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During the early 1960s, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle envisioned the possibility of playing at least one game weekly during prime time for a greater TV audience. (While the NFL had scheduled Saturday night games on the DuMont network in 1953-1954, poor ratings and the dissolution of DuMont led to the series being eliminated by the time CBS took over the rights in 1956.) An early bid in 1964 to play on Friday nights was soundly defeated, with critics charging that such telecasts would damage the attendance at high school games. Undaunted, Rozelle decided to experiment with the concept of playing on Monday night, scheduling the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions for a game on September 28, 1964. While the game was not televised, it drew a sellout crowd of 59,203 to Tiger Stadium, the largest crowd ever to watch a professional football game in Detroit up to that point.
Two years later, Rozelle would build on this success as the NFL began a four-year experiment of playing on Monday night, scheduling one game in prime time on CBS during the 1966 and 1967 seasons, and two contests during each of the next two years. NBC followed suit in 1968 and 1969 with games involving American Football League teams.
During subsequent negotiations on a new television contract that would begin in 1970 (coinciding with a merger between the NFL and AFL), Rozelle concentrated on signing a weekly Monday night deal with one of the three major networks. After sensing reluctance from both NBC and CBS in disturbing their regular programming schedules, Rozelle spoke with ABC.
Despite the network's status as the lowest-rated network, ABC was also reluctant to enter the risky venture. Only after Rozelle used the threat of signing with the independent Hughes Sports Network, an entity bankrolled by reclusive businessman Howard Hughes, did ABC sign a contract for the scheduled games. Speculation was that had Rozelle signed with Hughes, many ABC affiliates would have pre-empted the network's Monday lineup in favor of the games, severely damaging potential ratings.
After the final contract for Monday Night Football was signed, ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge immediately saw possibilities for the new show. Setting out to create an entertainment "spectacle" as much as a simple sports broadcast, Arledge hired Chet Forte, who would serve as director of the program for over 22 years. Arledge also ordered twice the usual number of cameras to cover the game, expanded the regular two-man broadcasting booth to three and used extensive graphic design within the show as well as "instant replay."
Prior to 1978, Monday night games were not scheduled in the final week (Week 14) of the regular season. From 1974–77, a Saturday night game was scheduled for Week 14 and televised live by ABC in lieu of a Monday night game.
Looking for a lightning rod to garner attention, Arledge hired controversial New York sportscaster Howard Cosell as a commentator, along with veteran football play-by-play man Keith Jackson. Arledge had tried to lure Curt Gowdy and then Vin Scully to ABC for the MNF play-by-play role, but settled for Jackson after they proved unable to break existing contracts with NBC Sports and the Los Angeles Dodgers, respectively. Jack Buck was also considered, but when Arledge assistant Chuck Howard telephoned Buck with the job offer, Buck refused to respond due to anger at his treatment by ABC during an earlier stint with the network. Arledge's original choice for the third member of the trio, Frank Gifford, was unavailable since he was still under contract to CBS Sports. However, Gifford suggested former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Don Meredith, setting the stage for years of fireworks between the often-pompous Cosell and the laid-back Meredith.
Monday Night Football first aired on ABC on September 21, 1970, with a game between the New York Jets and the Browns in Cleveland. Advertisers were charged $65,000 per minute by ABC during the clash, a cost that proved to be a bargain when the contest collected 33 percent of the viewing audience. The Browns defeated the Jets, 31-21 in a game which featured a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by the Browns' Homer Jones and was punctuated when Billy Andrews intercepted Joe Namath late in the fourth quarter and returned it 25 yards for the clinching touchdown. However, Cleveland viewers saw different programming on WEWS-TV, because of the NFL's blackout rules of the time (this would apply for all games through the end of the 1972 season - beginning in 1973, home games could be televised if they sold out 72 hours before kickoff).
One of the trademarks of Monday Night Football is a music cue used during the opening teasers of each program, a Johnny Pearson composition entitled "Heavy Action", originally a KPM production library cue (and also used as the theme music for the BBC's Superstars series). Monday Night Football began using "Heavy Action" in 1975.
That success would continue over the course of the season, helping establish a phenomenon on Monday nights in the fall: Movie attendance dropped, bowling leagues shifted to Tuesday nights and a Seattle hospital established an unwritten rule of no births during games.
Cosell's presence initially caused Henry Ford II, chairman of the Ford Motor Company, the show's main sponsor, to ask for his removal. ABC refused, and Ford had a change of heart once the show's ratings were made public. Cosell dodged another controversy when he appeared to be intoxicated on the air during the November 23 game between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. Already ill, Cosell drank at a promotional party prior to the game, then ended up vomiting on Don Meredith's cowboy boots near the end of the first half. Jackson and Meredith ended up announcing the rest of the contest.
In 1971, Gifford became available and Arledge brought him to ABC to serve as play-by-play announcer, replacing Jackson (who returned to broadcasting college football for the network, which he continued to do for the next 35 seasons). The former New York Giant had been an NFL analyst for CBS during the 1960s but had never called play-by-play prior to joining Monday Night Football. In that capacity for Monday Night Football from 1971-1985, Gifford was often criticized for his see-no-evil approach in regard to discussing the NFL, earning him the dubious nickname "Faultless Frank." Regardless, Gifford would have the longest tenure of any broadcaster on the show, lasting until 1998.
