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Romomania Hits the Super Bowl

The healing power of television has worked its magic on Tony Romo. His predictive play-calling has reinvigorated CBS’s broadcast, and he’s reportedly going to become the subject of a network bidding war.

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I’m way too young for Beatlemania. But today I’m wearing the self-satisfied smile of a baby boomer. Because I was at the Super Bowl in Atlanta for Romomania. Years from now, I’ll tell stories about this week to bore my grandkids to tears.

Romomania almost makes writing about the lives of sports announcers seem like a legitimate line of work. For the first time in memory, a TV announcer burst out of the little box on the Super Bowl Wikipedia page and became a story line in and of himself. In Atlanta, Romo is a top-five interview “get,” behind Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and (maybe) one or two of the Rams. Romo, it is said, will be the subject of a free-agent bidding war between networks—and that’s if an NFL team doesn’t hire him as their head coach first.

At the Super Bowl, reporters usually ask announcers for quotes about the game. At the CBS press event on Tuesday, reporters asked announcers for quotes about Romo. Mr. Nantz, what’s it like to work mere feet from the all-knowing deity? For his part, Romo stood on stage in a crisp baby-blue suit with white sneakers. Prodded by reporters, he agreed to dust off his “Romostradamus” act—his predictive powers.

The final score of the Super Bowl would be 28-24, Romo predicted. He added, “And I think the team that has 24 has the ball at the end and they don’t score.”

Standing on stage almost directly behind Romo during this performance was Phil Simms. Simms used to have Romo’s job as CBS’s no. 1 analyst. Two years ago, when CBS signed Romo, the network evicted Simms to the pregame show. As CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus praised Romo, Simms watched with a tight-lipped nonsmile.

In taking stock of Romomania, you have to appreciate the irony. In 2016, Romo lost his job as Dallas Cowboys quarterback to a precocious newcomer whom everyone fell over themselves to praise. At CBS, the same thing happened. Only Romo was the newcomer.

As a quarterback, Romo was said to lack some essential ingredient that would’ve put him in a class with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Now, after a mere two seasons in the booth, no less an authority than Stephen A. Smith says Romo is the announcing GOAT.

As a quarterback, Romo was seen as almost fatally unserious. On TV, he’s a “student of the game,” and his goofiness has been recast as infectious enthusiasm.

As a quarterback, Romo also played badly at the worst times. After watching Romo correctly predict play after play during overtime of the Kansas City–New England AFC championship game, CBS producer Jim Rikhoff said, “I think he has his greatest moments in the best games.”

What Romo is experiencing is what I call the healing power of television. It’s a process that has polished the second careers of announcers from Alex Rodriguez to Doug Collins to Don Meredith, though Romo might be its most potent example. What happens is the same qualities that held you back as a player or coach become, through the magic of TV, your greatest assets. An imperfect player is something close to a perfect announcer.

After his opening remarks at the CBS press event, Romo was mobbed by reporters on stage. When I joined the throng, I stood next to a microphone-waver from the tabloid show Inside Edition. When she got her chance, the reporter asked Romo, “What’s your hype song?” I don’t think they ask that one to Troy Aikman or Cris Collinsworth.

McManus said he doesn’t want people to get too hung up on Romo’s predictive powers. To some extent, he has a point. Romo has changed the CBS broadcast in a lot of subtle ways that extend beyond his forecasting.

For one thing, he has given Jim Nantz, who’s been at the network since 1985, a new energy, a new vigor. “I’ve heard a lot of people say that,” Nantz told me this week. “It’s probably true. … I definitely feel like I’m trying to match up with Tony’s enthusiasm.”

“I gotta be honest,” said Tracy Wolfson, the crew’s sideline reporter. “I felt reinvigorated going down the stretch of the season.” Romo’s not just an announcer. He’s an energy drink.

