The Super Bowl arrives and, with it, so many questions big and small. Is Tom Brady part cyborg and maybe even immortal? Will the Los Angeles Rams be hamstrung by the knowledge that they got this far by the grace of several sleepwalking referees?
How frequently will Tony Romo see the future? And might our fascination with that speak to a longing that reaches far beyond football?
But first, a quick primer on Romo, CBS’ dependably psychic commentator. Over the course of two seasons analyzing NFL games from the broadcast booth, he has provided more than the usual blather and banter. He guesses what will happen next: blitz or no blitz, run or pass, involving this wide receiver or that tight end. He doesn’t do this for every play, but he does it repeatedly. And if he were picking stocks on Wall Street, he’d be a gazillionaire.
Romo hit peak prognostication when he announced the game two weeks ago in which Brady and the New England Patriots eked past the Kansas City Chiefs, earning yet another trip to the Super Bowl. He made 15 specific forecasts. Thirteen were correct. On the two occasions when the team on offense bucked Romo’s soothsaying, “the results were poor — one play ended with an incomplete pass, and the other with a turnover,” noted Zach Helfand in The New Yorker. “It seemed that, even when Romo was wrong, he was right.”
Romo, 38, previously spent more than a decade as a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. He was great but he wasn’t great, and with him as its leader, the team never went all the way. In a twist that’s testament to second acts in American lives, he’s doing something as a star for CBS that he never did as a star for the Cowboys: going to the Super Bowl. I suppose that’s fitting, because he’s more than great in his current gig. He’s peerless. And he’s a sensation.
So much so that after the Patriots-Chiefs game, reporters for The Wall Street Journal studied 46 hours of television footage from this past football season to review the 2,599 plays that Romo had provided live commentary for. Not even the Nixon tapes got scrutiny like that. The Journal found 72 instances when Romo prophesied what a team was about to do. The team did what he said 68 percent of the time.
“A broadcasting phenomenon” is how The Journal describes Romo. Twitter calls him Romostradamus. Football fans gush about Romomania. And this is obviously about more than the novelty of his crystal ball.
It’s about the rarity of his unquestionably deep knowledge in an era when so many of the people who put on the trappings of authority and peddle pearls of wisdom don’t actually have the goods. When so many opinions come with a swagger inversely proportional to their worth. When social media, cable channels, webcasts, podcasts, blogs and more have created an environment in which everybody’s an expert and nobody’s an expert — in which it’s sometimes impossible to tell.
With Romo you can tell. His verified foresight proves his genuine insight.
As I’ve savored his genius and reflected on its appeal, I’ve flashed back to some comments that President Barack Obama made to The New Yorker’s top editor, David Remnick, for a lengthy article in late November 2016 about his waning days in office. Obama was obsessed with the chaotic nature of this new information ecosystem. “Everything is true and nothing is true,” he told Remnick. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.”
I also flashed back to another article, by Amy Zegart, that appeared in The Atlantic the following summer. It defined the “three paradoxes disrupting American politics,” the first of which was “more information, less credibility.”
“The volume of data is exploding, and yet credible information is harder to find,” Zegart wrote. “Why? Because the barriers to entry are so low.” You don’t need a printing press, a book contract or the approval of some gatekeeper to have your say and share your thoughts. You just need an internet connection. And while there’s obvious benefit to that — judgment and permission aren’t the exclusive province of a discriminatory elite — there’s obvious danger, too. Good filters disappear with the bad ones. Cyberspace is at once a smorgasbord and a junkyard.
Romo’s habitat — network television — is old-fashioned, but that’s not what distinguishes and recommends him. His seriousness sets him apart. I don’t mean his style, which Helfand likened to “that of a 10-year-old who’s really into dinosaurs showing his uncle the T. rex exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.” I mean his content. He played football recently and has studied it closely, so he understands what the athletes are thinking, what the coaches are plotting, what makes sense on third down and what doesn’t. He uses the days between the games that he’s announcing to bone up on the teams that will come under his gaze, even interviewing their members. While he comes by his charisma naturally, he makes it a point to be informed.
How refreshing, and what an excellent reminder he is that hugely successful athletes aren’t just physically gifted; they’re mentally tough, and many are smart. Their sports pivot on intricate strategy as much as brute strength. To the agile thinkers go the spoils. Ever listened to one of those LeBron James news conferences right after a basketball game? He remembers and can deconstruct every second of it. It’s all there in his brain.
Romo found glory aplenty on the football field, but he began to find even greater glory the minute he stepped off it in late 2016, with a farewell speech that was like the climactic monologue in one of those sports movies that has grown men working every last muscle and tendon in their faces not to cry.
“I just want to leave you with something I’ve learned in this process,” he said, referring to his quarterbacking years. “I feel like we all have two battles or two enemies going on. One with the man across from you. The second is with the man inside of you. I think once you control the one inside of you, the one across from you really doesn’t matter.”
Emotional intelligence along with clairvoyance: That’s no everyday combination. But then he’s no everyday oracle. You can tune in to the Super Bowl to marvel at Brady, chuckle over the commercials and gripe about the halftime show. Or you can come for Romo. He alone is lure enough.