- The quarterback-turned broadcaster on the learning curve for his new job, the best advice he got from Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach and some of the advice he gave to Dak Prescott
NEW YORK CITY — Tony Romo sits at a table inside of CBS’ Studio 19 in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by a scrum of reporters. This is broadcaster Romo, clad in a gray houndstooth jacket with his hair neatly gelled. With him in the middle of the huddle is Jim Nantz, CBS’s lead play-by-play analyst and Romo’s new teammate in the booth. Nantz listens and nods along like a proud father as his mentee fields questions about his new career, chiming in a few times to comment on Romo’s progress as an NFL analyst.
The former Cowboys quarterback has called eight practice games this summer (five in studio, three live) and will make his broadcasting debut in CBS’s broadcast of Raiders-Titans. I spoke to Romo via phone in July for a larger piece in the Sports Illustrated Dallas Cowboys Quarterbacks special issue, and this is that full interview, combined with some questions from Wedneday’s the NFL on CBS media day. Romo took a break from his broadcast prep to talk about his advice for Dak Prescott, his undrafted work ethic, and what he learned from Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman.Are you more nervous for your first broadcasting start than you were for your first NFL start?
ROMO: I don’t know because I haven’t gotten there yet. I think they are all similar feelings. You’re anxious, you’re nervous, you’re excited, all those things. You want to put your best foot forward. You want to be good at the job. You want to show people that you have insight, ability and at the same time you want to make CBS proud.
NANTZ: I’m going to tell you something that he can’t say. Just like Tom Brady is always going to be the 199th pick in the draft and wear the chip on his shoulder even when he is 40 years old, and take it out on everybody, here’s Tony, who came into the league undrafted. He knew he had to outwork everybody, he had to figure out a way to make himself stand out and to go on to shatter every single Dallas Cowboys passing record in existence, and he did that. He’s a self-made man. I see the symmetry of a kid who came out of Burlington, Wisconsin and Eastern Illinois, was unwanted, there were a few people who had some faith in him. He knew he was being evaluated all the time, and he’s facing the same situation now. People are saying, How is he going to come off the field and walk right into the No. 1 game? Listen, he’s been through this. It’s different now, but he knows how to prove people wrong. There may be a few bobbles and passes picked off early in the season, but it’s live television and he’ll grow from his mistakes. He’s got a big personality, he smiles a lot and you are going to hear his smile on the air. He’s going to figure out a way to be just like he was as an undrafted quarterback, a way to get to the point where we’ll say he’s an outstanding analyst.
ROMO: I would say, first off, that my penmanship isn’t very good, so you won’t be able to read it. You’ll be disappointed in that, I probably should have done that better in grade school. I use a highlighter, I do like that. There are certain things I will do to make sure I get certain points in. But I also feel like, at the end of it, some games you are not going to have the opportunity to talk about all your stuff in your notes, so you have to be comfortable with that. But I don’t have any trade secrets yet. I’ll learn them along the way.
When you saw Jay Cutler return to football, did you pause to rethink your decision at all?
ROMO: No pause. I was in the middle of grinding for this and I am very comfortable in this. I thought it was great for Jay. Jay can still play, and he knows the system there. It will probably help us, because the Dolphins will be good. It’s going to be exciting to watch.
NANTZ: I’ve covered Jay’s entire career. He’s a lot younger than Tony and he hasn’t had the injuries that Tony has. I saw the interview with Peter King and Jay said in there that he hadn’t really done any broadcasting work. I’m not saying anything about Jay, but I can say that Tony has relished this opportunity and you can tell he is all in.You played your entire career in Dallas; do you think the expectations are higher there because the Cowboys are America’s Team and there is more national attention?
ROMO: That’s a tough question because I’ve never played anywhere else. I feel like just playing in the National Football League is what it is, but I also understand that not every team has the following the Dallas Cowboys have. There are positives and negatives. Whenever you play poorly it is going to be talked about ad nauseum, more so than maybe other organizations. But at the same time, if you played well, you’ll almost be put up on a bigger pedestal. I think that all the quarterbacks go through that in Dallas.
Did you feel any historical pressure when you took over the starting job, because of the high standard that Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach set?
ROMO: Absolutely. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t recognize the lineage and the history of high-level quarterback play that has been around before. Troy was really helpful to me when I first came into the NFL. He gave me a bunch of good nuggets that he probably thinks are small, but were actually huge for me early in my career. Roger has always been supportive of me, it was just nice to know that Roger was supportive of my position, for a kid growing up idolizing these guys, it was special to have them like you and care about you.
What’s an example of one of those nuggets from Troy?
ROMO: Troy taught me a lot of things, how to deal with the media, how to interact with your teammates. And the funny thing is, he and Roger are very different people, but they are a couple of incredible football players and they both get the most out of people around them. With Troy, I would ask about throwing mechanics, he was so gifted at throwing the football that for him, it came across as natural. It wasn’t natural for me, but I wanted to make it look easy. Roger had the ability to create plays, which is more what I was able to do when I was younger. As I got older, I tried to be more schematic in my approach and a little more like Troy. When I was younger I was a little more do whatever you have to do to move the chains, move your body, move your feet, I was a little more like Roger. Exactly what Troy said to me, I don’t want to divulge all of it, but there were a lot of things he said that allowed me to be ahead of the curve when it came to some things that came up along the way, it made it easier on me during those times.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett and quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson were both backups to Aikman in the ‘90s. You’re a little bit of a football history nerd, so when you played for them, did you ever ask them about their experience as Dallas quarterbacks playing behind Aikman?
