LAS VEGAS — Inside the Mandalay Bay Hotel on Tuesday, Tony Romo sat next to his broadcast partner, Jim Nantz, surrounded by dozens of reporters and cameras.
“How do you handle the criticism, Tony?” someone asked.
Romo, wearing a gray jacket, tailored slacks and white sneakers with no socks, smiled.
“I was the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys,” he said. “This is small potatoes.”
That Romo, who will call Sunday’s Super Bowl with Nantz on CBS, is taking such questions is jolting. Five years ago at this event, he was fresh off perhaps one of greatest announcing performances in sports history, having correctly predicted a series of plays between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots in the AFC championship game.
But in the years since, something has happened, at least among serious football consumers: The people have turned on Romo.
But some of these qualities are exactly what catapulted him to stardom. He was predicting plays, yes, but he was more than a parlor trick. He brought an exuberance to the booth that was infectious and a departure from traditional analysts. He loved football and wanted the audience to know it. And he’s still that guy.
What Romo is not is the industry’s shiny new toy anymore. After his initial star turn, he was the subject of an industry-altering bidding war between ESPN and CBS, which doesn’t exactly fit with his aw-shucks vibes.
“When you’re on TV and you got 35-40 million people watching and you’re making $17 million, people want to nitpick every little thing you do,” said Booger McFarland, a former Monday Night Football analyst. “They’re not hoping you enjoy your $17 million.”
Nantz gently came to Romo’s defense at Tuesday’s press event. “We’re all going to end up on the short end of the stick sometimes.” In an interview with The Washington Post last year, he was less gentle: “Reporters with nothing else to write have agendas and are looking for clicks and attention.”
Al Michaels, a decorated NFL announcer for decades now calling games for Amazon, said what Romo is experiencing is a hazard of the job. “Tony was the flavor of the month,” he said. “We’ve all been the flavor of the month. This month, Greg Olsen is the flavor of the month. It comes and it goes. It’s so subjective and so arbitrary.”
He added: “Players go through this, too. Look at Russell Wilson. He went from being a surefire hall of famer to what the f—. If you’re a golden boy for too long, you’re going to get shot down. Everybody in every business: politics, sports, business. People don’t want to see the golden boy Tony Romo anymore.”
Around the industry, there is also a growing belief that Romo’s style may appeal to more casual fans than football junkies, many of whom prefer Olsen’s more professorial approach. “I may not love Tony, but my wife thinks he’s the best,” said one media executive in Vegas.
Ultimately, the answer is most likely that Romo changed, and his audience did, too.
“He wanted people to know he wasn’t a one-trick pony,” Nantz said. “I think he wanted to try to have more substance. He didn’t want to be David Copperfield. So there’s less predicting.”
Cris Collinsworth, the lead analyst on NBC, recalled a story a few years ago when his son ran into Romo with a big group at a dinner during Super Bowl week. Romo invited him and a friend to join, and after the meal the table played credit card roulette.
“This was God-knows-how-many people,” Collinsworth said. “And wouldn’t you know it [my son and his friend] are the last two credit cards. And my son is wondering if he’s going to have to call me for $40,000 or something. They take him to the brink of total breakdown before they let him off the hook and Tony picks up the tab.”
Collinsworth continued: “I know the devil within. Tony’s just a fun-loving guy. It comes through in the broadcast. When I watch one of his games, I feel like I had fun.”
Perhaps the best news for Romo is that Tom Brady — with a salary that reportedly doubles Romo’s — will join the Fox booth next fall. No doubt his every utterance will send tremors through social media and the blogosphere; Romo could be an afterthought.
However Romo’s career evolves, Collinsworth will always have a soft spot for him for another reason.
“He doubled and tripled what anyone was making,” Collinsworth said. “He will forever be one of my all-time heroes. I’m going to build a statue to the guy. He’s the greatest.”