Boston native Sean McDonough, in his second season as ESPN’s Monday Night Football play-by-play man, will be calling the game at Hard Rock Stadium tonight as the Patriots take on the hapless Miami Dolphins.

A year ago at this time, we spoke to McDonough about NFL audience being down (16.5 million viewers) from the record 17.9 million audience-per-game viewers in 2015. McDonough had expected fan interest to ramp up as the playoffs approached last year, which culminated in a Patriots-Falcons Super Bowl LI viewership of 111.3 million, the fifth most-watched program in TV history.

Average game viewership has fallen to 15 million viewers this season, the lowest since 2008 and the NFL is also grappling with friction among fans, owners, the NFL Players Association, sponsors, and television networks on the pregame player protests taking place around the national anthem that have continued on after a brief reprieve over Veteran’s Day weekend.

McDonough was asked about how big of an effect the protests have had in the decline in viewership this season with a league already facing challenges including violence in the game, fewer big regular season games, games spread out at too many different times and days, etc.

“All those things are probably factors, it depends on the individual football fan or viewer how much each of these things impacts them individually,” McDonough said. “This season, the protests staged around the playing of the national anthem have definitely been a turn off to a lot of people. I hear that over and over and over again. As a travel around the country every week, people who recognize me tell me that they are really upset and turn the games off, so that’s the biggest thing this year.

“Last year, the presidential election certainly took a lot of the interest away and the concussion issue has been a factor for the last couple of years, not just this year. In spite of all that though, our ratings are actually flat with a year ago and that’s even in light of the fact that ESPN is in a slightly smaller universe as you know there have been more people who have “cut the cord,” and many have chosen to find their TV viewing through other means rather than cable TV so Monday Night Football ratings being even with a year ago, that’s a good thing. That’s mostly a product where we had a better schedule than a year ago and I think that’s what drives it more than anything else. You give people a compelling game, they’re going to watch. If you give them a match up that doesn’t look that exciting, they are less likely to watch.

“Sometimes you just get lucky or unlucky, A lot of times you look at the schedule when it comes out in the spring, and you think ‘wow, that’s a good match up, or that one might be a dog,’ and then the season unfolds sometimes you get pleasant surprises and you also get disappointments just because of the way the season transpired. Sunday Night Football certainly benefits from being able to flex games and we don’t have that option obviously, so we just hope when we get to these games they have some meaning.”

Last week in the Sporting News, the headline read: “Jason Whitlock rips ESPN’s Gruden, McDonough after ‘unfair’ criticism during Steelers-Bengals game.”

Whitlock believes the head-on hit by Cincinnati safety George Iloka on Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown last Monday night was the only play that called for suspensions by the NFL (it was the only suspension in the game that was overturned).

“The broadcast of that game was an embarrassment,” Whitlock told partner Colin Cowherd [on Tuesday night’s “Speak for Yourself” on FS1]. “They tried to slam football every chance they got. If you don’t like it, don’t broadcast it, don’t watch it. But football is a physical, contact sport.”

“Everybody that’s signed up, and is making this money, they know what they’re getting into. That game was not dirty. There was one dirty hit at the end of the game. It happens.”

McDonough, who was widely applauded for his reaction to the violent hits during the Steelers-Bengals tilt, did not want to dignify the comments but offered a brief response.

“[Whitlock] is in the distinct minority in terms of his reaction. I kind of laughed out loud because I don’t know anybody who loves football more than Jon Gruden and you know my history with the first memories I have were going to Harvard Stadium to watch the Patriots play.

“I have had more positive feedback to that telecast by far than any of the other games that we’ve done. A few years ago that might’ve bothered me but as you get older you just realize you realize what it is and what it was intended to do.”

McDonough said he did not receive any reaction from the league for being too strong with his commentary on some of the hits that took place in Cincinnati.

“I haven’t heard a thing,” McDonough said. “I would assume the league thought it was kind of an ugly night because they don’t hand out suspensions randomly and there was talk afterwards about maybe making targeting similar to the college football rule where if you smash somebody in the head with your head you get thrown out of the game. So I think the people at 345 Park Avenue watched it and probably thought in some ways that it wasn’t a very good night for the league.

“I love football, I love physical hard-hitting football, but there’s a line between that and some of what we saw the other night. Our commentary was also against the backdrop that we had just watched a guy (after linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered an ugly injury) whose legs weren’t moving, strapped to a gurney, and taken to a hospital no reports that will lead you to not be really concerned. So we’ve already seen one guy go off in a stretcher who might paralyzed and when you see these other things happening, everybody’s emotions were kind of on the edge, at least mine certainly were. You just don’t want to see anybody get hurt. Hit each other as hard as you want as cleanly as you want. I’m all in favor of that and I think every football fan is.”

