Contrary to the current narrative, Tony Romo was not an instant hit as the color analyst on CBS’s No. 1 NFL broadcast team. Why, it took him nearly two whole quarters into his first official broadcast before overwhelming and wholly deserved praise began to come his way.
Romo, who spent 14 seasons playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys before retiring last April to join CBS, made his anticipated debut with the network with the Week 1 matchup between the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans on Sept. 10. With two minutes remaining in the first half, Romo unveiled his knack for play-predicting clairvoyance. It was a revelation that would lead to him becoming perhaps the most buzzed-about NFL broadcasting newcomer since John Madden burst onto the scene in the late 1970s.
Here’s how it went down. As Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota barked out the signals on first down from the Raiders 32, Romo said almost casually to play-by-play voice Jim Nantz, “Jim, I’ve got five dollars that says this is a run to the left.’’
The ball was snapped. Mariota handed off to Derrick Henry. Henry picked up 10 yards and a first down — running to the left.
Nantz, a master of in-the-moment segues, said, “I guess I’ve got to pay up now.’’
He then asked Romo a question that football fans would enjoy hearing the answer to again and again over the course of the regular season.
“What did you see there?’’ asked Nantz.
Romo laughed and said, “I’ve seen football in the NFL for 14 years.’’
Maybe that response hinted at glibness, but in reality it was the precise moment a broadcasting star was born.
Romo was an excellent NFL quarterback — he is 32d all-time in passing yards — but he was not a prodigy, having gone undrafted coming out of Eastern Illinois in 2003. In his second career, he has come across as a natural since that first regular-season broadcast when he broke out his crystal ball, leading to headlines the next few days such as this one on USA Today’s For The Win site: “People are already falling in love with Tony Romo the broadcaster.’’
Romo’s stellar first season in the booth concludes Sunday when he and Nantz call the AFC Championship game between the Patriots and Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. It’s the ninth time this season they will call a Patriots game and the fifth in a row, yet the broadcast is anticipated in part because of Romo’s presence.
His recent proximity to an NFL huddle, casual candor, easy humor, and genuine, unforced energy make him the ideal game-day companion. He brings everything but the snacks.
Right to the top
Fans and viewers caught on to Romo’s appeal in Week 1, but Nantz knew months before they called a live game together. When Nantz and Romo met at a CBS studio in May to do a practice game, Nantz was taken aback by the newcomer’s polish.
“This is going to sound crazy to say, but by the time we finished the fourth quarter of that game, I thought he was ready to go on the air,’’ Nantz said. “His instincts are off the charts. There’s much more breadth to his skill level than just that. He’s always ahead of the game.’’
Romo has been such a rousing success that it might be easy to forget that CBS was downright daring in putting him in such a prominent role right away.
When Romo announced in April that he was retiring and joining CBS, it wasn’t a huge surprise. He was known to be affable and articulate with the media as a player, and there aren’t many more higher-profile roles in professional sports than quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. CBS had to fend off other networks to hire him.
What was a surprise was that he was immediately assigned to CBS’s No. 1 team, replacing longtime analyst and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms alongside Nantz. (Sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson is the third member of the team.) Nantz and Simms had worked together for 13 years, and while their broadcasts too often felt ordinary in recent years, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus had offered an impassioned defense of the oft-criticized Simms in particular at the end of the 2016 season.
Assigning Romo, a broadcast novice, to the top team initially felt like a leap of faith, or perhaps of foolishness. The best current analysts, including fellow former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, started further down the depth chart before ascending to the top team.
And it is a job with distinguished lineage. CBS had featured just four lead analysts since it began broadcasting NFL games in 1956: Pat Summerall, Tom Brookshier, Madden, and Simms.
The workload of a top broadcast team is daunting. The CBS team, for instance, works each Sunday, plus five Thursday night games. Great discipline is required to prepare with so much travel and so little time between games. And one mistake nowadays can spark an unrelenting social media firestorm.
Making the wrong hire in such a prominent role can stain an executive’s résumé. Sure, McManus had heard raves from the CBS production crews that dealt with Romo as a player. And during a chance encounter at a party before Super Bowl XLIX in Phoenix, he saw it for himself.
McManus asked Romo what he thought about the matchup between the Patriots and Seahawks. What he got was an informal audition. Romo shared his thoughts for 10 minutes. McManus was so impressed he walked away convinced he’d just conversed with a future No. 1 analyst.
With one bold decision a couple of years later, McManus made the future arrive sooner than anyone might have expected. But he didn’t see it as a huge gamble.
“People have said to us, ‘Boy, you’re taking a guy who is coming right from the field into a position as a lead analyst — isn’t that a risk?’ Well, I think it’s a very manageable risk, to be honest with you,’’ McManus told Sports Illustrated in April.
“I think Tony will be having all sorts of work this summer, whether it’s doing practice games, whether it’s doing preseason games, whether it’s sitting down and looking at film and tape of other analysts and the kind of job that they do.
“It’s going to be a full-time job for Tony really starting this summer.’’
Romo might come across as a prodigy, but he did put in intensive preparation, just as he vowed to do when he was hired.
“The one thing I have always felt is if there is a strength of mine, it’s my ability to learn,’’ said Romo in April. “If I’m not very good right away, my hope is it doesn’t take too long. And if I’m not, I can promise you I’ll be spending 20 hours a day trying to figure it out and I’ll be analyzing that all the time.’’
He had invaluable help during his intensive preparations. Jim Rikhoff had worked for CBS Sports for 34 years, but this was his first as the producer of the network’s top NFL broadcast pairing. Rikhoff was essential in making sure that Romo rapidly reached the potential that McManus saw in him. Beginning that first month, Rikhoff put Romo through what CBS Sports calls its “broadcast boot camp’’ for the rookie analyst.
Romo did eight rehearsal games with the assistance of Cowboys radio voice Brad Sham, several of which were old CBS game broadcasts from which the announcers’ voices had been removed. Rikhoff visited Romo in Dallas six times from April until the start of preseason, critiquing the practice broadcasts while also teaching him various nuances, from how to make a point in a 30-second window to specific production terminology to getting the most out of production meetings with players and coaches.
Calling the plays
For all of the nuances of broadcasting he has learned, Romo has stayed true to his quarterback’s instincts. When he is narrating everything that goes on before a play and is projecting what might happen, that is really just an offshoot of processing it as he would if he were still playing.
“I’m basically voicing things that are going through my head instead of just thinking them to myself,’’ he said. “There are a million little things you look for that are situationally involved.
“Sometimes it’s mannerisms. People will give that away a lot of times, especially younger defensive players. You know in a lot of cases what they’re thinking or trying to do.’’
Any criticisms of Romo have been minor, and some come with undertones of envy. In September, Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, now of Fox Sports, griped that viewers would get tired of Romo predicting what was coming. “like someone telling how the movie will play out.’’
Earlier in the season, Brent Musberger, who made his name as the “NFL Today’’ studio host in the ‘70s, said Romo was getting in Nantz’s way: “You’re intruding on your play-by-play man Jim Nantz, who’s just trying to give us the scene.’’ It’s true that Romo does sometimes talk over Nantz, but it comes across as excitement about what he’s watching rather than any collision of ego.
“If a player does great things, you want to talk about it,’’ said Romo. “Hopefully, you show the viewers what they’re seeing, and tell them the why and how. Hopefully, they enjoy the energy you bring along the way.’’
The predictions are fun, and they helped Romo gain immediate acclaim. But his truest appeal can be found in that quote. Romo is a charismatic master of accessibility, of making something that could be complicated — football, sure, but broadcasting too — sound so darn easy.