Dissecting the Context of “The Fumble”
As predicted, Tony Romo is being bashed and berated for his fourth quarter efforts against the NY Jets on Sunday night. Without question, the consensus is the fumble at the goal line was the pivot point in a closely contested game. We have all seen the play, but no one has taken the time to truly break down the play.
The play which set up the 1st and goal from the 3 yard line was a spectacular 30 yard pinpoint throw by Romo to Jason Witten who was in man coverage against Eric Smith. Without Romo, the Cowboys are still around their 33 yard line. Jon Kitna, as good of a backup QB as he is, cannot make that throw as evidenced by his pass selections in 2010. Witten, who has received a fair share of blame, runs toward the left pylon only to be knocked out of bounds by a player who is substantially smaller. Witten does step out of bounds at the 3.5 yard line. His foot grazes the sideline by less than one inch. If not for the inch, he does take the ball over the pylon for a touchdown. Shall we insert a cliche’ about football being a game of inches?
The next play, 1st and goal from the 3 yard line is a run to the right with Felix Jones. The Cowboys had an unbalanced line to the right (Doug Free playing TE) and motioned John Phillips to the right. Against a seemingly base defense by the Jets, Jones gets just past the 2 yard line. On 2nd and goal, the Cowboys throw a pass to Miles Austin who did not seem aware the ball would be coming his way. On the play, Austin is the first read. If Austin has position on Antonio Cromartie, the pass is coming his way. However, as the ball is in the air, Austin is looking back at Cromartie and never turns his head to look for the ball until the ball whips past him. The ball skirts passed Cromartie’s outstretched hands and the Cowboys narrowly avoid a 103 yard interception return.
If Witten’s pinky toe doesn’t tickle the sideline, the 3rd down play doesn’t happen. If the Cowboys offense were able to power run the ball three yards against a base defense, the 3rd down play doesn’t happen. If Austin run the appropriate route, the 3rd down play doesn’t happen. Certainly you are noticing a pattern here. If other players manage to do what is minimally expected, the 3rd down play doesn’t happen. It is astounding that one player can bear all of the blame in a team game.
Regardless of the IF Game, the 3rd down play does happen. Here is a breakdown of the play. The Cowboys are in a 3 wide receiver shotgun formation with Felix Jones at Romo’s side. First of all, this is not a power running formation. Jason Garrett eliminates all running plays and play action, outside of a draw, before the play begins. The Cowboys offense has been called predictable a number of times, and in this situation, that seems apropos. Romo has 4.6 seconds before he pulls the ball down and begins to run; however, of those 4.6 seconds, only 2.5 are without pressure. Felix Jones is beat almost immediately giving #52 David Harris a clear lane to Romo. In those first 2.5 seconds, Dez Bryant hand fights with Darrelle Revis and signals he is in position for a jump ball. Outside of the one jump ball option, Revis entirely blankets Bryant. Bryant does not fight to get open, but rather bounces around the endzone accepting that he is covered. Witten is double teamed and fights his way across the goal line, but then just sits there accepting that he is covered. It should be noted that during the 2.1 seconds Romo is scrambling, Witten does make a move and crosses the endzone going from East to West. He is still covered perfectly by safety Smith.
Austin and Kevin Ogletree are on the left side of the hash marks, but are non-factors as Romo did not have the necessary time to go through his progressions.
As Romo scrambles, the Jets read it quickly. Mike Devito is momentarily blocked by Tyron Smith. Devito stalks Romo around the line of scrimmage having either ceased rushing the QB, or it was his responsibility to shadow Romo. I do not believe you have a 305 lbs defensive end shadow a quarterback. Consequently Devito was simply in the right position to get to Romo and cause the fumble.
Romo has had a history of not protecting the ball and being vulnerable to fumbles. Rarely is it mentioned that he has played his entire career behind a porous offensive line. In this situation, he held the ball next to his body with his right arm. Romo notices quickly that he will be unable to score a touchdown as Jets defenders are bearing down on him. He begins to go down at the 4 yard line. Romo is not diving for the endzone with the ball outstretched in his hands. He is protecting the football and trying to preserve the field goal opportunity.
With Romo’s knee 1 inch off the ground, Devito makes contact with the ball causing it to squirt out from Romo’s grasp. It has been said that Romo should have had two hands on the ball. Where was his left hand? Being used to brace himself for the fall to the ground.
Nonetheless, the ball does fall from Romo’s grasp and Sione Pouha recovers the ball. What can we learn by giving this infamous play the Zapruder treatment. We can learn that contextually, there were many factors leading to this play even occurring. We can learn that there were breakdowns in protection which have not been discussed at all. We can learn there were no open receivers and a scramble was the only option to score a TD. We can learn that Romo was protecting the ball against his body while scrambling. We can learn that Romo was not going for the endzone, but was consciously trying to salvage a field goal and obtain a two score advantage over the Jets.
We can also learn that some cliche’s are true and football is indeed a game of inches. The game is also about decisions. Romo’s decision making wasn’t flawed on this play. He saw an opportunity and did his very best to take it. When the opportunity closed on him, he made the right decision to go down to the ground. Devito simply made a great football play 1/12 of a second before Romo’s knee hit the ground.
Romo has become a whipping boy for all that ails the Cowboys. It is too simple of a solution and not founded in fact.