NFL rightsholders and the insiders tasked with covering them are a fickle lot, and the broadcasting arena is in many ways the same type of copycat league that plays out each fall weekend on collective gridirons. Bill Walsh has success with the West Coast offense so everyone tries the West Coast offense. Mobile quarterbacks play well for two seasons and become the focal point of dozens of franchise's long-term plans. Regina George wears army pants and flip-flops and, well, you know what happened there.
Ever since Tony Romo burst on the broadcast scene and immediately reset the bar and market for what a top-tier analyst could be, both three- and four-letter networks have been searching for a reasonable facsimile. A way to capture the same phenomenon and harness it for profit on their airwaves.
The Fox-fated Jay Cutler storyboard. NBC building around the storebrand future of Drew Brees without knowing what he'll be and if it will be worth the gamble. ESPN's Jason Witten albatross. The joint hunting expedition of Peyton Manning, the crown jewel.
Either everyone thinks this is the proper formula, the reported narrative is skewing a more complex closed-door reality, or there hasn't been enough imagination capital expended to consider other avenues.
In a piece today for Front Office Sports, Michael McCarthy handicaps the Philip Rivers sweepstakes. McCarthy's sources tell him that Rivers is big-game in the "next Tony Romo" safari. We knew there'd been previous interest which proved moot when the veteran quarterback opted to play another season for the Indianapolis Colts. But with potential retirement creeping ever-closer, the state of play has changed a bit.
Rivers is folksy in the way networks have wanted their premium analysts to be folksy. He'd be fresh off the field in the way they want them fresh off the field. He played the most important position in the way — you get the picture. He resonates with a Southern audience without being too Southern.
In short, you could not create a better candidate in a lab. At least for what makes the ideal candidate now.
The freshly starched shirts in the C-level suites know better than I do how to move product and navigate most capably between commercial breaks. They know the formula for capturing eyeballs and, perhaps more importantly, know that deviating from an existing working model means sticking their necks out in what is a zero-sum, ruthless business.
Nothing against Rivers, who may prove to be fantastic. But what if there is no "next Tony Romo"? Of all the event horizons, the one where Romo is a unicorn and the others are lesser replicas is actually quite realistic. He came along at exactly the right time and parlayed it into a salary that comes the closest to rivaling that of John Madden. He may, in fact, be this generation's Madden, if slightly less broad with the charm turned up.
Is it not possible that trying to capture the same unique lightning in a bottle twice is a bad bet? Sure, the analysts who emerge as a spiritual successors on the Romo tree will probably be just fine. What if they're only 70 or 80 percent as good as the real thing? What if we arrive at a situation where everyone's chasing CBS' recipe for classic Coke but is only just fine, like Pepsi?
Time will tell. Perhaps there's an even better version of Romo out there. It's just that trying to copy someone else's success is both limiting and aggressively unoriginal. Discovering and nurturing the NEXT talent who inspires others to be NEXT of them seems like the global-brain play.
If this year has made anything abundantly clear, it's that things change rapidly. Romo and his stylings may be the gold standard now. Future tastes will change. So are we all absolutely sure that a Pat McAfee or Aqib Talib or someone flying below radar who is a world-conquering breath of fresh air?
The future of marquee NFL commentary may be an army of Romo clones. It may be this obviously homogenous group of Romo-adjacent acolytes. And, hell, it probably will be.
But should it?