Jim Nantz, right, says broadcast partner Tony Romo isn’t ‘guessing or getting some message from the gods. . . . He sees what Tom Brady saw.’ (Morry Gash/AP)
Columnist

There’s a dirty tablecloth out there somewhere that’s worth a fortune as a collector’s item. Tony Romo was a rookie broadcaster about to call just his second NFL game when he and CBS partner Jim Nantz met with New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick across a table in a private room for a pregame chat. Romo hadn’t yet become a sensation, the Elvis of pro football telecasts, with his raked gravel voice and ability to predict strategy and match the pace of your pulse and the palpitating shock of a great play with an unashamedly excited “Ohhhhhhh!”

It was September 2017, and the Patriots were about to face the New Orleans Saints. Not quite sure where he stood in his new profession, Romo was a little shy of Belichick at first. “You ask the questions,” he told Nantz. But about five minutes into the conversation, Romo was hunched with Belichick over the table. Both were drawing up plays on it, dashing bold lines, ink on white cloth, this way and that.

“They’re saying, ‘Well what about if you put this guy over here, and this guy went that way,’ ” Nantz recalled. “I wouldn’t mind having that tablecloth.”

A year and a half later, Romo has become so popular with viewers for his ability to predict turns in a big game that Nantz jokingly calls him “Romostradamus” and he could get a job at the Weather Channel predicting storm paths. But the man who will be the lead analyst for CBS on Super Bowl LIII emits a faint sigh at what he calls “my novelty act.” It’s not clairvoyance when Romo tells the viewer what to expect next. It’s not a guess. He knows. He knows because he sees the field like the great quarterback he was with the Dallas Cowboys and because coaches and players trust him enough to talk to him in that cipher-language of the game that only they understand.

“People think Tony is a fortune teller, but this isn’t guesswork or psychic ability,” Nantz said. “This is a testimonial to a guy who spent a lot of time in his career figuring it out. . . . He’s not guessing or getting some message from the gods. He sees a wrinkle; he sees an opening. He sees what Tom Brady saw.”

With the creased-smile deprecation that has charmed viewers, Romo says what he does as a color analyst is not all that hard. Asked to describe what he watches from the booth, he replied that he just starts with the personnel, then goes to the formation. He sizes up the protection, runs through the possible play calls for that situation, scans the one-on-one matchups, assesses the quirks and stances of the players, and checks his memory for the history and systems of the coaches and what they tend to call based on the down, distance and time on the clock. All in less than 30 seconds.

“I mean, I don’t think I’m really doing that much,” he said.

Among the things Romo establishes for the viewer is just how much we should honor the intelligence of NFL quarterbacks and their remarkable ability to absorb multiple stimuli and make snap judgments. Think about a pitcher, who has to study only one stationary batter at a time. Or a tennis player who has to read only one player’s serve. Now listen to Romo talk, and never again call an NFL quarterback a bum.

“It’s hard to explain what I’m looking at,” he said. “You’re looking at the defense, looking at pressure, and sometimes what happens is, well, you’re looking at a bad matchup on the defensive line, so the ball has to get out quick even though the read will tell you go somewhere else. So there are a lot of little things that come up, and there are so many mannerisms to people, and then you just have a whole history of what systems do and what people do. But that’s all I got.”

It’s of course the vision of someone who could well be a coach — a possibility he doesn’t exclude given the comprehensive mental library of opponents’ systems he built in 14 seasons with the Cowboys.

“I have seen times when I really thought a coach could not talk football at Tony’s level,” Nantz said.

One of the real pleasures of listening to Romo on air is to see him finally get his due for that intelligence. For years he was unfairly criticized as a stat-flamboyant player who was unable to win in January, when in fact he was a 65 percent passer and the one consistently great factor on an otherwise unstable team. Whether Romo would make a great coach is unforeseeable; what’s certain is that he’s an extraordinary voice who helps everyone at home reframe the game with more respect for it — and him.

What sets him apart from other ex-players in the booth is similar to what set him apart on the field: a silken ease with technical knowledge, which he distills into layman’s sentences for the watcher when something big happens.

“You’re almost like just talking to your friend right next to you,” Romo said. “It’s like, ‘Ohhh! Look at that!’ And that’s the part that’s rewarding, and you feel like you witnessed something special.”

Romo’s ease at the microphone comes from the fact he has worked at broadcasting with the same comprehensiveness he did football. Before CBS put him on a live game, he spent the summer of 2017 doing practice broadcasts. He sat in front of monitors doing reps with Nantz, practicing for end-of-game situations and crowd noise. Nantz coached him on timing and how to let the big moment have its space.

“I just did a lot of trial and error,” Romo said. “It was me basically watching myself and saying: ‘I don’t like that; that’s not good. Ah, you’re boring. Aw, that’s way over the top. Aw, that’s stupid. No one’s going to like me.’ ”

He was so good and so likable that CBS made him the first solo analyst to go straight from the football field to a national booth without serving any sort of regional apprenticeship. “Is he ready?” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus asked Nantz. “There’s not a doubt,” Nantz replied. “Sit back and enjoy.”

Now he’s ready to call his first Super Bowl. Ask him for a forecast of the final score, and he rolls out his “novelty act” one more time. He predicts, “It will be 28-24. And the team with 24 at the end will have the ball and doesn’t score.”

So there you are. Sit back and enjoy.

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.