The most remarkable thing Patrick Mahomes did during the AFC Championship game wasn’t a pass he lobbed. With less than 23 seconds on the clock, Kansas City down three points against the New England Patriots, the Texas Tech product was tasked with orchestrating a comeback against the greatest quarterback of his—or maybe any—generation. He’d just completed a pass down the field from his own 30 yard line, caught in bounds with 26 seconds to go by tailback Spencer Ware to bring the ball to the 50. He called a quick timeout, and the Chiefs had to find another 20 yards to set up a field goal.
Mahomes, the 23-year-old quarterback in his first year as an NFL starter, lined up the team, noticing that a Patriots’ defender jumped across the line of scrimmage a split second before the snap. Immediately, Mahomes stood in the pocket and looked deep down the field, connecting with a receiver on the 20 yard line, one who might as well have been a mile from the sideline. Under normal circumstances, that’s a risky play. Afterward, a quarterback has to scramble his team together, hope that everything is set in time to spike the ball and stop the clock, setting up—if he’s lucky—the game-tying field goal. Better to try a pair of quick sideline passes, hoping to pick up ten yards each time and then get out of bounds to preserve time.
But Mahomes didn’t need to work the sideline. He didn’t need to rush up to the line. Because the Patriots were offsides, he recognized that he had a free pass to take his shot. It made a throw that’s normally a gamble into a no-risk attempt to set up the kick and force overtime. More importantly, it showed that Mahomes is playing the game with the kind of presence of mind that we expect from the sort of seen-it-all veterans like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers. The pass was good—there are only a dozen or so quarterbacks in the NFL you’d trust to complete one downfield in that situation—but there are far fewer you would expect to know exactly why that pass was the perfect move.
Kansas City made the kick, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Mahomes never saw the field in overtime. Tom Brady will go to his ninth Super Bowl, and we don’t know how Mahomes would have faired on football’s biggest stage.
But watching Mahomes play in the AFC Championship game made it seem like a virtual lock that he’ll get there someday. (As Vince Young, RG3, and more can attest, though, the NFL does have a history of turning on black quarterbacks after a sensational first season as a starter, so we’ll be watching with caution.) That game let us watch a player level up in front of our very eyes. He learned how to pick apart Bill Belichick’s defense, and proved that there was no situation he couldn’t lead his team through. He’d been pulling off amazing plays all season long, but this was for the Super Bowl. He scored 24 points in the fourth quarter, and there’s a fair argument that says that the game’s conclusion was, ultimately, decided by a coin flip—there’s no reason to believe that, had Kansas City gotten the ball first, the Patriots would have been able to stop them.
Instead, New England got the ball in overtime and drove the length of the field. And as they did, the game’s other MVP—not including Tom Brady, who has collected enough MVP awards in his career that he won’t miss not getting this one—was revealed. It was Tony Romo, who proved once more that he’s the most fascinating commentator the NFL has ever seen.
Since entering the announcer’s booth at the start of the 2017 season, Romo has provided a different kind of insight into the game. He’s broken down the field in innovative ways, sees things that most announcers aren’t looking for. In the video above, he assess exactly where the Patriots’ offense will be going, and how it’ll play. If Romo hits Powerball, don’t be shocked—he’s been predicting things with eerie accuracy for the past two years. But on Sunday, he was also able to explain what Tom Brady was seeing, what he was looking for, and why the ball would be going where it was going. “Watch this safety—if he comes down, they’re throwing out there,” Romo said on 3rd and 10, right before the safety came down and Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for fifteen yards on a slant route—a play that the team hadn’t even practiced.
Romo’s a rare kind of announcer. He’s got all of the enthusiasm you want from a color commentator—he cares deeply about what’s happening on each play, and is as excited as someone like Chris Collinsworth or Gus Johnson when something big happens on the field. But he also makes fans watching the game feel smarter, like they understand the complex sport better just because of the way he explains it to them.
There’ve been plenty of smart football guys in the booth before—think of John Madden and his famous overuse of the telestrator—but the way Romo explains things is simple. He tells you one or two things he’s looking for and what that means. A safety stepping forward is going to be out of position to break up the slant. A running back staying back to chip is going to open the pass to the slot receiver. Watch Romo long enough, and you realize he’s not actually a witch—or, if he is, that he’s conveying some of his powers to you, as you learn how to watch the secondary to see if the safeties are dropping back or coming down.
Romo told the Athletic after the game that he’s had contract offers from teams to come back to the game. He doesn’t seem interested in doing so (and CBS seems poised to offer him a hefty raise to keep him in its studio). That makes sense. The future on the field clearly looks like it’s in the direction of players like Patrick Mahomes, and a 38-year-old Romo would have his work cut out for him. The future in the booth, though, could well include Romo calling games for the next thirty years. If it does, fans will be smarter because of it.