Cosell's abrasive personality gave him enough recognition to host a live ABC variety show in the fall of 1975. That show is remembered today only as a trivia question, as its title, "Saturday Night Live", prevented a new late-night sketch comedy program on NBC from using that title until the ABC show was canceled. That seeming popularity was in contrast to the repeated criticisms in the media, as well as bar room contests in which winners were allowed to throw a brick through a television image of Cosell.
After beginning with critical acclaim, Meredith began to take his weekly assignments less seriously, while also beginning an acting career. By 1973, his motivation for the broadcasts seemed highly suspect, given incidents during a trio of contests. On October 29, Meredith was drinking during the Buffalo Bills-Kansas City Chiefs game, which was preceded one week earlier by his pre-game analysis of the Denver Broncos–Oakland Raiders game: "We're in the Mile High City and I sure am" — a not-so-subtle reference to his use of marijuana at the time. Finally, during the Pittsburgh Steelers-Washington Redskins game on November 5, he referred to U.S. President Richard Nixon as "Tricky Dick."
Meredith would be absent from Monday Night Football for a broadcasting and acting career on rival NBC from 1974 through 1976. Fred Williamson, a former Kansas City Chiefs defensive back nicknamed "The Hammer" for his often-brutal hits, was selected by ABC to replace Meredith in 1974, but following a few pre-season broadcasts, proved so inarticulate that he was relieved of his duties prior to the start of the regular season, becoming the first MNF personality not to last an entire season (much less no part of the regular season at all). Williamson was replaced by fellow Gary, Indiana native Alex Karras, formerly of the Detroit Lions. The highlight of Williamson's MNF career was probably at the introductory press conference where he quipped that he was hired to "bring some color to the booth."
Karras made his debut on September 16, 1974 and immediately made an impact when he jokingly referred to Oakland Raiders' defensive lineman Otis Sistrunk as having attended "The University of Mars." That would essentially be the high point of Karras' three-year tenure, with a developing movie career often distracting him from showing any improvement (In reality, Sistrunk did not attend any college but played semi-pro ball before getting a tryout with the Raiders; after Karras' remark and for the rest of Sistrunk's time with the team the Raiders team guide listed his college alma mater as "The University of Mars").
Meredith returned to the ABC booth in 1977, but seemed to lack the enthusiasm that had marked his first stint from 1970–1973. While the NFL moved to a 16-week schedule in 1978, Meredith was contractually obligated to work only 14 games, leaving Cosell and Gifford to work games as a duo or with newly retired Fran Tarkenton beginning in 1979.
From 1977 through 1986, ABC also aired occasional NFL games on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. Each of these telecasts would be billed by the network as a Special Thursday/Saturday/Sunday Night Edition of Monday Night Football.
One of the more somber contests in the run of the series came on November 27, 1978 when the San Francisco 49ers hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers. Earlier in the day, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk had been murdered at City Hall. Despite the complaints that followed, the NFL chose to play the game, a decision that mirrored the league's playing the weekend of the John F. Kennedy assassination 15 years earlier.
The opening contest of the 1979 season saw a poignant moment as former New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley was introduced to a sellout crowd at the Patriots' Schaefer Stadium. Stingley had been paralyzed in a preseason game the year before and was making his first visit to the stadium since the accident.
One of the most remembered moments in Monday Night Football history occurred on December 8, 1980, yet had nothing to do with the game or football in general. During a game between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots, Howard Cosell broke the news of famed Beatle John Lennon's assassination, news that stunned a nationwide audience.
|“||Yes, we have to say it. Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps, of all of The Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead ... on ... arrival.||”|
In 1974, Lennon had appeared in the Monday Night Football broadcast booth and was briefly interviewed by Cosell.
|September 7, 1981||9:00 PM EDT||San Diego @ Cleveland|
|September 10, 1981||8:30 PM EDT||Pittsburgh @ Miami|
|September 14, 1981||9:00 PM EDT||Oakland @ Minnesota|
|September 17, 1981||8:30 PM EDT||Philadelphia @ Buffalo|
|September 21, 1981||9:00 PM EDT||Dallas @ New England|
|September 28, 1981||9:00 PM EDT||Los Angeles @ Chicago|
|October 5, 1981||9:00 PM EDT||Atlanta @ Philadelphia|
|October 12, 1981||9:00 PM EDT||Miami @ Buffalo|
|October 18, 1981||8:00 PM EDT||Los Angeles @ Dallas|
|October 19, 1981||9:00 PM EDT||Chicago @ Detroit|
|October 26, 1981||9:00 PM EST||Houston @ Pittsburgh|
|November 2, 1981||9:00 PM EST||Minnesota @ Denver|
|November 9, 1981||9:00 PM EST||Buffalo @ Dallas|
|November 16, 1981||9:00 PM EST||San Diego @ Seattle|
|November 23, 1981||9:00 PM EST||Minnesota @ Atlanta|
|November 30, 1981||9:00 PM EST||Philadelphia @ Miami|
|December 3, 1981||9:00 PM EST||Cleveland @ Houston|
|December 7, 1981||9:00 PM EST||Pittsburgh @ Oakland|
|December 14, 1981||9:00 PM EST||Atlanta @ Los Angeles|
|December 21, 1981||9:00 PM EST||Oakland @ San Diego|
From 1983 through 1986, ABC also aired a Friday night game in the final week (Week 16) of the regular season in addition to the normal Monday night game.
