NEW YORK — Tony Romo can’t wait to get to Foxborough for Week 1, but not just to call Patriots-Texans for CBS.
The real treat of the weekend comes on the Saturday before the game, when Romo and his crew get to sit down with Bill Belichick for a pregame production meeting.
“I think that’s one of my favorite times of year is when we sit down and talk,” Romo said Tuesday at CBS headquarters in midtown Manhattan. “I feel lucky that he wants to talk. I just soak it up every time.”
The Saturday TV production meeting is a staple of any coach’s weekly pregame schedule. The meeting lasts anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, and gives the broadcasters a chance to pick the coach’s brain about personnel, and maybe swap a few anecdotes to use the next day during the telecast.
Several CBS broadcasters said Tuesday that they relish the chance to get a few minutes with Belichick, he of seven Super Bowl rings and 44 years of NFL experience.
“There’s a side of Bill Belichick — there’s a bigger personality than people know,” said Jim Nantz, who estimates he has been in 90-plus production meetings with Belichick in his career. “If you trust someone, they’re going to give you more time, and they’re going to be more open about the information.”
Belichick may tell a few more stories and jokes in his production meeting, but the Belichick we see in news conferences is pretty much the Belichick that broadcasters meet on Saturdays.
“If you bring up NFL history, or officials, or former players, or the opponent, he’ll talk your ear off,” said play-by-play man Ian Eagle. “When you bring up his team, specific players, you don’t get a whole lot. It’s just not happening.”
Eagle said he often can gauge Belichick’s mood based on the tenor of the production meeting and how long it lasts.
“There’s this idea that he won’t talk, that he just goes mute, and that is the farthest thing from the truth,” Eagle said. “It just has to be something he wants to talk about.”
Sometimes in a production meeting, coaches will pull Eagle aside and give him some inside info or make a remark that Eagle is not to repeat.
“There’s no off-the-record comments, there’s no, ‘Between us, look for this,’ ” Eagle said. “It’s not in his DNA.”
Former quarterback and NFL MVP Rich Gannon said he knows he has to do his homework before meeting with Belichick.
“As you know, he can be very guarded in his remarks,” Gannon said. “We don’t ask about injuries, we don’t ask about strategy, we don’t talk about things he doesn’t want to talk about.
“But the other thing is, I’ve learned, you better be prepared. If you go in there and you’re not prepared and you ask these open-ended questions and they’re not well thought-out questions, you might get stymied, man.”
But those conversations about NFL history, about how Belichick builds his program, and about general philosophy are more than worth the price of admission.
“One time I asked him about why he promotes [coaches] from within, and he went off on a 15-minute tangent: ‘I’m not going to hire a guy that doesn’t know our system,’ ” Gannon said. “It’s so fascinating, because I watch all these other teams do it the other way.”
Former kicker Jay Feely said Belichick loves talking about coaching trees, and where coaches developed their philosophies.
“Where Josh McDaniels’s philosophies came from, things like that, which I think is important on a broadcast,” Feely said. “You get him talking about anything in the past and he’ll go on for an hour. He’ll go back to the 1950s and talk about his dad.
“It’s fascinating to listen to that because he’s a wealth of knowledge. You just know that you’re not going get a whole lot of information pertinent to that game.”
Often, the broadcasters try to find topics outside of football to get Belichick in a chatty mood. CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn hit the jackpot in that regard. A native of Annapolis, Md., Washburn was a college lacrosse star at Delaware, and his high school lacrosse coach played against Belichick as a kid.
“If I ever have a specific lacrosse topic that can pique his interest, I’m not afraid to throw it his way,” Washburn quipped.
Romo, though, seems to have forged a special connection with Belichick. He called nine Patriots games last year, his first as a broadcaster, and relished the opportunity to just talk some ball with the greatest NFL coach of his generation.
Romo will call the first two Patriots games this year, against Houston and Jacksonville.
“I love to learn about his mind, what he’s thinking all the time,” Romo said. “Sometimes I go and won’t even ask him much about his football team.
“I like talking about football, talking about Tom Landry and the flex defense, stuff I don’t understand how or why you would do that. And he can explain the reasons. To me, it’s fascinating. It’s like watching your favorite movie.”
Romo said he is consistently impressed by Belichick’s desire to keep learning and not act as if he has all the answers.
“To me, he appreciates knowledge of the game, appreciates people who work hard, and I think he wants to be around people who help him with that,” Romo said.
Romo, probably more than other broadcasters, is constantly picking Belichick’s brain about why he made certain calls in previous games, and how he was trying to use personnel.
“Most of the time it’s Bill entrusting Tony and saying, ‘Hey, here’s what I was thinking,’ ” Nantz said. “Sometimes they sit at the table like this, they draw it on the tablecloth, and I think, ‘Maybe I ought to go back and rip that thing, fold it up and take this little work of Picasso for down the road, because it’s sitting there in ink on a tablecloth.’ ”