Tony Romo is finally going to the Super Bowl. Next February, the Dallas Cowboy legend will join Jim Nantz in Atlanta to call the NFL’s biggest game. Romo goes from quarterbacking America’s most watched team to broadcasting America’s most watched show.
Romo will undoubtedly wish he was there under different circumstances, but for the rest of us, we’re glad to have him in the booth. The newly branded ex-player just completed a triumphant first season calling games on TV. From the start, he brought a childlike enthusiasm to the telecast that was so fresh we didn’t quite know what to make of it. 19 weeks later, it was clear: Tony Romo was a very good quarterback. Tony Romo is a great TV analyst.
He’s not wearing his helmet, but you wouldn’t know it. Each game, Romo provides the lens of a quarterback in real time. It had become common practice for live sports commentary to spoon-feed viewers with bland insights and reactionary analysis of things we could plainly see. What makes this maddening is that you know these ex-players know more than we do, but they hold back for one of two reasons: a belief that it’s too technical, or worse, because they’re lazy. Romo challenged viewers on a belief that the audience is okay with learning something. He also understood that the nuance of playing professional football is the most intriguing part.
Because he played in Dallas, Romo spent his entire career watching his words, always on the defensive. On TV, you could sense his relief. Without the pressure bearing down on the former quarterback, he could finally let it fly. And he waited for no one. He predicted plays, called out blitzes and coverages, narrated coach-to-player sideline conversations, offered adjustment ideas, and best of all, showed us distinct elements of the game. And because he was having so much fun doing it, so did we.
Similar to CBS removing Phil Simms for the just-retired Romo, ESPN wiped the slate clean the year before, starting from scratch with younger ex-players who were closer to the game. Gone were the lazy and oversimplified takes from Mike Ditka, whose answer to everything, when not being completely ignorant on societal issues, was “get back to running the football.” In his place was Matt Hasselbeck, offering in-person anecdotes about Andrew Luck’s practice habits. Like Romo, it was refreshing.
What are the lessons in all of this? Could we see a shift in the analyst model, with networks offering shorter contracts and creating higher turnover in the booth? There is no doubt, part of Romo’s effectiveness is his instinct and intellect for the football being played right now. He knows the players and coaches, the defenses, the playbooks, and the tendencies because he was just on the field with all of them. He predicts the plays because he was just running them.
But before I attribute good color-commentary to recency, there is a fundamental element that has always outlasted the appeal of something new, and that’s old-fashioned hard work. In interviews with CBS colleagues, it’s apparent. Tony Romo works really hard at this.
He’s from the golden age of quarterbacks, where the position went from gunslinger to neurosurgeon. Preparation and film study became the single greatest differentiator between quarterbacks that succeed and quarterbacks that fail. If you’re in the NFL, every quarterback can throw the ball around. The great ones during this continued era of aerial assault, Romo included, knew the game could be won in how they prepared. He takes that mindset into his new TV role. And once again, it’s setting him apart from the ones that fail.
This is further proven by NBC’s Cris Collinsworth. You may find Collinsworth to sound smug, but you will never find him underprepared. Collinsworth’s pre-game notes have become stuff of legend. He often watches the action away from the ball, catching things in the peripheral before the viewer can notice. He’s the first to alert you to the pulling guard, the disguised blitz, or the Running Back’s missed blocking assignment. (Running Backs, do you want to extend your career? Get really good at blocking.)
Broadcasting is the job every ex-player covets. Some know they have it before they hang up their cleats, some discover they’re good at it after some training. But rest assured, if you’re not willing to do the work to be great at it, if you don’t offer the nuance of the game to viewers that are craving it, there’s a Tony Romo ready to take your spot. Collinsworth understands this. And after seeing Romo’s exuberant first season, so do the fans.
Tony Romo never got to play in the super bowl. Next February, he’ll be determined to show us what it would have been like if he had. He played in the golden age of the quarterback. Let’s hope this is the golden age of the sports analyst.
by Mike Fox, The UnRuly Sports Fan contributor