The media can be a tough crowd. Never was that more clear than when the news broke that Tony Romo was retiring and heading straight to the broadcast booth to become the lead analyst for The NFL on CBS.
Given the immediate overreactions, you’d think the former Cowboys quarterback committed grand theft or physical assault. But before you write Romo off and cry foul on CBS for undercutting Simms, pump the brakes.
I recognize that Romo hasn’t worked one television broadcast. It’s true he’ll have all eyes watching him like a hawk and waiting for him to stumble. And yes there will be immediate comparisons made to Simms, who was a staple of the CBS broadcast for nearly twenty years. But despite those less than convenient circumstances, I have confidence that Romo will settle into his new role just fine.
Why am I optimistic?
Have we forgotten that NFL television booths are made up of former players who at one point didn’t know the first thing about the broadcasting business? I realize some of us in the media want to make this job sound harder than it is but it is possible for a former player to learn how to adjust to different cameras, change his facial expressions, and insert comedic lines and timely analysis and opinion during a three hour broadcast. The last time I checked, Jon Gruden didn’t venture into a small market to learn the ropes of the television business. Instead he was thrust quickly into ESPN’s Monday Night Football programming, and judging from the results, ‘Chucky’ has done just fine.
The same can be said of Simms, Troy Aikman, and most of the remaining NFL analysts who work on network broadcasts. Maybe they weren’t thrust immediately onto the #1 broadcast team but if someone is good enough to be on the 2nd or 3rd team handling an analyst role, then let’s not act like this is the equivalent of advancing from cashier to Chief Financial Officer.
As I read numerous articles, tweets and Facebook posts about how poorly Romo would do, how unqualified he was, and why CBS was on the verge of going down like a plane without two wings, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Broadcasting a football game on television can be taught. This isn’t brain surgery or being tasked with creating algorithms. I’m not suggesting that anyone on the planet can enter a booth and be successful, but if an athlete knows the game, has an ability to speak well, looks good on camera, is familiar to the audience, and is willing to work on his craft seven days per week to be great on game day, just as they did during their playing career, they’ll be fine.
In mentioning those qualities, let’s analyze how they apply to Romo.
First, an analyst must have an ability to speak well. Judging from Tony’s interviews over the years, the way he conducts himself before and after games during press conferences, not to mention his numerous appearances in commercials and other unrelated media roles, he undoubtedly possesses that skill.
Next, they must look good on camera. In case you forgot, Romo has dated Carrie Underwood and Jessica Simpson, and is married now to Candice Crawford. Although I’m sure they enjoyed the bragging rights of being involved with the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, there had to be some visual attraction involved too to gain the attention of some of those beautiful women. Romo flashes a great smile on camera, presents himself in a classy and charming manner, and has shown that he has a good sense of humor. His ability to pass the eye test shouldn’t be a problem.
That then brings us to the understanding of the game. Romo enjoyed a successful NFL career playing the position of quarterback which requires knowing what is happening on the field on both offense and defense at all times. If Tony was able to be the leader everyone took their cue from, then I’m sure he’ll settle in when presenting information to the audience that they find valuable. This is a guy who’s very bright and entering the booth directly from the field, which gives him an advantage when talking about subjects that will come into focus next season.
The last piece of the puzzle involves the three P’s – preparation, pressure, and passion.
Starting with prep, for the past 13 seasons (and even before that when he played college ball) Romo has spent 6-7 days per week studying game film and playbooks. He’s dedicated countless hours to his craft to become highly productive, and after going undrafted and lingering for a few seasons on the practice squad, he was given a chance to start for the Cowboys. That doesn’t happen if his coaches and teammates sense that he’s not a hard worker. Heck, he’s even maintained that approach with his golf game. People who possess a strong work ethic don’t just flip a switch and turn it off. Which is why I’m confident he’ll invest himself 150% into his new line of work.
Regarding pressure, is there any NFL team under the microscope more than the Dallas Cowboys? Romo has had every single throw, turnover, game result and off the field personal decision of his analyzed, scrutinized and debated for over a decade. He’s been the face of a franchise led by high profile owner Jerry Jones and it’s never caused him to break. Sure he’s had bad games and been involved in a few losing seasons, but you don’t play the position of quarterback for America’s team as long as Romo did if you can’t handle the heat.
