Mike Tyson was a predictable boxer. Michael Jordan was a predictable basketball player. Tom Brady is a predictable football player. It doesn’t matter how hard you study. If you’re not good enough, you will lose. That’s the predictable part.
After the stellar AFC Championship overtime game on Sunday, the NFL discourse lit up with awe that Tony Romo predicted what was going to happen. Predicted? That this became a dominant narrative is not strictly Tony’s fault. He simply calls it how he sees it. To listen to Romo narrate a game is to listen to the same inner monologue that all NFL quarterbacks hear in their heads, and by that, I mean through the speaker in their helmet. This is pure embedded coachspeak that has, thanks to Jaws and Jon Gruden, found its way permanently into the booth and the broader NFL conversation.
Ninety percent of professional football is sitting in meetings pretending to care about the stuff that Romo lives for; this is why he is so good on TV. And he is very good. I do feel like a bit of an asshole casting judgment here, but, ultimately, I think Tony can handle a little scrutiny, especially when the rest of the sports media is currently gagging on his Miss Cleo act.
But CBS didn’t have the only booth at Arrowhead. The Chiefs had a score of coaches with eyes on the game, too, communicating the same information to each other and to players that we were getting from Tony. Their problem definitely wasn’t that Romo saw things they didn’t.
It is potentially helpful for the layman to hear it, as it helps them understand how the QB decides where to throw the ball. But I’m trying to figure out why it is appealing for a fan to be told what is about to happen, or what “should” happen, or what is “supposed” to happen on a football play.
I consulted with some very smart non-player sports-fan friends of mine who have assured me that Romo’s act is a good one, and that they like being told what is about to happen, or at least, what to look for. This makes sense. Football feels very chaotic to an outsider. There are so many rules and moving parts, that it feels good to believe that there are some decipherable laws governing it, and that there is one correct outcome, and that anything else is a mistake.
When we have mistakes, we have someone to blame. Someone to fire. (Goodbye, Bob Sutton.) As a player, we have more film to watch and we can convince ourselves that we didn’t just get our asses kicked, it was the scheme that got us. That if only we had covered the right gap and shifted to the right defense and called the right audible, that the outcome would have been different.
Tony Romo has spent many dark mornings sitting alone in a meeting room at the Cowboys’ facility watching film from a previous day’s loss, playing these exact games in his head. Rewinding the same play 100 times and erecting monuments to each tragedy. These are the lessons we learn when we watch a Nantz/Romo game: the pain of regret.
As you can tell, I wasn’t a Conceptual player. I knew the concepts as well as anyone. I just didn’t rely on them. The slower you move on a football field, the more concepts you can carry. This is how and why the quarterback’s perspective is unique. He is the only one standing still.
Tony Romo and I are contemporaries. We played in the same league at the same time. Faced the same opponents. Watched the same film. Learned the same concepts. But Tony and I had very different jobs within the same system. He was giving the orders. I was carrying them out.
Over the years, I had plenty of existential debates with coaches about Concept vs. Instinct, and I always lost the argument.
“That’s just not how it’s done, Nate.”
“Because that isn’t how we drew it up.”
But then something would happen on the field that would prove me right, and coach would look at me and shrug. Football men want to know how things are going to go—or are supposed to go, at least—so they draw everything up and attach a rule to every scenario. If they do this, we do this. Anything else is wrong. The more variables you can control, in theory, the better chance you have to win, which is why most football coaches, and a lot of quarterbacks, are control freaks.
That’s why you get a lot of “Here’s what you’re gonna see,” and “This is what they’re gonna do.”
But that this has become the guiding ethos in football punditry owes to a lack of imagination from TV production teams and a lack of language skills for everyone not named the Quarterback. There is an articulable world of Football Action and Instinct that exists on the Yang side of Tony’s Conceptual Yin. Problem is, the quarterback is the only one allowed to speak, and so he is the only one ready for the booth.
Until we teach our lions the alphabet, we will get what we got on Sunday—a guy in the booth telling you what is about to happen, and us watching it happen, and wondering how and why anyone on the other team could be so stupid to let it happen. Or, more bluntly, if Tony Romo can see it, why can’t the Chiefs?
Romo’s predictions were mostly about the Patriots’ offense, and almost all in the second half and overtime. He had a firmer grasp on the Patriots’ offense than he did on the Chiefs’. It seems safe to assume, based on his lack of “predictions” when the Chiefs had the ball, that Romo did not know what plays they would run any more than the rest of us did. This is because the Patriots’ offense is more predictable, and also, based on the results Sunday and historically, more effective. Predictable can be more effective when you’re good at it.
As any football game wears on, the playbook shrinks. This is typical of any game: as the thing starts to shake out, a game plan that can be hundreds or thousands of plays shrinks to five or 10 bread-and-butter options. These are plays that are working. Plays that everyone knows. Plays that can be communicated with hand signals. Simple plays. Effective football plays. Recognizing this is not prescience, this is just science. This is the way of water.
Romo’s ability to identify and articulate this real-time shrinking of the playbook is an asset to the broadcast, but only if he qualifies it, which he did not.
Here’s the thing: The Chiefs also saw what Tony saw. You think that professional football men don’t know that Gronk will get the ball in one-on-one match-ups? Or that the back and tight end will chip the edge rushers in a five-man front? Or that Edelman is going across the middle? That Brady will check to a weak side run when they overload the strong side?
Again, it is Tony’s job to point out this Football 101 type of stuff, but the glee with which he sells it as a novelty gave me flashbacks to those arguments with Conceptual coaches. Yes, I get it, we want to put ourselves in the best positions we can. Of course. But what always happens in the end is that none of it matters if you aren’t good enough to stop it. And when you are playing against Tom Brady in overtime of the AFC Championship game, no matter who you are, you aren’t good enough to stop it. Not even when you know where the ball is going.
That, above all else, must somehow be conveyed to football viewers: the scheme is no match for the hunger of lions. And this is what Romo failed to articulate, and something I hope he digs into in the future. When he did fail as a quarterback, why did he fail? He might tell you that it’s because he didn’t study enough, but of course he knows better than that.
Concerning the attention Romo has received from media-types this week, I will refer to my general rule of thumb that anything that earns praise from Stephen A. Smith should be regarded with suspicion. I will suspend my disbelief for those instances in which Stephen A. actually knows something about basketball, but when it comes to football, he is glaringly ignorant. His foolishness becomes a sort of litmus test. Above all else, this makes me suspicious of the Romostradamus act.
“I have never, I mean, l-l-l-l-isten to me when I tell you this, man, I have NEVER!” Stephen A. then lowered his voice several decibels to deliver the in-all-sincerity message: “Give this man a head coaching job, now!”
Beware the praise of fools, Tony. And for Christ’s sake, stop watching so much fucking film.
Nate Jackson played six years in the NFL and has written two books, Slow Getting Up and Fantasy Man. He co-founded Athletes for CARE, a non-profit that advocates for the health and wellness of athletes. He also co-hosts the Caveman Poet Society podcast with former NFL offensive lineman, Eben Britton. It is available on iTunes. He lives in L.A.