Cosell continued to draw criticism during Monday Night Football with one of his offhand comments during the September 5, 1983 game igniting a controversy and laying the groundwork for his departure at the end of that season. In a game between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, Cosell referred to Alvin Garrett, an African American wide receiver for the Redskins, as a "little monkey." Cosell noted that Garrett's small stature, and not his race, was the basis for his comment, citing the fact that he had used the term to describe his grandchildren. Later, a special on Howard Cosell showed him calling Mike Adamle (a white player) a "little monkey." Stung by the unrelenting barrage of remarks, Cosell claimed upon his departure from Monday Night Football that the NFL had become "a stagnant bore." In Cosell's book, I Never Played the Game, he devoted an entire chapter ("Monkey Business") to the Garrett episode. Also in I Never Played the Game, Cosell said that ABC should have had the right to choose its own Monday Night schedule. In his mind, Monday Night Football is what elevated the NFL in popularity over Major League Baseball. He felt this should have been ABC's reward for raising the level of the NFL's popularity.
That same year, O. J. Simpson replaced Tarkenton as a fill-in when Meredith or Cosell, who also was a broadcaster for Major League Baseball's playoffs, was unavailable. The season would serve as a study in contrasts as one of the most exciting Monday night games ever was followed the next week by one of the most badly played in the run of the series. On October 17, 1983, the highest scoring game in Monday Night Football history took place in the Green Bay Packers/Washington Redskins game, with the Packers winning the game by a 48–47 score. Seven days later, the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals played for more than four hours before settling for a 20–20 overtime tie, MNF's only OT tie to date. The deadlock had come after dropped touchdown passes by Cardinal wide receivers Willard Harrell and Roy Green and a trio of missed field goals by teammate Neil O'Donoghue, including two in the final 63 seconds of the overtime period.
When Cosell left prior to the start of the 1984 season, the trio of Gifford, Meredith and Simpson handled the duties. Cosell's departure seemed to have the greatest effect on Meredith, who many believed to be a poor analyst in his absence. Falling ratings also gave indications that much of the mystique that surrounded the weekly event had disappeared.
|September 3, 1984||9:00 PM EDT||Dallas @ L.A. Rams|
|September 6, 1984||8:00 PM EDT||Pittsburgh @ N.Y. Jets|
|September 10, 1984||9:00 PM EDT||Washington @ San Francisco||Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and O.J. Simpson|
|September 16, 1984||9:00 PM EDT||Denver @ Cleveland|
|September 17, 1984||9:00 PM EDT||Miami @ Buffalo|
|September 24, 1984||9:00 PM EDT||San Diego @ L.A. Raiders|
|October 1, 1984||9:00 PM EDT||Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh|
|October 8, 1984||9:00 PM EDT||San Francisco @ N.Y. Giants||Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and O.J. Simpson|
|October 15, 1984||9:00 PM EDT||Green Bay @ Denver|
|October 21, 1984||9:00 PM EDT||New Orleans @ Dallas|
|October 22, 1984||9:00 PM EDT||L.A. Rams @ Atlanta|
|October 29, 1984||9:00 PM EST||Seattle @ San Diego|
|November 5, 1984||9:00 PM EST||Atlanta @ Washington|
|November 12, 1984||9:00 PM EST||L.A. Raiders @ Seattle|
|November 19, 1984||9:00 PM EST||Pittsburgh @ New Orleans|
|November 26, 1984||9:00 PM EST||N.Y. Jets @ Miami|
|November 29, 1984||9:00 PM EST||Washington @ Minnesota|
|December 3, 1984||9:00 PM EST||Chicago @ San Diego|
|December 10, 1984||8:00 PM EST||L.A. Raiders @ Detroit|
|December 14, 1984||9:00 PM EST||L.A. Rams @ San Francisco||Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and O.J. Simpson|
|December 17, 1984||9:00 PM EST||Dallas @ Miami|
After the 1984 season, ABC replaced Meredith with Joe Namath the following year, with the quarterback making his debut in the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Game. In a coincidental twist, both Namath and Simpson were busy prior to the telecast with their induction into the shrine.
One of the more grisly moments in Monday Night Football history occurred during a game between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants on November 18, 1985, at RFK Stadium. Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann's career would end when Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor reached from behind to drag him down and Taylor fell heavily on the quarterback’s leg in the process. On the play, which viewers could see in a gruesome slow-motion replay, Theismann suffered a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula in his lower right leg. The injury ended the playing career of Theismann, who had teamed with Gifford and Meredith on ABC's coverage of Super Bowl XIX in January 1985.
Two weeks after that painful memory, the series' most watched contest took place as the previously unbeaten Chicago Bears were defeated by the Miami Dolphins, who had not lost to an NFC team at home since 1976. That would turn out to be Chicago's only loss in 1985. The show gained a Nielsen rating of 29.6 with a 46 share.
Both Namath and Simpson would be replaced at the end of the 1985 NFL season, with critics noting their lack of journalistic skills in comparison to Cosell. In their place the following year came veteran broadcaster Al Michaels, who had previously anchored ABC's pregame coverage of Super Bowl XIX and had been since 1983 the lead play-by-play announcer of Monday Night Baseball. Michaels had also by this point, gained much notoriety at ABC for his 1980 "Miracle on Ice" broadcast.
Michaels served as the play-by-play announcer, teaming with Gifford for a two-man booth in 1986. During that season, the Miami Dolphins again made Monday night history with the biggest blowout in Monday Night Football history in a 45-3 rout of the then 10-1 New York Jets. (The record was later tied and subsequently broken in 2005; see below.) Also in 1986, when Al Michaels became unavailable because he was calling Major League Baseball's League Championship Series, Frank Gifford moved up into the play-by-play spot while Lynn Swann filled-in as the color commentator. Gifford would once again call the play-by-play when Michaels was busy calling the World Series in 1987 and 1989 and the National League Championship Series in 1988.
