Jay Cutler, Not Tony Romo, Poised to Be Next Broadcast Star
One of the biggest stories of this offseason involved the successive reports of two talented and famous, if not entirely successful quarterbacks who abruptly cut short their careers to head to the announcing booth. One of them, Tony Romo, is likeable and respected, with a happy-go-lucky smile, off-the-charts Q rating, and who was forced into retirement only because his team found lightning in a bottle with a Dak Prescott and strategically held onto his rights to block other would-be suitors (i.e., the Texans). The other, Jay Cutler, was unceremoniously dumped in Chicago after eleven middling seasons of unrealized talented tainted with apathy, perpetual turnovers, and, of course, a well-placed cigarette.
Credit Smokin’ Jay Cutler
Given these contrasting backgrounds, projecting their relative success in the announcing booth should be easy, right? Wrong. As I will lay out below, there is a much higher likelihood that Cutler will have a more successful broadcasting career than Romo.
The question of what makes a good NFL color analyst is an indelible conundrum that has vexed scholars for ages. Just kidding, it’s super simple! The operative word here is “color.” The play-by-play announcer, and the game itself, provide the black and white contours of the action on the field. And while we can all quibble about the font (Some prefer Arial Mike Tirico over Helvetica Al Michaels), the canvas that is the NFL provides a wide variety of hues to paint in for a worthy analyst. The key is to provide insights into the game experience that are not readily apparent on the screen for viewers to discern themselves. This requires: (a) deep knowledge of the game, (b) quick wit, and, perhaps most importantly, (c) aversion to cliché and conventional wisdom.
The first is a given. One cannot be hired as a color analyst without credible experience in the league. But it’s amazing how, for so many analysts, this is where their credentials end. The man Romo replaced, Phil Simms, is a perfect example. No one can doubt his NFL bona fides, but he added nothing to the game-watching experience and often detracted, with his rote clichés, moralizing, and peddling of NFL conventional wisdom (always kick on 4th down!).
On the other hand, analysts like Cris Collinsworth and Dan Fouts constantly provide insights and humor, in conjunction with great chemistry with their booth partners. Then there’s Jon Gruden, a category unto himself, who is color analyst version of a Jackson Pollock painting.
As an NFL player, I have nothing bad to say about Tony Romo. With those down-home Midwestern roots, an underdog story, and “aw schucks” demeanor, he was just about the only thing that made the Cowboys bearable to watch. But does that mean he’s cut out to be an analyst? I have my doubts.
Since this is the NFL, we need to go to the tape and check out Romo’s articulation in action. Here’s a compilation of his best mic’d up moments throughout his career.
My takeaway from this clip is that Romo is the kind of leader you want in a QB, but this type of “rah rah” attitude almost never translates to the analyst booth. Just ask Tiki Barber, Jerome Bettis, or Emmitt Smith, noneof whom could parlay on-the-field likability to a success announcing career (well, Barber had a few other hiccups).
Obviously, there’s a huge difference between how you speak during an NFL game and how you speak in the booth, so I don’t want to rush to judgment. But then I came across this “Welcome to CBS” type interview with Jim Nantz during a golf tournament this year.
Seriously, what the hell? This interview is dripping with cheesy golf humor, Nantz falling over himself to pucker up to Romo, and a nauseating mutual lovefest for the State of Texas. Maybe we can forgive Nantz for being overly euphoric at the thought of being freed from the horrors of Phil Simms, but this type of vanilla “chemistry” does not bode well for the season.
The final straw completing my dire prognostication came from this USA Today article , where Romo relayed that his producers told him, not “to be quite that harsh” in his analysis. So now we have a naturally positive person, paired with a cliche-ridden fawning fellow Texan in Nantz, who is being counseled by producers to expunge any critical commentary that might be left within that noggin’ in him. Romo might as well be Emmett from the Lego Movie.
