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Romo Rules, Revisited

Tony Romo’s unique style felt revelatory when he first entered the broadcast booth in 2017. Ahead of this year’s Super Bowl, those same qualities have gotten stale.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Almost as soon as Tony Romo started calling games for CBS, America turned him into an export. In 2019, a group of Australian rules football announcers met in Melbourne for their preseason seminar. Their Fox Footy bosses showed them a clip of Romo, who was radiating with enthusiasm, predicting plays, and putting just the right plaintive touch on the words “Oh, Jim.”

The Australians watched the NFL and knew its commentators. But this worry-free American was a curiosity. Romo was an announcer, and he was also a vibe. Channeling that vibe, the Australians thought, could be a new and exciting way to call a football game. Tony Romo was soft diplomacy!

This week, as Romo gets ready to call the Super Bowl in Las Vegas, his vibe has turned sour. On Twitter and in media columns, Romo gets dinged for his lack of preparation, for his word salads, for thinking Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce are married (a joke, he later insisted). The ferocity of these takes reminds me of the early reviews that said Romo was a better announcer than John Madden.

For me, Romo is a TV version of a very talented but very flawed NFL quarterback—which Romo was, once upon a time. What makes Romo unique isn’t that he’s elite or terrible. He’s both at the same time. I believe Romo changed NFL broadcasting, that he created a style that people in distant countries could appreciate. But other announcers have shown they can study Romo’s style and be even better.

Romo became an announcer because of two dramatic acts of succession. In 2016, when Romo was playing for the Dallas Cowboys, he fractured one of his vertebrae in the preseason and lost his job to Dak Prescott. That November, Romo gave a speech about entering a “dark place” and left his future unresolved.

Two months later, Romo met CBS executives at a restaurant in downtown Houston. While Romo was riding the bench, CBS was thinking about a move of its own: taking Phil Simms out of its no. 1 booth after 19 years and putting him on the pregame show. Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, had talked to Romo at a Super Bowl party two years earlier. When McManus had asked a throwaway question about the game, Romo gave a detailed answer. Despite Romo’s lack of TV experience, CBS made him the network’s no. 1 NFL announcer that spring.

The first photo Romo tweeted of himself in a network blazer could have been captioned “You’re probably wondering how I got here.” That season, a lot of us wondered that. Romo’s tie was rarely knotted tightly. His five o’clock shadow looked like Razor Ramon’s. He was only 37 years old. As Richard Deitsch noted, that season Romo called a game in which he was younger than the two quarterbacks on the field.

Romo was happy. Happy to be sitting next to his partner, Jim Nantz. Happy to talk about quarterbacks. Happy for football. It was a simple, effective emotional cue in a time when a lot of NFL announcers had forgotten how to smile.

An NFL announcer once described Romo to me as an “off-schedule analyst.” You never knew what he’d say or when he’d say it. Romo talked up until and even after the snap—treading on the sacred space that belongs to the play-by-play announcer. He leapt on small details about scheme, just as he did last month when he showed the Chiefs using tightly packed offensive formations to beat the Bills. Romo guessed penalties before the referees announced them. In 2017, as Romo watched bags blow by him during a weather delay, he was reminded of American Beauty.

That year, Romo’s predictions were genuinely mesmerizing. During his very first game, he said, “Jim, I got five dollars this is a run to the left.”

Derrick Henry ran to the left.

Nantz asked Romo, “What did you see there?”

“I’ve seen football in the NFL for 14 years,” he replied.

Other announcers groused: You know, I could do the same thing. I didn’t know we were allowed to do it. (Never mind that CBS’s Hank Stram had guessed the direction of running plays four decades earlier.) Sports TV is a form of show business, and Romo was smart enough to arrive with a magic trick. The Wall Street Journal calculated his accuracy rate at 68 percent.