In 1987, Gifford and Michaels were joined by Dan Dierdorf, returning the series to its original concept of three announcers in the booth. The trio would last for 11 seasons through the conclusion of the 1997 season. In 1989, television composer Edd Kalehoff created a new arrangement of Johnny Pearson's "Heavy Action", by that time fully synonymous with the series. This more or less replaced an original composition by Charles Fox. Also debuting in 1989 was Hank Williams, Jr. in "All My Rowdy Friends Are Here on Monday Night," sung to the music of his 1984 hit "All My Rowdy Friends Are Comin' Over Tonight."
|September 5, 1988||8:00 PM EDT||Washington @ N.Y. Giants|
|September 12, 1988||8:00 PM EDT||Dallas @ Phoenix|
|September 19, 1988||8:00 PM EDT||Indianapolis @ Cleveland|
|September 26, 1988||8:00 PM EDT||L.A. Raiders @ Denver|
|October 3, 1988||9:00 PM EDT||Dallas @ New Orleans|
|October 10, 1988||9:00 PM EDT||N.Y. Giants @ Philadelphia|
|October 17, 1988||9:00 PM EDT||Buffalo @ N.Y. Jets|
|October 24, 1988||9:00 PM EDT||San Francisco @ Chicago||Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford|
|October 31, 1988||9:00 PM EST||Denver @ Indianapolis|
|November 7, 1988||9:00 PM EST||Cleveland @ Houston|
|November 14, 1988||9:00 PM EST||Buffalo @ Miami|
|November 21, 1988||9:00 PM EST||Washington @ San Francisco||Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford|
|November 28, 1988||9:00 PM EST||L.A. Raiders @ Seattle|
|December 5, 1988||9:00 PM EST||Chicago @ L.A. Rams|
|December 12, 1988||9:00 PM EST||Cleveland @ Miami|
|December 19, 1988||9:00 PM EST||Chicago @ Minnesota|
|September 11, 1989||9:00 PM EDT||N.Y. Giants @ Washington|
|September 18, 1989||9:00 PM EDT||Denver @ Buffalo|
|September 25, 1989||9:00 PM EDT||Cleveland @ Cincinnati|
|October 2, 1989||9:00 PM EDT||Philadelphia @ Chicago|
|October 9, 1989||9:00 PM EDT||L.A. Raiders @N.Y. Jets|
|October 16, 1989||9:00 PM EDT||L.A. Rams @ Buffalo|
|October 23, 1989||9:00 PM EDT||Chicago @ Cleveland|
|October 30, 1989||9:00 PM EST||Minnesota @ N.Y. Giants|
|November 6, 1989||9:00 PM EST||New Orleans @ San Francisco||Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford|
|November 13, 1989||9:00 PM EST||Cincinnati @ Houston|
|November 20, 1989||9:00 PM EST||Denver @ Washington|
|November 27, 1989||9:00 PM EST||N.Y. Giants @ San Francisco||Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford|
|December 4, 1989||9:00 PM EST||Buffalo @ Seattle|
|December 11, 1989||9:00 PM EST||San Francisco @ L.A. Rams||Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford|
|December 18, 1989||9:00 PM EST||Philadelphia @ New Orleans|
|December 25, 1989||9:00 PM EST||Cincinnati @ Minnesota|
Along with the renewed television contract, ABC was awarded the telecast to Super Bowl XXV and Super Bowl XXIX, and the first round of NFL playoffs. The Monday Night Football team of announcers anchored the telecasts, except for the first of two wild card playoff games, where ESPN's Sunday Night NFL crew of Mike Patrick and Joe Theismann anchored that telecast. However, the original crew for one of the two wild card playoff games in 1990 and 1991 consisted of Brent Musburger and Dick Vermeil (both of whom did college football broadcasts for ABC during those two seasons).
From 1990 until 2005, ABC's MNF television package has included seventeen (eighteen in 1992 and 1993) regular season games (from 2003 until 2005, a Thursday game and 16 Mondays—no game on Week 17 because of playoff preparation disadvantages), the first two wild card playoff games (held on the first Saturday of the playoffs), and at times, the AFC–NFC Pro Bowl.
The October 17, 1994 episode between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos featured a duel between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Joe Montana and John Elway. With 1:29 left to play in the game, Elway scored on a 4-yard touchdown run to put the Broncos ahead 28–24. But then Montana led the Chiefs on a 75-yard drive to score the game-winning touchdown with just 8 seconds to play. The final score was Chiefs 31, Broncos 28.
The October 31, 1994 game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears is notable for a very windy/rainy game, which also featured the Crypt Keeper deliver the famous phase, and also remembered with a 36-yard TD run by Brett Favre, who had a sore hip that night. Later dubbed the Halloween Monsoon by Bear fans, the Packers crushed the Bears, 33-6.