ROMO: Oh, all the time. I am a football junkie and historian and obviously I love the Dallas Cowboys. I used to sit around and watch tape of Aikman and Staubach, it was harder to find tape on Staubach, but it was great to kinda—I mean, you are trying to find something in their game that you can use to make you better. The reality is I was lucky enough to be able to talk to them sometimes. Roger gave me something one time, it was great, he goes, “They are going to try and coach you out of making plays . . . Coaches are always going to try to coach that out of you, don’t let them. What makes the best quarterbacks is almost the ability to go above and beyond what the coaches ask. The coaches are going to coach it out of you, but the guy who can makes plays, that is a rare gift. Just make sure you don’t stop being aggressive.”I asked Dak Prescott what piece of advice he will remember from you, and he mentioned something you told him during a Week 16 game against the Lions. Dallas had scored touchdowns on back-to-back series to start the game and you went up to Dak and said, “Hey, be ready for the defensive coordinator to change his whole game plan because you are killing him.” He said he’ll remember that years from now when he’s in a similar situation. Do you remember giving Dak that advice?
ROMO: Absolutely, I remember it. In some ways, it benefits young quarterbacks to be around guys who are good. If they are smart, they will quiz them all the time. It’s like me going into broadcasting right now, if I’m smart, all I’ll do is just wear out the people who have gone before me. The top guys are so good, and there are a lot of little tips that can give you advantages, and you can be ready for things that you shouldn’t be, things that you need to experience first to learn. If you can learn it before you experience it, that’s a huge plus. When I talked to Dak, we were perfect on two straight drives. We gameplanned that game to come out and play against these certain coverages. Really what they were going to do is they were going to sit back and let us go the length of the field on 10- or 12-play drives and see if we could sustain it and they weren’t pressuring us. What I told him is, if you score on an opening drive, teams stick with what they do. If you score on the opening two drives, that defensive coordinator is done with their game plan that was specific to trying to stop you. They are done with that. Now they are going to blitz, because they get antsy and they get scared and they can’t keep doing what they were doing. There are only so many possessions in a game, they are not going to keep doing the same thing and think it is going to be different. I told him, heads up now, you’re going to want to get the ball out of your hand this third series. All these plays, just know this, it’s a seven-step drop, be prepared on each one of those, where are you going with the football if they pressure you? Stay on top of it, because they are coming after you on this drive. And sure enough, they came after him on just about every play. In some ways it would be better for Dak to see and hear all those things for years. But he soaked it in great and he’s a smart kid. He’s got a bright future.
ROMO: No. I spent some time thinking about it and coming up with it, I wrote it out. I started the process the two days before. I sat down and just thought about what I wanted to say and how I was going to do it. Then the night before, I just spent all night coming up with what I wanted to say, it was from the heart.
As an undrafted guy, you’re known for your work ethic. I recently talked to former Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter, who overlapped with you at the beginning of your Dallas career. Carter said that he would see you throwing nonstop and it made him feel like he needed to get back out there when he was done for the day. Take me into your mindset at the start of your career.
ROMO: I would say I was a little crazy. I was obsessed to say the least. It really had nothing to do with a work ethic. I just couldn’t sleep at night without the feeling of thinking that I had gotten better physically at throwing the football. Yeah, you watch tape, yeah, you lift weights, you want to do all those things, those are almost just natural things that you do when you play quarterback. But there are two things that separate quarterbacks: your mental acumen and your ability to process that information in your brain quickly, and your ability to throw a football and really throw it under duress. A lot of time coaches argue, don’t think, just throw, and I just think that is silly. What you want to do is you want to constantly evaluate mechanics left and right and you want to study it, you gotta go feel it. I just couldn’t go to bed without feeling like I had done something that was going to make me improve so that the next day I showed up I was going to be better. I’ve lived my whole life that way—just always preparing to be this guy without knowing it. But it wasn’t like, I’m just going to be the last guy on the field. It was never about that. It was always about just wanting to feel the mechanics better. I need to feel the football come off my hand perfect. If it didn’t come off perfect, I just couldn’t sleep.
How many throwing sessions per day would you do?
ROMO: I used to go throw the football in the morning in my backyard and then I would go to football practice and then I would come back out with David Lee, who was our old quarterback coach. I’d wait until everyone was gone and I would go out there, he’d come up and turn the lights on in the facility for me and I’d go up and throw it at 10 at night, throw 20 footballs. And if he couldn’t make it because he was working or something, I would go up on my own and I threw into a net with my own 10 balls. Those sessions allowed me to fail through trial and error, just throwing the ball over and over. And I could miss by 20 yards, but I would learn that technique wouldn’t work and then all of a sudden this one would work three times and then I would throw to the left and it wouldn’t work, so that technique didn’t work. So I showed up the next day and I had a new technique that was getting rid of the subtleness. Instead of always having to learn on the practice field while the coaches are watching, I got to do it on my own. I feel like that’s what the best quarterbacks do.You never had the chance to lead the Cowboys to a Super Bowl. Do you think that’s something you’ll always regret not achieving?
ROMO: Oh yeah. I mean sometimes you can win a Super Bowl and not play very good at the quarterback position. You can be part of a team with the No. 1 defense or you can be part of a top-five team, and sometimes you have to be perfect to win every game you play. It just depends on the team you have and the season you’re in. It is obviously a hole on my resumé, but we don’t get to choose when we come about and what time. We all wish we played for the ’92 Cowboys. Or you wish you had the No. 1 defense in the league, the ’85 Bears. That would have made it a whole lot easier. Peyton Manning had a No. 1 defense and he wasn’t even playing at a level like he did his whole career, but when he had that in Denver, they won a Super Bowl. At the end of the day, you work your butt off and you have to be able to sleep at night knowing that you gave everything you possibly could. I feel like I can sleep at night knowing that I may have come up short, but I gave everything I possibly could and playing for this organization was a dream come true for me. That’s a special feeling to have that. I just feel like I was one of the lucky ones.
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