If Tom Brady doesn’t have a new deal with the Patriots by the time NFL free agency begins March 18, he will be the most compelling and perhaps coveted quarterback on the market.
But another old passer — one who already has found enormous success in his post-playing career — is going to draw plenty of attention, too. And the result is going to be a massive payday for arguably the biggest free agent in television sports history.
Tony Romo, who immediately joined CBS as its No. 1 NFL game analyst in April 2017 after retiring from a 14-year career as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, quickly proved a natural in the role even as a relative novice.
Romo’s enthusiasm, knack for prediction, fresh-off-the-field knowledge, and ability to explain football’s complexities in a concise and engaging way made him an immediate star in the booth.
Never was that more welcome than during the Patriots’ AFC wild-card loss to the Titans. In a bit of gamesmanship that the Patriots themselves had used earlier in the season, Titans coach Mike Vrabel took repeated penalties on a punt to keep the game clock moving in the fourth quarter.
Romo was instantly all over what was going on, explaining the intention, and exactly what Vrabel would be able to get away with in the scenario. I’m not sure there are five other color analysts on all of the networks combined that would have picked up on every aspect of Vrabel’s tactic. Romo earned his season’s salary — believed to be in the $3 million-$4 million range — that day.
The gap between Romo and most other analysts is similar to the gap between Brady and every other AFC East quarterback during his heyday. And it’s why there is certain to be a bidding war for Romo’s services this spring between CBS and ESPN, which would get an enormous publicity boost by hiring him for its often underwhelming “Monday Night Football” broadcasts.
Romo’s three-year contract is up in a couple of months. While spokespeople at CBS and ESPN have declined comment on his status, it has been common knowledge in the industry that CBS was expecting him to command a $10 million-per-year salary on his second contract. That would make him the highest-paid analyst since John Madden was making $8 million per year in the ’90s for ABC’s “Monday Night Football.”
But ESPN could interfere with CBS’s plans to continue to pair its discovery with play-by-play voice Jim Nantz for the long term. Michael McCarthy, who covers sports media for Front Office Sports, reported this past week that ESPN could go as high as six or seven years at $10 million to $14 million per for Romo, a report that was backed up by James Andrew Miller, the author of “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,’’ who remains highly connected at the network. Frankly, ESPN wouldn’t be doing its due diligence to improve its broadcast if it didn’t go after Romo.
Still, CBS has the right to match any offer Romo receives, and unless ESPN blows away anything CBS is willing to offer, it’s hard to envision him actually leaving. While there could be changes to NFL broadcasting rights deals in the next couple of years — ESPN’s deal runs through 2021, while the deals of CBS, Fox, and NBC expire after the 2022 season — right now CBS has a far more appealing game package than ESPN. In particular, its Sunday games in the 4:25 p.m. window draw a larger audience than “Monday Night Football,” which is hampered by being on cable television. (In the next deal, ESPN may move “MNF” to ABC as part of the quest for the rights to a Super Bowl.)
If the money is similar, it’s reasonable to expect Romo to lean toward loyalty. CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus is the one who identified Romo as a talent and took the chance on partnering him with Nantz on the No. 1 team right away. CBS, home of The Masters, can also offer Romo, who has PGA Tour aspirations, some perks related to what seems to be his true passion.
It’s possible that Sunday’s AFC Championship game between the Chiefs and Titans is Romo’s last for CBS. But it would be a surprise if it is. It’s the best place for him, even as we’re headed for an offseason of intrigue while ESPN tries to convince him otherwise.
It’s always been curious how ESPN allows “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcasters Alex Rodriguez (special adviser, Yankees) and Jessica Mendoza (baseball operations adviser, Mets) to moonlight for specific teams. The double duty inevitably brings into question whether their obvious conflicts of interest interfere with their ability to be forthcoming in their broadcasting roles.
That became especially clear Thursday when Mendoza went on the network’s “Golic and Wingo Show” and lamented that ex-Astros pitcher Mike Fiers had publicly outed the team for its sign-stealing scheme.
“To go public, it didn’t sit well with me,’’ said Mendoza. “It made me sad for the sport that that’s how all this got found out. This wasn’t something that MLB naturally investigated or that even other teams complained about it because they naturally heard about and then investigations happen. It came from within. It was a player that was a part of it . . . It’s something you don’t do. I totally get telling your future teammates, helping them win, letting people know. But to go public with it and call them out, it’s hard to swallow.”
Mendoza was wrong in a couple of ways. It was a terrible look for her, an employee of a media company that practices actual journalism, to be opposed to information coming out. She should not require a reminder that keeping information in the shadows is how the steroid era damaged an entire generation of the sport. And she was clearly unaware that colleague Jeff Passan had reported in 2018 about league-wide skepticism about the Astros’ methods. The league did not investigate after his reporting. It did only after Fiers spoke up.
ESPN released a statement from Mendoza later Thursday in an attempt to clarify her comments. “I believe it was critical that the news was made public,’’ she said. “I simply disagree with the manner in which it was done.”
Perhaps, but it cannot be ignored that Fiers’s revelation had a direct impact on the team for which Mendoza works. The Mets’ new manager, Carlos Beltran, was prominent in the Astros’ sign stealing as a player; he ended up mutually parting ways with the Mets later Thursday. It was a bad day for the Mets. And a worse one for one of their employees, who probably should decide which side of the fence she wants to be on.
Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com.