It’s not just Romo’s thirst for football that has changed the CBS crew. As Wolfson notes, Romo’s hiring allowed a rare reset for a no. 1 network team, a chance to rethink the broadcast from the ground up. At dinner with Romo on Monday, Wolfson brought up one of the sideline reporter’s eternal gripes: when they deliver a newsy interview with a coach out of halftime and the announcers in the booth just let it hang in the ether.

“When I do a halftime report and it warrants a reaction,” Wolfson said she told Romo, “you react.”

“Yeah,” Romo replied. “I’m working so hard on that.”

An NFL broadcast in 2019 is a push-pull between X’s and O’s for superfans and broader, magic-of-television stuff for the rest of humanity. Romo nudges the broadcast in the direction of the former. “He’ll see something in All-22 and I want to do an artsy replay,” Rikhoff said. “I need to show if his feet were in bounds; he wants to break down the play.”

Rikhoff said that Romo occasionally alters the standard TV picture we see before the ball is snapped. “Tony will say, ‘Hey, widen out,’ because he sees something,” Rikhoff said. “So we’ll show the safeties in the frame so he can talk about that, too.”

In his second year on-air, Romo is wonderfully unpolished. He’s probably the first announcer to reference the movie American Beauty during a game. Romo doesn’t sound like color guys who have been inhaling the instructions of producers for 20-plus years: Let the play-by-play announcer finish, then do exactly 7.5 seconds of analysis … During his 2017 rehearsals in Dallas, Romo did a lot of things wrong—talking at inappropriate times, say—and CBS producers, after some consideration, decided to let him keep going.

On the Patriots’ first play of overtime in the AFC championship game, Romo talked right up to and past the snap of the ball—a conversational space usually reserved for the play-by-play announcer. “They put the big guys in,” Romo chirped of the Chiefs defense. “They’re trying to stop the run on the first play.”

On the first of three Patriots third-down calls he correctly predicted, Romo was drawing on the screen with the Telestrator as the ball was snapped. This is something color analysts either don’t do or do very rarely. Romo does it a lot.

But what has taken Romomania beyond the bounds of sports TV is his second sight. The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen and Andrew Beaton reported that Romo got 68 percent of his predictions right this season. Predictions, McManus noted, break up the backward-looking flow of sports TV. “There’s a tendency sometimes to have a play, comment on the replay, have another play, comment on the replay,” he said. “I think Tony has the rare ability to look forward as well as looking backward.”

Romo’s predictions have become a phenomenon. Recently, Hillary Clinton’s former spokesperson asked Romo to predict the end of the government shutdown. Australian broadcaster Gerard Whateley told me that his country’s color analysts are talking about whether Romo’s gift can be transferred to their own sports.

“This Romo,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told me in his office in the fall, “he’s so special it’s unbelievable.”

Jones then lowered his voice a touch. It was as if he were sharing an ecstatic secret of the occult. “It’s always been his sight,” Jones said. “He just sees it.”

It wouldn’t be sports TV if Romomania didn’t have a whiff of commerce. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has reported that Romo’s contract will expire next year, and that event “could set up a multimillion-dollar TV free-agent sweepstakes” unseen since John Madden had the networks at his feet in 1994.

What Romo has going for him is that he’s unique in the way Madden and Charles Barkley are unique. “Personalities like Tony Romo come around once a generation,” Rikhoff said.

Romo has miles to go before he matches Maddenmania, a 30-plus-year extravaganza of Miller Lite and Ace Hardware ads, plus video games, with a pop culture reach that was in the same skybox as Johnny Carson’s. But Romo has done something that Madden and few other sportscasters have accomplished. He has bridged the chasm between football fans.

In 2019, you have different types of NFL fans. You have a hypereducated class that has been reared on the teachings of Bill Barnwell, Aaron Schatz, and Warren Sharp. Then you have a larger, more casual audience that might know a single thing about Rams coach Sean McVay—and that’s that he’s young. Romo plays to both groups, offering schematic breakdowns for the former and funny noises for the latter.

