There was always a next series or a next game to make amends after a three-and-out, but there is a three-and-out of a different kind at ESPN for Philip Rivers. It has to do with the number of announcers in the booth and could hinder the launch of the broadcasting career that so many football observers expected the now-retired NFL quarterback to tackle.
ESPN ‘Monday Night Football’ announcers come and go
Disney passed Monday Night Football off from ABC to ESPN before the 2006 season and enjoyed a relatively stable lineup of announcers early on, most notably Mike Tirico working alongside Jon Gruden from 2009-15. However, there have been three play-by-play announcers and five color commentators taking their turns since the start of the 2017 season.
ESPN played around with those combinations largely without the benefit of big names in the industry since Sean McDonough and Gruden in 2017. The crew in 2020 consisted of play-by-play announcer Steve Levy and analysts Louis Riddick and Brian Griese. All are veteran ESPN employees, which is intentional.
The network has done several rounds of belt-tightening in recent years in part to deal with decreased revenue from cable and satellite providers, who pass the cost along to customers. Additionally, parent company Disney has been reported to be clamping down on costs to put money aside for a piece of the next round of NFL television rights negotiations, a process that could be completed within a matter of weeks.
Big names like Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, who instead signed with the Indianapolis Colts in late March, were suggested as candidates for the booth before the 2020 season, but ESPN saved considerable money by sticking with in-house talent.
An insider suggests there’s no room in the ESPN broadcast booth
The trio of Steve Levy, Brian Griese, and Louis Riddick, complemented by sideline reporter Lisa Salters and rules expert John Parry, was relatively well-received by critics and fans this past season after two years of Booger McFarland and one of Jason Witten, who rejoined the Dallas Cowboys.
ESPN has not revealed plans for its 2021 Monday Night Football team. Levy may have tipped the network’s hand, though, in an interview with The Athletic. Levy knows his way around the hallways of the Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters, having worked for the network since 1993 in numerous roles, including as a popular SportsCenter anchor.
The Athletic reported that Levy’s sense is that the ‘MNF’ crew will return intact for 2021.
“I hope to hear something sooner rather than later,” Levy said. “But everything I’ve heard to this point has been incredibly positive and points in the right direction of us all returning to the NFL next season, which is all I can really hope for at this point.”
A three-man booth is sometimes crowded, though it’s almost a necessity in order to retain primetime viewers when games turn into blowouts and the chatter has to be more entertaining than the action on the field.
Unfortunately for Philip Rivers, a decision by ESPN to maintain the status quo would deprive him of the best option for breaking into broadcasting as an NFL game analyst. Primetime games attract the largest audiences, and fellow retired quarterbacks Tony Romo and Troy Aikman have locked down the spots on the biggest afternoon games each Sunday.
Philip Rivers is not without options
After 17 seasons in the NFL, quarterback Philip Rivers announced his retirement on Jan. 20, 2021. He ranks fifth in league history in both yardage and touchdown passes.
Before the 2020 season began, Rivers said he had already landed a job if he did not stay in the NFL beyond his one-year, $25 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts. He accepted the job as head coach at St. Michael Catholic High in Fairhope, Alabama. Whether that is still the plan remains to be seen, especially if a TV job comes along.
It sounds as though ESPN’s Monday Night Football probably isn’t an option, but there would still be options. First, CBS and Fox both employ as many as eight broadcast crews per week. Tony Romo and Troy Aikman handle their respective networks’ top games, so being a color commentator on the other contests usually means teams with losing records being shown to much smaller regional audiences.
The alternative – a gig as an in-studio analyst — might be more practical for Rivers. If a position opens up, doing pregame and halftime shows on Sundays for ESPN, Fox, CBS, or NBC would leave open the possibility of coaching high school games on Friday nights and flying out to the studio location the following morning.