As Bears fans (of which I am one) know all too well, Cutler was notoriously boring and distant during his (mandated) media appearances in Chicago. Famous for his “don’t caaaaarreee” attitude, you might wonder whether Cutler will be able to keep his own interest for the entire four quarters, let alone ours. Here he is after a loss to the Texans last year, just rattling off platitudes until he can get the hell out of the media room and have a cig.
In case you weren’t keeping track, this clip featured such insights as: “we weren’t executing,” “we just gotta take a look at the film and then move forward,” “in all phases, we kinda struggled, and a “we’re gonna get better.” If this is the kind of commentary we’re going to get from the booth, I’ll be putting the game on mute.
But when you dig a little deeper, Cutler might just be that proverbial Rachel Leigh Cook, just waiting for Freddy Prinze Jr. to tell him that “he’s all that.” Perhaps, once the stink of being a chronic underachiever wears off, Cutler can let his real personality blossom. Just take a little listen to Cutler in this NFL mic’d up segment from a few years ago.
Cutler still has that “don’t care” attitude in this clip, but it’s more the kind of “I don’t care what people think of me, I’m going say whatever’s on my mind.” And that’s exactly what you want in analyst. Just compare this clip to Romo’s, and there’s no contest. My favorite bits were:
- Cutler telling his back-up, Caleb Hanie he needs to know other team’s backup QB, “you should know that. It’s like a fraternity.”
- Joking with O-lineman about getting a dance routine together.
- After running for a first down, quipping: “that’s just speed right there. I was cruisin’. I’ve been eating that Whole Foods, I’ve been slimmin’ down.”
- Asking another coach how his hair looks and ripping Josh McCown’s hair product because it’s “off-brand.”
After viewing this clip, it’s not hard to think that announcing might be Cutler’s one true calling. He didn’t ask for a cannon of an arm, but, unlike Romo, he had absolutely no interest in “rah rahing’ his team to victory. He just wanted to shoot the shit and crack jokes with the guys. That doesn’t make for a very good leader at QB, but it does make for a good analyst.
This sentiment was echoed by David Haugh, longtime Chicago Tribune columnist, in an interview with SI.com’s Richard Dietsch. “He could still be very uncooperative at times,” Haugh said. “But when he wanted to, there was a switch he could flip that makes you understand why Fox or networks might be inclined to put him in the booth. He can be funny with a dry sense of humor. He certainly is smart and has insight into the game.”
But being a good analyst isn’t just about one-liners. You also have to sincerely critique the action on the field, which is something that is notoriously hard for former players and coaches to do to do their former fraternity brothers. But here is where I think Cutler, like Randy Moss, is truly cut from a different cloth. He was never in the fraternity, and I predict he will have no problem telling viewers like it is when someone messes up. Exhibit A for my argument, this clip from 2006 on Philip Rivers, before the NFL media handlers got ahold of him.
Finally, one must cannot ignore the element of preparation, and it would be fair to question whether the “don’t care” QB will put in the work. Only time will tell, but the genesis of Cutler’s hiring bodes well. Unlike Romo, who was plucked a perch and anointed CBS’s #1 anlayst, Cutler actually had to audition to for the role, according to Dietsch.
Not only that, but as Cutler’s booth partner, Kevin Burkhardt told Dietsch: And, as as the interested. This an area to be naturally skeptical where one might have a fair amount of skepticism that Cutler will be up to the task. Dietsch also reported that: “Cutler called Burkhardt throughout the week prior to the audition, peppering him with questions on the mechanics of television and other things.”
Despite all this, Dietsch still believes that Romo will end up with better standing with viewers because he’s “more popular as an athletic figure” while “Cutler didn’t exactly endear himself to people via the media.” But I respectfully disagree. Aside from the examples of “likeable” players who floundered as analysts, one need only look to the examples of Randy Moss and Alex Rodriguez to see how so-called “unlikeable” athletes have experienced a rebirth on the merits of their skills as commentators. Because the thing about color commentary is you can’t fake it, all the likeability in the world won’t save you if you’re simply painting by numbers.