When rival producers and executives knocked Romo—a favorite sport then and now—they admitted that he had a gift. Romo had a great sense of the medium. People who watch sports for a living grade announcers on the points they make about football—which is fair enough. But a chunk of the 55 million people who watched last month’s AFC title game want to connect with announcers on something more than man-to-man coverage.

“Oh my gosh, that was amazing!” Romo said after Patrick Mahomes’s off-balance pass to Kelce during the AFC title game. It was like Romo’s yelp near the end of a Chiefs playoff game two years ago: “I’m so nervous!” This shagginess, this not-locked-in quality, was part of what had doomed Romo with Cowboys fans. With TV’s healing power, it became an asset. Romo talked like fans on the couch.

In retrospect, Romomania reached its peak in January 2019. After Romo and Nantz called the amazing Chiefs-Patriots AFC title game, no less than Stephen A. Smith remarked, “I have never heard someone call a game like Tony Romo did yesterday.” Two weeks later, at the Super Bowl in Atlanta, Romo was as big an attraction as anybody except maybe Tom Brady and a few Patriots. Before the big game, CBS aired a special called Tony Goes to the Super Bowl, the idea being that Romo had reached the promised land he’d never sniffed as a player. The doc showed him singing the theme song to the ’80s sitcom Who’s the Boss?

A year later, ESPN tried to hire Romo for Monday Night Football. In February 2020, on the eve of the pandemic, CBS gave Romo the biggest contract in sports TV history to stay. “Four months later, what happens?” a rival executive told me recently. “He wouldn’t have gotten $18 million when people were being laid off and the future was in doubt.” Romo’s contract led to succession scrambles at ESPN and Fox two years later, and it made the biggest announcers in sports even more powerful.

In the 2010s, NBC’s Cris Collinsworth changed the way football is called by showing you could marry the old go-tos of the trade (“he’s just a football player”) with the new world of analytics and schematic study. By the time Romo arrived, Collinsworth and other announcers found themselves getting roasted by fans of both teams on Twitter, never mind what they’d actually said on the air.

Romoism was a kind of work-around for the social media age. Substitute enthusiasm for slashing opinion, surround those notes on the Chiefs’ formation with a burning love of football, and an announcer seemed like a friend.

Today, I hear Romo’s voice everywhere. I hear it in Fox’s Greg Olsen. Two years ago, when Mark Sanchez called a game in London, I swore that a midnight ceremony had been performed to allow Romo to inhabit Sanchez’s body. (I’m crossing the veil, Jim!) Post-Romo, established announcers like Collinsworth seemed to smile more, emote more. Even some of the Australians who’d glimpsed Romo’s power borrowed a note or two. Romo’s vibe became the dominant style of football announcing.

So what’s not to like? Well, there’s a lot. Let’s stipulate that some of the angst is because Romo’s tics started to grate on viewers after seven years. I tend to forgive Romo for the foot-in-mouth stuff. There’s something at least a little charming about Romo starting a sentence—as the writer Steve Berman observed—without knowing how it’s going to end. See Romo’s stirring tribute to Martin Luther King: “What a day. Martin Luther King Jr. deserves to have a day named after him.” And with that Nantz just moved along.

But listen closely. After he spent seven years in the booth, you’ll notice Romo still has massive holes in his game. For example, Romo loves quarterbacks. He loves at least some wide receivers. He has perhaps been smitten with a defensive back. The rest of the roster doesn’t exist at all.

I’m serious about this. When Romo calls a game, linemen barely have names. In the first quarter of the AFC championship game, Romo noted that a pulling guard allowed Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco to run for a big gain. He didn’t name the guard, who was Trey Smith. Later in the quarter, CBS showed a replay of a couple of Ravens linemen bulldozing the left side of the Chiefs defensive line. Romo complimented the linemen but didn’t name them. A few plays later, Romo used his telestrator to circle two Ravens defenders and said they were the best run-stopping duo in the game. Travis Jones and Broderick Washington went unnamed, too. That was in one quarter.