|September 5, 1994||9:00 PM EDT||L.A. Raiders @ San Francisco||Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf, Frank Gifford and Lynn Swann|
|September 12, 1994||9:00 PM EDT||Chicago @ Philadelphia|
|September 19, 1994||9:00 PM EDT||Detroit @ Dallas|
|September 26, 1994||9:00 PM EDT||Denver @ Buffalo|
|October 3, 1994||9:00 PM EDT||Houston @ Pittsburgh|
|October 10, 1994||9:00 PM EDT||Minnesota @ N.Y. Giants|
|October 17, 1994||9:00 PM EDT||Kansas City @ Denver|
|October 24, 1994||9:00 PM EDT||Houston @ Philadelphia|
|October 31, 1994||9:00 PM EST||Green Bay @ Chicago|
|November 7, 1994||9:00 PM EST||N.Y. Giants @ Dallas|
|November 14, 1994||9:00 PM EST||Buffalo @ Pittsburgh|
|November 21, 1994||9:00 PM EST||N.Y. Giants @ Houston|
|November 28, 1994||9:00 PM EST||San Francisco @ New Orleans||Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf, Frank Gifford and Lynn Swann|
|December 5, 1994||9:00 PM EST||L.A. Raiders @ San Diego|
|December 12, 1994||9:00 PM EST||Kansas City @ Miami|
|December 19, 1994||9:00 PM EST||Dallas @ New Orleans|
|December 26, 1994||9:00 PM EST||San Francisco @ Minnesota||Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf, Frank Gifford and Lynn Swann|
In the 1995 MNF regular season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants at the New Jersey Meadowlands, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones controversially brought Nike chairman Phil Knight down to the sidelines, representing Jerry's individual deal with Nike, contrary to the NFL's policy of negotiating its marketing deals as a league.
In 1998, Lesley Visser became the first female commentator on Monday Night Football. She had been the first female beat writer in the NFL when she covered the New England Patriots for the Boston Globe in the mid-1970s, and was the first and only woman to handle a Super Bowl Trophy presentation when she was a sportscaster with CBS. Visser was followed by several women, notably Melissa Stark and Lisa Guerrero, on the sideline who were perceived as "eye candy", none of whom affected the ratings.
For the 1998 season, ABC pushed Monday Night Football back an hour (it has usually aired at 9:00 p.m. EST). A special pregame show was created, titled Monday Night Blast and hosted by Chris Berman from the ESPN Zone restaurant in Baltimore. The game would start around 8:20 p.m. for this particular season. Despite leaving the booth, Frank Gifford stayed on one more year as a special contributor to the pregame show, usually presenting a single segment.
A mildly infamous incident came during the final 1998 telecast when Dierdorf asked Michaels, prior to a halftime interview with Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug Flutie, "Are you gonna tell 'em how you're sick of all this B.C. [Boston College] stuff?" Michaels (thinking that they had gone into a commercial break and that his microphone was off) replied, "No shit."
Nielsen numbers for the first 17 weeks of the 1998 TV season showed that Monday Night Football averaged a 13.9 rating, down 8 percent from 1997's 15.0—the previous standard in ratings futility. In actuality, MNF ratings had been hitting all-time record lows for the previous four years.
Beginning in 1999, Monday Night Football telecasts used a computer-generated yellow line to mark where a team needs to get a first down. ESPN had begun using it first. 1999 also saw the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game being moved from Saturday afternoon to Monday night. It would remain on Monday night through 2005.
Boomer Esiason replaced Gifford in 1998, and Dierdorf left for a return to CBS in 1999. Esiason's relationship with Michaels was questioned leading to his firing. Esiason and Michaels reportedly never got along, and it led to ABC firing Esiason shortly after calling Super Bowl XXXIV together.
Unexpectedly, Comedian Dennis Miller joined the cast in 2000 along with Dan Fouts. The move was ultimately regarded as a bust by many viewers and commentators. ABC briefly considered adding radio personality Rush Limbaugh before Miller was added to the broadcast team, despite having no prior sports broadcast experience. (Limbaugh would instead be assigned as a commentator to Sunday NFL Countdown on sister station ESPN.) Miller demonstrated a knowledge of the game and its personalities, although at times he tended to lapse into sometimes obscure analogy-riddled streams of consciousness similar to the "rants" of his standup comedy act. ABC even set up a Web page dedicated to explaining Miller's sometimes obscure pop culture references. Soon, it would become apparent that Miller's comedy did not mix with football.
In June 2000, Lesley Visser's career suffered a highly publicized setback when she was famously bounced as the Monday Night Football sideline reporter for a less experienced, much younger woman and a man, who did not have as extensive journalistic credentials as Visser. "It was staggering to me," Visser later recalled. However, she wound up returning to CBS Sports, philosophical as ever. "You can have a short career if it's based on looks and youth," she said, "but legitimacy is what lasts." Which ABC replaced her with both Melissa Stark and Eric Dickerson. This was part of the overhaul when ABC brought back Don Ohlmeyer to serve as producer, who installed Dennis Miller as an analyst (for ultimately two unsuccessful seasons). She sued ABC Sports which were Howard Katz and Ohylmeyer.
As previously mentioned, in 2000, Don Ohlmeyer, the program's producer up until 1977 was brought back. After spending time at NBC, Ohlmeyer was lured out of retirement to spark interest and provide some vigor to the broadcast. Besides the on-air talent, Ohlmeyer's changes included clips of players introducing themselves, new graphics, and music. In another rather irreverent move, the scoring bug was seen to have nicknames for the teams, such as "Skins" and "Fins" (for Redskins and Dolphins, respectively) instead of their common abbreviations, WSH and MIA, respectively.
