Maybe Troy Aikman was more peeved about not calling the Dallas Cowboys Wild Card Game last month than we initially thought?
Per the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand, Aikman is expected to leave the booth at Fox to become the voice of ESPN’s Monday Night Football, a coveted role that has lost some of its luster since John Madden shared the space with Al Michaels.
The 2021 season was the first time Monday Night Football could flex games to primetime, something NBC has done for years. This solved the dilemma of ESPN getting stuck with unwatchable games between mediocre teams late in the season just because the games were scheduled six months in advance.
Aikman’s deal with ESPN, expected to be in the range of Tony Romo’s $17 million a year with CBS, doesn’t necessarily mean the end of his partnership with Joe Buck in the booth.
Reportedly, ESPN will try to lure Buck away from Fox when his contract expires next season. Complicating things for Buck is that leaving Fox would likely mean relinquishing his mantle as the voice of the World Series after 24 World Series. ESPN owns the rights to about 30 games a season.
Aikman shuffling over to ESPN is the first domino to fall as a changing of the guard occurs this offseason. Amazon, the streaming disruptor, which outbid Fox for the rights to Thursday Night Football which it owned for three years, has been flirting with NBC’s Al Michaels. Mike Tirico, who’s been largely absent from NFL broadcasts since making the transition to NBC from ESPN’s Monday Night Football in 2016, would be filling that role.
However, with Aikman at ESPN, a gaping hole needs to be filled in Fox’s rotation as large as the one Blaine Gabbert is filling in Tampa Bay.
Names bandied about have ranged from Sean Payton to Sean McVay to Drew Brees.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, though. McVay isn’t leaving after winning his first Super Bowl at the age of 36 to be the voice of Lions-Bears Thanksgiving broadcasts. And Payton would only be a temp until he returns to coaching full-time in 2023. Brees was invisible at NBC during his first year in the booth. Brees on Fox’s A broadcast team would end in deja vu from his playing career, where observers spent Sundays pointing out that he’s good but not as great as his peers. It would be Romo and Peyton Manning outshining him in the booth instead of Peyton and Tom Brady.
Michael Strahan is a possibility, but would he want to get distracted from his prestigious role as co-host of “Good Morning America” to travel 17 weeks a year when he already has a cushy Fox studio job on Sundays?
Aquib Talib, and Gus Johnson, if the Buck role opens up, are the simplest solution to Fox’s problem. Talib is eccentric, fun, and doesn’t call games like he’s teaching Geology 101. They already have the built-in chemistry and name recognition to slide into the top spot if Buck takes an exit ramp.
Greg Olsen and Kevin Burkhardt comprise Fox’s No. 2 broadcast team, but Olsen didn’t move the needle last season. Love him or hate him, Talib creates memorable commentary. Compared to the dose of Xanax that Aikman brings to the booth, Talib has been a disruptor since he he first showed up in one two years ago. That may be what Fox needs right now. Talib matches Johnson’s energy, as well as any color commentator could, while providing A1 X’s and O’s analysis.
He’s also a former Super Bowl champion, which might sound silly, but it matters to the suits at Fox Sports. In the past, they’ve hired retired Super Bowl champions to lead their coverage, such as Jonathan Vilma, Terry Bradshaw, Michael Strahan, Howie Long, and Aikman, due to their ability to project themselves as authorities on winning. As Fox’s No. 1 color commentator, he’d be calling the Super Bowl alongside Buck in 2023. Unless Fox can land Tom Brady, they have an opportunity to stand out and fill their need with an in-house hire.