The young tongue
Since his 2017 debut, CBS football analyst Tony Romo has been the crown prince of the NFL announcing world. Upon his retirement from the Dallas Cowboys, the quarterback was hired to CBS’ lead announcing team (alongside Jim Nantz, the veteran play-by-play man) with little in the way of relevant broadcasting experience. It’s a “roll of the dice,” said former Monday Night Football commentator Dan Dierdorf shortly after CBS signed Romo. That was more or less the prevailing attitude in the industry. Then Romo went on the air. In an instant, he was regarded as a genius—and so were the people who hired him, to their relief.
Romo’s flashiest talent is a knack for uncanny prediction. In his first broadcast of a regular-season NFL game, he repeatedly offered up instant-replay analysis on plays that hadn’t even happened yet. His most virtuoso performance to date was last season’s AFC Championship: During the climactic final drives of an electrifying game, Romo accurately predicted the tactics of the New England offense in advance of almost every pivotal down.
It’s not as if Tony Romo is the only retired NFL quarterback who can read a pre-snap formation, but to verbalize your vision of the field on a national broadcast, with clarity and alacrity, is another feat altogether. Yet the key to Romo’s appeal, the magic ingredient that has made him a standout personality, is that he lacks polish. CBS may have done Romo a favor by whisking him into the booth while his Cowboys jersey was still warm. He landed one of the top sportscasting gigs before experience had a chance to smooth his rough corners. His giddy earnestness felt out-of-place on a marquee NFL broadcast, which is not to say it was unwelcome. He fidgeted in his blazer. He nervously grabbed Nantz’s arm. He was like a little boy up there. And then he predicted all those plays! So he was ordained.
Now in his third season on the air, Romo has settled into the rhythms of the booth—he doesn’t step on Nantz’s lines as much as he used to, for instance—but he hasn’t lost his exuberance or his awkward earnestness. Those are the qualities that make him come across as less of a know-it-all than a love-it-all. His nerdy-teenager tendencies were on display as usual as Romo took on his Week 10 assignment, an unexpectedly exciting showdown between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans.
The clip above is just one representative 40-second stretch from the end of the second half. First, Romo narrated a sideline shot of Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes with Mystery Science Theater 3000-style voiceover, playacting the part of Mahomes. Then, after a Kansas City player foolishly fielded a punt near his own end zone (rather than letting it bounce for a potential touchback), Romo blurted, “You have to field those at the 3-yard line. Not!” Yes, he said “Not!” It’s like having Bio-Dome star Pauly Shore watch the game with you, if Pauly Shore had an incredibly detailed knowledge of pro football. A dream come true, in other words.
From the beginning of Romo’s tenure, Sean McManus, the executive producer of CBS’ network coverage, has widely chosen not to rein Romo in. Instead, the production team allows him to be goofy, and his handlers resist the urge to steer him to a more traditional color-commentator rhythm, even though the ex-Cowboy’s bubbly verbosity can rub some viewers the wrong way. Maybe McManus and his colleagues recognize that Romo’s schoolboy energy dovetails with a fundamental but unspoken value proposition of the NFL: the mirage of eternal youth.
Viewers of any age can indulge in a vicarious thrill as they see gigantic persons perform an adrenaline-soaked dance of violence and grace. The sight of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson pirouetting through a swarm of heavily armored defenders, as he did on Sunday, is a universally accessible delight. But for fans of a certain vintage, such images have an extra layer of nostalgia. Every Sunday, men across America tune in to watch the mostly 20-something players of the league and to capture the sensation of their more active, athletic, virile youth. This is a youth that, in most cases, didn’t actually happen. Yet we like to imagine it nonetheless, and the high-def pictures of ball-hawking berserkers flying around the field make it easy to imagine—especially since there is negligible risk that our own bone and sinew will be mangled by the action on the screen.
Romo’s style complements the NFL’s whispered promise that, for a few fleeting hours each week, the old can feel young again—because Romo’s youth can be contagious, too. For confirmation, just ask old sports announcers, who are among the oldest old persons on earth. “He has a twinkle in his eye and there is a boyish excitement,” longtime announcer Bob Costas told The Washington Post this year. “He’s got enthusiasm and energy. You can feel he loves every play,” said Dick Vitale, who shouted in the ears of college basketball viewers for decades. And it’s clear that Nantz himself has been rejuvenated by his collaboration with Romo. Just look how much fun he’s having in the GIF a few paragraphs back, as Romo manhandles him. Nantz hadn’t smiled that much since the waiter accidentally gave him an additional packet of oyster crackers with his chowder. That’s how good Romo is: oyster-cracker good.
