That Romo, who will call Sunday’s Super Bowl with Nantz on CBS, is taking such questions is jolting. Five years ago at this event, he was fresh off perhaps one of the greatest announcing performances in sports history, having correctly predicted a series of plays between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots in the AFC championship game.
But in the years since, something has happened, at least among serious football consumers: The people have turned on Romo.
The backlash has been swift and ubiquitous. Chris Russo, on ESPN’s “First Take,” crushed Romo for naming the wrong player when recalling a famous moment from decades ago. Columnists have ripped his chemistry with Nantz. Others have called for Greg Olsen, Fox’s lead analyst, to take his job (though Brady will replace him next year). Dave Portnoy piled on.
At Tuesday’s news conference, a reporter put it to Romo like this: “Have you changed at all since you started announcing, or have people watching you changed?”
“You call the game that’s in front of you,” Romo said. “There’s not a lot different in my personality.”
Romo’s online tormentors have noted that he can be buddy-buddy with Nantz, so much so that it borders on goofy; that he focuses on the quarterback at the expense of other nuances of the games; and that he can tell you over and over that “this is the play of the game.” When he didn’t know the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 1-2 running back combo during an early-round playoff game, it appeared to expose a gaping hole in his basic knowledge of the team.
But some of these qualities are exactly what catapulted him to stardom. He was predicting plays, yes, but he was more than a parlor trick. He brought an exuberance to the booth that was infectious and a departure from traditional analysts. He loved football and wanted the audience to know it. And he’s still that guy.
What Romo is not is the industry’s shiny new toy. After his initial star turn, he was the subject of a landscape-shifting bidding war between ESPN and CBS, which doesn’t exactly fit with his aw-shucks vibes.
“When you’re on TV and you got 35 to 40 million people watching and you’re making $17 million, people want to nitpick every little thing you do,” said Booger McFarland, a former “Monday Night Football” analyst. “They’re not hoping you enjoy your $17 million.”
Nantz gently came to Romo’s defense at Tuesday’s press event: “We’re all going to end up on the short end of the stick sometimes.” In an interview with The Washington Post last year, he was less gentle: “Reporters with nothing else to write have agendas and are looking for clicks and attention.”
Al Michaels, a decorated NFL announcer for decades now calling games for Amazon, said what Romo is experiencing is a hazard of the job. “Tony was the flavor of the month,” he said. “We’ve all been the flavor of the month. This month, Greg Olsen is the flavor of the month. It comes and it goes. It’s so subjective and so arbitrary.”
He added: “Players go through this, too. Look at Russell Wilson. He went from being a surefire Hall of Famer to ‘what the f—?’ If you’re a golden boy for too long, you’re going to get shot down. Everybody in every business: politics, sports, business. People don’t want to see the golden boy Tony Romo anymore.”
Around the industry, there is also a growing belief that Romo’s style may appeal to more casual fans than football junkies, many of whom prefer Olsen’s more professorial approach. “I may not love Tony, but my wife thinks he’s the best,” said one media executive in Vegas.
Ultimately, the answer is most likely that Romo changed — and his audience did, too.
“He wanted people to know he wasn’t a one-trick pony,” Nantz said. “I think he wanted to try to have more substance. He didn’t want to be David Copperfield, so there’s less predicting.”
Cris Collinsworth, the lead analyst on NBC, recalled a story a few years ago when his son ran into Romo with a big group at a dinner during Super Bowl week. Romo invited him and a friend to join, and after the meal the table played credit card roulette.
“This was God-knows-how-many people,” Collinsworth said. “And wouldn’t you know it [my son and his friend] are the last two credit cards. And my son is wondering if he’s going to have to call me for $40,000 or something. They take him to the brink of total breakdown before they let him off the hook and Tony picks up the tab.”
Collinsworth continued: “I know the devil within. Tony’s just a fun-loving guy. It comes through in the broadcast. When I watch one of his games, I feel like I had fun.”
Perhaps the best news for Romo is that Brady — with a salary that reportedly doubles Romo’s — will join the Fox booth next fall. No doubt his every utterance will send tremors through social media and the blogosphere; Romo could be an afterthought.
However Romo’s career evolves, Collinsworth will always have a soft spot for him for another reason.
“He doubled and tripled what anyone was making,” Collinsworth said. “He will forever be one of my all-time heroes. I’m going to build a statue to the guy. He’s the greatest.”