ABC Sports threw the television equivalent of the Hail Mary pass yesterday by selecting acerbic comedian Dennis Miller as the third man in the booth for "Monday Night Football" next season.
Miller, who hosts an Emmy Award-winning social commentary show on HBO and plugs long-distance phone service, was the surprise selection of the show's producer, Don Ohlmeyer, after a 3 1/2 -month process that began when former Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason was fired, along with the show's producer and director.
"Football is a serious game on the field, but it isn't played in St. Patrick's Cathedral," said Ohlmeyer. "Dennis' role will not be to do X's and O's, but to bring an extremely knowledgeable fan's view, as well as be able to bring a distinctive style."
Said Miller: "I have a nerd's knowledge of football. I'm going to try to stay in the background and ask questions that a fan might ask. I'm not going to try to pontificate about what I think somebody should or shouldn't be doing. I'm going to try to bring some humor. I have an idiosyncratic little list of quirky abilities that might lead to being a decent football announcer."
Miller, who came to public prominence as the "Weekend Update" anchor on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1980s, will join play-by-play man Al Michaels and Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts in the booth.
Meanwhile, Baltimore native Melissa Stark, an ESPN reporter, and Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson will replace Lesley Visser as sideline reporters.
Ohlmeyer, who produced "MNF" in its halcyon days in the 1970s, when Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and "Dandy" Don Meredith, held sway, has been brought back to try to pump up buzz for the telecast.
While "Monday Night Football" was the third-most-watched prime-time show last season, the show's ratings have decreased each of the past give years, from an average of 17.8 in 1994 to an all-time low of 13.7 last season.
"We are not trying to recreate the past and I don't think there is any similarity," said Ohlmeyer. "What we are trying to create is a telecast that is relevant, accessible and unpredictable. If we can accomplish that with our announcers being able to observe the obvious and present it with a sense of discovery, I think we'll have an enjoyable telecast for the viewer."
Said Miller: "You're talking to a guy who followed Chevy Chase once on 'Weekend Update.' I've learned over the years that there's always going to be guys who did it the best and you're only going to get in your own head and screw it up if you try and figure out, 'How can I do that?' I wasn't Chevy, I'm not going to be Howard and Al does not have a beard, but imagine my surprise when I found that Al has a full upper-body tattoo."
News of the candidacy of Fouts, who has done college football for ABC since his retirement from the game, had started to circulate earlier this week. But Miller's name slipped under the radar screen.
Ohlmeyer had seriously considered radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who publicly campaigned for an "MNF" analyst role. But the producer said he felt Limbaugh could not devote enough time each week to prepare for the telecast, given the demands of the radio show.
Stark, who is 26 and a graduate of the Roland Park Country School, replaces Visser, 46, at a time when ABC is being sued by former sportscaster Donna De Varona for age discrimination.