After last weekend’s AFC Championship Game, in which Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to victory over MVP front-runner Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, the internet was abuzz with praise for a third quarterback, this one working from the booth. Tony Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys QB who began his career as an NFL broadcaster in 2017, received wide acclaim for his in-game analysis alongside play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz.
Through four quarters and overtime, Romo gleefully diagnosed the strengths and weaknesses of both teams, offering sharp insight into the mindsets of his fellow quarterbacks. Most impressive of all, Romo predicted how plays would develop with uncanny accuracy, earning him the title of “Romostradamus” from Nantz and a #You’reAWizardTony hashtag from MLB All-Star Bryce Harper. On Monday, the NFL tweeted a compilation of Romo’s eerily accurate pre-play predictions:
His employers CBS are just as impressed as the NFL. This week, there have been reports that the broadcaster is willing to give Romo a substantial raise, just in case he feels tempted by any of the “legitimate contract offers” he has reportedly received from NFL teams. And that interest may be because Sunday’s game was far from a one-off, Romo has generally been considered the best analyst in US sports for some time. And we won’t have to wait long to hear him in action again: Romo and Nantz are on the call for next month’s Super Bowl between the Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams.
What makes Tony Romo so good at his job? It’s a combination of the same qualities that made him a good quarterback: enthusiasm, knowledge of the game, and the ability to communicate clearly and, importantly on a live broadcast, quickly.
Part of Romo’s appeal is that he cares. He’s like your favorite teacher from school, bubbling with a genuine passion for his subject. None of the other color commentators match his energy. Compared to Tony Romo, Fox’s Troy Aikman is downright lethargic. Jason Witten – the former Dallas Cowboy who caught 37 career touchdowns from Romo – was widely panned during his first year in ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth, coming across as confused and unnatural. Since 2006, Cris Collinsworth has been a linchpin of NBC’s well-produced Sunday Night Football broadcasts, but his style is more restrained. Romo, on the other hand, manages to share a slew of interesting details without speeding into the manic excess of Jon Gruden, the ex-Monday Night Football commentator and present head coach for the Oakland Raiders.
Of course, all of these ex-NFL players and coaches know the game of football. What’s been lost in our collective gushing over Romo-as-analyst is that his commentary is middle-school algebra compared to the advanced calculus of what’s actually happening on the field. Personnel packages, pass concepts, gap alignments, blitz and protection schemes: the modern game is incredibly complex, and, given the speed of the action and the demands of producing an accessible, entertaining broadcast, it would be impossible for any commentator to do more than scratch the surface. Romo tells us more than most.
But let’s not kid ourselves into believing that he’s a seer. His pre-snap predictions are the result of years of experience combined with basic observations about formations, motions, shifts, game trends, and down-and-distance. Many coaches and plenty of savvy players – at every level of football, from the NFL to college to high school – could make similar predictions and frequently get them right. Rex Ryan, the former Jets head coach and current on-air ESPN personality, said as much in an interview last May: “Sure, Romo calls a lot of plays ahead of time, but do you know how easy that is to do? … If Romo always knows what’s coming, how is it that I used to trap him into throwing picks all the time?”
It’s fair to say Ryan’s own TV career isn’t exactly on a par with Romo’s, but his comments raise an interesting question: if anyone with football know-how can predict plays, then why don’t more commentators do it?
The simple answer is that it’s a bad look when you inevitably get a call wrong. The production crews at the major networks operate like well-oiled machines, always working to minimize risk and keep the show on track. Errant predictions, bad jokes and awkward exchanges are road bumps to be avoided. Romo has previously suggested that his producers at CBS never asked him to predict anything: calling out things he noticed just felt natural.
With the goodwill he has already built up with viewers, Romo now has leeway to simply say what he sees. And, to his credit, he’s usually on-point with his predictions. Romo is only a couple years removed from being an NFL quarterback, the most mentally-demanding position in sports, so his knowledge of the game is essentially current and his playing experience perfectly suited to quick thinking and fast talking. These advantages – along with the novelty of predicting plays – may wane over time, but, for now, it’s a joy to experience the biggest games in the company of such a natural
I watched the AFC Championship with friends and family. After a few quarters of listening to Romo’s commentary, I noticed that we were joining him in dissecting every pre-snap movement, every player’s alignment: “The tight end is motioning to the left, it’s a run!” We were absorbed in the action. Romo may or may not be a mastermind – or a future head-coach, as some players believe – but he certainly knows football. And he inspires us viewers at home to feel like we know football too. During Super Bowl LIII, most of us will understand only a portion of the game’s many layers, but we’ll see the field a little more clearly with Romo on the call.