On October 23, 2000, the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins competed in what is now known as The Monday Night Miracle Trailing 30–7 in the fourth quarter, Vinny Testaverde led the Jets to score 23 consecutive points to tie the game. After Miami scored another touchdown, Testaverde threw to offensive tackle Jumbo Elliott to tie the game at 37-all. At 1:08 a.m., Tuesday morning, John Hall kicked a field goal in overtime to win the game 40–37. It was the second biggest fourth quarter comeback in NFL history and biggest comeback in Jets' history.Arnold Schwarzenegger predicted the comeback at halftime, where he was appearing with the MNF crew for an upcoming movie. With the Jets already down by 20 points he said, "Wayne Chrebet will catch a pass and the Jets will win. They're a great team."
The 2001 season of MNF featured a season-long campaign promoting the anticipated 20,000th point scored in MNF history. Broncos kicker Jason Elam completed the task with a field goal during a 38–28 loss at Oakland on November 5. The three points also put Elam over 1,000 points for his career. In addition, the scoring bug went back to using the team abbreviations, as opposed to nicknames (which were used in the previous season).
In 2002, both Dennis Miller and Dan Fouts were dropped and John Madden joined Al Michaels in a two man booth. Madden was a coach for the Oakland Raiders, namesake of the seminal Madden NFL video game series, and successful broadcaster with the CBS and FOX networks for 21 years before joining Monday Night Football.
In 2002, the broadcast debuted the "Horse Trailer" award, in which a picture of the game's top performer(s) is displayed, as chosen by the broadcasting crew. During the fourth quarter of a preseason game early that season, Madden was joking about doing some recording in the "Horse Trailer", a term the producers used for one of the ABC production trucks. It was, in fact, a custom built trailer designed from the shell of a horse trailer, but inside housed sophisticated electronic equipment. By the first week of the regular season, an idea to decorate the plain white trailer with MNF decor, the entire MNF schedule, and a weekly MVP, was born. Immediately following each game, the winner(s) is chosen, and his picture is affixed to the trailer in the corresponding location. When Madden and Michaels went to NBC in 2006, they debuted a similar feature, the Rock Star – the photo of the player of the game being attached to the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. (For the 2007 season, the "Horse Trailer" concept has been reinstated.)
After suffering through several years of dismal Pro Bowl ratings, ABC considered moving the game to Monday night. In February 2003, Madden declined to serve as color commentator for the game in Hawaii, citing his fear of flying; former MNF personality Dan Fouts took his place. The following year, the Pro Bowl remained on Sunday, but was moved to ABC's sister network, ESPN.
In 2003, ABC and the NFL dropped the Monday Night Football game for the final week of the regular season. The move, which had been in effect for the first eight years of the broadcast (1970–1977), was the result of declining ratings, as well as problems involved for potential playoff teams, as there was a potential of only four days rest between their final regular season game and first round playoff game. ABC replaced the telecast with an opening weekend Thursday night game, and in exchange ESPN got a Saturday night game on the final weekend.
Also during the 2003 season, Lisa Guerrero decided to leave Fox Sports Net's The Best Damn Sports Show Period to join the MNF television crew as a sideline reporter (replacing the pregnant Melissa Stark). Guerrero's performance on the broadcast was heavily criticized, and the following year (also in an apparent move away from the "eye candy" concept) ABC replaced her with longtime TV sports journalist Michele Tafoya. Lisa Guerrero defended herself by saying that the show hired her with the intention of going in a totally different direction with the job of sideline reporter — personality-driven and feature-driven — then discarded all of that and told her to just do the job in the usual fashion. She said that she never would have taken the job if she had known that they would change their minds like that. In 2005, Michele Tafoya sat out much of the season while on maternity leave. In Tafoya's place came Sam Ryan.
On the October 6, 2003, episode between the Colts and Buccaneers, Indianapolis was trailing 35–14 with 3:43 remaining. The Colts had returned a Tampa Bay kickoff 90 yard to the 11-yard line, setting up a quick score. The Colts recovered an onside kick and scored again to narrow the margin to 35–28. They forced a Tampa Bay punt and with less than two minutes remaining, Peyton Manning led an 87-yard drive to score the game-tying touchdown with 35 seconds left in regulation. In overtime, kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a 40-yard field goal, but Simeon Rice was called for a leaping penalty, a rarely seen unsportsmanlike conduct infraction that penalizes a player for running and jumping to block a kick and landing on other players. Vanderjagt's subsequent kick was batted and hit the upright, but fell in good, winning the game for the Colts. Vanderjagt went on to become the second kicker in NFL history not to miss either a field goal or extra point in a single season after Gary Anderson, who accomplished the feat in the 1998 season as a member of the Minnesota Vikings. Vanderjagt did not miss a kick in the playoffs either, making him the first kicker to accomplish that feat (Anderson missed a field goal in the 1998-99 NFC Championship Game).
On December 22, 2003, Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre put on one of the most defining moments of his career (while also ranking among his greatest game ever). The day before the contest against the Oakland Raiders, his father, Irvin, died suddenly of a heart attack. Favre elected to play, passing for four touchdowns in the first half, and 399 yards for the game in a 41–7 destruction of the Raiders (receiving applause from the highly partisan "Raider Nation"). Afterwards, Brett said,
|“||I knew that my dad would have wanted me to play. I love him so much and I love this game. It's meant a great deal to me, to my dad, to my family, and I didn't expect this kind of performance. But I know he was watching tonight.||”|
On November 15, 2004, controversy shrouded Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens when he appeared with popular TV actress Nicollette Sheridan (of the new hit ABC series Desperate Housewives) in an introductory skit which opened that evening's MNF telecast, in which Owens and the Eagles played the Cowboys at Texas Stadium. The skit was widely condemned as being sexually suggestive (see video) and ABC was forced to apologize for airing it (the Eagles went on to win the game, 49-21, with Owens catching three touchdown passes). However, on March 14, 2005, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that the skit did not violate decency standards, because it contained no outright nudity or foul language. Originally, John Madden was supposed to appear in the commercial.
