About two years ago, in a private room of a restaurant the week of Super Bowl LI in Houston, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus saw the future.
With CBS Sports president David Berson and then-CBS chief Les Moonves, McManus listened as Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo – who was still under contract – talked about potentially becoming the network’s top NFL analyst.
“After Tony left, I turned to David and to [Leslie] and said, ‘That’s our guy,’ ” McManus said on a conference call with reporters. “We got to get this guy. I listened to him talk about football and had him answer our questions. I was convinced after that meeting that Tony was the guy we wanted in the booth next to Jim Nantz.”
Showing the predictive powers of Romo himself, McManus’ assessment has proved to be prophetic. Romo isn’t just CBS’ No. 1 analyst, he’s the best in the game, and after two seasons on the job, the former Eastern Illinois QB will call Super Bowl LIII between the Patriots and Rams with Nantz on Sunday in Atlanta.
What makes Romo’s rise astonishing is that he walked right off the football field and into the broadcast booth. Ask ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” analyst Jason Witten how difficult that is. Witten faced a barrage of criticism from the get-go, and the critics haven’t let up.
Though detractors were out in force when Romo signed with CBS in April 2017, it didn’t take long for them to see what McManus saw. One game, to be exact: Raiders at Titans in Week 1. Twitter was ablaze with positivity – a rarity in itself – about Romo’s performance.
Unlike his predecessor, Phil Simms, Romo was insightful and enthusiastic. He wasn’t polished by any means, but his animated tone and child-like energy seemed novel. And what we’ve learned in his two years on the air is that it’s genuine. His broadcasting skills have improved, but he’s the same guy.
He’s so easily excitable, you have to wonder if he’ll be overcome by the magnitude of calling a Super Bowl. More than 100 million people will watch the game. He never played in one, but it sounds like he’ll be prepared for the emotions that come with it.
“I’m anxious to see just the feelings and everything going into it,” Romo said. “I’ve never broadcasted one, but I know how I felt going into the AFC championship, and it’s such a big deal that I think it’ll be ramped up a little bit. But the excitement level is real.”
So is Romo’s psychic power, although that’s not fair to psychics, who don’t have a 13-year career of games and film study stored in their mind. Romo has made a habit of predicting plays, but he isn’t guessing. He’s reading the situation just like the quarterback on the field is.
Kevin Kaduk of Yahoo! Sports tracked Romo’s predictions during the Patriots-Chiefs AFC title game. Of the 15 calls Romo made before the snap, 12 were correct, two were incorrect and one Kaduk called a tie. What’s notable is that 13 of the predictions were made when the Patriots had the ball.
Romo was asked if it was easier for him to make a call when veteran Tom Brady was playing as opposed to Patrick Mahomes, the young wild card. As he does during broadcasts, Romo allowed us to see what he sees. And in the AFC title game, he saw what Brady saw.
“The No. 1 thing is, when you’ve played a position for a long time, you know certain things beat certain coverages. Certain fronts make it more difficult to run against,” Romo said. “Tom’s not going to make a wrong read.
“He may have a physical error. That happens to every human being and probably lesser to him than most others, obviously. But the mental side of it, Tom very seldom isn’t making the right decision. And so that part of it is probably easier to know.”
There’s a hint for what to expect during the Super Bowl broadcast. Romo figures to see more of what Brady sees than the young Jared Goff. Plus, he has called five Patriots games this season (14 in two seasons) and just one Rams game.
But Romo will be plenty prepared for both teams, and he said he won’t feel the pressure to live up to the nickname Nantz bestowed on him during his epic run in the AFC title game: “Romo-stradamus.”
“I don’t go into any game saying I have to do something,” Romo said. “I didn’t try to do it last [game]. I probably did a little bit more last game than I had previous ones just because you start talking in the moments that are important, I guess. Your natural instincts take over, and from there you kind of go.”
Here’s hoping for more of those moments.
Super Bowl LIII on the radio
Kevin Harlan will call the Super Bowl for the ninth consecutive year, tying the late Jack Buck’s record streak. Harlan, whose call can be heard on The Score via Westwood One, will partner with analyst Kurt Warner after teaming with Boomer Esiason for the last eight years. Buck also had an eight-year streak.
VIEWERS’ GUIDE TO SUPER BOWL SUNDAY ON CBS
Ch. 2 will air programming all day from Atlanta. Here’s the rundown:
8 a.m. – ‘‘CBS Sunday Morning’’: Featuring the history of instant replay, dating to its first use in the 1963 Army-Navy game on CBS.
9:30 a.m. – ‘‘Face the Nation’’: “The NFL Today” host James Brown will be part of a panel discussing the game and current events.
10:30 a.m. – ‘‘That Other Pregame Show’’: CBS Sports Network’s regular Sunday pregame show moves to CBS for a day.
11 a.m. – ‘‘Road to the Super Bowl’’: NFL Films’ annual look back at the sights and sounds of the season.
Noon – ‘‘Tony Goes to the Super Bowl’’: Romo talks with some of the biggest names in Super Bowl history and takes viewers into weekly production meetings from the season.
1 p.m. – ‘‘The Super Bowl Today’’: It’s “The NFL Today” but for the Super Bowl. Joe Namath will be interviewed in honor of his guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III for the Jets. Part of a prerecorded interview with President Donald Trump is scheduled to air at about 2:30.
5 p.m. – ‘‘Kickoff Show’’: Featuring the singing of “America the Beautiful” and the national anthem and team introductions.
5:30 p.m. – Super Bowl LIII: After seven hours of pregame coverage, it’s time to play the game.