Traditionally, in sports broadcasting, a color commentator’s job is to explain to viewers what they just saw. But, during the past few weeks of N.F.L. playoff games, Tony Romo, a former quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, who will call the Super Bowl on Sunday as an analyst for CBS, has delighted football fans by doing something else: telling them what they’re about to see.
Romo, who retired two years ago, after a very good but not outstanding career with the Cowboys, has been doing this since he first became a broadcaster, last year. But his prophetic abilities were on particularly fine display in the recent A.F.C. championship game between the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs. On play after play—fifteen, in all—Romo described what he thought was about to unfold; he guessed correctly thirteen times. (On Twitter, he was dubbed Romostradamus.) He predicted passes to specific players in specific areas. He tabbed a coming blitz by the defense and how many people would be blitzing. “Gronk is out wide!” he said at one point, referring to the Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski. “Watch this safety! If he comes down, it’s a good chance he’s throwing out there!” The safety came down, and the throw, from the Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady, to Gronkowski, was complete. Twice, the offensive team did something other than what Romo predicted, and both times the results were poor—one play ended with an incomplete pass, and the other with a turnover. It seemed that, even when Romo was wrong, he was right.
It is not surprising that the pioneer of this divinatory style of play-calling is an ex-quarterback. N.F.L. playbooks can be hundreds or thousands of pages long, and, for each play, the Q.B. must know the assignments of the other ten offensive players on the field. Before the ball is snapped, the quarterback has, usually, about fifteen seconds to set the offensive line’s protection scheme, read a defense’s disguised coverage, and decide if the play that was called is the right one. Mental processing is a talent, like lateral quickness or arm strength, and N.F.L. Q.B.s drill cognitive acuity as much as they do throwing mechanics. (Brady markets his own “brain training” techniques. Whether they work is another matter.)
But that Romo, in particular, would be the quarterback to blaze the trail is a surprise. Whereas Brady, widely considered the best quarterback in league history, exploits inefficiencies like a quant at a hedge fund, Romo was more improvisational—a little loose, even, as if he were just playing with friends in the back yard. “If you want me to tell you the truth, when I first got him, he was an indiscriminate passer,” Bill Parcells, the former head coach who brought Romo to the Cowboys, told me recently. “He’d throw that son of a bitch anywhere.”
If you go through old footage from NFL Films, you can find clips from early in Romo’s career that testify to Parcells’s description. During training camp in 2003, Romo’s rookie season, Parcells barks at his Q.B., “Come on, Romo, you should’ve known pre-snap what to do there!” In a quieter moment, the coach delivers a lecture on the necessity of thinking fast, lest Romo be crushed by the defense. “You gotta get the ball out of your hands. You’re gonna get killed. They’ll be licking their chops. You’ll be like liverwurst on rye!”
It’s not that Romo had a slow mind—it’s just that he hadn’t seen enough plays to start recognizing patterns. It’s hard stuff. To speed up the process, some teams now use virtual-reality video, captured during practice from cameras perched a few inches above a quarterback’s helmet, so that, later, he can take simulated repetitions. The quarterbacks coach at the University of Southern California once invited me to try one of these V.R. headsets, when I was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Going in, I knew the speed would be incredible. What I didn’t anticipate was that the action on the field would look like complete nonsense. The linemen heaved, the little guys flitted, and I felt as though I were watching a flock of birds in synchronous motion. It was fascinating to witness, but all the players appeared to be following some dictate that surpassed my understanding.
I asked Parcells if I watched enough film, thousands and thousands of hours, could I or another layman see the field like Romo does? Not unless I was an unusually quick thinker, he said. He didn’t sound optimistic.
Romo, though, learned to make sense of such disorder while riding the bench for three years. By the time he became a starter, he was one of the league’s best passers. He prepared diligently and thought quickly; very rarely was he liverwurst on rye. In the course of his career, he watched hundreds of plays from the bench, lived through thousands more on the field, and then relived them many times over in the film room—perfect training for a commentator.
Much has been made about Tony Romo’s psychic football powers. But how many times does he actually correctly predict a play before it happens?
The Wall Street Journal watched 46 hours of every play Romo called this season. According to the Wall Street Journal, he made 72 predictions this season and was right 68 percent of the time.
Romo credits his in-game predictions to his knowledge as a former quarterback and his understanding of player tendencies and coaches.
“In some ways, it’s like math,” Romo told the Wall Street Journal.
Romo’s fortune-teller ability rose to an all-time high during the AFC Championship Game. The former Cowboys quarterback correctly predicted four plays on New England’s game-winning drive, including when Tom Brady handed the ball off to Rex Burkhead for the game-winning touchdown.
Super Bowl watchers might want listen closely to what Romo has to say during Sunday’s game. The Wall Street Journal calculated that ‘Romostrodamus’ made 16 predictions while calling New England games this season, and he was accurate 69 percent of the time.