The best sports television analysts educate, entertain and inform, and when someone who can deliver those on-air attributes arrives on the landscape, they should be rewarded with both audience and praise. CBS Sports gambled heavily last April by naming former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo as its lead NFL game analyst. Romo had zero network broadcasting experience at the time, which meant he would be learning the mechanics of broadcasting on the fly while doing the network’s most significant NFL game every week — and sometimes two games per week given CBS’s “Thursday Night Football” schedule. It was a high-wire tightrope to walk no matter how bright or prepared Romo was in an era where social media opinions about broadcasters are impossible to ignore.
But Romo exceeded all expectations as a rookie analyst and we name him the 2017 Sports Illustrated Media Person Of The Year in this space for the impact he had on the country’s most-watched sport. Having currency (Romo was on the Cowboys’ roster until April) does not always translate into astute analysis but Romo’s knowledge of the league—specifically the formations and fronts of teams and how an offense attacks a defense—made him an invaluable resource for NFL viewers. His natural enthusiasm and love for football translated for audiences and he has rightly received praise from fans and the NFL establishment. The best thing about Romo is that he will only get better as sports television becomes more familiar. Below, an extended conversation with Romo.
(Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Has the first 14 weeks of the NFL season solidified in your mind that the decision to enter broadcasting was the right decision for you?
That’s exactly right. I think a lot of people want to stay within the game. My initial thought was that I was going to go coach when I was done. I wanted to stay within the game and I love the game of football so much; I want to learn everything about it. That’s why I keep these coaches for an hour longer than they are used to [in CBS production meetings]. There is just so much information and unique stuff in the game. So I knew I would stay in the game but not in what capacity. The coaching side, you are away from your family and I have three young boys—5 years old, 3 and basically 13 weeks old—and it is really fun being around them. The 5- and 3-year-old are really at a fun age, and I want to teach them and be around them and play with them. I am not naïve about how fast they grow up, and I have a job that allows me to be home during the day. That is a very unique and special thing for a dad, and while they don’t know any different, hopefully they will one day. So for me this job allows me to hopefully be a decent dad and to do a good job at that—and still be in the game of football. I think this is the one job that allowed me to do that.
It’s also been really fun and enjoyable to get to work with Jim Nantz. That was a huge draw. Honestly, this is how I talked to Jim when we first met. I have to tell you this story. Remember in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus comes back to win the Masters when he was down by like four on that Sunday. That was Jim Nantz’s first or second Masters. And he [Nicklaus] was on the 16th green and [Nantz’s] line when Jack makes a putt was—I think it is one of his best lines ever—“The Bear … has come out of hibernation.” It still gives me goose bumps.
But what people don’t remember, but I really do, is the 1998 line by Jim. The Masters did not come on until like noon or 1 p.m. so you didn’t even know what was happening on that Sunday morning. You could not just pull it up online or track it on the Internet. You had to wait for the telecast to come on. So Nicklaus is 58 years old then, and my Dad and I come home from church and we are waiting for the golf. Nicklaus is in contention. There are only five or six guys in front of him so if he plays a good front nine, he is in it. CBS comes on the air and Jim Nantz’s opening line is “Hold on, folks, you are not going believe this.”
Boom, my eyes get wide and I hit my elbow on my ceiling because I jumped so high. They go right to Nicklaus and he had birdied on three and six. The Masters had opened up with Nicklaus within like one of the lead at 58 years old. Anything bigger than that? Think about if Tiger Woods was within one of the lead at the Masters next year on the final Sunday.
I know I’m going off on a tangent, but I told Jim about my feelings on 1998 one of the first times we went out to dinner. This is what I remember about Jim Nantz. That line encapsulates the moments we remember and if you can hit the line and nail it, which he does so often, I think that is really cool. That’s what I want to do with some of these moments. You can make people feel the moment.
When you are watching a play during a broadcast, where are you specifically looking?
The reality of it depends on formation, tendency, the coaching staff and the system. There are certain tendencies in every coach’s systems. So if you are in a Rod Marinelli, Monte Kiffin or Lovie Smith system–these guys are all from the same tree of systems–the system will dictate a lot of time where I am looking. It’s a hard thing to describe because it also goes to things like: Are they in the red zone? Is it third or first down? Is it situational? Also, given I know some specific systems, I don’t have to watch if someone is blitzing because I know the tendencies for a Rod Marinelli defense—14% of the time they will be putting pressure [on the offense]. I will know if they are coming into a game with a pressure plan or not. My eyes might be going to which linebackers are moving, which nickelback or safety is getting to the line. My eyes might move to the coverage, and then you look at the coverage and you all of sudden find quickly what they could run out of a certain pre-snap look. Then your eyes might take a peek at the defensive ends. Let’s say it is [Raiders linebacker] Khalil Mack. Are they going to give him help here, or is he going one-on-one [against a defender]? Because if he is going one-on-one there is a good chance that the quarterback is running something quick, especially if it is a good coaching staff on offense. If it is not a good coaching staff going in, it might be they are just hoping that this guy can block that guy and they are just playing ball. Things like that go through your brain.
