always close enough

words: jeb lund


The first time I ever noticed the down-and-distance chains in the NFL, I was a preteen, back when Mom and I made pizzas at home on Monday nights, watched NFL Primetime and enjoyed Chris Berman unironically. I can't tell you what kind of observational material I subjected her to, but I assume her response was graciously dishonest.


The funny thing is, that material is probably little changed. I still like seeing two tiny dudes in vests peer across the field and move chains more or less in best-guess fashion. What began as an aging tick has matured into a deeper atavism that only becomes more sui generis with time. Ten yards of chain and a thousand-yard state of solemn spatial observation is the NFL-est expression of NFL-ness.


What this has to do with Tony Romo might not immediately be clear.


Romo made his debut as CBS color commentator this season, the first in several years in which nobody had to begin Week One waiting for the orthopedic groundhog to emerge from his hole and tell us how many more weeks of Tony's spine we had left. He'd always been affable in postgame pressers, tasteful driver's caps accentuated by subdued but detectable wry self-awareness, but no one knew how that would transfer to three hours of broadcast and to events unrelated to his being pulverized into bone meal.


Romo came out of the gate like a less obstreperous John Madden on the telestrator, speaking more quietly but slashing lines across the defense in a live pre-snap read. He excitedly diagrammed lanes of pressure, where blocks would be picked up, then told the audience at home where the ball would not be put in play. He was under center in the booth, telling you what his eyes saw live and where to focus yours once the play began to unfold.


If you enjoy understanding football as it happens, Romo's excitement was infectious. He was so eager to engage with and relay the next play that he couldn't keep from starting to do so before the ball was snapped. He wanted you to see what wouldn't happen so you could appreciate what eventually did, and he wanted to take you into the nearly automated process of elimination that every veteran quarterback's brain goes through.


Romo was divisive. He spawned takes. You could see how some people wouldn't like it. Romo made the broadcast more busy. There was more to pay attention to. If you like being surprised by plays, he ruined the surprise. And if you like thinking that you know what you're talking about, his professional pre-snap reads ruined the illusion of your expertise.


Worst of all, sometimes he was wrong.


If the sudden wealth of Romo's pre-snap commentary exposed anything, it's just how much of what you learn about a football play is contingent on its being over—not because it can only be understood through some post-hoc analysis but because that's the way NFL commentary has been standardized. Re-narrating a play you've already seen to point out 90% of what you already know and 10% of what you don't was never the game's only option; it's just the one broadcast networks and the NFL preferred.


Both the networks and the NFL massage this process, naturally. On the low end of the spectrum, think of Ron Jaworski talking about packaging Tyler Palko as a credible underdog with the words, "I've got to sell this." On the high end, think of Cris Collinsworth and Fred Gaudelli at NBC planning out packages to highlight undersung interior linemen or defensive backs who they know will contribute to the game in a way viewers might not see.


But, by and large, the broadcast always comes back to a rule of threes: a general guess as to upcoming play, narration of the play, then a re-statement of the play, ideally in ways that illustrate a through-line from the guess to an element not plainly obvious to the viewer. Like an audible of a Biblical superlative—"Redddddd 98, Holy Holy Holy!"—it is the repetition that elevates things to greatness: asserting, confirming, reconfirming above all question and upward into the sublime.


Commentators have found this analytical rhythm more or less naturally, in part because it's just easier but in part because it does the most to prevent shattering the illusion of expertise. An analyst who makes no predictions never unnecessarily risks not being a genius. It's easier to read a defense that's already revealed itself to you, and a finished play never threatens to undermine you. It can do no harm, because it is over.


Of course, the NFL also likes things this way because it long ago wedded itself to a myth of precision. Coaches sleep three hours, think nine plays ahead and know everything that happens on a field measured to laser specifications and teeming with ruthlessly scientifically crafted assignment-humans executing a battle plan diagrammed with mirthless exactitude. What is demanded by a sport that never gets it wrong—whose every motion is intentional because no endeavor could be less imperfect—is a commentator who is always right.


Romo's antsy desire to start explaining a play the moment it took anything like a recognizable shape was a joy, not just because it elaborated another dimension of the game, but because Romo didn't mind getting it wrong. His job was to show you what the quarterback sees, and sometimes the quarterback can't see shit, and nobody can do a damn thing about it. Error, no matter how much the evolution of the game and its self-celebration tries to stamp it out, happens. Shit happens; Romo just didn't give one.


Which brings us back to the down-and-distance chain, easily the most delightfully janky relic in a sport consumed with valorizing its own precision. With billions of dollars to play with, theoretically unlimited camera options, the possibility of laser markers and RFID chips, with a yellow band on the TV automatically telling us something that the NFL has arrogated only to an arcane ritual, we nevertheless measure the most crucial distance in every game by having two caddies eyeball the sumbitch. It's going to be like this forever. It also doesn't matter.


It's fun to embrace the NFL like any other organism: something that evolved into its current shape despite evolutionary holdovers and adaptive dead-ends, like a platypus that Jon Gruden screams about. Only the accidental workings of time could produce a product so worshipful of its infallibility suddenly halting its machine relentlessness and surrendering to the authority of two guys who look like they just shoplifted a golf course.


Romo eventually dialed back that pre-snap enthusiasm some. Maybe he felt that he couldn't maintain that energy for three hours and needed to try to do less or maybe CBS "corrected" him. But the measurement of every down is the first, last and only exculpation Tony Romo needs to keep being himself in the booth. He opts to try to show more fully how plays take shape and sometimes end long before the snap, and sometimes he doesn’t get it quite right. But what matters is that he’s always close enough.