By Dan Bernstein
All props to Tony Romo for taking on the difficult task of jumping right from the playing field to the broadcast booth. It’s a move fraught with all kinds of pitfalls, even for an affable guy already comfortable in front of a camera and behind a microphone. Despite expectations that he’ll be a natural, it’s not easy.
It was evident Sunday in his opening performance on NFL on CBS, sitting alongside play-by-play top dog, Jim Nantz, as the network’s top pairing called the Raiders and Titans. The two seemed to get along well enough, and Nantz was his reliable and steady self with a new partner in place of the too-often-confused Phil Simms. But there was a problem in Romo’s was over-reliance on a parlor trick.
It made for viral stuff, certainly, with Romo noting formations, tendencies and pre-snap calls and actions to predict what play would be run immediately before it did. He would say such things as “this is a run” or “this ball’s going to Lynch,” or noting the likelihood of a pass to a side vacated by a safety moving up toward the line of scrimmage. Edited into compilations on social media, it seemed on its surface to be an impressive bit of sorcery, with Romo speaking the future into existence. He even began to feel himself a little bit, at one point challenging Nantz with “I got five dollars that this is a run to the left,” and forcing him to play along with the bit.
There are three things at work here that need to be pointed out. First, it’s really not that difficult for any student of the game to do what he did. It’s a quarterback’s job to read a defense and get the appropriate play called based on what he sees, and Romo is just removed from 13 years of doing that for a living. Terminology only varies slightly between the NFL teams’ largely homogenized offenses, allowing all of us paying attention to know that “Kill, kill!” indicates a check to a run play, or that a back or receiver in motion can reveal if a defense is in man coverage or zone. Video allows for specific probabilities to be noted, and Romo’s homework is just like the game-prep with which he is familiar. In other words, somebody like Dan Fouts or Jon Gruden could do the same thing if they wanted, but they don’t.
And that’s the next aspect, in that it’s not really their job. An NFL analyst can be really good if he or she just explains why something happened, which individual players deserve specific blame or credit upon further inspection on replay, and how it all fits into the larger context of the game. Have strong and clever opinions that inform, stay away from too much playbook jargon, provide insight into what we are seeing based on personal experience, and tell a story when appropriate. A comfortable analyst is the equivalent of someone you want next to you at the bar or on the couch, and a guy betting you that he knows what play is coming just gets annoying. I wanted to say “We get it, Tony. Very clever. That’s enough.”
Lastly, it’s not worth the risk of staking out territory as some kind of football wizard when the downside is there for looking really silly when getting it wrong. It’s inevitable that will happen at some point, so Romo is better off ditching the bit or really choosing his spots carefully for when to pull it out of the bag. Social media amazement at his abilities might be fun for now, but there’s ignominy when Twitter turns on you for all the LOLs and crying-laughing emojis.
If I were predicting the future, I’d guess Romo will settle into the role nicely over time and become what CBS bosses envisioned when they made the surprising move to elevate him to a prime seat on their broadcast roster. He’ll be fine.
In fact, I got five dollars on it.