New top CBS analyst Tony Romo’s regularly-accurate predictions for upcoming plays have been generally well received, as has his overall work in the booth, but there are still some critics. One of those, former NFL coach Rex Ryan, just so happens to work as a studio analyst for competitor ESPN, and just so happens to have been widely panned (including “totally out of his league“) during the one game he’s worked as a booth analyst, which is probably part of why he didn’t wind up in the new Monday Night Football booth. (To say nothing of him admitting himself that he prefers the studio.)
But that hasn’t stopped Ryan from lobbing some shots at Romo, most recently in an Advertising Age piece from Anthony Crupi this week. That piece is largely about ESPN’s overall strategy around upfronts and ESPN+, but it also includes Ryan taking a significant shot at Romo:
Ryan also had a few things to say about Super Bowl LII (“worst defenses ever”), the L.A. Rams’ terrifying twosome of Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald (“it’s scary the kind of pressure they can put through the middle on ya”) and Tony Romo, who went from taking snaps for the Dallas Cowboys to becoming an overnight sensation last season in the CBS broadcast booth. Ryan is not all that impressed.
“Sure, Romo calls a lot of plays ahead of time, but do you know how easy that is to do?” Ryan says with a laugh. “If Romo always knows what’s coming, how is it that I used to trap him into throwing picks all the time? Show him one coverage, play another, and he’d throw right into the damn thing!” Coaches have elephant memories. The play to which Ryan is referring to here happened during a Sunday night game back in 2011.
The Cowboys played Ryan’s Jets on September 11, 2011, and Romo completed 23 of 36 passes for 342 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Granted, that interception set up the game-winning field goal for the Jets (a 50-yarder from Nick Folk), but that’s a pretty good box score for Romo overall, and it hardly speaks to “all the time.” But that appears to be the only time Ryan faced Romo as a head coach; the only other Cowboys-Jets game while both were with those teams came in the Jets’ 19-16 win in 2015 (where Romo didn’t play, and Ryan’s “trap him into throwing picks all the time!” team beat to a combination of Kellen Moore and Matt Cassel, who, granted, did combine to throw four interceptions), and the Cowboys never played the Bills while Ryan was the head coach there.
Now, Ryan did face Romo once more in 2008 while he was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, and Romo was held to 256 passing yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in that game (a 33-24 loss), but it probably helped that both those picks came from likely Hall of Famer Ed Reed. (The Cowboys and Ravens also played in 2004, but Romo was only the third-string QB then and didn’t record a stat in that game, and Ryan was only the DL coach then.) And sure, three picks across two meetings is reasonably impressive, but even if you assign Ryan full credit for all of those interceptions, that’s not a huge outlier considering that Ryan’s defenses were often big on gambling for picks and for sacks, sometimes leading to them getting burned badly.
Beyond that, Ryan’s comments here don’t make a lot of sense. First, he’s saying that calling plays ahead of time is incredibly easy to do. It’s certainly not impossible, but it’s notable that Ryan didn’t do much of that himself during his short stint in a broadcast booth, and it’s notable that few analysts have been able to do it as well as Romo. (And some, even in other sports like Alex Rodriguez, should probably stop trying.) But he’s then saying that calling plays ahead of time is hard, because Romo couldn’t do it on the field based on the defensive schemes. (Which the record doesn’t fully support, but whatever.) There’s some inconsistency there.
And it should also be noted that there’s a difference between predicting what’s coming as a quarterback, with limited vision of the field and of players’ alignments, and predicting what’s coming from a broadcaster’s angle, sometimes even while players are moving right around the snap. It would seem easier for most to call what’s coming from the broadcast booth, so even Ryan’s “I used to trap him into throwing picks all the time!” comments don’t necessarily have much impact on Romo’s ability to predict plays as a broadcaster. (And if Romo was actually bad at that, the viewership would have noticed. He’s very good at it.)
Moreover, it’s not like Ryan was some dominant coach and Romo was some schlub as a player. While QB wins are problematic, while a QB’s record isn’t directly equivalent to a coach’s record, and while other players are involved in both of those, it’s maybe notable that Romo’s overall career regular-season record is 78-49, while Ryan’s is just 61-66. Ryan did go farther in the playoffs, advancing to conference championship games in 2009 and 2010 (but losing both), but Romo probably had the more impressive NFL career with all things considered.
Look, the overall takeaway here isn’t that predicting what play is coming is a skill unique to Romo (plenty of people can probably do it to some degree, although not necessarily with his level of success or with the way he’s able to incorporate it into the broadcast), or that doing that makes him immune from criticism, or that you have to have had an amazing on-field career to be a good analyst. It’s more that this is another case of Ryan offering a lot of bombast and not much substance to back it up. His teams picked off Romo once as a head coach and twice as a defensive coordinator across two meetings; that’s not a bad level of success, but that’s presumably not all due to Ryan alone, and it’s certainly not “I used to trap him into throwing picks all the time.”
It’s funny to hear Ryan, whose performance as a game analyst was so heavily panned, criticizing a broadcaster like Romo who many appear to enjoy. And if Ryan was so good at causing quarterbacks to throw picks “all the time,” maybe he’d still be employed as a NFL coach.