12 years?" says Dierdorf, who has a three-year contract with CBS for its Sunday schedule. "No. My plate has been far too full for me to lose any sleep over that. I was in the circus for 12 years, and I was under the magnifying glass for 12 years. Do I enjoy what I'm doing now without that bright light? Absolutely. I work just as hard, but it's different. There's a scrutiny you feel when you do Monday Night. I don't miss that part of it, not one bit."
Not long afterward, Gifford got the word. A man named Brian McAndrews, who had little TV sports experience before being named executive vice president and general manager of ABC Sports in March '98, called him. Gifford listened, hung up and then phoned someone he knew at the network. He was puzzled. "Who is Brian McAndrews?" Gifford asked. "I think I just got fired by someone I've never heard of."
Ohlmeyer has a theory about announcers, about what makes a trio such as Gifford, Cosell and Meredith work and a trio such as Dierdorf, Michaels and Esiason fail, and about what makes the matter of who should be the announcers on Monday Night Football pressing enough to spark months of speculation and spur an army of ditto-heads to turn out and make Limbaugh the runaway winner of USA Today's poll. It comes down to whom people choose to spend their valuable leisure time with. No man, maintains Ohlmeyer, likes seeing a game with someone he doesn't like.
"You watch with friends, having a couple of beers, some good lines going back and forth—you have a fun afternoon," he says. The pictures and replays play a huge part in a broadcast's feel, but, Ohlmeyer continues, "the announcers bear the brunt. Watching a game with John Madden is a hoot, because he's like the guy next door. You believe he knows what he's talking about, and he says it in an entertaining way. That's what Howard and Don did."
This, then, is the big reason Esiason was fired: "Al was the only thing I enjoyed listening to," says Ohlmeyer. When Monday Night Football opened last season, Dierdorf was gone, and just Michaels and Boomer were in the booth, showing only a little more warmth for each other than they had the season before. Who's comfortable hosting a party at which two guys talk at each other for three hours with hardly a hint of affection? And without a third man in the booth, Esiason's weaknesses—his tendency to state the obvious, his heavy-handed humor—combined with Michaels's severe demeanor to create a broadcast notably short on fun.
Meanwhile, in the production truck, Wolfe and Janoff had little affection for Katz or his new vice president of production, John Filippelli. Wolfe and Janoff had worked with Esiason during his short stint on World Football League games in 1991 and 1992, and it was Wolfe who got ABC president Bob Iger thinking about Esiason when the Madden deal fell apart. Lines were drawn in the production truck over the tension between Michaels and Esiason; staffers took sides or got caught in between.
The sports-bar pregame show was gone after one excruciating season, mostly because Monday Night Football was moved back to its old 9 p.m. slot for '99, but Berman still hosted halftime, and no one involved in the show had any illusion about a return to the good old days. Limousines were eliminated, and other perks were axed by the finance department's Bob Apter—nicknamed by some the Wicked Witch. The crew was assigned to less luxurious hotels than the on-air talent. That was "strange and unprecedented," Wolfe says. "We're a team, with camaraderie, and now we're in separate places. It made no logistical sense."
It wasn't all bad, though. Esiason got better in his second year. When the New York Jets played the New England Patriots last Nov. 15, he and Michaels put together one of their best shows. Contrary to what Esiason says, Michaels often "teed him up," as TV types say, pulling him into the broadcast with questions. Esiason also did what an analyst should, laying the blame for the Jets' skid squarely on the shoulders of Parcells, the universally lauded Jets coach; calling New York's star receiver, Keyshawn Johnson, "arrogant"; and pointing out the error in Patriots coach Pete Carroll's decision to go for it on fourth down. Michaels agreed. It was all a football fan could ask for. Even the guys you went to the game with, Al and Boomer, seemed to be getting along.
Still, Esiason had no idea whom to trust. Rumors had swirled that he had been responsible for Dierdorf's firing (not true) and that ABC people were unhappy with his work. He didn't know what to think in the season's 12th week when Filippelli told him, "Boomer, you guys are doing great! I'm not getting the calls from Al anymore."
Super Bowl XXXIV was Boomer's last hurrah. The meeting between the Titans and the St. Louis Rams was spectacular, close right to the finish, a broadcaster's dream—but Esiason was not on his game. He predicted plays that didn't happen, said what the pictures already showed, kept reminding viewers that he had been a player too. But there was one key moment when it was Esiason who brought Michaels back to earth: With 6:34 to go and the tension peaking, Michaels spent precious moments chatting about how Rams owner Georgia Frontiere had changed the pronunciation of her name to Fron-teer. "Well," cut in Esiason, "they're on the last frontier right now, because the Tennessee Titan defense has taken over this game."