Closer to home, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski will be out tonight, serving a suspension for the very late hit on Buffalo rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White last week.

“I think he deserved to be suspended,” McDonough said. “I know now it’s being compared to other suspensions based on what other people did. It was totally uncalled for, out of character for him. He was immediately apologetic and he’s very lucky that today that Tre’Davious White wasn’t seriously hurt. White is fortunate too as that could’ve been a lot worse. But I think the suspension was appropriate and that’s a bummer for us that he will play not Monday night. Gronk is another guy the people really like to watch play. We’ve had a lot of bad luck with star players not playing in big games the last couple years.

McDonough believes any charges that race into play regarding the league’s handling of the Gronkowski incident is “silly.”

“A lot of the guys who are involved from what I know in handy down the punishment or African-American. Derrick Brooks is handling the appeals, Troy Vincent’s involved in disciplinary in the league, so I don’t share that believe at all.”

After Ben Roethlisberger’s 500-yard passing game against the Ravens last night, the Steelers appear to be the only obstacle to the Patriots returning to another Super Bowl.

“The game they’re going to play six days after ours should be really compelling,” McDonough said. “They are so clearly the two best teams in the AFC. It’s the two of them and everyone else. I know Mike Tomlin surprised some people in that NBC interview he did a couple of weeks ago when he addressed the meeting with the Patriots and talked about how the first one might impact the second one, so there’s a lot of carts being put ahead of horses. But if you had to predict it out, you wouldn’t be at all surprised if they played this game and then played in the AFC Championship game as well. They’re pretty evenly matched, obviously Tom Brady might be the greatest quarterback of all time, Gronk’s going to be a Hall of Fame player. Roethlisberger’s going to be in the Hall of Fame along with Antonio Brown. If Le’Veon Bell keeps going the way he is, he’s going to be there.

“With the Patriots, the turnaround of the defense from being so disastrous in the beginning of the season to what they are doing now, and Jon Gruden was talking about this, there aren’t a lot of people who know this group if you’re not a Patriots fan. If you went around the rest of the country, and asked people who these guys are: Deatrich Wise, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Landon Roberts, Jonathan Jones, there’s an awful lot of guys who were key players on the defense that nobody’s ever heard of outside New England. It’s kind of a no-name defense and it’s demonstrative of the coaching of Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia not only have they solved the problems but that defense has been impressive with what they’ve done.

“They are two very evenly matched teams, but based on the history, until Pittsburgh’s able to knock off the Patriots, I would argue that I would like the Patriots chances a little bit especially that they’ve proven they can win in Pittsburgh.”

If the Patriots win a sixth Super Bowl title tying the Steelers, they will be in the conversation with the great dynasties in professional sports: the New York Yankees, the Boston Celtics of the 60’s, the Montreal Canadiens, the Steelers, Cowboys, and 49ers.

“You have to put them right up there with all of them because although I’m biased from living here, what the Celtics did was amazing,” McDonough said. “Obviously there were fewer teams and for the Patriots to do with they’ve done, in a salary cap area where the goal is parity, they have blown it up. There’s a lot of parity among everybody else but they’ve been just so consistently above average, it’s unbelievable. Especially considering that they were one of the laughingstock of the league, one of the worst franchises in the NFL, and one of the worst in professional sports in the country. So to know the history of how bad it was and not just for a little while but for a long time, to the dominance they shown for a long time is absolutely amazing.”

McDonough’s family was close to Red Auerbach, the legend who led the Celtics on their dynastic run. The man in charge of this Patriots resurgence over the last two decades is fast approaching Auerbach status in Boston. We asked McDonough how Belichick and Auerbach compare.

“I spent more time around Red than I have Belichick, but more than anything it’s the incredible competitive fire to win,” McDonough said. “I hate the phrase ‘dedication to excellence’ but it’s really more than that with those guys. My dad used to say there’s no substitute for intelligence and if you spent time around Red, and you spend time around Belichick, they are obviously really really bright and I think the other thing is they’ve created a team dynamic. You never heard of the old Celtics teams having issues with guys getting out of line and having problems but that was probably a little easier in that era anyway.

