Last night, the Green Bay Packers played the Chicago Bears on Thursday Night Football. The game was a clunker of a Thursday night matchup, which happens unfortunately often with NFL’s three-nights-a-week slate. Both teams had played overtime games on Sunday, and neither seemed particularly healthy. Packers running back after Packers running back was ushered to the sideline with rib injuries; Bears quarterback Mike Glennon turned the ball over three times in the first half, in increasingly embarrassing fashion (at one point a shotgun snap bounced off him and floated directly to a Green Bay defender); a frustrated Bears defender carried out one of the dirtiest hits in recent NFL history, sending Packers wide receiver Devonte Adams to the hospital in an ambulance (Adams’s prognosis, according to his coach, “looks positive”); a lightning storm caused a 40-minute delay in action at the end of the first quarter. Whatever good television is, this was not it.
Except for Tony Romo.
This was the start of Romo’s fourth week as a commentator for the NFL. And lord, is he good at it. When he announced his retirement—at a time when most observers expected him to be released by the Cowboys and to sign elsewhere—his ensuing acquisition by CBS as the network’s lead color commentator was a shock. For one, the network already had someone in that role: former New York Giants great Phil Simms, partnered with its lead play-by-play man Jim Nantz, had been employed by the network since 1998. For another, Romo had never done the job before.
Romo has always been personable and charming. He was a popular Cowboy (despite his tendency to throw brutal interceptions at key moments) in part because of how down-to-earth he came across. But an interesting personality is very different from an effective broadcaster, and there are plenty of people who’ve been compelling as players or coaches but struggled to pull off a three-hour stint as a broadcaster. (See former Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan, whose awkward performance on Monday Night Football earlier this season felt like listening to someone spend three hours trying to make conversation with their ex’s parents.) As likable as Tony Romo has always been, there were no guarantees that he’d actually be good at his new job.
As it turns out, Romo is fantastic. And more than that, he’s fantastic in interesting ways. He’s not the most polished announcer. He doesn’t have a traditional broadcaster’s voice, or even attempt it. He doesn’t speak from the position of unquestioned authority that most broadcasters demand. He doesn’t even really pretend at impartiality (mostly, he seems to root for each team’s offense). Instead, Romo comes off like a six-month-old Great Dane puppy full of football knowledge and enthusiasm, who just really, really likes talking about the football game he’s watching, which tens of millions of people are watching at home. He just seems like he’s having a lot of fun up there in that booth.
There are great moments in every Romo broadcast. In his first week, he stunned viewers (and Nantz) by not just discussing the plays on the field, but predicting them with eerie accuracy before they even happened.
That’s an impressive trick that requires a depth of football knowledge that few people in broadcast booths possess—Romo reads coverages in ways that we’ve never seen an announcer do before—but it’s only a part of what makes Romo good at his job. (As he’s progressed since opening weekend, Romo has also spent less time predicting the next play for the audience.) What he consistently does is use his depth of football knowledge to decipher parts of the game that even the most ardent fans are unlikely to understand. When Glennon fumbled the shotgun snap in the first quarter, the ball bounced off his knee and over the offensive line to the Packers. It looked like a freak accident, or maybe a poor snap from the Bears’ center. But Romo explained that quarterbacks lift their knee to send a message to the offensive linemen; Glennon had lifted it once, but thought that his center hadn’t seen it, so he did so a second time. That was the moment at which the center snapped the ball, which sent it directly into Glennon’s raised knee. It was no less clumsy or embarrassing a play (Butterfinger—the candy bar—dragged the Bears QB for it on Twitter!) with that context, but it was no longer mystifying.
Romo is guided as a broadcaster by his desire to demystify the game’s complexities, as well as his curiosity to understand exactly what’s happening. During a replay review of a possible fumble, Romo doesn’t so much talk to the audience as he talks to the control room at CBS, explaining what angle he wants to see and what it is he’s looking for. When the offense finds themselves in a 4th-and-1 situation, he goes with his gut, explaining that they’re likely to punt—then, when he considers the score and field position, he changes his mind, explains that given the situation, he wouldn’t be surprised to see even a normally conservative coach go for it. If you’ve listened to NFL broadcasters for several thousand hours of your life, you know how rare it is to hear one admit that their initial analysis was wrong and stop defending it. (Most of the time, they’ll cling to whatever nonsense they were spouting even when they were proven demonstrably wrong—NFL dudes have fragile egos.) Not so for Romo.
It’s fun to watch a game with Romo as the broadcaster, in other words, and that’s a rare thing. The great ones—John Madden, or Chris Collinsworth, or John Lynch—are unique, and the drop-off from “great” broadcaster to “easy enough to ignore” happens quickly (as does the subsequent drop to “actively requires a mute button.”) Romo is much closer to his playing days than most commentators tend to be, of course—a few months ago, he probably expected to be on the field on Sundays—and you can hear in his voice how stressful it is to watch another quarterback in a blood-pressure-raising two-minute drill. That adds up to a fascinating thing to watch this season.
In a few years, maybe Romo will be as jaded as any other broadcaster. At the very least, his delivery will likely come with more polish, and he might lose the immediacy that allows him to empathize with every quarterback who struggles. He might make fewer weird references to movies like American Beauty during broadcasts, or he might not. Certainly there’ll come a time when he knows less about the individuals on the field, as he moves further and further from his playing days. But this year, Romo is calling NFL games the way that the smartest football guy you can imagine would. We’re lucky to have him.