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ESPN’s Manning Cast is refreshing, and it could be the answer to Monday Night Football’s woes

Peyton Manning has long been thought of as the “white whale” for networks looking to amplify their NFL coverage.

If Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season is any indication, he and his brother Eli could be the one-two punch that changes the game altogether.

The duo premiered the “Manning Cast” on ESPN2 for the first Monday Night Football matchup of the 2021 season, providing commentary for a battle between the Las Vegas Raiders and Baltimore Ravens.

The Manning’s opted to operate without a play-by-play person, even after reports that sports media personalities like Kyle Brandt and Mina Kimes had tried out for a role on the Manning Cast.

Instead, ESPN let the duo loose for a few hours on their secondary channel, while the main Monday Night Footballl announcing trio of Steve Levy, Brian Griese, and Louis Riddick held onto the reins on the main ESPN/ABC broadcast.

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Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you ask) for ESPN, it seems like many will be tuning into ESPN2 in the coming weeks after getting a dose of what the Manning brothers bring to the table with their unique Monday Night Football broadcast.

Whether it was the two Manning brothers on their own, or the duo mixing in outside guests like Charles Barkley, Travis Kelce, Ray Lewis, and Russell Wilson, the programming seemed like a superior option to any of ESPN’s other experiments on its litany of channels and streaming services.

Mixing in fun with the real football side of things, fans could watch Peyton Manning do his best impression of what Raiders coach Jon Gruden was telling quarterback Derek Carr in the headset, or what a quarterback would be saying in the moments leading up to the play.

Through it all, fans could actually learn some of the nuisances behind one of their favorite sports, all through the eyes of two legendary NFL quarterbacks.

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Oh, and they could hear some brotherly ribbing in the process, like Peyton knocking Eli for an errant fire alarm, and Eli making fun of the size of his brother’s head.

The broadcast is marketed as the equivalent of watching Monday Night Football at a bar or in your living room with the Manning brothers, and delivered on that vibe throughout the first installment of the “Manning Cast.”

There was no need for the Manning brothers to be in the same location, and it gave them the freedom to naturally bring in outside players and legends to talk about the action.

It truly looked and felt like the audience was a part of a Zoom call with the Manning brothers and their friends, and felt incredibly authentic given the circumstances.

Fans can only watch the duo’s “mega-cast” for 10 games a season through 2023, which gives the programming a limited-time feel and helps it feel more special as a result.

But, what if ESPN decided to buck the limited nature of the “Manning Cast,” and opted to turn the Manning brothers into the premier way to consume Monday Night Football on the network’s main channels?

The Monday Night Football announcing team has struggled to develop any consistency over the years, with the departure of Mike Tirico in 2016 serving as the starting point for a period of major fluctuation.

Since then, names like Sean McDonough, Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, and Booger McFarland all made appearances in the booth, all before ESPN settled on Levy, Griese, and Riddick.

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The latest trio seems to be the sports media equivalent of a team at the center of a rebuild, with ESPN reportedly hoping to swoop in on Al Michaels when the broadcasting legend’s contract with NBC runs out.

The long-term goal has seemingly been to set Peyton Manning up with Michaels in the booth for Monday Night Football, giving ESPN their version of CBS’ super team with Jim Nantz and Tony Romo, or FOX’s all-star duo of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman.

After seeing the success surrounding the “Manning Cast,” could ESPN bring Eli Manning into that fold, and change the way that Monday Night Football is presented as a whole?

The studio set-up likely wouldn’t work for a network’s main broadcast, as the play-by-play piece of the equation would take a major hit without a presence at the stadium for real-time information.

The Manning brothers showcased that themselves as the Raiders were called for a delay of game penalty seconds before their game-winning touchdown in overtime against the Ravens. Eli Manning believed the Raiders had called a timeout, and had accidentally “iced” their own kicker before a field goal attempt, only to find out instead that the play clock had run out.

But, the trio of Peyton, Eli, and a play-by-play person, whether it’s Michaels or someone else, could still have an impact on how Monday Night Football is presented on a weekly basis.

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Having the play-by-play person would give the broadcast some direction and stability, while the Manning brothers could still provide their own analysis and demonstrations during breaks in the action.

It would create a more interactive feel to what has turned into a basic formula for broadcasting NFL games, and could help Monday Night Football return to the glory days when it was heralded as the league’s must-see product each week.

No matter which direction ESPN opts to roll with in the coming years, the network has struck television gold with the Manning brothers. Now, it’s just about ensuring that they maximize the duo’s broadcasting potential.

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