“With the Patriots, it’s the same thing, you’re either pulling in the same direction as everybody else or you’re gone. So there are a lot of similarities between the two of them. And obviously having the great players helps and part of the job is going out and finding those guys to win like they both have you have to have great players and with Tom Brady they have the greatest greatest quarterback in the history of NFL. I was talking to another NFL coach at the league meetings and he said he thought Tom Brady was the greatest football player ever, not just best quarterback ever, but best player in any position. And obviously the Celtics had more Hall of Famers than they had room for.”

McDonough’s broadcast partner Jon Gruden has been the subject of rumors about a pending return to coaching, most recently rumored that he would be roaming the sidelines of MetLife Stadium next year as head coach of the New York Giants.

Glendale, AZ – October 17, 2016 – University of Phoenix Stadium: Jon Gruden and Sean McDonough during a regular season Monday Night Football game
(Photo by Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)

“Our producer said he saw somewhere the odds of you going to the Giants are 35:1,” McDonough said to Gruden on air last week. “Would you take the over or the under on 35:1?”

Gruden replied, “I’ll take the under on that if Eli comes back.”

McDonough cleared the air. “That was really a joke, to have people pick it up and run with it, I thought I said 3,500-to-1 and that got picked up online as 35-to-1, which is why it sounds like it’s a lot more likely to happen,” McDonough said. “I think he’s very happy doing what he’s doing. But he is torn because I think the coaching bug isn’t totally out of him and I think at least a part of it is always going to be there and I think he’ll always weigh the lifestyle decision more than anything else. Right now, it’s a great situation with his family, his health — a lot less stressful doing what we’re doing vs. doing what he was doing when he coached. The hours are a lot better, the income — there’s probably some team that would pay him more to be a coach but it’s not such a huge gulf that you have to do it for the money, so I wouldn’t say that he’ll never go back but it would have to be a really good situation, both in terms of where it was and how his family would feel about it. I think he’d want to go someplace where you have a quarterback because he knows you can’t live without one, he such a quarterback-centric guy. But I think it’s more likely that he’ll be back with us again next year.”

McDonough is also known for his 17-year career as the Red Sox play-by-play man (1988-2004) and we asked him to share his thoughts on the latest Red Sox drama involving new Red Sox manager Alex Cora who had a confrontation with Astros broadcaster Geoff Blum and Astros manager A.J. Hinch.

“Hopefully this is a one-off thing,” McDonough said. “These things tend to happen, they’re not that unusual. I thought the Price-Eckersley incident was particularly ugly because it was so clearly premeditated and I really thought that John Farrell lost in the court of public opinion in Red Sox Nation when it was so widely reported that he didn’t do anything even after the fact to reach out to Eck or try to address the situation, maybe even offer an apology on behalf of the team.

“I don’t think it’s a great publicity for Alex Cora, but I have a feeling as we sit here in December it’s one of those stories that will have a life of about two or three days and it will only come up again if he has a similar episode when is the manager of the Red Sox. It doesn’t sound like it was anywhere near as serious as the Eckersley-Price thing, but it’s something to think about.”

McDonough does not believe the Red Sox should be condemned for not knowing anything about the Cora incidents with Blum and Hinch before bring him on as Farrell’s replacement in his first MLB managing job.

“It wasn’t reported, [Red Sox head of baseball operations] Dave Dombrowski and Hinch have history together, so if Hinch thought at all that it was a big deal, he probably would have mentioned it to him,” McDonough said.

While McDonough was the voice of the Red Sox locally, he spent nine seasons (1996-2004) alongside popular color analyst in Jerry Remy who he just spent some time with recently.

“The most important thing for me is [Remy’s] health and the last time I saw him was was early fall when he got inducted into the Massachusetts broadcasting Hall of Fame. He looked great, he sounded great, and he said he felt great. He gave a wonderful speech that was right to the point. He was touching, funny, he was everything you’d want somebody to be in a four or five minute speech. He was appreciative, he was emotional, it was just a great speech so obviously the prayers continue for his health and I certainly hope he comes back.

“I love watching him and I think he and Dave O’Brien are great team and will only get better as time goes along. I know certainly as well as anybody that chemistry takes time and I think with those guys, you can really see it developing as the season went along. I’m looking forward to watching both of them next year. Jerry is the best, I loved working with him, and I really appreciate him as a person.”

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Steve Silva, a Pulitzer Prize and Edward R. Murrow Award winning journalist, joined Dirty Water Sports in 2016. He's covered the world championship runs of the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, and Celtics -- and the Boston Marathon for the past 15 years. Steve also founded the ground-breaking Boston Dirt Dogs website in 2001.

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