As Tony Romo transitions from decade-long Savior of Cowboys Football to Savior of CBS Viewers for an indeterminate amount of time, a lot of questions have arisen. The primary one being: How good can Romo be in his first year at the top of the football commentator ladder?
Disclaimer: Before you wonder “What’s this idiot know about this,” I’ve called both high school and D1 college sports while training others to do both play by play and color commentary (Romo’s new job).Many of the things discussed will be drawn from those experiences.
What works for Romo:
Romo’s experience as a player is without question his best asset. He has first-hand experience in every facet of playing football, from watching film to practice to playing in both the regular and postseason. While there are great analysts of the game who haven't suited up professionally, there’s no substitute for taking the hits and doing the work. Romo can bring that into the booth with him and lean on it as his primary well of knowledge.
Additionally, preparing for games will be easier since he’s already done it. Romo’s preparation skills will endow him with the discipline needed as he studies two teams every week. Once again his knowledge will come into play, as he’ll know a signifcant number of the players he’s calling to start with. That will give him a head start, allowing him to absorb the things he doesn’t know since he’ll have an expanded awareness of the things he does.
Another big thing that most inexperienced broadcasters have issues with is pressure. When Romo calls his first game, more than ten million people will be watching him (16.5 million watched an average regular season game in 2016). That’s a lot to handle for anyone, but it’s safe to say Romo has a built-in advantage against the pressure. Whereas most commentators have spent their careers dealing with the pressures of the job, Romo spent his formative years trying to not be crushed under the weight of 11 bloodthirsty helmeted raptors. For a guy with the hopes and dreams of an entire franchise on his right arm, trading that in for a headset and talking in a booth will be an upgrade.
He’s also got some background in media. In addition to all the press conferences he’s done in his time, Romo has spent his fair share of time on the radio. As a young third-stringer and backup, he’d often appear on Cowboy Hour type programs and was open to doing radio interviews. Obviously as he transitioned from last on the depth chart to NFL superstar that became less feasible, and he made a point of avoiding scrutiny or making noteworthy statements during the last half of his career. But Romo is not a guy you would consider unfriendly to the media during his NFL career.
That said, plenty of players have that experience and are still bad (the guy Romo’s replacing comes to mind). So what will Romo need to do in order to avoid going the way of the retired pro athlete who gets fired from his new gig after two years?
What Romo Will Need To Overcome
The experience he has comes with a double edged sword. He knows about the game of football, but that game comes with a language barrier. The way players and coaches talk about the game isn’t the way average fans do, so Romo’s biggest challenge off the bat will be translating what he knows into regular people diction. All his knowledge is useful, but communicating that to us in a clear and concise way is important.
One of the biggest challenges young broadcasters also face is finding their pace. There’s two aspects of that: Finding it with yourself, and finding it with your partner. Romo will be working with legendary play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz. Having experienced captain to guide him should help Romo a great deal. His challenge will be not stepping on his partner’s toes while making sure he gets his points across. There’s no substitute for that except to do it. Chemistry is built knowing the ticks, pacing, and every other idiosyncrasy about who you work with.
Additionally, Romo will need to develop his voice. Not in the literal sense, though using his voice as a tool is something he should be looking into. Romo now has the opportunity to become a storyteller; what is up to him is how he does it. He can be the hardcore X's and O's explainer guy, or anecdotal “When I played the game” guy - or somewhere in between. There’s no real road map for this one. It’s all going to come from within him, what feels right to him shaped around feedback he receives from CBS.
What we’ll get
One thing that can’t be understated is the effort and resources CBS will put into Romo's success. At his age Romo could broadcast for another three decades, so there’s no question he’ll get as much help as he can handle. He’ll have every advantage he could possibly need, ranging from production meetings with teams to researchers giving him stacks of stats and info. Romo won't face most of the challenges young broadcasters go through, because he’s going to the biggest show in town.
The immediate comparison people made today was Troy Aikman, who started on Fox's B-team before going to a 3-man A team booth, then finally assuming his current position. With respect to Troy, the TV game has changed a bit since he broke in. So comparing Romo to Troy in that respect is almost as unfair as comparing them relative to their on-field tenures.
It's hard to predict how well someone will do the job until they do so. Emmitt Smith's era at ESPN should save as a sobering reminder of that fact. But the notion that Romo definitely won’t be good is forwarded by people that don’t seem to know what actually makes a good broadcaster. Romo has many of the qualities, the biggest thing he needs is practice and opportunities, which CBS will now give him.