The ghost of football announcing yet to come
Yes, youth is marvelous, except for its defining quality, which is that it doesn’t last. Romo would do well to remember that he won’t be the boy wonder forever. For a glimpse of his eventual future, he can look to his predecessor on CBS’ No. 1 announcing team, Phil Simms. By the time Simms was ousted from his color-commentator role to make room for Romo, he had become known as a font of malapropisms, with entire Twitter accounts dedicated to documenting his sentences to nowhere.
Block & Tackle played its tiny part in building the modern Phil Simms mythos—it was a longtime hobby of mine to capture Simms’ surreal wanderings through the English language and render his utterances in verse, their proper form. Luckily, because Simms now holds down a spot on CBS’ studio crew, I can still glimpse his poetic brilliance from time to time.
But why is it?
Why is it?
I don’t know
I started laughing because
he tell about the donuts
it’s because they built
an offense where he’s comfortable
feels great in
—Philip Umberto Simms
Hard as it may be to imagine, Simms was once the hot property, the wunderkind, that Romo is now. Simms didn’t jump straight from the NFL to a top announcing job, but he came close: After spending one post-retirement season contributing analysis on ESPN studio shows, Simms was poached by NBC, which promptly installed him on their No. 1 announcing team. (NBC had the rights to a weekly slate of NFL games at the time, not just the single Sunday game they air now.) “I was definitely surprised when they told me I’d be on the No. 1 team,” Simms said to the Sun-Sentinel in 1995 as he prepared to join NBC. For her part, the Sun-Sentinel reporter noted that “Simms, who was known for his meticulous preparation on the field, has been the same way off it.” All of this is the same narrative that was attached to Romo when his own on-air career began.
So don’t be fooled by the power of (relative) youth—Romo and Simms may be regarded as the kid genius and the aging buffoon, respectively, but they are not so different underneath. Romo’s firsthand knowledge of the game is fresher, his mind is more sprightly, and his energy is higher than Simms. But all those assets will ebb with time. The reality is that Romo and Simms are two men at different stations on the same path.
After all, Romo is something of a poet himself. He routinely says things on air that would have been lampooned with glee if Simms said them, but they pass without much notice when they come from the lips of the prince. For instance, take this post-halftime assessment of the Chiefs-Titans game that Romo offered up to his viewers:
Be Perfect, And From Kansas City
You know that
play right there
I mean, that’s it
I mean, it’s like
Make them kick
But that’s seven!
That you’re going in
to score the other way
And all of a sudden, everything became like
We need to be perfect now,
and from Kansas City
Because before then it was just, ah
You can’t give teams touchdowns
—Antonio Waldstein Romo
Is this a dizzying syntactical adventure on the level of a Phil Simms masterwork? Not quite. But give Romo time. He’s still young.
You have to listen to the clichés he’s not saying
One of Romo’s subtler virtues is that he, through conscious effort or not, often steers clear of standard announcing folk wisdom. Late in the third quarter of Chiefs-Titans, on a 3rd-and-1 play, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw a short pass incomplete to receiver Tyreek Hill—the ball bounced off Hill’s hands, which made Hill look rather silly.
For the majority of NFL analysts confronting this scenario—where a receiver has dropped a well-placed pass on an important down—the knee-jerk response would be to remark, uselessly, from the peaceful confines of the broadcast booth, “He should have caught that.”
Here is a typical example from Troy Aikman, Fox’s lead analyst. Aikman is usually good for at least one “should have caught it” per game. The above instance comes from the 2016 divisional playoffs, and I have a clip of it in my archives because I collect video of announcing foibles the way other people collect normal things, like stamps or skulls. On the play in question, it was Aikman’s opinion that a receiver, running at full speed and leaping at an angle into the end zone with a defender on his heels, “should” have come down with the ball. It is easy to use the words “could” and “should” interchangeably when you are not the person who actually has to do the catching.