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On December 5, 2005, dubbed "The Monday Night Massacre" by NFL Films, the Seattle Seahawks shut out the Philadelphia Eagles 42–0 with three defensive touchdowns (two interceptions, one fumble return) to tie the then-largest margin of victory mark in Monday Night Football history and set the mark for the greatest margin of victory in a Monday night shutout, as well as setting the NFL record for scoring the most points with less than 200 yards of offense. Andre Dyson scored twice for the Seahawks defense, once on a 72-yard interception return and the other on a 25-yard fumble return, earning himself the "Horse Trailer Player of the Game" as well as NFC defensive player of the week. A fourth interception return by Michael Boulware fell just short of tying another Seahawks NFL record of four defensive scores in a single game, set during a 45–0 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in 1984. The defeat was the Eagles third worst in team history. This was due to the Eagles major injuries including star QB Donovan McNabb and also the Terrell Owens situation. The Eagles also lost their star RB Brian Westbrook due to an injury in this game.
In addition, ABC used a time-score banner across the bottom of the screen. This was used for the network's final season of MNF through Super Bowl XL.
Despite high ratings, ABC lost millions of dollars on televising the games during the late 1990s and 2000s. Also, the NFL indicated that it wanted Sunday night to be the new night for its marquee game, because more people tend to watch TV on Sundays, and Sundays would be more conducive to flexible scheduling, a method by which some of the NFL's best games could be moved from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night on short notice. Given these factors, as well as the rise of ABC's ratings on Sunday night, and their wish of protecting their Desperate Housewives franchise (which they knew would be costly), on April 18, 2005, ABC and the NFL announced the upcoming end of their 36-year partnership, with Monday Night Football being aired on ESPN starting with the 2006 season, a move some Disney shareholders (as well as NFL fans and purists) have criticized. However, ESPN's ability to collect subscription fees from cable and satellite providers, in addition to selling commercials, made it more likely that ESPN could turn a profit on NFL telecasts, as opposed to ABC's heavy losses.
The final ABC Monday Night broadcast was on December 26, when the New York Jets hosted the New England Patriots, from Giants Stadium. Coincidentally, both the first and last ABC Monday Night Football telecast games ended with a score of 31–21 with the Jets on the losing end. Vinny Testaverde holds the distinction of throwing the last TD pass in ABC's MNF telecast history; it was to wide receiver Laveranues Coles. Also, Testaverde's pass set an NFL record: most consecutive seasons with a touchdown pass, 19 seasons (1987–2005). Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel in the last ABC MNF broadcast on 26 December 2005 set a record of note, becoming the first player to catch 2 touchdown passes and record a quarterback sack in the same game. The final play of the ABC era was a Pats kneeldown by 44-year-old reserve quarterback Doug Flutie. John Madden said at the show's ending:
|“||They can take football away from ABC on Monday nights, but they can't take away the memories.||”|
During its final NFL television contract, ABC was awarded the telecasts to Super Bowl XXXIV, Super Bowl XXXVII, and Super Bowl XL. With the end of ABC's contract, the Super Bowl XL broadcast was the network's final NFL telecast, at least for the foreseeable future.
While the ESPN broadcasts still have the MNF name and heritage, NBC (like ABC) is a broadcast network, whereas ESPN is a cable service not freely available to all Americans, though many ESPN games air on free broadcast TV in the home markets of each team. For that reason, NBC gained rights to the Thursday night season opening game, the wild card doubleheader that has traditionally aired on ABC, as well as a share of the rotating rights to the Super Bowl (with CBS and Fox also in the mix).
ESPN had initially stated that its MNF team would consist of Al Michaels and Joe Theismann in the booth with Michele Tafoya and Suzy Kolber serving as sideline reporters. However, on February 8, 2006, ESPN announced that former NBA studio host Mike Tirico would replace Michaels in the booth in 2006, joined by Theismann, and Tony Kornheiser. ESPN announced the following day that it had "traded" the contract of Michaels to NBC to join Madden on their Sunday Night Football broadcast in exchange for some NBC Universal properties, including rights to Ryder Cup coverage, and the return of the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (a Walt Disney creation) to ESPN parent The Walt Disney Company after nearly 80 years of Universal ownership. ESPN's first Monday night broadcast was during the preseason on Monday, August 14, 2006, when the Oakland Raiders visited the Minnesota Vikings, publicized as the return of Randy Moss to Minnesota for the first time since the Vikings traded him after the 2004 season. The telecast debuted with brand-new graphics, including a time-score box placed in the lower center of the screen; a variation of the MNF graphics are now used on almost all ESPN/ABC sporting events. The first regular season Monday Night Football game to air on ESPN was on September 11, 2006. The game featured the visiting Minnesota Vikings at the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. The Vikings won 19–16.
The September 25 edition of Monday Night Football highlighted the New Orleans Saints' first game back in the Louisiana Superdome following Hurricane Katrina to take on the Atlanta Falcons. The game had a Super Bowl-like atmosphere with performances by the Goo Goo Dolls, U2, and Green Day before the game. The NFL tapped producer Don Mischer and director Hamish Hamilton to produce the event. Former President George H. W. Bush handled the pregame coin toss. The Saints beat the Falcons 23–3 in what now ranks as one of the most-watched events in the history of cable television.
