CBS Sports executives were optimistic they had a keeper in Tony Romo when they made the bold move to install him this season as their lead NFL analyst, replacing Phil Simms.
But they also feared the public reaction might be unkind when he debuted on Sept. 10 calling a Raiders-Titans game, thanks to the cynical nature of social media.
Instead, he was an immediate hit with both fans and professional critics, in particular for his knack for anticipating plays teams were about to run.
Four months later, the former Cowboys quarterback is preparing to conclude his rookie TV season alongside play-by-play man Jim Nantz at Sunday’s AFC Championship Game between the Jaguars and Patriots in Foxborough.
It will be the biggest audience he ever has spoken to, deeper into the playoffs than he ever got as a player. Nervous? Romo said he will not be.
“The game kind of calls itself,” he said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday to promote CBS’ coverage. “If the players are doing great things, you want to talk about it and hopefully you get to show the viewer what they’re seeing . . . I just want to be able to tell them why, hopefully how, and hopefully they can enjoy the energy along the way.”
Nantz said he is confident Romo is ready for the stage, and that his approach will not change “one iota. He’ll be ready. This is just a continuum of what we’ve been doing all year long.
“You don’t suddenly change up what you’re doing in your preparation or even your presentation just because it’s the AFC Championship Game. You do them all the same.”
If that sounds like coachspeak from Nantz, so be it. He has taken it upon himself to mentor Romo in the ways of television, along with the rest of CBS’ team, including producer Jim Rikhoff, director Mike Arnold and sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson.
Nantz said he has not been surprised at how quickly Romo has taken to his new career. He said he sensed all would be well during their first practice game together last spring at the CBS Broadcast Center in Manhattan.
“This is going to sound crazy to say, but by the time we finished the fourth quarter of that game I thought he was ready to go on the air,” Nantz said. “His instincts are off the charts.”
Nantz said that because Romo got typecast early as a play-anticipation savant, his other attributes sometimes are underappreciated.
“There’s much more breadth to his skill level than just that,” Nantz said. “He’s always ahead of the game. And that does not mean calling the plays every single time. There are roughly 130 snaps during a football game and he was two or three times during a game foreshadowing exactly where the ball was going to go.
“That’s a small percentage. I don’t think he ever got enough credit for the other 127 snaps that were taking place, because he was brilliant over all of those, too, as far as his analysis.”
At 37, Romo likely could have played another couple of years, and he acknowledged there were times this season he missed being on the field.
But, he added, “I know I probably didn’t miss waking up on Mondays taking your time getting out of bed. That was a little easier.”
The first time he called a Cowboys game, at home against the Chiefs on Nov. 5, was an emotional experience, but by the time of his second it was “more normal.”
As a football nerd who used to pester coaches with questions, Romo said his approach to watching a game is not much different now, other than having a higher viewing angle and not being chased by angry, 300-pound men.
“Up in the booth I feel it’s the same way, watching the game, looking for the same movement,” he said “There are a million little things you look for that are situationally involved. Sometimes it’s mannerisms. People will give that away a lot of times, especially younger defensive players. You know in a lot of cases what they’re thinking or trying to do.
“I think it’s pretty similar. I’m basically voicing things that are going through my head instead of thinking them to myself.”
Nantz turned away a question about whether he has been revitalized working with his new partner.
“Listen, I worked for 13 years with Phil and I enjoyed all of it,” he said. “He’s a wonderful guy. I don’t like comparisons. We closed that chapter and I loved every single page in that book . . . We never had a cross word. It was a great time.”
Still, Nantz said having Romo around has “energized” the rest of the unit.
“Honestly, since Sept. 10 when we debuted as a team for real, it’s been the snap of a finger,” Nantz said. “It’s been a blur getting here to Jan. 21 and our last game.”
Nantz said he recently told Romo how happy he has been seeing him flourish.
“It’s been fun trying to be a tutor and mentor and a friend,” he said. “He could have been playing for a few more years. This was a big leap of faith for Tony, and the fact that he’s had a good time — more than a good time, he’s had a great time, I know he’s had a great time, I know he’s enjoyed every part of the process — I take a lot of satisfaction out of that. I really do.”