Tony Romo's going to be so good at this. pic.twitter.com/uCj4cxomJX— Jack Fritz (@Jack_Fritz34) September 11, 2017
So much of the preparation for being a top sports broadcasting analyst happens long before you arrive at the site of the game. What is your specific preparation?
That was one of my questions going into the year. After the game is over on Sunday I will go over some of the plays with my spotter [Tom Brewer, who lives in Dallas] on the plane back home—what we liked or did not like in the broadcast, what the coaching staffs did or did not do, and what they [the coaches and players] said in the meetings to us. I find a lot of times some coaches will try to hide things. If you know football well enough, you remember that certain coaches are trying to give you false information because they don’t want anything to get out. It is a secretive thing. I am very protective of game plans, but people never tell you [their game plans] anyway. You almost have to figure it out. So we are going over that kind of stuff on the way home.
“If you can hit the line and nail it, which [Nantz] does so often, I think that is really cool,” Romo says. “That’s what I want to do with some of these moments. You can make people feel the moment.”
If we have a Sunday and Thursday game, then I usually try to watch a game [of the team playing on Thursday] on my iPad. Monday and Tuesday is when I do a lot of my prep work. You have to learn someone’s offense or defense or special teams.
I really enjoy the interaction with the coaches because in some ways I enjoy asking them questions. I just know what I thought was really boring in those meetings [with TV personnel when I was a player], and I always knew when someone knew football. I want to gear the conversation toward football talk and not just, “Well, tell me how have you guys been doing lately?” I want it to be deeper. I want it to be like, “OK, you guys have been very successful running out of ‘11’ personnel, which is three wide receivers and a tight end, but I see this team plays a lot of ‘Bear’ front, which means they reduce the front so they take three of their four lineman and cover the guards and center so now you can’t pull any of those guys. … What can you do to run the football because there are a lot of challenges against that.” Well, you will find out real fast if a coach knows what he is talking about or not. So in those specific situations, I think it is enjoyable to have that back and forth interaction. I just like talking football and for the guys that really know it, it is really enjoyable for me.
You get into a meeting with Bill Belichick, it is really fascinating. I am asking him about the flex defense or things about Tom Landry’s system. We are both football junkies, it makes it really enjoyable to meet and talk football and schematics. I know the rest of our CBS staff might be bored for an hour, but it is fascinating for me. This is why you have to be prepared, so you can talk to those guys that way.
Then comes Tuesday or Wednesday where I will talk to [CBS NFL producer] Jim Rikhoff or Jim Nantz and we will ask [reporter] Tracy [Wolfson], as well, about who we want to interview. We talk about some of the storylines and some of the graphics we might want to put together. Then there are a couple of behind-the-scenes guys I communicate with who I call our football guys (Josh Cohen, who works on X's and O's in-game football packages; graphics editors Brian Maher and Adam Cohen; and stats editors Ethan Cooperson and Thomas Boorstein) and tell them the packages I want to see, and they might have an idea or two. There is a lot of communication back and forth. During all of this, I am watching as much tape as possible. I have a good setup at home where I can watch the TV broadcast on one screen, the coaches’ game tape on another, and then usually I will put stats on the third screen. Then I am coming up with ideas and thoughts about what I want to talk about.
The mechanics for many first-year broadcasters are often the most difficult challenge, from the different lengths of time your intro will take depending on the time of kickoff, to the foreign terminology of broadcasting, to condensing thoughts between plays. What was the toughest challenge when it comes to the production responsibilities of television?
