Marchand: On the Super Bowl’s biggest play, Tony Romo freelanced and lost

When Tony Romo became the biggest sensation in NFL broadcasting, it was because he was a gunslinger as an analyst, predicting plays with an unconventional style that eventually led to a 10-year, $180 million contract, then the richest known deal in sports media history.

These days, four years into that deal, after all the criticism of Romo, CBS clearly went into his third Super Bowl as a TV analyst looking for a game manager instead of a game changer. But old habits die hard.

On the final call to end the Super Bowl LVIII overtime classic between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, Romo and play-by-play partner Jim Nantz’s lack of teamwork showed up at the worst time.

At first, Romo did a fine job with the Chiefs down three points and inside the 5-yard line late in overtime, explaining that it did not matter as viewers watched the clock wind down toward zero — the game would not end and would just roll into a second quarter of OT. But Romo kept talking too long.

This blocked Nantz from properly setting up the final play. As the winning touchdown was scored, Nantz said, “First and goal, Mahomes flings it! It’s there! Hardman! Jackpot! Kansas City!”

Romo first muttered in the background of Nantz’s call as if he were a yahoo on local radio. After Nantz finished, Romo started in, “This was the Andy Reid special. …” And then on and on.

For 30 seconds, as CBS showed reaction, Romo talked about the play when the best analysis would’ve been silence, which would have allowed the crowd and pictures to tell the story. It should have been Nantz’s broadcast moment, if anyone’s.

Nantz and Romo were once supposed to be the next Pat Summerall and John Madden but have fallen so far that their disjointed performance Sunday was one CBS will likely take. Before the final play, the broadcast was far from perfect, but it was mostly manageable. Maybe not one to overnight to the Sports Emmys, but, on the production side, it had its moments.

Nantz and Romo make the big money — a near $30 million a year between them — so, like quarterbacks, they receive the most credit and blame. Their quarterback rating was not high enough, missing obvious big themes.

The duo failed to ever explain why the defenses — especially the 49ers on Travis Kelce in the first half — were having their way for so long with the offenses. They also were very underwhelming when CBS’s production team expertly spotted Kelce bumping and screaming at his 65-year-old head coach. They rarely spoke about line play. And the overarching themes of the game were often missed. There were no threads.

The grading for the Super Bowl broadcast is the highest level because it is the most prestigious assignment in American sportscasting. Nantz has called the game six times, but his partners, first Phil Simms and now Romo, have digressed under his watch. A bad trend.

Meanwhile, Romo lacks consistency in his thoughts. With 10 seconds left in regulation and the Chiefs at the 49ers’ 11, Romo said, “If you have six seconds, you feel comfortable taking another crack at it.”

After an incomplete pass, there were six seconds left, and Romo opined, “If he had seven, I’d do it,” adding Kansas City should kick.

Umm, but, Tony, you just said …

Never mind.

The inconsistency happens too much with Romo, causing CBS Sports executives to put on a brave face publicly and privately, defending him, but actions are almost always where the truth lands, and their truest thoughts seemed evident in their approach.

Early, it was clear, CBS’s game plan was to simplify the offense. In the first half, it cut down on the overuse of too many voices, sticking mostly to Nantz and Romo. Romo seemed chilled. It wasn’t bad.

The production team came up big in the second quarter. After Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco fumbled, it found a sideline shot in which Kelce accosted Reid.

“He goes, ‘Keep me in,’” Romo said, apparently lip-reading. “What happened is, on the fumble, he was not in the game. Noah Gray went in, and he had to block. Noah Gray, the tight end, had to block (Deommodore) Lenoir. Lenoir made him swim and actually created the fumble. And I think Kelce is like, ‘Just keep me in there, even if we are running the ball.’”

Let’s put to the side we needed to consult Google Translate to go from Romo to English to understand what, “(Deommodore) Lenoir made him swim and actually created the fumble” might mean, the story is Kelce nearly knocking down his coach.

It wasn’t Latrell Sprewell on P.J. Carlesimo, but it was Taylor Swift’s boyfriend in front of about, give or take, 115 million viewers. We kind of needed the former All-Pro Cowboys quarterback to weigh in if that was kosher or not.

The best part of Romo is his unscripted fun personality. Non-hardcore fans can like him because Romo comes across as — and from all first-hand reports is — a genuinely nice guy. He would be cool to have a beer with, a good quality in an announcer.

Sunday, the most personality Romo showed was when he sang Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to break, channeling another Cowboys great turned broadcaster, Don Meredith. Romo would do it again in the third quarter, trying to entice Nantz — who is a broadcaster from a Peter Jennings/Tom Brokaw anchor era — for a singalong to Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas.” Romo even did a little Beastie Boys late with “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)!”

As for Nantz, he sounded extra amped to open the game, maybe overcompensating for some less-than-enthusiastic early calls in the playoffs. On the two Romo-isms of the first half, Nantz did correctly challenge him. Romo said a fumble might be a lateral in the second quarter, and then late in the period, with the scoreless Chiefs down 10, he said they might be in four-down territory. Nantz rightly threw the challenge flag on both.

In the end, the problem with the tandem is that despite all their “pal” and “buddy” talk, not to mention their over-the-top, on-air, “I love yous,” they don’t sound on the same page.

That disconnection shows up in the biggest spots, when the world is watching, when what you have done all season is on display.

Nantz and Romo should have the broadcast strategy of that last play down. Romo’s appeal may be that he is like a fan, but he’s doing the Super Bowl broadcast and being paid handsomely to do so.

He just needed to get out of the way to allow Nantz to make his complete call, then wait until after the pictures and sounds had their moment to note that Mahomes is Michael Jordan.

It wasn’t time for the gunslinger. CBS had the right plan, and Nantz and Romo executed at times. But, on the biggest play of the season, Romo freelanced and lost.

(Photo of Tony Romo and Jim Nantz: Rob Carr / Getty Images)

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