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How Good (Or Bad) Does A QB Need To Be To Land A TV Job?

It seems as if quarterbacks are fleeing the hazards of the NFL for the announcing booth en masse this off-season. First, there was CBS’s surprising move last month to replace longtime lead analyst Phil Simms (himself an ex-QB) with Dallas Cowboys signal-caller Tony Romo, despite Romo’s having no broadcasting experience. Then, just last week, notoriously reticent Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler announced he was retiring to join Fox as a commentator.

Romo and Cutler will face a steep learning curve in their first seasons behind the mic. But they do have one thing going for them: Each fits the profile of the ex-player-turned-broadcaster very well. For starters, they played quarterback, a position that’s disproportionately represented among NFL announcing rosters; of the 507 people listed by Wikipedia as current or former major-network1 NFL broadcasters, 53 (or 10.5 percent) were former QBs. (For comparison’s sake, only 3.6 percent of all NFL players were quarterbacks in 2016,2 and that’s not even considering the nonplayers vying for announcing gigs.)

And even among quarterbacks, Romo and Cutler are in the sweet spot for commentators, combining the right amount of success and longevity to fit the second-career-in-television profile. In the chart below, I plotted out every quarterback to throw 120 or more passes in the NFL and AFL since 1945, according to their adjusted net yards per attempt index,3 (Pro-Football-Reference.com’s pet metric for measuring passing efficiency relative to the league, where an average passer has a score of 100) and their lifetime passing attempts:

Being a well-known, good NFL quarterback is such a reliable path into the announcing world that 81 percent of retired QBs who threw at least 3,000 passes and were at least a half-standard deviation better than average4 eventually made their way into a broadcast booth. (The only notable holdouts in the modern era are Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and — yes, he was that good — Jeff Garcia.)

Few quarterbacks-turned-announcers had outright bad careers. For instance, former New York Giant Jesse Palmer — who worked as a Fox NFL analyst in 2006 — hardly played, and was terrible when he did see the field, but Palmer was the exception (this chart does not account for the name-recognition he gained by being on the “The Bachelor”). For the most part, ex-QBs are tapped for broadcasting jobs after playing at an above-average level, usually over the course of a career that spans a decade or more. (The average QB/announcer in my sample threw about 3,200 passes in 11 pro seasons, with a lifetime passing index of 104.)

Romo more than qualifies to join that group — he had a career passing index of 116 over 4,335 attempts. And although Cutler was more average (literally so: his career passing index was exactly 100), he also maintained that level of performance over a long enough career to fit within the general sweet spot for ex-QBs who announce.

In other words, it would have been surprising if Cutler and (especially) Romo hadn’t gone into broadcasting. And, given what we know about the “announcer belt” of quarterbacks clustered above average in the chart, we can even make some educated guesses about other current QBs who might trade in their cleats for a microphone someday. For example, with a career passing index of 106, Carson Palmer is well within the statistical profile of a future announcer. The same goes for Matt Schaub (108), Matt Ryan (110) and Philip Rivers (112). But there is a point at which a QB can be too good for us to know whether they’ll accept a broadcasting role in retirement. Active adjusted efficiency leader Aaron Rodgers (120) may fit into that category, as might Tom Brady (118); at 115, Drew Brees is right on the fence.

Romo and Cutler, though, have already committed to that path. Now the only question left is whether their announcing careers will be more like Dan Fouts and Troy Aikman’s — two former QBs generally regarded among the best commentators on TV — or like that of Joe Montana, who lasted only one uncomfortable season as an analyst before leaving the stage. In about three months, we’ll find out.

Footnotes

  1. This includes all networks that broadcast NFL games: Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN (Monday Night Football, plus Sunday Night Football prior to 2006) and the NFL Network.

  2. 72 of the 1,996 players who logged at least one game last season.

  3. For seasons prior to 1969, when QB sacks were first recorded, I used adjusted yards per attempt index, which includes all nonsack statistics.

  4. PFR’s passing indices are set up so that every 15 points represents a standard deviation in performance, so these would be QBs with a career index of 107.5 or better.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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