Sports broadcasting can be a fickle business. One day you are the apple of an executive’s eye, as attractive as Salma Hayek or one of those Hemsworth dudes. Take Phil Simms, for instance. Last August, upon talking to this column, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus did not waver on his opinion of his top NFL analyst.
“Listening to it with a very critical ear, I think Phil is vastly underappreciated, and part of that is the overreaction to social media,” McManus said. “If you listen to what he said during some of the biggest moments of the season—he was the first one to say if Denver won the Super Bowl, Von Miller would be MVP, and he was the first one to criticize Cam Newton for not jumping on his fumble toward the end of the game. He was on top of most of the storylines for most of the game, and that’s part of the reason we won the [Sports] Emmy [for Outstanding Live Sports Special]. I would just suggest that if people listen to Jim and Phil with an open mind, I think they would recognize what a good job they are doing.”
Ah, romance. Seven months later, Simms is out. On Tuesday CBS announced that former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo will become the network’s lead NFL game analyst beginning with the 2017-18 NFL season. Romo joins Jim Nantz and Tracy Wolfson on the top announce team for the network’s coverage of the NFL on Sunday afternoons and Thursday Night Football.
Along with coming into the booth without any network experience, Romo will not have that benefit of starting with a lower broadcast team to get reps, something Troy Aikman, Simms and many other NFL broadcasters have done. That is a high-wire tightrope no matter how bright or comfortable you are in front of the camera. And NFL fans are not shy with opinions of broadcasting newcomers, as former referee and CBS Sports employee Mike Carey found out quickly.
CBS will provide Romo with everything to make things work, including assigning him their top NFL producer (Lance Barrow) and top director (Mike Arnold). But there are no guarantees in sports broadcasting. Ray Lewis, he of the fire and brimstone speeches as a Baltimore Raven, looked to be a sure thing as a NFL analyst. He was not. Conversely, Louis Riddick, who was a journeyman player in the NFL, has turned into one of the best on-air voices in the sport. In Romo’s position, as a color analyst, the mechanics of TV can be taught. What can’t be taught is how he prepares for each week and when (if ever) he decides to morph from an ex-player into a fulltime broadcaster. Will he work on behalf of viewers rather than the league, his former team and friends in the league? That’s always a key question.
Naturally, McManus thinks Romo will be a game-changer.
“People have said to us, ‘Boy, you're taking a guy who is coming right from the field into a position as a lead analyst, isn't that a risk?’ Well, I think it's a very manageable risk, to be honest with you,” McManus said. “I think Tony will be having all sorts of work this summer, whether it's doing practice games, whether it's doing preseason games, whether it's sitting down and looking at film and tape of other analysts and the kind of job that they do. It's going to be a full time job for Tony really starting this summer. So I think when he goes to the booth, he'll be ready. But will he better Week 6 than he is Week 1? Yes, he will be. Will he better in Year 2 than he will be in Year 1, yes he will. But if we didn't have the faith in Tony, if we didn't have the faith that he could be an outstanding analyst, we wouldn't be taking this risk.”
Romo said he spoke to other networks and he thanked them for the interest. He said he felt a connection with the CBS group and that working with Nantz was a big factor in his decision. CBS offered the No. 1 spot from the jump. He is the fifth lead NFL analyst (Pat Summerall, Tom Brookshier, John Madden and Simms) in that network’s football history.
On a conference call on Tuesday afternoon, Romo was contemplative and introspective. He clearly won’t be a rah-rah analyst like Jon Gruden, nor the over-the-top personality of Madden. He had a good perspective on whether he would get inklings to play again and conceded that he would never feel the same rush in the booth that he did on the field.
“I've got to go attack this just like football and see where I'm good and where I'm not,” Romo said. “The one thing I have always felt is if there is a strength of mine, it's my ability to learn. If I'm not very good right away, my hope is it doesn't take too long. And if I'm not, I can promise you I'll be spending 20-hours a day trying to figure it out and I’ll be analyzing that all the time. That's the approach I'm going to take, and I think that gives me the best chance to succeed.”
When asked about specific analysis, Romo was pretty good on the call, whether discussing the Texans or Patriots.
“There are millions of little scenarios within the game,” Romo said. “The adjustment that took place at the Super Bowl: Bill Belichick runs a bear front defense, which means he puts three lineman right over the center in guards. Well, guess what Atlanta does? They run wide and gash [the Patriots] in the first half. Well, how smart is Belichick? He comes right out and runs a completely different front in the second half. They get one run. It's a really intelligent move. That's the kind of stuff you have a chance to communicate if you can get out there and recognize it. There are a lot of little things and it's going to be fun with the evaluation process.”
As for Simms, CBS said that they are still discussing what he will do in the future. Tara Sullivan, the sports columnist of The Record, spoke to Simms’ agent, Steve Rosner of 16W Marketing, LLC, who confirmed that Simms has multiple years left on his CBS contract.
“I've had a few brief discussions with CBS in regard to the future and we have decided at the moment that we will regroup within the next month or so and figure out what his future role will be,” Rosner told Simms.
Rosner is a smart guy and the move for Simms would be to quietly take the demotion and continue working. One of the geniuses of Verne Lundquist and Brent Musburger was that they always took assignments, no matter the level or event. Simms will always have work as an analyst if he doesn’t get caught up in where he is on the rotation.
Sports networks always have on hand a list of current coaches and players who might make for good analysts. McManus said every time his production teams would do a Dallas game, they reported back that Romo had the potential to be an excellent analyst. The CBS chairman and his top lieutenant David Berson, also met Romo at a party prior to Super Bowl 49 in Phoenix. McManus asked Romo what he thought about the game and Romo proceeded to give him 10 minutes of analysis.
“I didn’t realize I would get an audition,” McManus said. “I walked away from that conversation and said to David, ‘Someday that man is going to be a lead analyst.’” (The moral of this story is anytime you meet a TV exec, you are always auditioning.)
McManus said his conversations began with Romo shortly after the NFL season was over, and talks heated up in the last couple of weeks.
“What are the attributes that led us to believe Tony was perfect for this role?” McManus said. “First of all he is remarkably articulate. Having had a lot of conversations with him and not just about football but about life, he has an uncanny way of expressing himself in an amazingly understandable way. He is passionate about the NFL and if you are not passionate about the NFL, you have no shot at being an NFL analyst. That passion will come through in his commentary and I think it is a really important part of what makes Tony Romo. He is very likeable and you can’t teach that. You are either likeable on television or not likeable on television and Tony both in person and on television is an incredibly likeable young man.”
You get the picture. McManus spent additional time saying Romo would do the research and preparation that it takes to be a top analyst. He praised Romo’s sense of humor. He said Romo had a great outlook on life. He did not, I can confirm, say Romo will bring peace between North and South Korea.
Romo said the decision was difficult but that this is what he wanted to do over the next 15-20 years. One thing he will be quickly graded on his how he discusses the Cowboys during both Dallas games and games involving their division and conference rivals.
“I am speaking from a novice position here, but my feelings are that am always going to feel the need to want to talk up the Cowboys,” Romo said. “Those are your friends, those are the people you sweat and bled with, these are people you will be close with for a long time. For a while I am going to want them to succeed. Now there is part of my job that you need to be impartial. That is part of being an analyst…. I will be fine critiquing players. That is part of the position.”
You bet it is. Cris Collinsworth once told me that he felt he became an analyst when he started thinking about himself as a broadcaster first and a former player second. That will also be the line for Romo, except he’s going to be judged much faster and much harder in a social media environment. CBS thinks it has its top NFL guy for the next decade plus. We’ll soon see.