When Mike and the Mad Dog are Mike and the Mad Dog, they’re Mike and the Mad Dog.

When they aren’t, they aren’t. ESPN reminded us of that Wednesday.

The much-anticipated reunion of Mike Francesa and Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo alongside Stephen A. Smith on First Take was flat and underwhelming. Sure, there were likely unrealistic expectations set by diehard fans. And Tom Brady’s timing did not help the cause. But ESPN did more than its part to feed into the hype and then failed to deliver. They seemingly could not grasp — or just ignored — the simple formula for any successful Mike-and-Dog reunion: Just let them be, let muscle memory take over and enjoy the magic that follows.

MORE: ‘Mike and the Mad Dog’ still matter. And always will

Instead, ESPN just jammed Francesa into the First Take machine as an extra cog for a day. And, unsurprisingly, it did not work. No one expected a completely different format for the day. Brady’s unexpected retirement announcement did not help. But there was a blueprint: Let Francesa, Russo and Smith riff for two hours on a variety of topics as host Molly Qerim kept them on task, but also let the conversation go where it was going.

It became clear that would not happen once the clock hit 10 a.m. and the show began with nugget merchant Adam Schefter’s pointless Brady report. What a wet blanket moment (the same with Jeff Darlington’s report later in the show). It sucked all the air out of the room. It took Francesa, Russo, Smith and Qerim a good 15 minutes to get going. And once they did, things never hit another gear as they just kept rehashing the same Brady talking points with a dash of LeBron James and Sean Payton thrown in.

The only time the show captured the actual spirit of the thing was the cutup of scenes from the 30-for-30 documentary. The fact they went two hours without one viral moment is so sad it is funny. No New York baseball talk? What are we doing here. Yes, Brady retiring is a very big deal. But you have Francesa after working to get him for over a year. Think on your feet a bit. When the best part of the show is Francesa and Russo rehashing their past differences for the umpteenth time before some Yankee Stadium bathroom debate sound, you missed the mark.

Francesa and Russo still matter. People still care. They are legends. But this was a good lesson: The next time they get back together, it cannot be at the mercy of the news cycle. And it cannot be on someone else’s turf. You need to let Mike and Dog be themselves and get out of the way. Again, Brady threw a wrench into everything. No matter. ESPN either did not understand what was needed or just refused to facilitate it. Bad job by them. Back after this.

James Kratch can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jameskratch.

James Kratch is the managing editor of ESNY. He previously worked as a Rutgers and Giants (and Mike Francesa) beat reporter for NJ Advance Media.