When asked whether he was worried about re-signing Romo, McManus gave what you could call a confident scoff. “I’m not,” he said. “I have every intention and plan to have Tony at CBS for a long time.”

In ’94, Madden had three still-vibrant broadcast networks upping the bidding. Romo won’t have that kind of leverage—yet, anyway. But he could still have some next year, especially if ESPN decides to make a move with Monday Night Football.

A source familiar with the negotiations said that Romomania could reach its peak in 2022, when the major networks’ rights packages expire. CBS is committed to the NFL. Fox is committed to the NFL (and Troy Aikman has made noises about wanting to run a team). Disney has talked about getting a Sunday package for ABC.

Romo’s contract, the source said, would probably have contingencies. “If they [CBS] don’t retain an NFL package, it would give him the right to go to another network. He could jump again if he leaves CBS. So he signs a three- or four-year deal. But he won’t do that for a discount.” The source predicted Romo’s number could more than double his current $4 million annual salary. That seems like a lot of money for someone who works about 20 Sundays a year. Then again, it has been a long time since we’ve seen anything like Romomania.

The healing power of television can completely alter a player’s or coach’s public image. During his playing career, people got hung up on the fact that Alex Rodriguez was an asshole. Fox (especially departed executive John Entz) discovered that Rodriguez was just enough of an asshole to be great on the World Series pregame show.

As an NBA coach, Doug Collins could be an emotional wreck. (After listening to other players bitch about their coaches, Michael Jordan uttered the immortal line, “If you think that’s something, my coach cries every day.”) But Collins was a passionate color analyst, and he got hired away from TV four times. (I wrote once that he got his Bulls job after doing local announcing in Chicago.)

Jon Gruden, who snarled at the media during his last days in Tampa Bay, was just crusty enough for Gruden’s QB Camp. One rival executive reminded me that, two years ago, when Jay Cutler signed with Fox before leaving for the Dolphins, a lot of people thought Cutler would be better than Romo. Cutler was TV’s kind of jerk.

This should teach us a couple of things. One is that the reputational stuff that gets heaped on players during their careers is often overstated or just plain wrong. Romo had a brilliant football mind, even if he didn’t always make the throw or didn’t have the right supporting cast to help him make it.

Another lesson is that what we consider an athlete’s defining moment—Romo’s shrug after missing the 2008 playoffs, say—is often mere noise. Or else, as is the case with Romo’s goofiness, what’s superficial on the field becomes important in the booth. Television is superficial.

Romo isn’t perfect. On Wednesday, when I asked the NFL Network’s Michael Irvin about Romo, he professed love for his fellow ex-Cowboy. But Irvin added, “I hear people talking about, ‘Man, Tony would make a great coach.’ … There’s a hell of a divide between calling plays and predicting plays and controlling 53 brothers—53 millionaires.”

Moreover, while Romo’s enthusiasm is pitch perfect for Kansas City–New England, it’s less well-suited for a blowout. “He’s so excited, so passionate, we still have to work on what you do in those games that aren’t so competitive,” said Rikhoff.

In his booming and doinking prime, Madden was an entertainer—one of the best entertainers on TV, period. At this stage, Romo is more winning than funny. I don’t know that he can slip the bonds of X’s and O’s and hold an audience’s attention by sheer force of personality.

But having a parlor trick gets you a long way. On Monday Night Football, Don Meredith had his singing. In the ’80s on CBS, Madden had the Telestrator. Romo has predictions.

In Atlanta, I asked Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels about Romo divining his play calls from the booth. “Tony is a special guy,” McDaniels said, before reeling off the now-familiar tenets of Romomania.

But doesn’t it worry you, I asked, that he knows what the Patriots are going to do?

McDaniels laughed. “Hopefully we can keep him off-guard and off-balance a little bit on Sunday,” he said. It’s another miracle of the healing power of television. For the first time in his career, Tony Romo may be the quarterback NFL teams fear the most.

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