Cowboys: Tony Romo Haters Right, But Still Wrong About Everything, Part 2


A certain reactionary segment of NFL observers love to crow that the Dallas Cowboys will never win a Superbowl with quarterback Tony Romo under center. They’re probably right, but that doesn’t mean they’re not morons. This is part two in a series that examines how selective the Romo-hating crowd is in loudly celebrating Romo’s perceived deficiencies. View last week’s post here:

Hater Myth No. 1: Tony Romo Is A “Loser”

Still the haters are probably right, if only because it’s hard to win a Superbowl. It takes good health down the stretch. It takes big fellas bustin’ heads in both trenches. It takes a fair share of breaks along the way. It takes a few well-timed big plays coming from someone other than the quarterback. In short, it takes a team. Romo may never get his ring, but not for the reasons the haters say.

It’s not because Romo is a “choker.” Very often, Romo comes through in close games. Other times he doesn’t. Over the past three seasons, Romo compares favorably to the NFL’s four contemporary “elite” quarterbacks – New England’s Tom Brady, Denver’s Peyton Manning, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, and New Orleans’ Drew Brees. On a per-game basis, Romo doesn’t “choke” in the fourth quarter any more often than Manning or Brady, and he comes through in the clutch as reliably or better than Brees and Rodgers. Romo’s stats look beefed up because he plays for a mediocre team, and so finds himself in a lot more one-score games than those other quarterbacks do. (All stats in this post courtesy Pro Football Reference data.)

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The Cowboys are a .500 team over the past three years, but play at a .533 clip in one-score games started by Romo. The Patriots’ .600 winning percentage may look impressive, but overall they have a .771 winning percentage since 2011. Translated: They play down in one-score games. Manning is 26-6 since joining the Broncos, and just 3-5 in one-score games. Rodgers is 31-9 as a starter, and 8-7 in one-score games. Brees dips a little, from a .646 winning percentage overall to .632 in one-score games. Romo is the only quarterback listed who has his team winning more often than normal when the game is tight.

How does one defend a quarterback who in 2013 threw interceptions inside the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter in four separate one-score games? Can we excuse his failures as a function of opportunity? The more one-score games a quarterback plays, the more often he is called on to make something happen late, the more likely he is to throw an embarrassing pick. Do we really want to label this guy a choker, just because his team is asking him to save the day time and time again, and a few times he comes up short?

Well, you can call Tom Brady a choker if you want, but I’m not going there. Yes, he did throw interceptions last year inside the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter in one-score games against Cincinnati, New Orleans, Carolina and Miami. But the guy played in 11 one-score games in 2013. He “choked” four times, sure, but he also had a career-high five fourth-quarter comebacks. So the more one-score games a quarterback plays, the more opportunities he has to play the hero, and the more risk there is he’ll play the goat. Even if he’s really, really, really awesome. Lesson: The NFL is hard.

Romo played in nine one-score games last year, throwing fourth-quarter picks in three of those games and logging four fourth-quarter comebacks. The data says if Romo is a choker, then all these guys are chokers. The following graph shows all the fourth-quarter picks thrown in one-score games, as well as all the fourth quarter comebacks logged over the past three years for each of these quarterbacks.

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So Manning looks great because he’s thrown just two late picks? He’s played in only eight tight games! Romo’s a bum because he has eight picks, but he’s played in 30 tight games. Romo throws a fourth-quarter pick roughly once every four one-score games. That’s no worse than Manning, and better than Brady. Romo will pull off a fourth-quarter comeback three times in every eight one-score games. That’s just as good as Brees, and better than Rodgers. (Manning’s numbers are a bit skewed here, as two of his five fourth-quarter comebacks resulted in multi-score wins. He’s 3-5 in one-score games as a Bronco, and those three wins came via fourth-quarter comebacks.)

It’s often said that the quarterback gets more credit than he deserves with a win, and more blame than he deserves with a loss. Why is that? We all know it’s garbage, but we’re the ones doing it. It’s as if we’ve made a conscious collective choice to ignore the obvious truth that football teams win football games. There marks the insidiousness of Conventional Wisdom: Once accepted, it halts the search for truth. The truth is none of these guys do it by themselves, and Tony Romo is no less clutch and no more a choker than any other elite quarterback in the league.