Tony Romo works a Dolphins game for the first time as CBS’ new lead NFL analyst on Thursday, and by every measure, he has been a smashing success, not simply the best rookie commentator in many years but already one of the best in television sports, in a select tier with Cris Collinsworth, Jeff Van Gundy and a few others.
“He has exceeded our expectations,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said in a telephone conversation this week. “This is a really hard job.”
Romo has an engaging, energetic delivery, but there’s substance to complement the style. Though he has received deserved credit for predicting play calls - and even the exact second Jameis Winston would spike the ball to stop the clock late in the Patriots game - there’s far more to the quality of his work.
He’s already the best in the game, along with Collinsworth, at diagnosing questionable time management decisions by coaches, as he did with Philadelphia’ Doug Pederson recently.
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He’s thoroughly on top of the rule book, an underrated aspect to being an elite analyst.
He criticizes players when warranted and identifies questionable strategy quickly and accurately, including wondering last Thursday why Kansas City’s Marcus Peters was playing so far off Oakland receivers.
He succinctly conveys where defenses are vulnerable and how teams should, and often do, attack them.
He’s alert, pointing out last week that Oakland’s Marshawn Lynch wasn’t even in the game on the previous play before running onto the field and making contact with a referee, which resulted in his ejection.
And he interjects a playful personality and light-hearted musings, wondering the other day how players can enunciate well enough to trash talk while wearing mouth guards.
Romo shouldn’t necessarily feel compelled to identify where the safeties are playing quite as often as he does, but it’s impossible to find any glaring shortcoming in his work.
McManus, who made the decision to vigorously pursue Romo to replace 19-year-lead analyst Phil Simms, met Romo at a function a couple days before Super Bowl 49 and was impressed how he broke down that New England-Seattle matchup in a casual conversation.
McManus walked away from that exchange telling fellow CBS executive David Berson that Romo would be a lead analyst some day. His faith has been rewarded.
“Tony is ahead of schedule,” McManus said this week. “I still think there is a lot of upside there. What I'm pleased with is the chemistry between Jim Nantz and Tony. It's easy going. It's listenable.
“You really learn a lot by listening to Tony. You learn about defensive schemes, strategy, clock management. That's a key barometer of how successful an analyst is - how much the viewer is learning and how much he’s talking about the why and not just the what and advancing the storyline and what teams need to do strategically.”
That, alone, would be enough to distinguish some analysts. But the personality component with Romo further cements his spot in the top tier of game commentators.
“I think one of the best elements of Tony's work is the fact he's so enthusiastic and has such a passion for the game,” McManus said. “That's something you can't learn and can't teach. Enthusiasm and passion are two key qualities. You get the feeling listening to Tony he's having a very good time watching these games. It's like sitting on your couch with an expert and him explaining what’s going on. He has a lot of excitement on big plays but not to the point it becomes overbearing.
“A lot of things he's doing are things you can’t teach. They are qualities we sensed when we met with him before we hired him. It's all come through even more than we thought.”
McManus said Romo - amid the positive reviews and early success - remains an eager pupil, receptive to coaching.
“Each and every game, we give Tony notes on what he did well and what he could do better,” McManus said. “We funnel them all through Jim Rickhoff, our producer. Tony and I talk a lot at the Thursday production meeting and I will give him nuggets on what I think is going well and what could be better. He is a sponge at his craft.”
And McManus emphasizes Nantz’s role in Romo’s development.
“Jim has been a generous partner setting up Tony for success,” McManus said. “Jim was very involved in all of the practice games [that the two of them did before the season]. A lot of the success Tony has is attributable to Jim Nantz and [his] unselfish attitude.”
Whenever a contender loses a quarterback to injury, does McManus worry that Romo might return to the field for the rest of the season?
“I am pretty convinced Tony is a full time broadcaster now,” he said. “I am not worried about him going back and playing. He is so dedicated and committed to this.”
Romo conceivably could have this gig for decades.
“The goal,” Romo told SI.com’s Peter King this week, “is to talk to the guy having a beer next to you, just explain the game. And if I can do that, I’ve done my job.... Preparation for this game has not been hard. I love doing it.”
AROUND THE DIAL
• There will be seven hours of network coverage of Dolphins-Ravens on Thursday.
Dan Hellie, Michael Irvin, Steve Mariucci, Marshall Faulk and Steve Smith Sr. are among those hosting the NFL Network pre-game show at 6 p.m.
The program includes a feature on former Ravens tight end Konrad Reuland, who died of a brain aneurysm in 2016 and donated his organs. Reuland’s heart went to Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew, among more than 75 people whose lives have been helped or saved by Reuland’s donation of his organs and tissue.
CBS’ portion of the pregame begins at 7:30 p.m., with James Brown, Deion Sanders and Bill Cowher. Beyond the regular postseason show, NFL Net has a stand-alone postgame at midnight, with Willie McGinest, David Carr and DeMarcus Ware, among others.
• The game will be televised by both CBS and NFL Network - the first of three consecutive prime time Dolphins telecasts.
• One TV news note with a sports connection: After mulling options for months, CBS News named a new lead news anchor on Wednesday: Jeff Glor, who has handled various news assignments for CBS (including South Florida reporting/anchoring during Hurricane Irma) as well as features for 60 Minutes Sports. Anthony Mason had been filling in on the CBS Evening News since 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley was dropped as host of the program in June.
Glor joins ABC’s David Muir and NBC’s Lester Holt as the Big Three anchors on the network evening news shows, which still carry some cache despite migration of many viewers to cable.
• Simms has seemed reinvigorated with his move to CBS’ NFL studio, and polished Nate Burleson has been an upgrade over Bart Scott, who struggled to speak concisely.
“Phil has done great,” McManus said. “He's always been a really good studio host. He shows a lot of passion just like Tony does. He watches so much tape of every game. And he doesn’t mind mixing it up with other analysts on the set. He's an enormous asset on the show. His attitude and ability to want to be really good at this is the same commitment he made when he was a game analyst.”
• Game 1 of the Los Angeles Dodgers-Houston Astros World Series produced a 10.2 rating in 56 metered markets, compared with a 12.6 for Game 1 of Indians-Cubs last year and 10.5 for Game 1 of Royals-Mets in 2015.
By comparison, NBC’s Patriots-Falcons game had a 12.6 metered market rating.
Here’s my six-pack of on-field Dolphins notes from Wednesday, including injury news.
Here’s my 10-pack of UM football personnel nuggets from Wednesday.
And please check back after the Heat game for more Dolphins news.