With the candid caveat that I’m pretty sure I also showered similar praise on Jon Gruden once upon a time, here’s my impression of CBS rookie NFL analyst Tony Romo after he called Sunday’s Patriots-Saints game:
He is as refreshing, informative, and engaging as any new analyst since . . . well, I don’t really know. If I said since the immediate post-Raiders version of John Madden joined CBS in 1979, that would feel like hyperbole, which means it probably is. Their styles are rather different, too, though Romo did drop one Maddenesque “Boom!’’ on Sunday.
But I can’t come up with another name that has impressed so soon while also giving the viewer confidence that he’s only going to get better once he gets comfortable with a director talking in his ear and the other technical bells and whistles of a broadcast.
Cris Collinsworth wasn’t this sharp when he started at NBC in 1990, before moving to Fox and eventually back to NBC. Neither was Troy Aikman, who joined Fox in 2001 and was elevated to the top broadcast team a year later after proving himself. They’re probably the two best analysts working today.
Gruden is fine, occasionally amusing — sometimes even intentionally — but he does seem to have lost some of his goofy, jargon-laden enthusiasm since debuting on ESPN in 2009.
Romo is what you wish an ex-quarterback would be when he becomes an analyst, but what so few are, either because they’re not adept at communicating their knowledge or they’re still guarded from their playing days.
Romo is articulate, affable, and revealing, which is why two games into his second career, there is no doubt that CBS made the right choice in bringing him straight from the Dallas Cowboys sideline to the prominent seat on the network’s No. 1 broadcast team. If anyone on CBS’s broadcasting depth chart is jealous that he got the top job, they’re either delusional or haven’t heard him yet.
Because Romo received rave reviews for his debut alongside Jim Nantz on the Titans-Raiders matchup in Week 1 — particularly for his uncanny knack of predicting what the offense would do — there was much anticipation in New England to discover whether he’d be able to do his Nostradamus Romo thing with the Patriots.
That led to a unique phenomenon on social media during the game. Rather than ripping whoever the color analyst happens to be, which is a Sunday tradition around here dating back to the Beasley Reece days, last week’s reviews influenced this week’s reaction. Fans were anticipating his anticipations and looking forward to him being correct. No one sure as heck did that when Phil Simms was in the booth.
It’s always a worthwhile point of praise when an ex-athlete uses his knowledge and experience to diagnose what is happening before it does. This is why Tim McCarver was so lauded in the ’80s on national baseball broadcasts. It’s how Jerry Remy first built his reputation here on NESN and Channel 38 Red Sox games, before the RemDawg stuff took him to another level. Scott Zolak is very good at it on Patriots radio broadcasts.
We want to know what we don’t know. There is no better way for Romo to build a good reputation quickly than to use his vault of knowledge about a league he was part of just a season ago to gregariously inform the viewers.
His most prescient moment came with 11 minutes 20 seconds left in the second quarter and the Saints at the Patriots 5-yard-line. “Let’s see the design of this play,’’ Romo said as Saints quarterback Drew Brees barked out the signals. Then: “Heads up for the fade inside to [number] 16!’’
That’s exactly what happened — Brees hit receiver Brandon Coleman, No. 16, for the score. Identifying the player by number rather than name didn’t detract from the impressiveness of Romo’s call. Better, he explained concisely how he predicted it. The tight end being lined up outside was a tell that he’d run a pick for Coleman.
He also was ahead of the referees on a couple of initially puzzling plays. He recognized that Tom Brady was arguing that a screen at the line of scrimmage was legal, a point the officials eventually agreed with, picking up a flag. He also speculated, again correctly, that Brady threw a pass up for grabs because he knew there were 12 Saints players on the field and figured he had a free play.
Romo’s most insightful moment of the broadcast came in the final minutes, when he said the Patriots dialed up a blitz with the game already decided just to mess with opposing teams’ scouting reports and analytics, meaning they’ll have to prepare for it now.
There were sporadic clouds in the crystal ball, which is going to happen. On the Patriots’ first possession, he tried to get back into the prediction game right away, implying that they’d go to Rob Gronkowski on a certain play. “Take a look there to Gronkowski out there one-on-one,’’ he said. The ball instead went to James White on the other side of the field.
Video: Romo predicts fade pass
Tony Romo nails another one. Now he's just showing off. pic.twitter.com/dONFODL3tV— Ƒunhouse (@BackAftaThis) September 17, 2017
I might be wrong about this, because it didn’t happen often, but I wondered if there were times when he was trying to shoehorn a preconceived belief, even if it didn’t quite fit right. He made the point early in the game, when the Patriots were utilizing fullback James Develin, that the offense reminded him “so much’’ of the creative but conservative one Brady broke through with in 2001. “Belichick just took it back 15 years,’’ he said.
He reiterated this point a couple of times during the game, even though the ’01 offense was very reliant on slot receiver Troy Brown and quick screens and, with apologies to Snow Bowl hero Jermaine Wiggins, had nothing resembling Gronkowski.
He was also very quick to speculate ominously on Gronkowski’s late-game injury, probably because it looked like another back injury and that is also within Romo’s area of expertise. When it turned out to be an injury to another area, it did lead to an amusing Romo non-sequitur for the immature among us. “The groin’s an interesting one,’’ he said. You know Gronk would have laughed at that.
If Romo wasn’t all good, it was almost all good, and that means he is on the short list of the best current NFL analysts already, two games into the gig. He may even be on top of it. He’s already on top of just about everything else.