NEW YORK — Veteran broadcasters Al Michaels and Jim Nantz were playing a round of golf not long ago when Michaels posed a question: Of all the players in the NFL right now, who will someday be a great analyst? They both had someone in mind, but each was hesitant to reveal it.
"He said, 'I'll bet we have the same guy,' " Nantz recalled recently. "This was maybe five years ago. I finally said to him, 'Tony Romo.' He said, 'You're right!' "
But neither could have predicted the longtime Dallas Cowboys quarterback would end up in the booth so soon. At 37 years old, Romo is a rookie again, embarking on his first season as a broadcaster, paired with Nantz on CBS's top crew. It's a high-profile position for a man whose expertise to this point has been playing the game, not talking about it. Network executives feel confident in Romo's ability but have also tried to temper expectations in advance of his debut in Sunday's game between the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans.
"This is not an easy job," said Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports who handpicked Romo for the role, "and Tony coming out of the box is not going to be great. I mean, he's going to be a work in progress. We think he's certainly going to be good enough to warrant the No. 1 analyst job. But as I've said all along: In Week 6, he'll be better than Week 1, and in Year 2, he'll be better than Year 1."
Romo played 13 NFL seasons, which included four Pro Bowls, four disappointing trips to the playoffs and injuries to his collarbone and back that cost him his starting job and ultimately cut short his career.
When last season ended, the Cowboys had settled on Dak Prescott as their quarterback and Romo faced an uncertain future. But he had options. Suddenly, he was among the biggest talents available, both on and off the field. He'd had discussions at various times with Fox, NBC and CBS, and made a list of NFL teams that might need his services, topped by the Houston Texans.
"I narrowed the focus to about four teams," he explained last week, "and then from there, I obviously made the decision to come to CBS. I felt like the opportunity was too big to pass up."
He knows there will be critics, but for Romo, there always have been critics. After all, for more than a decade, he was in one of the most high-pressure, high-profile jobs in all of sports. He learned long ago to tune out the naysayers and focus on his work.
"I think the goal in football is the same as it'll be as an analyst," he said, "which ultimately will be: Can you get to the point where it's not about the subjective nature of how they define you? It's really about, do you love what you do and do you feel proud of your effort and how you did it?"
Romo is used to watching the game from inside a helmet or perhaps in the film room. Now he'll be in a box and can't afford to focus solely on a pair of receivers or a lurking linebacker. The view from upstairs is different, and the mechanics of the job require some adjustment.
"Where do I look?" he said. "Am I going to look at the field? Do I look at the monitor? I've never played with a telestrator before. I mean, everything was new. I had to learn it all."
To get him comfortable, network executives knew Romo needed practice reps. While his former teammates were focused on offseason conditioning and minicamps, Romo was also busy prepping for the season. In May, he flew to New York and sat in a room with Nantz at the CBS headquarters. The two watched the Carolina-Oakland game from last season on a television screen with crowd noise piped into their headsets as they went through their first practice run.
"By the fourth quarter, I thought I was on the air," Nantz said. "I really thought for a minute there that it felt like the real deal."
Romo did a couple of practice games with Brad Sham, the longtime voice of the Cowboys, and Nantz visited Dallas twice for more in-person training. At the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, last month, the two did their first mock game in front of live action, stationed in a press box that looked more like a deer stand beyond one end zone. They did similar practice broadcasts of the Texans-Panthers and Raiders-Rams preseason games, even meeting with head coaches of the teams ahead of time to mimic the regular season routine.
Their preseason debut was canceled when Romo's wife went into labor, so their first real game together will be CBS's season opener Sunday. All told, Romo will debut in front of a national audience with eight practice games under his belt — five in-studio and three in-person.
"I guess it would've been easier for us to put him on the No. 4 crew and a lot less attention paid to it," McManus said. "But we think he's ready, and we think this is the right move for Tony and for CBS at this time."
Starting in Week 4, the Nantz-Romo crew will start pulling double duty, occasionally broadcasting both a Thursday night game and then another on Sunday. All told, the rookie broadcaster is slated to do 21 regular season games this year.
Romo knows quarterback jobs will open up and team executives and coaches could come calling. For now, he is comfortable saying that he s done playing the game.
"You never say never," he said, "but I feel great about where I'm at."