During the fourth quarter of Sunday’s Chiefs-Bills game, Tony Romo played a trick on Jim Nantz. He turned his play-by-play partner into an analyst. After the referees blew a call, Romo asked Nantz if Buffalo should use one of its replay challenges to overturn it.
“You tell me,” said Nantz, trying to reclaim his job. But as Romo watched the Chiefs-Bills pile up touchdowns, he wasn’t that interested in the answer. He was giddy just asking the question. Romo was luxuriating in the possibilities of football.
Romo has been CBS’s supernova of football love for five years now, as long as Patrick Mahomes has been in the NFL. The Chiefs-Bills game offered a great illustration of the conundrum that Romo presents. He was really good Sunday night. No other announcer would have transmitted the ecstasy of that game in the same way. The catch is that Romo requires a great game—or, at least, great offense—to be a great announcer. When a game is lousy, he announces up to the level of the competition.
The Romo discourse has been typical for a famous announcer. In 2017, when CBS hired Romo to replace Phil Simms, he was a fresh-faced revelation. In one game he called that year, Romo was younger than the quarterbacks on the field. He predicted plays. He made funny noises. Unlike his scowling network counterparts, Romo seemed happy to be in the booth. In his first season, The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch proclaimed that Romo was the best NFL analyst on TV and then, within a few years, the best ever. He’d already outclassed John Madden.
You didn’t need Romo’s predictive powers to see the backlash coming. Romo’s smile, so refreshing at first, grated when he flashed it every week. Romo took a week off from calling games when Nantz had golf duties. In 2020, when ESPN tried to hire Romo for Monday Night Football, CBS gave him a contract that paid $17.5 million a year. Sportswriters have forgiven players for squeezing every cent out of management, but they still wince when their own colleagues have the audacity to do it.
In year five, Romo’s reputation has settled somewhere in the middle. Romo the announcer is a lot like Romo the quarterback. He seems happiest when he’s improvising. “An off-schedule announcer,” a play-by-play announcer at another network told me. In the final seconds of the Cowboys-49ers wild-card game, Romo first declared the Cowboys would be able to stop the clock. Then, like the Cowboys players, Romo realized they hadn’t left enough time for the umpire to touch the ball. He took the audience on the ride with him. “Oh my gosh!” he said.
Romo is all boyish wonder. His voice squeaks with a rotating playlist of oh my gosh and here we go and oh, Jiiiiim. If this effect is partly a put-on, it’s a different put-on than that of other top announcers. Romo is like Madden—here the comparisons end—in that he works very, very hard to not sound brainy. On Sunday, when Nantz mentioned the “superlatives” being heaped on Mahomes, Romo replied that he didn’t know big words.
Producers are always telling announcers to remind viewers of the stakes of a particular play. Romo has the highest stakes-per-snap ratio of any announcer since the merger. On Sunday, when the Chiefs got the ball in the fourth quarter, Romo said: “Right now, your legacy is some of these huge games. These are the moments, Jim.” On the next drive, Romo said: “These are the drives that cement legacies, that kind of change the perspective people have of you.” Next drive: “These plays change, I mean, seasons.” Next: “That’s the game of his life, and he’s doing it on the biggest stage, the biggest moment for him.”
When Romo talks about legacies, you need to remember the credentials he brought to the booth. Out of Troy Aikman, Cris Collinsworth, and the Manning brothers, Romo is the only A-team announcer who did not make the Super Bowl as a player. In fact, he’s the only one not to play in two. This month, Romo called the playoff game of Dak Prescott, the quarterback who took his job with the Cowboys. Romo talks about the stakes like someone who has thought about them a lot.
Romo gets praised for his use of the Telestrator, but Aikman, Collinsworth, and Kirk Herbstreit wield the Telestrator well, too. What makes Romo unique is that he surrenders himself to the excitement of a game. In Sunday’s fourth quarter, the Chiefs trailed the Bills by three points. Mahomes found Tyreek Hill, who cut a 64-yard trail through the Bills’ defense and scored.
Romo said: “We talked about Josh Allen needing to make a huge play. This place is going crazy. And then all of a sudden you got Superman himself, comes out, and he shows you. Patrick Mahomes. He don’t lose in the playoffs very often: 6-1 in here, only that loss in overtime. But if he gets the ball. Wow, what a strike. And then Tyreek does the rest. Cheetah says goodbye. He’s even giving a little wave here. Bye-bye! Bye-bye!”
Romo’s counterparts would have been working like mad to explain why the Bills’ defense imploded. (Romo added a little context later.) Romo calculated that a chunk of the almost 43 million viewers tuning in Sunday night cared less about why the double-team coverage didn’t arrive than they did about the ecstasy of the moment. After big plays, Sports Twitter turns into a swamp of half-formed thoughts and emotions. Romo is Sports Twitter in a network blazer. “I’m so nervous!” he said before Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker tied the game at the end of regulation.
Romo’s giddiness can be corny. Once again, he’s swiping a role traditionally taken by the play-by-play announcer. Giddiness is also Romo’s superpower. It allows him to erase the distance between the announcer and the fan. It lets him get one over on the Professor Football model of announcer that became standard over the last decade. He was the perfect announcer for Chiefs-Bills.
The problem—and it’s a big one—is that most games aren’t half as fun. You can’t always use giddiness as a substitute for analysis. Romo is at his worst when football doesn’t live up to his ideals.
Take last February’s Super Bowl. The Chiefs had to play two backup offensive tackles due to injuries. Mahomes was suffering from turf toe, which made him (a bit) less than his usual, magical self.
That created two problems for Romo. One is that he comes to a game with little to say that isn’t a reaction to a play. If you listened to the stuff he said early in the Chiefs-Bills game, it was that Bills coach Sean McDermott was “unbelievable,” the quarterbacks couldn’t make costly mistakes, etc. During the second half of the Super Bowl blowout, Romo didn’t have much to add, either. One of the few memorable things he said was that the chasm between Tom Brady and Mahomes’s Super Bowl victories, which reached seven to one, was going to be hard for Mahomes to overcome. He was thinking about the stakes again.
If the story of a particular game is how great the quarterbacks are playing, I trust Romo to tell it as well or better than anybody. If the story of the game is, say, how the defensive ends are kicking the asses of backup tackles, I don’t trust him at all. Romo has less interest in line play than any top NFL announcer. On Sunday, his CBS crew followed up a sack by showing multiple replays of how the receivers were covered—essentially, recreating a quarterback’s-eye view of the game. NBC and Fox would have showed the lineman beating the blocker.
The happy news for Romo is that he gets to call years’ worth of games with Mahomes, Allen, and Joe Burrow. You can’t knock Romo for having good luck. Back in the 1980s, Madden’s Telestrator was great because it was an artist’s rendering of the Bill Walsh offense. But even great quarterbacks have bad games—games that require an announcer to take a breath, stop emoting, and explain what happened. What’s Romo going to say then?
Writers often label announcers as “great” or “terrible.” In fact, announcers have good and bad games just like players do. Announcers can also change (see the new, more critical Aikman). Two things could happen with Tony Romo. He could keep his wide-eyed football love intact, get interested in the rest of the roster, and become something really unique. Or Romo could decide the giddy experience of calling a game is a lot more fun than preparation. Which Romo will we get? Tony, you tell me.