Compare Romo’s approach with the attention NBC gave to Frank Ragnow, the limping Detroit center, or how Fox fixed its sights on San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner. In the AFC title game, another crew might have set up a series of replays to show how Nick Allegretti, the injury replacement for Chiefs All-Pro guard Joe Thuney, was holding up against those Ravens linemen—whoever they are. CBS barely mentioned Allegretti.

This goes to a bigger complaint about Romo. His QB’s-eye view of the game has taken over the CBS broadcast. After big plays, CBS will often go to “high” replay angles, shots from distant cameras that show us a big swath of the field. (In the AFC championship, CBS used such angles after Ravens receiver Zay Flowers caught his two biggest passes of the game.) These shots are great palettes for Romo’s telestrator. For viewers, they’re distant and impersonal.

The tug-of-war over “high” angles versus close-ups is common among NFL crews. The people in the truck want to see football close up; the announcer wants to show viewers he can crush tape. Romo has won the battle in a blowout. As a result, Romo has shown off his own personality while keeping a lot of NFL players safely anonymous.

Romo can still toss out a prediction. Against the Ravens, the Chiefs crowded the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-1. Romo warned that Lamar Jackson could break off a big run. He did.

But, now, Romo does more than guess plays. His broadcasts are crammed with odd bits of futurism. Romo is like a podcaster who takes a big swing after every Blue Apron ad. In the AFC title game, with eight and a half minutes left in the third quarter, Romo said: “If you’re a Ravens fan, it doesn’t get bigger than these next two plays.” After six minutes of clock time had elapsed, he said: “Season on the line, I think, on this drive for the Ravens.” Three minutes later, when Flowers fumbled short of the goal line, Romo said: “I mean, that’s the game. It’s not over. But I’m saying, when you look back …”

This is Romo’s favorite declaration: that “when you look back,” a particular play will turn out to be pivotal. During the Chiefs-Bills game in the divisional round, it was Josh Allen’s third-quarter touchdown pass: “If they’re lucky enough to win this game, that’s the play right there that they started to probably, truly believe.” The week before, when the Bills played the Steelers, it was Mason Rudolph side-stepping a rusher: “If Pittsburgh has a chance to win this game late, you could literally go back to that play.” Romo isn’t spotting a tendency. He’s just guessing.

After a lot of grumbling about his preparation for games, Romo has taken to reciting stats like he’s reading them off a card: That’s the first touchdown pass L’Jarius Sneed has given up all year.

But there are moments when you can tell Romo’s approach to calling a game is more like a feeling than a plan. Take the Cowboys-Commanders game this past Thanksgiving. DaRon Bland was trying to set an NFL record with his fifth pick-six of the year. When Bland caught a Sam Howell pass, Nantz’s recognition was instant and perfect. Now listen to Romo:

And what a call by you! You got me with goose bumps, Nantz. That was unbelievable. History was made here on Thanksgiving. Not good history for Howell—always feel bad for the quarterbacks. Always. But wow! He [Romo had turned back to Bland] has great instincts. His decision-making of when to just adjust and turn and go, it’s next-level. And that is the record in the history of the National Football League. Well deserved, Bland. That is a cool moment for the Cowboys defense. And you saw how excited Quinn was, the defensive coordinator.

In 2017, Romoism seemed like a clever way to avoid angry tweets. When the Cowboys were celebrating, it sounded more like Romo substituting excitement for actual analysis. Much of Romo’s style has been absorbed and perfected. Olsen can give you 90 percent of Romo’s enthusiasm on the air with way more concentration and, crucially for me, curiosity about the players.

In Australia, Garry Lyon, a former footballer who became a commentator like Romo, has studied his counterpart’s career. As Lyon said recently, “Without the spectacular debut and first period, we just would be looking at him like, ‘OK, there’s a bloke who made a blue.’” A mistake, in other words. Like a flawed bloke, or quarterback, Romo combines great traits with so-so performance, incuriosity with a burning football love. Forget the high replay angle. You can see it from the Southern Hemisphere.