ESPN's October 23, 2006 telecast of the New York Giants–Dallas Cowboys drew the largest audience in the history of cable television at the time, besting the previous mark set by a 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot. An average of 16,028,000 viewers (12.8 rating) watched as the Giants defeated the Cowboys, 36–22. ESPN's Monday Night Football now accounts for eight of the ten biggest cable audiences in history.
What would eventually be named the "NFL's comeback of the year" was played on Monday Night Football on October 16. Late in the third quarter, the massive underdog Arizona Cardinals led the Chicago Bears 23–3. Arizona seemed to have the game wrapped up, as rookie quarterback Matt Leinart was having a great day, and Arizona had forced 6 turnovers out of Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman. Chicago's defense then went on to score 14 points on fumble returns for touchdowns. With 2:58 left in the fourth quarter, and down 17–23, Chicago's Devin Hester returned a punt for a touchdown to take a 24–23 lead. Matt Leinart then led the Cardinals down the field, only to have Neil Rackers miss a field goal, and Chicago went on to win.
At the conclusion of the 2006 season, ESPN had managed to secure all of the cable television audience records. Monday Night Football and its surrounding shoulder programming are the most profitable franchise on cable television.
On December 3, 2007 17.5 million people watched the undefeated New England Patriots defeat the Baltimore Ravens, 27–24, breaking the previous record of 17.2 million for corporate sibling Disney Channel's showing of High School Musical 2.
After experiencing low ratings and criticism about the production during the 2007 season, ESPN announced that long-time sideline reporters Suzy Kolber and Michele Tafoya would have reduced roles for the 2008 season.
As the 2008 season began, ESPN announced a new focus on covering the games as sporting events rather than as entertainment and cultural events. Among the changes are the removal of celebrity booth guests and a reduction in the number of sideline interviews. Tafoya and Kolber have been retained to conduct those interviews and file reports from the field.
Also, ESPN replaced the aforementioned bottom center-screen time-score box (which was used from 2006 to the 2008 preseason) with a time-score banner across the bottom of the screen.
On the night before the 2008 United States Presidential Election, studio host Chris Berman interviewed both major party candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama at halftime. The game featured the Washington Redskins losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-6.
The October 5, 2009 Packers-Vikings game was the fourth ESPN MNF broadcast to become the most-watched program ever on a cable channel, with a 15.3 rating and 21.839 million viewers. The record stood until surpassed by the 2011 BCS National Championship Game on January 10, 2011.
On November 15, 2010 the Eagles visited the Redskins This was Donovan McNabb's 2nd game against the Eagles since being traded on April 4 of the same year. The Redskins won the first meeting in the same year by a score of 17-12; however, in the 1st half of the game Eagles star QB Michael Vick suffered a rib injury knocking him out of the game, resulting in Kevin Kolb taking over. After the game McNabb was giving a post-game speech in the locker room in which he stated the Eagles made a mistake by trading him. Before the game McNabb signed a five-year extension worth $78 million, after being benched in the 4th quarter just a week earlier. The very first play of the game Vick threw an 88-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson. The Redskins were criticized for their lack of coverage because the Eagles were known for going deep on the first play. The Eagles next two possessions lead to touchdowns. The score after the end of the 1st quarter was 28-0 in favor of Philadelphia. The very first play of the 2nd quarter Vick threw a 48-yard touchdown to Jeremy Maclin. The score at halftime was 45 -21. In the 3rd quarter Vick threw a 3-yard touchdown to Jason Avant to make the score 52 - 21. During the play Vick was scrambling for waiting for someone to get open when Albert Haynesworth (who signed a 6-year $100 million contract the year before) had fallen down and continued to lie on the field as Vick continued to scramble. The very next Redskins possession McNabb threw a pick six to Dimitri Patterson making the score 59 - 21. The Redskins went on to score one more touchdown making the final Philadelphia 59 - Washington 28. McNabb finished the game with 295 yards on 17 for 31 along with 2 TDs and 3 interceptions. The Eagles finished with 593 yards of offense(setting a new team record) Vick went 20 of 28 for 333 yards throwing for 4 TDs. He also ran for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns on 8 carries. Vick became the first player with at least 300 yards passing, 50 yards rushing 4 passing TDs and 2 rushing TDs in a game. He also moved past Steve Young in this game for 2nd on the all-time list for rushing yards by a QB.
Since the program's move to ESPN in 2006, the network has broadcast two games in a doubleheader on the opening week of the season, with the second game using separate announcers and production staff that are not used for the rest of the schedule. On September 11, 2006, the announcers for the second game were Brad Nessler, Ron Jaworski, and Dick Vermeil. On September 10, 2007, the team of Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic (co-hosts of Mike and Mike in the Morning) was used along with Mike Ditka. For both games, the sideline reporter was Bonnie Bernstein. The secondary team for September 8, 2008 was again Mike Greenberg, Mike Golic and Mike Ditka with Suzy Kolber on the sidelines. On September 14, 2009 Greenberg and Golic were joined by Steve Young, again with Kolber. On September 13, 2010, Nessler and Trent Dilfer teamed to call the second game, with Kolber again on the sidelines.
On October 3, 2011, Hank Willams Jr. appeared on Fox and Friends and compared President Barack Obama to Speaker of the House John Boehner, referring to their golf match that they had in the summer. He referred to the two political figures golfing together was like Adolf Hitler and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu golfing together, stressing their philosophical and political differences. As a result, his opening theme was dropped from Monday Night Football permanently.