Last but not least is the one word that we know Romo possesses on the field, but have no way of knowing if it will transfer into the broadcast booth, and that’s passion. When Tony played on Sunday, you knew he loved the game, and left it all out on the field. As a New York Giants fan, I especially enjoyed when he offered up those timely interceptions and fumbles, but all joking aside, he played with passion, and that was captured on video and in audio anytime he spoke before or after a game. Whether he’ll bring that same burning desire to this business is anyone’s guess, but we could say that about any player making the jump from the field to the booth. If being able to guarantee that a player would maintain passion for a role in television was a prerequisite for landing a high profile opportunity, we’d have a lot of booths operating without the presence and credibility of NFL players.
In making his transition into broadcasting, Romo is going to discover quickly that every sentence he utters, every opinion he delivers, and every prediction he misses, becomes headline news and the subject of conversation on Monday’s and sometimes for the remainder of an entire week. It’s what the sports media does. We grab the hot topic, regurgitate it until we get bored or the audience gets frustrated, and then move on. With red meat available, critics will be looking harder and listening closer to see if he has what it takes to get the job done. The second he misfires, the media vultures will be swooping down to feast on him as if he were mouthwatering roadkill.
But as media pundits standby waiting for their opportunity to pounce on him for mistakes and use it as a springboard to question his credentials and experience, let’s also not be hypocritical. If Peyton Manning or Brett Favre were being given this opportunity would the same media outrage exist? Neither Brett or Peyton have booth experience, yet when stories have been written in the past about their future possibilities in sports television, the narrative was certainly a lot more positive. I’d expect Tom Brady to receive similar treatment when his playing days are done if he wishes to pursue a move into sports television.
Something else which has not been mentioned much but deserves being brought to light is the track record of CBS Chairman Sean McManus. Without question, he’s done an excellent job over the years of identifying and hiring great analysts. While I haven’t been part of the CBS circle of trust, I have to believe that McManus wouldn’t have removed Simms from the lead analyst spot if he didn’t have a great feel for Romo and a belief in his ability to transition smoothly into this new role. I also don’t buy the stories that have been floated about Tony being receptive to leaving the booth next season to return to the field. This isn’t a stopgap job. It’s one you retain for a decade or longer, especially if you do it well.
Is McManus’ perfect? Of course not (Mike Carey? Really?). Even the greats swing and miss from time to time. That said, his batting average would be good enough to place him in the hall of fame. Call me naive or too optimistic, but I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to an executive who nails the majority of his decisions before I assume that he’s lost his fastball.
And if you’re going to scream bloody murder over Simms being given a raw deal let me remind you of something – this is the media business. Things like this happen all the time. It’s very similar to the way business is conducted in professional sports. We don’t work for the government where 15-20 years of employment is given as long as we keep our noses clean. This industry is extremely competitive, and networks are going to constantly overturn every rock they can to find an edge to increase their ratings and revenues. Sometimes that requires demoting or parting ways with classy, talented, and loyal people, and even though it sucks and isn’t fair, it’s a reality of the business we’re in.
I’m not saying that what happened to Simms was right. Far from it. But Phil owned a seat for a very long time that many others have salivated over sitting in, and at some point, it’s going to be occupied by someone else. Although I’m sure it wasn’t his preference, he can take solace in the fact that he’ll still be well compensated, while performing in a new role that allows him to continue being seen by a large nationwide audience, and having now gone thru this experience, he’ll be further appreciated and respected by his peers.
Just because Joe Montana and Emmitt Smith sucked on television doesn’t mean Romo will. If Tony is willing to walk away from the NFL and pass up an opportunity to extend his career in order to start the next chapter of his professional life, while absorbing the extra pressure of being the guy who was added to the broadcast at the expense of Simms, then we should at least let him get inside the booth and perform before we order his tombstone and read him his last rites.
That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Romo is going to have to practice speaking in soundbytes and work on developing on-air chemistry with Jim Nantz. Audiences are going to expect him to be critical and speak on their behalf, which means that he’s going to have to cut the cord on his past and embrace his future. One advantage he has is that CBS’ NFL games package involves the AFC, which means he likely won’t be working a high number of Cowboys games. That would put him in an awkward position during his rookie broadcasting season.
Although it may be fun to debate if Romo will be a great game analyst on Sunday’s and whether or not he deserves to be in this position, the truth is none of us really know if he’ll excel in this line of work. Until he’s standing next to Nantz and opening his mouth for the first time, only then will we have something to measure him by. Maybe he’ll freeze when the lights go on just as he did during a few critical games during his playing days, but maybe this becomes the role for which he’s best remembered.
And think about the irony in that. Tony Romo could soon make the biggest impact of his career on Sunday’s, except this time from the inside of a broadcasting booth. Sometimes these stories just write themselves.