“Well … looks like you’ll be playing for the Texas @Rangers opening day,” Romo wrote in response to Harper asking him where the free agent right fielder was going to sign.
But eight days later, it was obvious the joke had worn a bit thin with Romo, whose uncanny ability to call out the plays Tom Brady was running in the final few minutes against the Kansas City Chiefs lifted him from new football broadcasting star to a legitimate storyline going into Super Bowl LIII.
Just like that, “Hey Tony, who’s going to win the game?” became a far more annoying, “Hey Tony, what exact play is going to win the game?” which, given a few more days, could easily devolve into “Hey Tony, what am I having for dinner tonight?”
“I’ll keep playing my novelty act up here,” Romo said with a semi-sneer Tuesday when asked how Sunday’s game will end. “I’ll go 28-24 and the team that has the ball at the end has 24 and doesn’t score.”
For Romo, whose predictive powers as CBS’ lead color analyst have gotten a lot of attention during his two seasons in the booth, there’s obviously a fine line between the insightful and the ridiculous. He even acknowledged Tuesday he sort of toned down his playcalling predictions this season after he was criticized in some corners last season for, of all things, being too accurate.
“That’s an important part of his commentary, but he only does it a couple times a game,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said. “He did a lot of games this year where he didn’t do it at all.”
But it says something about Romo and CBS that just two years after his retirement from the Dallas Cowboys, he has become the biggest star in sports broadcasting because of his natural style on the microphone, his joyous enthusiasm for the games he’s calling and, yes, his ability to see what’s going to happen before the play unfolds.
In a business where dozens of former players and coaches find their way on television and all sound more or less the same, Romo has established a television persona that makes his Super Bowl debut an event in and of itself.
“As good as we thought Tony was going to be, it was a real risk making him the only solo lead analyst to ever go from the field right into the booth,” McManus said. “We thought it was a calculated risk, and we thought he was going to be good. But you never know until that red light comes on that first time how good a guy is going to be, and he’s still developing. Tony is going to be better next year than he was this year.”
Forget his analytical ability for a moment.
Nobody currently in a football broadcasting booth, pro or college, sounds like Romo. In a world where his counterparts tend to be rather erudite in their analysis of plays and players, Romo feeds off the energy of a game, balancing an almost boyish joy for football with an easily digestible breakdown of what just happened.
And with Romo setting that tone in the booth, there’s no choice but for his partner Jim Nantz to loosen up his own style, making for a much less formal-sounding broadcast than he did with Phil Simms. Nantz compared it to the difference of calling college basketball games with the ultra-serious Billy Packer and legendary bon vivant Bill Raftery — not that one is better than the other, but that he sounds different depending on the personality of his partner.
“I’ve always felt like you need to marry up with the guy that’s next to you, whatever the sport might be,” Nantz said. “You need to have something that’s in sync, at a similar level, and i don’t think there’s any question that Tony’s enthusiasm is something I’m siphoning off of as well, and I’ve kind of enjoyed being in that spot.”
At the end of the day, though, Romo’s style isn’t a gimmick. Some fans may prefer a more traditional broadcast, but all you had to do was watch the end of the AFC championship game to see the substance.
“New England tried the play action earlier. I can’t see it here. This has to be a run,” he said accurately on the goal line right before the Patriots punched it in for the overtime win. Or twice when he correctly identified before the snap that Brady was going to look for a favorable matchup with Rob Gronkowski.
“Gronk is out wide. Watch the top of your screen. Watch the safety. lf he comes down, there’s a good chance he’s throwing out there.”
That predictive style may not be what most analysts try to do very often, but with Romo, it comes both naturally and honestly. And while some fans may prefer a more passive style in their announcer, Romo is giving viewers as realistic of a window into what a quarterback is processing and thinking as the rest of us have ever experienced in real time.
“You start off with personnel, then you go to formation, then you go to the protection side, what’s the possibilities, the situation, then through the 1-on-1 matchups and then start going into mannerisms and schemes, the history of those coaches and what they could or couldn’t call based on down and distance, time, all that stuff,” Romo said. “I mean, I don’t think I’m really doing it that much.”
It’s unclear how much a Super Bowl audience, largely made up of casual fans who aren’t knowledgeable about the game, will appreciate Romo’s style. It is, if nothing else, different from anything else on TV.
But if he can repeat what he did in the AFC championship game, he’ll be the biggest star in football broadcasting since John Madden.
“You’re trying to do the best you can and make it fun and hopefully people at home enjoy it,” Romo said. “More than anything, if you learn something, I always felt like that was more fun to watch if you could add humor or make it enjoyable. It’s hard to sit down and watch anything for three hours now. People, if they’re not being entertained or learning, it’s hard to keep their attention so I just want to make people enjoy it.”
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