LLANO, Texas — You never know who will become a good TV color analyst. There have been so many busts among these just-retired athletes with quick minds and good looks who enter a new career having already faced batteries of cameras while speaking knowingly about their sport.
The failures have included Sandy Koufax, Joe Namath, Joe Montana. Winners of lots of games but zero Emmies, it would turn out.
So now we have Tony Romo, whose meteoric rise to the top CBS booth is eerily similar in pattern to that of some other top-salaried quarterbacks: Namath, Montana and John Brodie. All were charismatic, legendary leaders on the football field, but they drifted aimlessly in a pressurized role they’d been well paid but ill prepared to play.
Brodie was an All-Pro, MVP, the San Francisco 49ers’ greatest quarterback before Montana and was thought to be a can’t-miss television star. He had a Stanford education and a sharp wit. When asked why he held the ball on extra points, he was deadpan-perfect: “If I didn’t, it would fall over.”
But in the TV booth Brodie had nothing clever to say. He was more comfortable with a Deacon Jones hand in his face than a camera. Soon he was off to full-time golfing, playing quite solidly on the PGA Senior Tour.
As a football player, Phil Simms was witty like Brodie, but more personable and effusive. After the New York Giants’ games, he seemed to enjoy bantering with the media horde. He was not at all nervous about his boss, Bill Parcells, the NFL’s most demanding coach, being eager to reprimand him should he slip up. Perhaps that’s the sort of coaching you need to be good on television.
I covered several of Simms’ games and remember colleagues predicting he had a future in television. And though I may be in the minority, I thought he distinguished himself in his 18 years as No. 1 booth analyst for CBS.
By the same reasoning that led me to be right on Simms (I think) and unquestionably wrong on Namath, Montana and Brodie, Tony Romo is not ready for prime time.
The exiting Dallas Cowboys quarterback is attractive and charming, and smarter than he’s sometimes credited for being. But his postgame commentary was rarely memorable. He spoke in a passionless monotone; he did not offer insights the way Simms and Peyton Manning and Drew Brees often did.
Ideally, the color analyst will be colorful, like John Madden, always enjoying himself and keeping his audience smiling. Romo showed his fun side Tuesday by donning a Dallas Mavericks uniform, warming up with the team and taking a place on the bench.
But a sense of humor does not always transfer to the booth, as we’ve seen with Brodie and Jon Gruden, who dished out hilarious barbs as he prowled the sideline but turned into a marshmallow tosser when he stepped into a booth – Superman in reverse.
I expected more from Gruden. On the other hand, I failed to foresee a bright media future for Troy Aikman. As a player he occasionally flashed some wit but was not one for penetrating analysis. As a Fox commentator he started slowly but blossomed as a sophomore. He became, like his rival, Simms, an interesting, even-handed critic.
I could see Romo perhaps developing into another Aikman — accurate, but not as edgy as Simms.
So what was CBS thinking, booting Simms with two years remaining on his contract? No one with as much tenure at the same network as Simms has ever been demoted. Did he really deserve this?
I’ve always looked forward to seeing him in the booth or studio (Inside the NFL), because he’s truthful. Not like Cris Collinsworth who every other week anoints a new “best defensive tackle in the league.” Simms is not a cheerleader like Monday Night’s Gruden excitedly urging teams to play better rather than citing individuals who are not playing well.
Yes I was aware Twitter was ablaze with ridicule of Simms. Indeed, his funniest moments have been unintentional. He’s prone to Yogi Berra malaprops, such as: “You are — one word — not very smart.”
But more than anything it’s his relentless candor that offends large segments of the population. Denver is convinced he’s biased against the Broncos.
I live in Cowboy country, where Simms is widely reviled, because he pointed out when Terrance Williams and Dez Bryant and sometimes even the beloved Jason Witten were doing stupid things.
Excuse me, but isn’t that part of the job? Can we expect Romo to be so revealing about his former team? Or, for that matter, other teams? Does the twitterverse prefer kindness over candor?
One thing all viewers want is reliable information. Will Romo work as doggedly as Simms to research the teams he covers?
Brady Quinn, who retired from backup quarterbacking to analyzing football games for Sirius XM, says he spends more time studying video as an analyst than he did as a player, “because you have to learn all about two teams, not just one.”
What makes the CBS gig more challenging than most is that the lead analyst must work the Thursday night games as well as Sunday afternoons.
Before becoming a color commentator, Simms served an apprenticeship in the studio. Even so, in his first year in the booth he, like Aikman, was not very smooth.
You have to wonder how much coaching Romo needs and how much he will get. It’s not easy having a voice in your earplug while concentrating on the field and the monitor at the same time.
As for Simms, it remains to be seen if his new role will be something more than not slamming the door on the way out. He was vacationing in Barbados when he was replaced, but he did send a text saying he intends to keep working.
The problem is he’s 62, and in a world that’s ever more youth-centric, he’s in the wrong demographic.
Perhaps Simms supplants Dan Fouts on the No. 2 broadcast team at CBS. Or he jumps to the Fox second team, succeeding John Lynch, who recently became general manager of the 49ers.
Fox offered Romo the job as Lynch’s successor. But CBS trumped that deal by making him a No. 1. So the former Pro Bowl quarterback was spared having to see an embarrassing headline: “Romo goes to TV, still on the second string.”
Alan Truex formerly covered the Dallas Cowboys beat for the Houston Chronicle.