The biggest issue for me was the operational aspect of everything. Early on they would tell me, “Tony, you have a certain amount of time with this opening.” I know what I want to say, but I don’t write it out. I have a story or point I am going to make and I just get there. That is why you will never see me look like I am reading because it is literally a point or a bulletin in my brain. Sometimes I would have 20 seconds but I only needed 6. The timing was a challenge. “This right tackle has played good for three weeks, but he’s a little bit weak on his kick step, but he’s done a heck of a job against three All-Pros and this week will be a good challenge.” Wait, we need 10 more seconds? So there are the little things where you have to navigate fillers or reduce stuff that you love. That is honestly the most difficult part—when you have stuff that you think people really would want to know but it just doesn’t come up within the game. You don’t want to reach for it because it sounds weird even though I think it might be a great point or story or something unique. That was something I had to learn: The game will eventually get you there.
The first Cowboys game you called this year was obviously an emotional day given the team honored you in a pregame ceremony and your family was there. For you, there will never be another Cowboys game like that, but as you move on in your broadcasting career and call more Dallas games, how do you anticipate your work will be on those games versus the experience this year?
The first Cowboys game for me was difficult for many reasons. To feel the warmth of the crowd made it feel like what you did was worth it, if that makes sense. I don’t know, it just makes you feel special. When you are sitting there feeling that way, you feel humbled and proud, and your kids are there, and when you have kids it is just a feeling of deep-rooted joy that they get to be part of it, and I didn’t have that when I was younger. But doing the game part was difficult. If you listened to the second game, I let it go a little more, and in the future I am pretty sure I will treat it like every other game.
How much feedback did you want about your performance initially?
Initially, you are getting advice from everywhere … and that includes everyone in the industry, and in a lot of ways I enjoyed that. I am someone who always wants information, and from there I can start to figure out what is usable for me and the technique and route I want to go.
The two people I leaned on more than anyone were [CBS NFL producer Jim] Rikhoff and Nantz. The two of them throughout the whole year have been mentors in the way of guidance. So I might do something and they would say, You can do that, but there is also a way to do that this way. That was beneficial for me. I knew I would do things a little abnormal and outside the box, but I just felt that people who love football like me want to learn football. If you love the game, hopefully you will enjoy learning it. The way I think about the game, I wanted to show viewers that there is a whole bunch of things that they don’t know.
The fun part for me is trying to decide which things to say. I kind of want to build a vignette where it is like a story but it takes a little while to unfold. So I want to start something early in a game and it unfolds before your eyes as you are watching it. Hopefully that adds to the drama, to the telecast, and helps the viewers experience it.
Coaches come in with plans all the time and they have ideas [about] how they are going to go about it. It’s almost like a boxing match. The ideas are great until you get punched. Then it is like, Are you still going to stick with this after you have rushed for 1.0 yard per carry over nine carries? Are you going to keep going with three tight ends and running the football because that was your game plan coming in? Will people change their mindset or stick with their guns? A lot of that is really fun to see how that unfolds.
“That is honestly the most difficult part—when you have stuff that you think people really would want to know but it just doesn’t come up within the game,” Romo says. “I had to learn: The game will eventually get you there.”
Is there a moment this year where you watched a replay of the game, or a sequence within a game and thought to yourself: This is the level of broadcasting I want to be at for all games?
Rikhoff writes me a set of notes or he will call me if we have a game coming up in a couple of days. He gives me a report on what we were good at, what we need to keep working on, the strengths and weaknesses of the broadcast, and the things CBS Sports management liked and did not like. That is a good thing.
The game was the Raiders and Chiefs on Oct. 19, and at the time the Raiders season was on the line. The Chiefs were 5-1 and the Raiders were 2-4. So if the Raiders lose they are 2-5 and are likely not catching the Chiefs. In that game, the importance of that final drive was so intense, so real and authentic.
If you go back and watch that drive, I am talking a little bit before the snap about what [Raiders quarterback] Derek Carr should do. At a certain point I circled [on the telestrator] the two Chiefs safeties and said if one of these guys drops down, he [Carr] should throw it outside, and if they both go back he should throw it to the middle of the field, probably to the tight end or something. Well you know what was so special about that? People don’t know what a team effort the show really is. As I am talking, my director Mike Arnold is listening to what I am saying. He pans out so as I am talking I can circle the safeties before the snap. So you see the two safeties. Nantz touches on it, and I talk about where the ball should go. The viewers see the two safeties and they both go back and Carr throws the ball to the tight end, right where you should against that coverage. So Nantz says, “He throws it right where you said!”
So it all looks simple, but it took five or six people at least to make that thing happen. I’m the one who said something so it makes me look smart or blah, blah, blah, but the reality was that was a brilliant sequence because of the teamwork it took for everyone to know what I was saying. Then right after that we got the four plays at the end and that was as exciting and fun to do as any drive or finish to the season.