But on Sunday, despite a play that presented him with a textbook “should have caught that” setup, Romo did not engage in the usual rhetorical laziness of empty condescension. Instead, as CBS showed slow-motion footage of Hill dropping what seemed like an eminently catchable pass, Romo noted that Hill had to turn his gaze directly toward the afternoon sun in his attempt to bring the ball down. In other words, Romo worked to explain the events on the field rather than playing schoolmarm. It’s the difference between an announcer who finds something to say and an announcer who finds something to add.
Because I feel like it: A GIF of Professor Philip Siegfried Simms putting on his spectacles to peruse his script for a Buffalo Bills-Cleveland Browns highlight package
Your Week 11 QuantumPicks
Block & Tackle is the exclusive home of the QuantumPick Apparatus, the only football prediction system that evaluates every possible permutation of a given NFL week to arrive at the true victor in each contest. Put simply, Block & Tackle picks are guaranteed to be correct. When a game’s outcome varies from this column’s prediction, the game is wrong.
In Week 10 NFL action, four games corresponded with the QuantumPicks, and 11 games were incorrect. This destabilizing incursion of unreality has caused anomalies in the predictions generated by the QuantumPick Apparatus—namely, many team names emerged from the Apparatus in their alternate-universe forms, as the Apparatus struggles to maintain separation between the strands of the multiverse.
I’m assured that the underlying calculations are still purrfectly valid. Block & Tickle apologizes for these regrettable inaccuracies, to the extent that they are Knock ’Em Backle’s fault, which they are not. They are the football games’ fault.
(Overall season record: 86-64.)
Teams determined to be victorious by the QuantumPick Apparatus are indicated in SHOUTING LETTERS.
Thursday Night Football
PITTSBURGH STEELY MCBEAMS vs. Cleveland Golden Browns (Fox)
The London Game
There is no game in London this week, and the citizens are without joy. If it helps London feel better, here are some other cities where NFL games are not taking place on Sunday: Cincinnati, Melbourne, Milford, Covington, Dayton, and Milford again (doubleheader not taking place).
All other cities will host NFL football. Congratulations!
Sunday Games — Early
DALLAS COWBLOBS vs. Detroit Lionblobs (Fox)
Jacksonville 404 Team Name Not Founds vs. INDIANAPOLIS INDIANAPOLISES (CBS)
BUFFALO BELLS vs. Miami Only Certain Dolphins (CBS)
Denver MacBook Pro Keyboardddddddds vs. MINNESOTA TOPICAL REFERENCES (CBS)
New York Jets vs. WASHINGTON (Fox)
ATLANTA SPENSER: FOR HIRE FAN CLUB vs. South Carolina Panthers Of North Carolina (Fox)
Texon Houstass vs. BALTIMEN RAVORES (CBS)
Sunday Games — Late
Arizona Five-Time Emmy Nominees vs. SAN FRANSIXCO 121ERS (Fox)
THE ALL-NEW! ENGLAND PATRIOTS vs. Philadelphia Don Henley Solo Careers (CBS)
Cincinati Bengals vs. DECOMMISSIONED MISSILE SITE (DO NOT APPROACH) RAIDERS (CBS): The QuantumPick apparatus predicts a score of 4-2 in this contest.
Sunday Night Football
Heineken Presents Bud Bowl XXVII: Chicago Buds vs. LOS ANGELES BUD LIGHTS (NBC)
Monday Night Football
KANSAS CITY THE TRUTH IS, GERALD, I DON’T KNOW IF YOU’RE REALLY “CHIEF” MATERIALS vs. Los Angeles Chargerns (ESPN)
Teams on bye
The Tennessee Titans. The Green Bay Packers. The New York Giants. The Seattle Seahawks. They call themselves football teams. But where will they be on Sunday, that most hallowed of football days? Not on the field! I imagine they’ll be sipping Mai Tais on the beach somewhere, at a Mai Tai competition where they are appearing as celebrity judges, to raise badly needed money for charity. Also, one of the Green Bay Packers will save a kid who could have drowned.
Sounds real nice—hey, here’s another idea, fellas. How about you suit up and knock heads for our depraved enjoyment? Risk a little life and limb already, would you please?
Talk backle to Block & Tackle
If you’d like to contact me with an item for Block & Tackle, or just to say hello, you can email me: my first name, at symbol, my full name, dot com. You can also reach me via Twitter. Thank you for reading, and for the funny and smart comments. Keep on long snappin’.